Post-Katz Beechview more than just a pretty face

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

Pretty-up Beechview volunteers and their haul at a recent clean-up

Beechview is coming out of the Bernardo Katz era like a hostage, kissing the ground and taking in the sunshine of possibility.

It is hatching a neighborhood plan. The Urban Redevelopment Authority is refocusing on credible business proposals after losing hundreds of thousands in unpaid loans to Mr. Katz, a developer who defaulted and disappeared.

Since last summer, a troupe of young residents has created a piece of the action, taking to the streets to pick up litter and plant gardens. They have named their effort Pretty Up Beechview (PUB) and established the last Saturday of the month as clean-up day.

The PUB patrol meets at 9 a.m. where Beechview and Broadway Avenues come together. They encourage anyone to join in. If spring ever comes, they will resume their guerilla gardening, making zinnias pop up where only billboards and weeds bloomed before.

Max Hurwitz and his wife Bethany, Ron Baraff and his wife Christy and Amy Bianco, Rachel Romano and Anna Loney are the core members who plan activities, contribute their own money and print fliers. Another dozen people volunteer on clean-up Saturdays and another six people are involved as stewards of their own blocks.

At first, the group felt that people were looking at them disapprovingly. But the PUB patrol has proved its commitment by turning out every month. "I think people thought we would do this for a while a stop," said Mr. Hurwitz. "We are hearing less of people saying, 'Why are you doing this? It'll just be dirty tomorrow' and more thank yous and 'Do you want some water?'"

"People have even brought us bags," said Ms. Romano, who has recruited litter patrols among students at neighborhoods schools.

PUB raised almost $900 at a live-music event Feb. 13 at the Smiling Moose on the South Side. Ms. Romano said the group plans to use the money to buy plants and gardening supplies and attend Tree Tender classes, which Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest and TreeVitalize offer throughout the city. (Stay posted: a blog about tree-tender training and upcoming workshop schedules is coming.)

Prettying up Beechview is just the beginning of PUB's scheme. After contributing their own plants for gardens in two empty lots on Broadway, they want to start a plant swap to involve the entire neighborhood, said Ms. Loney  "Also in the realm of possibility is to promote vermiculture and green-roof initiatives once buildings start to be developed."

For more than five years, Mr. Katz, who returned to his native Brazil owing more than $700,000 to the URA, held out the promise that he would do to Beechview's main drag what he did along parts of Washington Road in Mount Lebanon. But he failed to bring anything upscale or otherwise to Broadway except a Mexican restaurant that turned over twice before dying. At the same time, his residential tenants throughout the neighborhood drew complaints from home owners.

The money world of development usually says "that's nice" to beautification efforts and pats them on the head. But people who tend to trees and flowers and picking up trash give any neighborhood more bang for the buck. They're the people who make the conditions that make the developers look twice.

"We're one of those neighborhoods that's sitting on a precipice, that could tip either way," said Mr. Baraff. "The point of all this is to reclaim Beechview."

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