The crux of McKees Rocksʼ future: 'Hays Manor'
By Gina Beavers
When I was told Hays Manor was chosen to receive a HUD Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) Planning grant this year, I was beyond impressed. This humble borough was standing shoulder to shoulder with cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Annapolis. Each city had resolved to formulate a plan that would determine the best ways in which to improve the conditions of selected public housing developments, revitalize the neighborhoods that surround those public housing sites and enrich the lives of the people who live there.
CNI has three crucial components: People, Housing and Neighborhood. As the Neighborhood lead, McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation is, in part, tasked with making sure the voices of McKees Rocks residents (who live outside of Hays Manor), serve to help guide plans for the possible reconfiguration of the neighborhood around Hays Manor. Community engagement efforts will include surveying, focus groups, listening sessions, community gatherings and more. This will take place over the next 18 months.
As we develop this planning grant process, I know there will be opinions with which I fundamentally disagree. Having read a few online threads, I am not surprised by the spread of misinformation about the Choice Neighborhoods grant, but I am very disturbed by the virulent stigmatization of people and families who live in public housing. The calls to demolish Hays Manor and eliminate it as a public housing site altogether is at best shortsighted and at worst the antithesis of equitable and inclusive community building. These disparaging critiques of public housing and the people who live there, are not peculiar to McKees Rocks, however; I’ve heard it before.
Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, I lived in Massachusetts; I had colleagues who were integral to a CNI planning grant in Boston’s South End. The Hollywood section, as it was known, was a low-income, high-crime super-block of distressed buildings that housed predominantly low-income Puerto Rican families. Hollywood was notorious; it was completely isolated and seemingly lawless.
As federal assistance in the 60s and 70s paved way for white families to enter the middle class and take flight to the suburbs, that assistance was not available to Blacks and Hispanics.
These families were relegated to live in increasingly dilapidated housing. Properties were bought by the local housing authority and the infamous Hollywood section was born. The old guard of the South End, who had not fled, and many folks throughout the city argued that nothing could be done with the people in Hollywood.
Getting rid of the people would give the community the opportunity to attract a different kind of resident. People who were more like them. People who were not poor, Puerto Rican or Black. Advocates for the demolition and disposition of public housing saw it as a way to effectively eliminate poor people of color.
Although there are a few ways to modify public housing sites, preservation is the most beneficial to communities like McKees Rocks. Preserving as many affordable housing units as possible is critical. Adding market-rate housing to the rebuild is also critical because it encourages racial and socioeconomic diversity. CNI would allow for socioeconomic diversity to take root in McKees Rocks which would transform the Borough.
Socioeconomic diversity also drives private development. But commercial development is only as good as the developer. Most developers’ primary concern is making money, not stabilizing a community. Choice Neighborhoods gives McKees Rocks the opportunity to be mindful of commercial development and to seek developers who have experience in place keeping and equitable development and design.
Preservation, not displacement is the answer for McKees Rocks
Losing a home or being displaced is traumatic. And although the Housing Authority is obligated to provide suitable alternative housing for people who are impacted by HUD demolition, it does not provide the support to families who find it harder to get to work or to care for their ailing parent because, due to displacement, they live three bus transfers away.
Neither does it help members of these families create relationships with new neighbors, teachers and classmates. Dehumanizing people in public housing by advocating for demolition and disposition to simply rid McKees Rocks of the poor is unacceptable. I am personally dedicated to advocating for place keeping and socioeconomic diversity.
And although some folks will bluster and condemn my opinion because I don’t live in the Rocks, that won’t stop me from speaking out. I lived in a mixed-income and racially diverse neighborhood for over 10 years.
It was far from perfect but it changed so many of our lives. The cross-cultural dialogues and friendships we developed enriched our lives forever.
I wish everyone could experience that kind of community. I certainly hope McKees Rocks can experience this special type of growth as a community.
The next two years will give everyone in the Rocks an opportunity to use their voice and ignite their imagination. It will allow them to generate practical, and maybe a few impractical, ideas about how they envision a better McKees Rocks.
A CNI implementation grant is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leverage other federal monies, including the Department of Education to support the struggling St-Rox School District, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice which can bolster local policing and the National Endowment of the Arts for public art funding.
With this planning grant, McKees Rocks is two years and one application away from $50+ million federal dollars. Money that will forever change the Borough — all because of a desire to improve the living conditions for the people who live in Hays Manor. Hays Manor, therefore, is the very crux of the Borough’s future.
I’m looking forward to meeting everyone who takes part in our future engagement strategy for Choice Neighborhoods. We may not agree on everything but we’ll have opportunities to listen to one another under the common desire to transform McKees Rocks for generations to come.
Gina Beaver is the Director of Community Engagement at McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation and President of the Allegheny Metro West NAACP Chartering Committee.