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Growing up through the cracks: The children at the center of North Braddock's storm

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Growing up through the cracks: The children at the center of North Braddock's storm

Picture of Richard Lord

This story was produced as part of a larger project led by Rich Lord, a participant in the USC Center for Health Journalism's 2018 Data Fellowship.

Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette
(Photo Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, February 20, 2019

When Nicole Glaze went on Facebook Tuesday night, she saw live cell phone video of FBI agents walking the stretch of Jones Avenue in North Braddock on which she operates Great Start Day Care.

It was neither a surprise nor a relief for the 49-year-old resident of the borough, who for 15 years has run the storefront child care center on the roughest block of one of the county’s poorest and most violence-plagued neighborhoods.

“What came of it?” Ms. Glaze asked Wednesday afternoon, as four toddlers ran back and forth across the alphabet map and two older children settled in after school. “What was the result? That’s what we’re looking for — is results.”

So are others in North Braddock, where the block in which Great Start sits has been the scene of an investigation for at least six months. On Aug. 21, at the borough council meeting, Mayor Tom Whyel identified another location near the intersection of Jones and Baldridge avenues as “a nucleus to many of the problems we have now in this community. … We need to eradicate that sore spot.”

Wednesday, an FBI spokeswoman confirmed that the bureau “did a court-authorized search” on that stretch of Jones Avenue, but would not provide more information.

“I don’t know anything more about what’s going on as far as that is concerned,” said Mr. Whyel. “A couple of members of my police force were asked to block the street. That was it. That’s their investigation and I really, really won’t comment on it.”

North Braddock is one of a dozen southwestern Pennsylvania communities in which more than half of the children live in poverty. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this year is reporting on the challenges created by pockets of poverty amid highly fragmented governance, including the public safety problems that often accompany crumbling tax bases and aging housing stock.

Ms. Glaze noted that she’d seen police cars patrolling the block throughout the day. “So quiet out there,” she said. “It’s always quiet when something happens.”

But then it gets loud again.

“Grandma, somebody’s out there shooting”

Every day at Great Start, Kee’Miyah West, 7, writes down a quote of the day and posts it on the front window. The other day, it was from the Gospel of John: “All that ever came before me are thieves and robber[s], but the sheep did not [hear] them.”

Kee’Miyah lives with her father and her great-grandmother, Evelyn West, who works as an aide between her duties as a crossing guard. Every day the family walks a block from their home to Great Start.

In doing so, they cross an intersection which was the scene of fatal or near-fatal shootings in 2015, 2017 and twice last year. It was also the scene of a particularly notorious drive-by shooting on June 19, which was followed shortly by the fatal shooting of a passenger — Antwon Rose II, 17 — who ran from the vehicle from which the shot was fired. Former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld is charged with homicide in Antwon’s death, with jury selection set for next month.

Allegheny County 911 data shows that in 2017 and 2018, within a block of Baldridge and Jones, there have been two calls for assaults, five for auto thefts, three for burglaries, 18 for domestic violence, two for fights, two for gun possession and four for shots fired.

February has been particularly tough. On Feb. 1, a 21-year-old man was shot two blocks from Great Start. Then on Saturday, a man was shot just up the hill on Hawkins Avenue, and a 15-year-old has been charged.

“There was some shooting the other night,” said Ms. West. “It sounded like it was right on my street.” Kee’Miyah, according to Ms. West, said, “‘Grandma, somebody’s out there shooting.’ I said, ‘Yes, it will be all right. Just calm yourself down.’ She went to sleep.

“She never talks about it.”

Kee’Miyah’s main outlets are writing and drawing. There are piles of multi-page stories, comic strips and drawings by her at Great Start. The topics include civil rights (Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.), the differences between butterflies and moths, and the woes of a child who requires treatment for being “a dork.”

Does she write about scary things?

“I don’t write about it a lot, but sometimes I do,” she said. “I mostly write about things that make me happy.”

Quiet for now

With a 62 percent child poverty rate and one of the lowest per capita property assessments ($16,810) in the county, plus some 400 abandoned homes to contend with, North Braddock has struggled to maintain its all-part-time police force. In September, talks aimed at bringing in full-time Allegheny County police faltered over cost.

Ms. Glaze said that she doesn’t fault the borough’s police. In January, she said, she texted an officer because of an hours-long string of fights in front of Great Start. “Everybody was here,” and fast, she said. “Rankin [police], the state troopers, Braddock Hills — they were all out there.”

But even though she calls the police and keeps the door locked, trouble sometimes finds a way in.

“I mean, I’ve got baggies in my doorway. I’ve got, just, you know, you can smell the marijuana coming up under my door,” she said. “It’s bad.”

She’s glad the feds and local police have shown the flag this week. But she doesn’t know whether that portends a sustained effort to clean up the area.

She hopes so.

“This is a day care. There are children in here,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to sit in here and hear outside all the cursing and violence and the shooting and all the police lights. You’re at day care and all you see all day is police lights because [people are] in the front of the building, acting like a fool. That’s not good for business. That’s not good for the self esteem of the children. It’s definitely not good for me and Miss Evelyn.”

[This story was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.]