Pittsburgh Land Bank vice chairman Dr. Jamil Bey. Photo by Quaadir Bey.

When Dr. Jamil Bey returned to Pittsburgh in 2013 after a stint in New York City, he found a different town than the one he’d grown up in. The Beltzhoover native used to play in McKinley Park as a youth, back when it had four playgrounds within a thriving, densely populated neighborhood.

As he explored familiar streets after returning, he noticed that three of the four playgrounds were gone. The one that remained was aging fast, and the streets surrounding the park were sprinkled with vacant lots and decaying buildings.

“Looking at the disinvestment and everything else that was happening, there didn’t seem to be a lot of pressure from residents to do much,” says Dr. Bey. “And it seemed like there was an opportunity to get people involved by identifying something they could rally around.”

Turning a need into a full-time job

He wasn’t working at the time, which gave him hours to think and plan. Getting residents more involved in improving their communities eventually became Dr. Bey’s full-time occupation. He began organizing weekend cleanups, where residents pitched in to remove the overgrown grass and weeds in Beltzhoover’s vacant lots.

In January of 2016, he founded UrbanKind Institute, a community engagement consulting firm dedicated to strengthening resident participation in the decisions affecting their neighborhoods.

Among other accomplishments, UrbanKind has helped youth in Pittsburgh’s Hilltop neighborhoods understand the environmental challenges facing McKinley Park. It’s also empowered them to make a difference. Last summer, a group of high school students conducted a tree census and researched asthma rates on the windward and leeward sides of the park.

“We’re seeing a group of environmentally responsible young people who, in another year or so, will be ready to apply for college,” Dr. Bey says, “and we’re hoping they’ll be interested in environmental science.”

The Hilltop community took note of Dr. Bey’s dedication and nominated him to serve as one of the three publicly appointed members of the Pittsburgh Land Bank board. He is now the organization’s vice-chair.

Making a difference citywide 

The Land Bank was established in 2014 and the first board of directors was in place by late 2015. Then came the process of taking the idea from legislation to full operation. In mid-2017, they issued a report summarizing recommendations by residents and stakeholders, and in late December, Pittsburgh City Council adopted an inaugural set of policies and procedures.

As the Land Bank’s operations get underway this year, Dr. Bey is excited about the organization’s power to help residents transform vacant or blighted properties for productive use.

“It’s going to streamline the process for land recycling,” he says. “Right now, if you have a plan for something in your neighborhood, it could take years until the property is even accessible. The Land Bank should be able to streamline the process to about 18 months.”

Here’s why that matters: When a property becomes an eyesore, the value of other homes in the area goes down. More time passing means more decay and more damage to property values for the whole neighborhood. Soon though, by petitioning the Land Bank to acquire a vacant property and clear the title and any tax debt, residents will have the opportunity to take action before things get to that point.

As a public appointee, Dr. Bey seeks to strengthen resident voices with more community input.

But just as he was able to create solid progress in Beltzhoover by getting directly involved, it’s also vital for residents citywide to get involved by calling attention to vacant properties and staying committed to positive change.

The Land Bank’s success, he says, depends on how city residents choose to use it. “It can be that tool that allows communities to be empowered, to improve themselves so they are attracting other folks,” he says. “But it has to start with the people who are already there wanting to stay there.”

As the city continues to attract outside investment, he wants to ensure that Pittsburgh remains a place where long-term residents want to stay.

“I think the Pittsburgh of the future should be a growing population that is attracted by the quality of neighborhoods that we have,” he says. “That requires preemptive investments in existing communities that benefit current residents.”

Dr. Bey has already inspired many Beltzhoover residents to take a more active role in their community. Empowering residents to do the same across the entire city is a challenge he’s now glad to tackle through the Pittsburgh Land Bank.

Sam Bojarski

Sam Bojarski is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh's East End. When he's not on deadline, he can be found running through one of Pittsburgh's city parks, reading history or playing the mandolin.