"I used to ride my bicycle on these streets," Bill Generett says, glancing out the car window. In Homewood, driving down Penn and Frankstown and Lang, he sees shuttered stores and weed-choked lots. Buildings cowering behind boarded windows and wire fences.
"I remember when it was vibrant," he recalls. "The first time I came back, I cried."
Passing some Better Block kids armed for clean-up, Generett sees a neighborhood disguised as a clear-cut, slow-growth forest. Virtually unchanged for decades, Homewood's stuck in reverse.
"People here are very proud," he says. "Homewood's fighting back."
So is he.
William Generett Jr., possessor of a gilt-edged education and a blue-chip résumé, is the son of a physician and a bank vice president. Born and raised in nearby Point Breeze, he was educated at Shady Side Academy, Morehouse College and Emory Law. As a young man, he practiced law in Atlanta, married, taught English in Japan, settled down in Washington, D.C. He seemed set for life.
Then the world interceded. One way or another, Washington was a city under siege. Living a mile from the Pentagon, he saw the smoke rise on 9/11. Then, the anthrax scare. The Virginia sniper scare
By 2004 it was time to come home.
What he found was a Pittsburgh different from the one he had left in the '80s, a place paralyzed by the collapse of Big Steel.
"What I discovered was two worlds," Generett recalls. "One world was doing well economically," he nods. "One was not."
"Oh, there was a lot of social-service support," Generett allows. "But that's not enough to ensure economic vitality," he shakes his head, "to transform neighborhoods like Homewood. We have to teach people how to fish. We have to teach people how to make money."
"How do we build that?" he found himself asking. "How do we build an entrepreneurial spirit? Especially in communities where that entrepreneurial spirit died?"
Deciding to do "whatever I could to close the gap," Generett set out "to make Pittsburgh the most livable city for all of us."
Looking at such underserved communities as the Hill, Homewood, and the North Side, he worked to connect the new economies — health care, manufacturing, energy, emerging technologies — with impacted communities.
"We had to create strategies to make that connection," he says. "To find creative ways to make sure that folks are included."
Calling his efforts Urban Innovation 21, he attracted some 20 companies to open facilities in Uptown and the Hill — neighborhoods strategically placed between Oakland and Downtown. "When you blend borders," he says, "when you create an ecosystem, residents benefit."
They did — immediately. Not only through internships and jobs, but also by building on resources — training, capital, economic opportunity. In a relatively short period of time, Generett saw employment rise and ancillary industries begin to flower, including security services, construction firms, landscaping contractors, and so on. "It's been transformative," he says.
Turning his sights on Homewood, Generett found it a tougher nut to crack. With neither the cachet nor the proximity of the Hill, Homewood has been easy to bypass, ignore or simply overlook.
Generett stops the car in a gravel parking lot at 7800 Susquehanna St., an immense former Westinghouse facility. Five stories high, red brick with outsized windows and a line of truck bays, it's ripe for adaptive reuse as an Innovation Center. Already lined up, he says proudly, are a high-end cabinet maker, a construction firm and various business incubators. "It's coming to life," Generett says. "We're really excited.
"I love Pittsburgh," he adds. "This city fought back — fought to diversify our economy; to come out of the ashes. I'm happy and proud to see that economic transformation. But we still have these tremendous gaps. There are too many people who never recovered."
He pauses. "For all the things we're doing well, we're still an Act 47 city. There's still an enormous amount of poverty — too many groups who are not connected."
Generett gets back in his car. "The beauty of Pittsburgh is our neighborhoods," he says, "all our neighborhoods. The danger is that they're too insular. They don't see their role. They don't see a place they can play in this world.
"We all have to see beyond geography," he adds. "Unfortunately, there's no road map."
He turns a corner. Barely out of Homewood, the new Bakery Square complex — high-tech jobs, high-end retail, high-cost condominiums — springs into view.
Generett nods. "We've got a lot of work to do."