From across the valley a steel skeleton watches over Bloomfield, as if issuing a warning. Photo: Citizen Vrabelman
Frank Hastings wakes each day on the floor of his empty Bloomfield apartment. His furniture and other belongings are in a storage facility across the river. The 74-year old Hastings was given notice to leave the apartment he’s lived in for more than twelve years.
“I’m a baker, see,” was the first thing Frank told me when we met at a neighborhood coffee shop. “Well, I was a baker. My whole life.” He meant this literally—he started baking at age twelve. As a young boy, born to a poor, dysfunctional family in the Oakland neighborhood, Frank was caught stealing bread through the back screen door of a local bakery. He returned the next day—to ask for a job—and every day after that for three years, until he was hired to sweep flour from the floors and take out the trash. Over time he learned to knead dough, and later work the ovens.
“Sometimes there’s only so much you can learn in one place, so I moved from bakery to bakery after that,” Frank explained. Before I could ask how schooling fit into all of this, he asked me, “How much education do you think I got?” My guess of high school was far off.
“I didn’t finish the third grade, okay?” He leaned back, perhaps gauging my reaction. “Back then…they just said, ‘You’re stupid, you’re no good, you’re this, you’re that.'”
I know that baking is more science than art, and involves a lot of math. “I couldn’t really add or subtract. When a customer needed ten dozen rolls, I had to figure that out,” he said. “Eight ounces to a cup, four cups to a quart, and…eventually I had to make hundreds of loaves of bread. Took me awhile, but I got it.” Baking provided some of the formal education Frank never received.
“I went out in the world and made something for myself,” he said.
“Frank represents an increasingly vulnerable segment of Pittsburgh’s citizenry—those who worked their entire lives, but whose pensions and Social Security provide too little to afford an efficiency apartment.”
Life is more art than science, but Frank made a respectable one the same way he made bread, from scratch. At Barsotti Bros. Bakery on Pittsburgh’s Southside, Frank never attained the position of head baker, but he told me that by becoming a supervisor for dozens of other bakers in what grew to be the city’s largest bread company, he was able to buy a house.
Frank wasn’t able to sustain his spot in the middle-class, and retired with a small pension, Social Security, and an apartment that was cheap enough that he could get by. That apartment happens to be on the edge of one of Pittsburgh’s hottest real estate markets, and though Frank’s rent remained low, everyone else around saw theirs double or triple during the time he was there.
“Not looking for a handout”
Pittsburgh’s recently created affordable housing trust fund is a sign of progress towards ameliorating a citywide housing crisis, but during the multiple years spent creating it, newly constructed high-end housing spread like a rash. Seniors on fixed incomes getting priced out of trendy neighborhoods is nothing new, but having nowhere to go is a more recent phenomenon. Some displaced senior residents from the nearby Penn Plaza apartments were relocated ten miles away.
To many Pittsburghers, the perception of those needing affordable housing is commonly (and erroneously) limited to the unemployable and the impoverished—to them it’s public housing, the “projects”; other biases and prejudices often kick in thereafter. Other mid-sized cities generally hold a broader view that includes housing for wage workers; and in larger cities, affordable housing is a need for low to moderate salary workers, like teachers and nurses.
For generations, seniors that could no longer afford or maintain a house always had a high-rise in the city, or a senior living village in the suburbs, to go to. That’s no longer the case. Frank Hastings, and others like him, represent an increasingly vulnerable segment of Pittsburgh’s citizenry—those who worked their entire lives, but whose pensions and Social Security provide too little to afford an efficiency apartment.
Bloomfield isn’t known as the fancy part of town. It’s home to a mix of tradespeople, professionals, students and retirees, and has retained its working class character. Photos: Citizen Vrabelman
Frank spread out a stack of papers on the table, including Social Security and Medicare statements, and a document verifying his $136.87 monthly pension from Giant Eagle, where he ended his fifty-year baking career. Together, his income is about $1,400 a month; or less than $17,000 annually. “I’m not looking for a handout,” he stressed. “But this is all I got. Everywhere I call…apartments are $600, $800, a thousand. What would that leave me?”
