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Planting trees so others can have shade

How the Gladstone School redevelopment started, and why Hazelwood Initiative became focused on affordable housing

A first-person essay by Kris DiPietro, as told to Homepage managing editor Juliet Martinez

This year, Hazelwood Initiative is marking its 25th anniversary. In honor of this milestone, The Homepage is launching a series about the organization’s history as told by those who were there. In this first installment, we hear from lifelong Hazelwoodian Kris DiPietro. She served on the board for nine years, served as chair from 2013 to 2016, and played a key role in focusing the organization’s efforts on affordable housing and the repurposing of Gladstone School.

In 2014 and 2015, the board had begun to think about what role Hazelwood Initiative was going to play in the community. So in April 2015, I went to a sustainability conference given by the Heinz Endowments. They called it 4P for people, planet, place and performance.

A light-skinned woman with light-brown hair sits next to a dark-skinned man wearing a brown cowboy hat. Both look to the right.
Kris DiPietro (left) and Rev. Michael Murray at the groundbreaking for Gladstone residences on Nov. 21, 2022. Photo by Heather Mull

I was at this conference with several members of the Hazelwood community. The conference offered tours through different neighborhoods, and we took the one that was supposed to go through Hazelwood and then to the Almono site. At that time, the site — what we now call Hazelwood Green — was a brownfield so it was a big environmental issue as well as a transformative development for the Hazelwood community.

We went through Uptown, and we went through The Hill, and then we came to Hazelwood. But by then we didn’t have time to go through the neighborhood. All we could do was go to Mill 19 on the Almono site.

So I’m really stewing about not touring our neighborhood of Hazelwood. We are now in the Mill 19 building. The Heinz Endowments had hired an architect from San Francisco to talk about the plans for the site. At the end of his presentation, the facilitator asked if there were any questions or comments.

And I’m really very much an introvert, especially in groups. It takes a great deal for me to speak up. I was angry about the tour. After hearing all the great things planned, I couldn’t help feeling passionate about my community. I had to say, “I have a comment.”

I said, “You know what? We all know in Hazelwood that what happens down here on the Almono site is going to be fantastic. It’s going to be world renowned. But unless you all are committed to doing something in the heart of Hazelwood, we’re going to be another Homestead. I can’t let that happen.” I told them, “We put up with all the pollution and disinvestment for years. I feel passionately about it.”

I told them they have to show their commitment to the people in this community who have been struggling for years. They owe it to us! We put up with the pollution. We put up with all that stuff. It was time to invest in the community and it has to be done at the same time — or better yet, first — not as an afterthought.

One of the speakers at the conference was a man called Tim Duggan, who was consulting as an environmentalist with the Make It Right Foundation. He gave me his business card and said, “Contact me.”

At Tim Duggan’s talk during the conference, he talked about a school in Kansas City where they turned it into affordable housing. Well, my brain immediately went to Gladstone School.

After the conference, I said, “We can’t let this die.” I spoke to Pastor Tim Smith, Center of Life executive director, who had always had this eye on doing something with Gladstone. I went to Ernie Hogan, executive director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. And he said, “Kris, you got this fire lit here. You need to do something about it.” He was really pushing me to do this.

Things were moving very slowly, so I took a risk and sent emails to everyone I could think of to get things moving. Sometimes it is worth the effort to take the risk to ruffle feathers. I said, “We need to get together and talk.”

I didn’t know Tim Duggan had driven around Hazelwood before leaving town, and he saw Gladstone school. So, when we contacted him, he agreed that it had potential.

We worked with him and he facilitated our community meetings. That’s where we came up with the plan for Gladstone School to become affordable housing, and that we would partner with Center of Life, which would move into the annex. Unfortunately and sadly, that didn’t happen.

A black-and-white photo of a room full of people facing a large screen in the front of the room.
A 2015 meeting at the Firefighters Local 1 on Flowers Avenue to discuss the Gladstone School redevelopment project. Tim Duggan (far right) from the Make It Right Foundation facilitated. Homepage file photo

But anyway, we had four or five community meetings initially, and we had close to 100 people each time — different people. The Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group had a community coordinator, Alyssa Lyon, and we borrowed her. She became our community organizer and she worked along with Center of Life staff. There were people I had never seen at meetings before. And they were not old, gray-haired people. These were young families. I mean, it was absolutely so inspiring.

That was when we found Sonya Tilghman. She applied to be the interim executive director, but we hired someone else who had connections to the neighborhood. This person didn’t want the permanent position. But we were so impressed with Sonya that we contacted her to see if she would apply for the executive director position.

Hiring Sonya really changed the focus because we began to look at things differently. We began to look at bricks and mortar.

The Hazelwood Initiative board decided to focus on bricks and mortar because we’ve got such strong groups out here like Center of Life and People of Origin Rightfully Loved and Wanted or POORLAW. We need to support one another and work in collaboration.

And there were so many others that were really strengthening and working with families. That’s their expertise. This is our expertise. We need to support one another.

I heard an African tale about an elderly man who’s planting trees in a desert. A young guy comes along and says, “Why do you plant trees here? It’s a desert.” And the old man answers, “I’m planting trees so others can have shade.” And that’s what I feel good about. I feel like I was part of a group that was able to recognize we needed to start planting trees — now they are literally doing that! — so that other people can enjoy and be part of it.

Communities need partners. They don’t need saviors. They don’t need someone to come in and say, “Have we got an idea for you!” The people who live here have to be the creators of what happens, what transforms the community. Because then you have ownership. You have the trust that you are truly part of it.

I say all this to encourage everyone and anyone who feels passionately about our community of greater Hazelwood to speak up! You never know what you may ignite. Speak up, even if it is difficult.

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