10 years of living in Turtle Creek taught a woman how to build community

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“Turtle Creek is changing…the whole Mon Valley is changing.” A woman campaigning for state representation told me this in April 2018. I wanted this to be true because I wanted to continue living in this place that I have called home for almost 10 years. My journey to confirm his statement has been incredible and full of intense thought. It reminded me of a message I first received as a little girl listening to my mother’s “Best of Luther Vandross” vinyl record box set.

A house is not a home

This line became a saying when my mother and I decided to live together as adults. We needed a place that would not only be structurally sound and ready for occupancy. We needed one where our non-traditional family could build a life and grow that homeownership equity that all the finance and credit gurus had been preaching to us over the years. I was struck by the seriousness in my mother’s voice when she said, “We should buy a place together, so you’ll have something when I’m gone.” She had overcome several health problems. We were both worried that his apartment in East Liberty was too far from mine in Swissvale. We needed to be closer to each other. But his sense that a generational change of the guard was part of our house hunt struck me as odd.

Tahirah Walker kisses her mother. (Courtesy of Tahirah Walker)

As we began to search for the right balance between home and home, we found the Mon Valley Initiative [MVI]. The organization was flipping properties to create home ownership opportunities for people who would otherwise find themselves unaffordable. My mom and I were drawn to a property in Turtle Creek with two houses on the lot. The first time we tried to mortgage the property, the deal fell through because the amount MVI wanted for it was above its appraised value and against the crest of the real estate market crisis. Banks were simply unwilling to lend more than a house was worth. At least not for me and my mother. A year passed and like many other homes in the neighborhood, the property we were looking for was still vacant. We tried again. The numbers lined up and in October 2012, my mother and I became co-owners. Before all of this, I had only been to Turtle Creek once and knew very little about the neighborhood that became my home.

When the two of us are far apart

During the first week of living here, someone broke in. A neighbor said his house was also broken into. He told me to send the police for more details. The police told me that the neighbor I spoke with was a drug addict, that he could not be trusted. I froze. My dad was a recovery champion who fought hard to shake off the negative stereotypes that lock others into thinking that addicts are irremediable, can’t be trusted, and can’t get well. The language they used and the whole situation sickened me. I started to rely on isolation as a coping mechanism. I thought it was minding my own business. My mother thought it was fear. She knew how important it was to keep the faith. She didn’t want to see me drift towards the latter. She didn’t want us to be so close and yet so far apart.

We had all started to settle into a routine when my house was broken into again. This time I bought an alarm service, cleaned up the broken glass and moved on, grateful that both times my mother’s house was left alone. Grateful that she was still having a great time exploring her new neighborhood. Grateful that she continued to encourage me to explore and wrap me in her optimism. It must have been difficult for her to model because I know my mother was perfectly happy to be in her quiet one-bedroom little house with her plants, her books and her grandchildren’s visits for the to occupy. She felt that I should go out and see more of our new neighborhood. And she showed me by doing just that for herself.

Not made to live alone

In 2014, we began to notice our little borough becoming more diverse, vibrant, and compassionate. Kelley Kelley had become our mayor and his leadership marked a turning point for the community, including those in recovery. My mother pointed this out to me and kept drumming for us to decide to move here. She cared deeply about our neighbors. She also had great admiration for the teachers in our community. For the first time in their lives, my daughters had a black headmistress and several black teachers at their new local school. This mattered to us because we knew it meant the children were more likely to have positive academic results. My mother also liked the nearby park where she took the girls to play. “What park? I asked him once. “You need to go out more,” she said. And she was right.

In 2015, a group of volunteers working with Grow Pittsburgh added a community flower and vegetable garden to this park. Home Plate Garden is still one of Turtle Creek’s many gems. In 2016, the Chinese Alliance Church here with the ancient language proudly displayed on the entrance doors welcoming visitors also welcomed a new pastor. Woodland Hills Academy has changed from admissions-only to a neighborhood school.

