Operation Better Block celebrated for 50 years of service in Homewood

JEROME JACKSON, left, executive director of Operation Better Block, receives a proclamation declaring July 31, 2021, as “Operation Better Block 50th Anniversary Day” in the City of Pittsburgh from Mayor Bill Peduto. (Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
As Jerome Jackson describes it, people can’t believe their eyes when they see this completely renovated house that is now theirs.

“Everything in it is new, from the floor to the walls to the appliances…and they love it,” Jackson told the New Pittsburgh Courier.

To those who have been in Pittsburgh for generations, they know the work that Operation Better Block does for the Homewood community. They’re not surprised that Jackson, who’s served as OBB’s executive director for 11 years, has presented the keys to seven different African American families who now call Homewood home. A house that had some $200,000 in renovations done to it, sold to the family for no more than $60,000.

“They can’t believe the house that they’re getting for the price that they’re getting it for,” Jackson said. “It’s exciting to see (the excitement) from families and children.”

Operation Better Block’s homeownership program has taken off higher than Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Thanks to the organization, homes in the area are being rehabbed and more African Americans who are classified as low-income are now being called homeowners.

The homeownership program is one of many programs OBB has done over its 51 years of service. The organization plans to rehab and sell 12 to 15 houses per year in the future.

On Saturday, July 31, the organization officially held its 50th Anniversary Celebration at Westinghouse Park, which was canceled last year due to the pandemic.

 

ON THE SWINGS—LAILA TAYLOR, WINDY TAYLOR

“Homewood is not what we see on the news. That is a very small fraction of our neighborhood,” Jackson told the Courier. “We have great residents that really work hard to bring the neighborhood back, worked hard to keep the neighborhood just in the condition that it was in so that no one would come in and tear it down. We have residents that stayed when they could have left. I want people to know that Homewood’s a community like everywhere else. We have residents that love their neighborhood and love the kids in the neighborhood just like every other neighborhood.”

OPERATION BETTER BLOCK JUNIOR GREEN CORPS MEMBERS—Front row: Ny’Jai Chapman, 16; Lynda Johnson, 15. Top row: Ny’Ela Chapman, 16; Hayly Hoch, co-manager of the Junior Green Corps. (Photos by Rob Taylor Jr.)

You have to go all the way back to 1969, when residents of Homewood-Brushton created Forever Action Together Inc., (FAT) to stimulate the political, educational, social and economic life of the community. That year, the Housing Committee of FAT was inspired by an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that detailed a summer youth program in New York City that encouraged self-help to overcome neighborhood blight and deterioration. The Housing Committee’s Carrie Washington and Beverly Frazier traveled to New York City and returned with a modified program model that was supported by a panel of advisors from the community and the Pittsburgh area.

In 1970, Operation Better Block Inc., was born with support from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise (PACE), foundations, and local businesses. In 1971, OBB was incorporated, with James Givner as its founding executive director and Carrie Washington as assistant director.

THIS YOUNG LADY ENJOYING THE FACE-PAINTING…

At the 50th Anniversary Celebration, everyone from the current mayor, Bill Peduto, to the Democratic mayoral nominee, Rep. Ed Gainey, was there. Everyone from City Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess (whose district includes Homewood), to UPMC representatives dishing out the COVID-19 vaccine to all who needed them. There was face-painting, music, food, informational vendors, and free Operation Better Block T-shirts that read, “I love Homewood block by block.”

“Homewood is the best place to be if you’re trying to start a family. We have nice houses here,” Jackson told the Courier.

GINA MCMILLAN, OPERATIONS MANAGER, OPERATION BETTER BLOCK

Gina McMillan, Operation Better Block’s operations manager, said another important program OBB has is its “Bridge to Benefits” initiative, where Homewood residents can get assistance with utilities, rent, taxes, and help with transferring home titles.

TRAYVON CROSBY, 18, BRANDON WALKER, 18. They are part of Operation Better Block’s Junior Green Corps program.

And let’s not forget about the Junior Green Corps program, where high school students help beautify the Homewood community by maintaining vacant lots, growing gardens, etc.

Brandon Walker, 18, said being part of the program has helped teach him “how to help your community and get people on their feet.” He said it shows that by supporting one person, that can start a chain reaction and then it helps somebody else.

Walker and Trayvon Crosby, also 18, provide healthy food to Homewood via a farmer’s market on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Bible Center Church, 717 N. Homewood Ave.

JEROME JACKSON

Jackson, who wants to see Operation Better Block and Homewood thrive for another 50 years, said the Junior Green Corps program gives students the ability to see Homewood as “their own.”

“As they continue to do projects, plant flowers, etc., they start to see the beauty in their neighborhood,” Jackson told the Courier, “the beauty in what they do…and then they learn to love what they do.”

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