In the most recent Out of Reach report, published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Pittsburgh residents need to earn $26,280 annually to afford the Fair Market Rent for a 1-bedroom apartment.
Frank doesn’t have a Housing Choice Voucher, commonly known as Section 8, and obtaining one may not be worth the effort—there’s a two-year waiting list (the housing authority isn’t currently accepting new applicants), and voucher recipients are required to find an apartment within 90 days. Because increasingly few property owners accept vouchers, they’re often returned unused and made available to the next person in line, who’s likely to meet the same fate.
Here would be the appropriate place to start the narrative about the heartless, greedy landlord.
Except there isn’t one. Frank’s landlord, Carol, inherited the building owned by her husband and father-in-law when her husband passed away four years ago. Carol never was interested in being a landlord. A business that rented space on the ground floor made it worthwhile, but the company recently moved out and Carol wants to sell the building. She told me that the rents from the apartments never amounted to much. Tenants, including Frank, were only charged $250 per month for a 1-bedroom apartment, including utilities.
Part of the Frank’s problem is that it’s as if he’s awoken from a coma to find how high Pittsburgh rents have climbed, especially throughout the city’s East End. In view from Frank’s front door is the Shursave grocery store. It sits at the back of a vast parking lot on the corner of a busy intersection, facing the traffic that queues on the Bloomfield Bridge during rush hour, and is in the early stages of redevelopment.
The Bloomfield Shursave is the kind of throw-back grocery store (as evidenced by the extant MAC insignia) that will load groceries into the car of anyone who needs assistance. What it lacks in organic produce, it more than makes up for with low prices, friendly workers, and interesting smells. Photo: Citizen Vrabelman
The developer, Milhaus, is still negotiating the purchase of the property, but unveiled a redevelopment scheme at a community meeting last week. Though based in the Midwest, Milhaus has a 625-unit high-end apartment complex under construction in nearby Lawrenceville—ranked by Time as America’s “coolest” neighborhood. The audience of more than 300 people were overwhelmingly hostile to the proposed 243-unit apartment building with “nano-units” priced at $1,000/month.
Carol issued Frank a 30-day notice to vacate (legal for tenants without leases and who have month-to-month payment arrangements), which Frank signed. But that was more than three months ago and Frank is still there. “I thought I’d just find another apartment up the road,” Frank said. “I’m trying, but I didn’t know it would be like this.”
“It’s killing me.”
As his fruitless search continued, Frank panicked and moved his belongings into storage, fearing that he’d come home to find it all on the curb. Aside from his elderly sisters, Frank’s only family relation is a niece, Patty.
“She was very pleasant,” Patty said of Carol after their brief phone call. “I told her that my uncle doesn’t want to cause trouble. We’re looking, and he will move, but he needs more time.” Patty also made sure that Carol knew that she had to go through a formal eviction process if she wanted Frank, or his belongings, out before he found a new place. Patty checks the court dockets to see if eviction papers have been filed, but so far they have not.
“I don’t want to have to do that,” Carol told me when I asked about a formal eviction. “Frank paid faithfully every month. I know he’ll need money for a security deposit and first month’s rent, so I haven’t charged him rent since October.” Continued ownership of the building means another year of paying taxes and other maintenance costs, which Carol said is now coming out of her savings.
“Frank helped my husband with the place over the years. He shoveled snow when our maintenance company couldn’t get there fast enough, and did other repairs,” Carol recalled. “But this situation has been going on for a long time now.”
Frank now pays about $167/month for a storage unit. Despite this, he said, “I have nothing bad to say about Carol. She doesn’t want to keep the building and has the right to sell it.”
As my conversation with Carol ended, she said, “If you know anyone who would want to buy a building to make into affordable housing, you can put them in contact with me.”
