Community Keystones

Blog by Sean Cuff, Policy Fellow

In early August, I interviewed CommunityCare Steward and long-time Larimer resident Tab Duckett outside his adopted lots near Thompson and Joseph Streets. He and his lawnmower have been fixtures of the community, and represent the outsized role neighbors have had to take on to keep their blocks maintained.

CommunityCare Steward, Tab Duckett

He was born and raised in the neighborhood. In between at least ten horn honks, waves, and “hey there’s” with passersby, we talked about how the neighborhood used to look. He told me what it was like when the block was packed with row houses, families and active children playing in side yards, and a vibrancy that knitted it all together.

Over the years, the same forces that led to economic decline and atrophy across South Western Pennsylvania hit Tab’s neighborhood hard. Families moved away and the community vibrancy with them. The streetscape is now pockmarked bulldozed vacant lots and deteriorating, abandoned or condemned houses. These are a few of the estimated 26,000 vacant lots in the City of Pittsburgh. As the city declined, so did its tax base and capacity to address its vacant land crisis.

Tab would not easily give in to the decline in his neighborhood. He began cleaning up his neighboring vacant lots, and diligently reporting issues to the city’s 311 line. Report after report would go unanswered. The consequences of the city’s slow response became clear in the early morning of April 20, 2016, when an abandoned house across the street went up in flames and quickly spread to neighboring houses. He recalled seven children living in one of the homes, and the fear that swept over him when he was not certain they made it out. 


Overgrown Lot at Thompson and Shetland Sts.

Tab tried to be a good neighbor. He used the reporting tools the city provided, but there was no follow-through. Despite the challenges, Tab is still living his dream. He lives in the neighborhood he loves in the “Keystone House” he admired as a kid because of the way the stones over each window catch your eye. Persevering in the face of the stigma some may have placed on the area over the years; the fires, boarded-up houses, and vacant lots surrounding him; and promises being made downtown not being kept, he counts himself blessed to be living this dream. He has just had to work harder to maintain it.

CommunityCare Stewards like Tab have taken on the job of maintaining their communities. “It is what it is,” said Tab, “All I do is pay taxes.” But he is not alone. To date this year, CommunityCare stewards in Larimer, Homewood, and neighboring Wilkinsburg have completed nearly 1,300 hours of vacant lot maintenance in their communities. 

Instead of enjoying their well-earned time off after a long shift or enjoying their retirement or taking a Saturday to relax after a busy week, they are cutting the grass of overgrown lots, clearing brush hanging over sidewalks, and picking up litter. They are doing a job that is not theirs, because it’s the work that needs doing, and might not be done otherwise. As the CommunityCare stewards in Homewood frequently like to say, they are taking matters into their own hands, ensuring that their community is a reflection of the people who comprise it. 

Like the features on Tab’s dream home, these stewards are keystones in their community: their purpose is met when supporting others. Standing alone, they would fall, too.

Thanks to the hard work of CommunityCare Stewards in Larimer, this vacant lot at the corner of Thompson and Shetland Streets has been transformed.

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