“We need to always remember what happened on this site. It is a dark stain on this city.”
A moment of silence fell over about 30 protestors at 5704 Penn Ave.
They stood with their backs to the vacant grass lot where Penn Plaza Apartments stood for 47 years before demolition began in June 2017. It’s been three years since LG Realty Advisors evicted more than 200 families. Since then, five former residents have died and one former resident lost a baby. Those gathered in the street remembered those lives.
Jerry McKeithen, 66, hung his head in silence. His brother Earl died three months after his eviction from the apartment building. McKeithen claims that depression and the shock of displacement killed his brother. He lived in Penn Plaza for four years. McKeithen said his brother furnished his apartment with huge beautiful furniture.
“When the last eviction came he was so sad, he went into the hospital. We thought it was his cancer, but the doctor said , ‘No his cancer is still in remission.’ My brother was 70 years old. He fought the Vietnam War and everything. Stress and depression killed him,” McKeithan said.
Randall Taylor, an ex-Penn Plaza resident himself and organizer for Penn Plaza Support and Action called the crowd to make a commitment.
“Let’s make that commitment to bring affordable housing back to this site. I think the way that we can do that is to make a commitment, to pass it on for years to come, that we have a perpetual boycott for anything that is not housing on this site. If there’s any whispers of Whole Food — Whole Foods is the catalyst for all that has happened – -a boycott for anything on this site.”
Taylor called the site a “future white elephant that will sit empty in East Liberty.” He pointed to the vacant office spaces that protestors marched by along Penn Avenue. He said Pittsburgh does not need more affordable office space.
“We need to always remember what happened on this site. It is a dark stain on this city,” Randall Taylor said.
Developers of the former Penn Plaza site received push back in May when the Planning Commision restricted their proposed building to 108ft and required that the developer provide a community space. In July the Court of Common Pleas overturned both conditions: developers can now build to 150ft and a community space is not required.
The parcels at 5600-5704 Penn Ave. will be redeveloped by Pennley Park South, an affiliate of developer LG Realty Advisors. 50,500 square feet of retail space and 200,000 square feet of office space makes up phase one of the development. About 85,000 square feet of retail space and 400,000 square feet of office space is set to be developed in phase two.
Taylor pointed to the empty lot across the street from the Penn Plaza site and to the vacant buildings adjacent: “This is their property across the street, everybody. You can see the great work that they have done for East Liberty. These have sat vacant for maybe seven to 10 years. Doesn’t that make you wonder about their development track record in this community?”
Affordable housing advocate Ronell Guy also spoke at the rally, she was introduced as a Pittsburgh legend.
“I don’t know about being no legend. I just know that I’m not going nowhere,” she says. “I got the lovely letter. I got it. It was 14, 15 years ago.”
Guy said she had 30 days to move herself, her kids and her sisters kids. She got together with her neighbors and moved to action.
“And today, the residents own the property that they were once about to be evicted from. There are ways to do this. We have to come together. We have to educate.”
She said Pittsburgh developers are not smarter than Pittsburgh citizens. She urged the crowd to use their power.
“Everybody say it: ‘We’ve got power!’” she yelled.
Protestors also called for Pittsburgh city government officials and developers to rebuild the apartment building and to form a community-controlled Housing Authority.
“We need a people-led, community-controlled Housing Authority and we need to open up these community development corporations to democratic membership,” Taylor said.
Brittany Hailer is a featured contributor for the Pittsburgh Current. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.