State of Mind
As anyone who provides social services for a living knows, first contact is usually made with people who are not at their best. They’re not walking through the doors of a gleaming car showroom. They’re often scared, confused, angry, ashamed, or some combination thereof; I observed Frank cycle through all of these during our short time together. The latter troubled me the most when he turned on himself.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t like me,” he said, referring to times he didn’t handle situations the right way. “I was a pretty well-built young man and knew how to handle myself, and some people didn’t like that. My dad…he was a heavy drinker…and when everyone tells you you’re stupid…”
I felt as though I was now hearing from the third-grader whose education was about to come to an end, so I cut him off there, telling him that his past doesn’t mean he’s undeserving of a decent place to live now.
“Okay,” Frank said, “but now I’m ill, okay? I’m getting better, but I’m ill.” He recently had a major health scare and surgery, but fortunately has a good insurance through Medicare and UPMC. It pays for a membership at the health club where Frank goes nearly every day. “I went from size 46 pants to a 36,” he said, smiling for moment.
“But this…” he said while restacking his papers, “It’s killing me.”
Our time was nearly up, so I returned to the one thing that made Frank’s eyes light up—baking. I asked if he knew how to make the nut rolls my Slovak family makes. “Oh, yeah, I can make those,” he said. The conversation was easy-going after that, as he talked of Hungarian deserts he can make, and how to “put a shine” on bread crusts.
Bloomfield’s side streets are full of character and surprises. At the rear of a parking lot on Pearl Street one can find this unnamed bakery. Photo: Citizen Vrabelman
Like me, you’re meeting Frank in a moment of crisis. Despite sleeping on the floor during an unforgiving Pittsburgh winter, and not knowing where he’ll be next month, Frank’s soft-spoken, gentle demeanor was filled with pleases and thank yous. He agreed to let me write about him throughout the weeks ahead, and in return I’d connect him with any appropriate people and resources I could find.
It turned out that none of that went as I hoped. Still, Frank remained agreeable to this story, provided that I changed his name, as well as that of his niece and landlord.
Future. Forged. For all.
Though Frank’s life story began long ago, the story of his place in the new “Pittsburgh for All” is only beginning. Perhaps Frank will find a new apartment next week; maybe the sheriff will arrive to tell him he’s out of time. A well-crafted promotional video for “Pittsburgh HQ” has been viewed nearly 200,000 times on YouTube. The comments section has been disabled, leaving us with in the dark about what all those viewers think about its presentation of Pittsburgh’s past, present, and future. It’s effective, I have to admit; and for me, a lifelong Pittsburgher, its power comes from it’s ability to make me want to believe everything in it.
But I don’t. Of course, no one resembling Frank Hastings appears in the video; and this story I’m writing won’t be read by 200,000 people. What do we value more? A slick video of an entire city’s history told in two minutes by a voice that isn’t native to this region, or a story about a single retired baker that takes more than ten minutes to read?
The video is about loyalty—one that’s “stronger than steel” and comes from “facing challenges head on.” It’s about a city that is “loyal to the audacious reality that if we do the right thing today, tomorrow will be awesome.” It’s about “not just change…improvement. Not just for some…all.” It’s about “a place where big things happen and big problems get solved…every… single…day.”
I reloaded the video, and listened without watching. It sounded like a retrospective for Frank Hastings’ whole generation.
“And just wait until you see what we do next,” the voice continues. “We always have time for one more great idea…” Then, over a clip of Mister Rogers tying his shoe, “…and room for one more great neighbor. But hurry, tomorrow is almost here.”
Calling upon the late Fred Rogers, the world’s greatest ambassador for neighborhoods everywhere, was clever—but bitterly ironic: Pittsburghers haven’t forgotten that the cornerstone of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was “The Land of Make-believe.”
This is Part One of a two-part story.
This is Bloomfield. Photo: Citizen Vrabelman