Homeplate Garden at Turtle Creek. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Although Turtle Creek has excellent mental health support services, access to the type of health care my mother needed to manage her seizure disorder and type 2 diabetes was not as readily available. She had to travel outside of Turtle Creek to see her caregivers. Her transportation options were limited, and she often felt like our zip code didn’t exactly get her the biggest welcome mat outside the clinic door. Eventually, my mother’s health began to decline again. This time, being close to me was not enough.

And one of us is heartbroken

One spring afternoon, my daughter found her deceased grandmother in bed in the quiet back house. A new neighbor heard my daughter’s cries and came to her rescue. She sat with her until I got back from Duquesne University. This drive on I-376 was a blur for me. I know it was long enough that the neighbor could have left once the police arrived. I know that since the police were incredibly nice and caring that day, it would have been perfectly reasonable to let my 17 year old daughter wait for me. She does not have. When I arrived, our neighbor was rubbing my daughter’s back and saying, “I’m so sorry. It was my mother’s Turtle Creek. Everyone from neighbors to the postman mourned his loss and expressed their condolences. We all hoped she had at least been at peace. It was in May 2016. I decided to finally devote myself to exploring this neighborhood where my mother had found a warm home.

Soon after, I saw Trump campaign signs going up in my neighborhood, challenging my renewed commitment to the area. No one in my neighborhood posted them, but the election data tells me that some people here were his constituents and I started to worry once again that I didn’t belong here. My girls didn’t worry. Instead, they began a life of activism at Woodland Hills High School. The woman we met during a campaign stop in April 2018 had inspired them. Summer Lee reminded us of what my mother had been showing me for years: this was our home and we belong here. Lee became our state representative later that year.

Tahirah Walker, pictured with her mother and daughters. (Photo by: Ahmad Sandidge/Courtesy Tahirah Walker)

Honey, have a heart

The same year, Black Lives Matter signs rose as our community mourned Antwon Rose II. The demands for justice signaled by these flags were louder than the blacks and blues that dot the landscape. Calls for justice grew in 2020 when Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd amid the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming the lives of people (disproportionately poor and people of color) across our country. . In 2020 and 2021, two Pride flags including trans and minority people were raised in my neighborhood. I saw this as a clear call to end the endemic violence against TLGBQ+ people, committed at alarming levels against Black trans women. The rainbows would have been enough to make me smile, but it was a feeling of inclusiveness and caring that I could never have dreamed of in 2012.

It was only a few months ago that US Steel started being blamed for that awful smell that sometimes gets here. Turtle Creek is indeed changing. I hope these changes will translate into better educational, health and economic outcomes for people who have been here long and for those who are here temporarily. I also hope that the changes made here will result in better outcomes for people whose signs might indicate they don’t want that kind of fairness. I imagine that they too could benefit from the progress.

Homeplate Garden at Turtle Creek. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Turn this house into a home

So after almost 10 years here, I’m getting better at following my mom’s advice. A few months ago I was driving around the Woodland Hills Academy area. I recognized the name of a crèche from receipts my mother had kept in her car. She bought food there for her little garden. I parked and bravely walked in, fighting back the tears of grief that surfaced as I thought of my mom heading to this little place on Airbrake Avenue where she found an oasis of plant-lover’s items. I was warmly welcomed and left with organic soil for my indoor peace lilies. This spring, I think I’m going to go back and ask for help planting a garden tree in honor of my mom. I wasn’t sure 10 years would find me still alive here. I don’t know if I’ll be here 10 more. But I know that my sense of community has changed with Turtle Creek, and that change has been rooted in relationships with neighbors who care about me. As I approach my 10th anniversary of Turtle Creek, I hope that my own contributions to the community can grow and prosper.

Tahirah Walker is a writer and teacher, creating her story of liberation in the Pittsburgh area. If you would like to message Tahirah, email [email protected]

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