That must be my party, I think as I enter Del's Cafe on Brownsville Road. A young woman, her eyes sparkling, stands up to motion me to the booth where three other people are sparkling. For the next hour or so, Natalia Rudiak, her father John Rudiak and friends Alice Vaday and Brandon Dilla hold a neighborhood love-fest while I take notes.
Usually, I have an inkling of a place's condition before its advocates regale me with examples. But the only thing I had heard about Carrick was its momentum has shifted and it could tip either way. It used to be bedrock stable but, as in so many places, slumlords, vacancies, litter, graffiti and crimes have encroached.
That's true in some of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods. Next topic...
At the Tree Tenders training I took in February, arborist Matt Erb of Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest (FPUF) said some of the most enthusiastic and effective tree advocates live in Carrick. More recently, Boris Weinstein, Pittsburgh's king of the redd-up and chair of the Clean Pittsburgh Commission, sent me a list of winners of the first-ever Bob awards -- named for the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, who started the "Redd Up" campaign. Carrick was "most improved." He put me in touch with Dawn Harder.
Dawn and her husband moved here from Colorado three years ago and "have fallen in love with Carrick," she said. She started the Carrick Litter Patrol last year.
Litter education is "a challenge," she said. Besides its own litter, Carrick gets blown garbage from Route 51, she said. But 50-60 people turned out for the big spring clean-up last year and several volunteers keep their own blocks picked up. She is working with schools to get children involved and agitating for more trash cans and recycling bins on Brownsville Road and in recreation areas.
For Carrick, last year was the big ramp-up year. Dawn's litter patrol started officially last spring, about when John Rudiak and Joe Krynock started pondering the history of Hornaday Road and ended up founding the Carrick-Overbrook Historical Society. They have been collecting old photos and documents in the Carnegie Library branch.
Last year, a new Sprout fund mural inspired Brandon Dilla to get more involved in the Carrick Community Council, and last year, Alice and Natalia took the training to be tree tenders. All three have become active in the community council, which brought the Carrick Corn Festival back last year from a 3-4 year hiatus.
Carrick has had its champions over the years, but this little band has overlapped its attentions so that tree tenders serve on the community council and petitioned for a mural and established a web site and collect emails on clipboards in the grocery aisles. Alice, a Realtor who has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years, also collects emails when she sells houses.
"We are trying to make connections," said Natalia, 29, who was born and raised in Carrick, lived away for several years and has returned. She is a community-development consultant to non-profits.
Sitting in the booth at Del's beside her father, her hands making tumbling motions, she is excited about all the things the group wants to do. "We'd like to have a house tour, and do a thing like the doors of Ireland: the stained-glass of Carrick. But we have to be patient."
Carrick's fan base sounds like the fan base of many neighborhoods. They tout the best schools, great old houses that are affordable, a rich history and a whole lot of people who feel as they do.
Family ties brought Brandon Dilla up the hill from Brentwood after he graduated from college. He is 26 and lives in the house his grandparents raised his mother in. His friends in the East End ask him why in the world he lives in Carrick. "I'm not trying to be non-conformist, but I don't want to live somewhere that everyone has already found," he said. "Plus there's the connection to my grandparents."
He pulls out a photo from 1971. In it, his mother, just married, is kissing her father goodbye. Two ladies with up-do '70s coifs sit on a couch in the background. "Those women still live next door," Brandon said. "They keep an eye out for my house."
"Our neighbors next door are the same," said John Rudiak. "We all take care of each other."
"I've never felt more at home anywhere in the world than I have in this neighborhood," said Alice, a self-described Navy brat who grew up in San Diego. "But no one knows we're here." She said she sells fabulous houses for under $100,000 and even bought one. "The highest has been $130,000."
"We have had an issue of marketing Carrick," said Natalia. "We don't have a cupcake store or haute couture, but you can still afford a great house and a beer for 75 cents."