Among the steep slopes and public staircases that descend toward the Monongahela, Hazelwood’s past, present, and future reveal themselves in unison. There’s the vast tract of riverfront land where the Hazelwood Coke Works once stood. There’s the Second Avenue business district, a commercial artery once boasted more than 200 businesses. Several grand churches — testaments to Hazelwood’s multiethnic heritage — rise above the row homes and Hazelnut trees.
Until its closure in 1998, Hazelwood Coke Works was the city’s last operating steel mill. What happened next is a familiar Pittsburgh story: Hazelwood’s jobs disappeared along with large numbers of people, and those left behind struggled with blight and unemployment. The shops on Second Avenue closed. The massive Gladstone School sat vacant. Abandoned homes crumbled and caught fire.
But the community continued to invest in itself. Organizations such as Center of Life, ACTION-Housing, and The Hazelwood Initiative — nonprofits that have worked for years to reinvent the neighborhood — engaged Hazelwood’s kids and families in a variety of programs while encouraging entrepreneurship and development. Their hard work paid off: In 2014, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh opened a new branch in a renovated church building, bringing with it space for teens, children, and advocacy groups. Center of Life and The Hazelwood Initiative purchased the Gladstone School with plans to make it a community space, complete with affordable housing and other essential resources. Now, new businesses opening on Second Avenue, and the Almono site — former home of the coke works — hope to jumpstart Hazelwood’s economy with high-tech tenants.
It’s an exciting time for the neighborhood’s families and children. We sat down with Joy Cannon, program coordinator at Center of Life, to learn more about Hazelwood’s future and its efforts to remake learning.
Can you tell us a bit about Center of Life and its work in Hazelwood?
Center for Life is primarily a youth organization, though we try to focus on the whole family as well. That includes providing academic support for students and creative afterschool programming in music, dance, production, graphic design, and more. The program I work most closely with is Fusion, Center of Life’s afterschool tutoring program. We have a great jazz program, too, that focuses on music and vocal instruction for students of all ages, from kindergarten on up. Our youngest students play in the Bucket Band, which teaches them music terminology and the basics of keeping rhythm. They play on buckets with real drumsticks, and they absolutely love it — it’s so cute to watch.
We also have Crossover, which fuses academics and athletics. Then there’s KRUNK, which teaches production and elements of the music business. We run family engagement programs, too, because it’s crucial to get service providers, schools, and families on the same page to make sure students get the support they need for academic success. Families have varied needs, whether it’s food or just advice from Pastor Tim [Smith, Center of Life’s executive director], so our engagement programs take lots of forms. For example, we’re partnering with Dollar Bank to host a financial literacy event for Hazelwood’s parents and families. Obviously, there’s a lot going on!
Which Remake Learning Days events are you most looking forward to?
I’m most excited for Center of Life’s Hazelwood Family Festival! We’re hoping the whole neighborhood will come out — it’s going to be a great way for families to start their summer together. We’ll have raffles, giveaways, food, and a resource fair with different community service providers at the old Gladstone School.
Both KRUNK and Center of Life’s jazz students will perform, along with DJs, some outside performances, and an African drumming group that’s awesome — they’re amazing at engaging the crowd and teaching the importance of African culture. It’s going to be a great event for families.
What makes Hazelwood special?
Well, I’m not a Pittsburgh or Hazelwood native — I’m from the Poconos. I moved here four or five years ago, and Hazelwood was one of my first introductions to the city. Here’s what I can tell you: Hazelwood is the most welcoming community that ever existed. The people here care. They want you to do well. They’re so supportive, and I’ve been really lucky to interact with them. Any time Center of Life has needed something from the community, they’ve stepped up. Hazelwood is a second home for me.
What do residents want for their community?
They want to have a voice in the decisions that affect them. There’s a lot of redevelopment going on here — all of a sudden, people are very interested in Hazelwood’s land and property. But we can’t forget that there are families here. We don’t talk about it enough, but it’s important that they have a say in what happens in their own community. There are similar things happening around the city, with people are getting pushed out of their homes. That’s not something that the people in Hazelwood are going to take lying down, and it makes me really proud to work here.
The most engaging, popular events in Hazelwood are focused on kids. There are so many children here — annually, Center of Life serves anywhere from 400 to 500 kids between all of our programs. For a long time, there wasn’t an education center or even a school until Propel opened up a few years ago. Kids were sent to all different places, and many still are. So Hazelwood residents are interested in anything that presents positive opportunities for kids. The Carnegie Library [on Second Avenue] is a great example of this — if students aren’t here at Center of Life, they’re probably at the library. It’s been really popular in its new location.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Remake Learning Days in Hazelwood?
Come check out our events! They’re totally worth visiting. People don’t often talk about Hazelwood in the context of youth and or it being a positive learning environment for kids, but that’s exactly what it is. And we hope people will come see it for themselves!
To learn more about Remake Learning Days events in Hazelwood, please visit http://remakelearningdays.org/hazelwood
This blog is part of “Neighborhood Navigators: Remaking Learning in Your Neighborhood,” a special initiative to connect children and youth in six Pittsburgh neighborhoods and parts of West Virginia to Remake Learning Days (May 15-26). Each week, we’ll spotlight a new community. In Pittsburgh, we’ll visit neighborhoods in the Northside, the Hilltop, the Hill District, the Mon Valley, the East End, and Hazelwood; in West Virginia, we’ll visit Morgantown, Charleston, and Wheeling.
Follow writer Ryan Rydzewski on Twitter @RyanRydzewski.