When Steel City Squash broke ground on March 8 for its new $10 million squash and education center in Larimer, it marked the culmination of the efforts of two of the neighborhood’s longtime champions, Donna Jackson and Betty Lane.
One might even say that Jackson and Lane were the first to achieve a victory at the 26 parcels of vacant property when they convinced Steel City Squash to locate its new facility on Larimer Avenue.
“I can remember it as if it was yesterday,” says Brad Young, executive director of Steel City Squash.
Young and Lafe Metz, a member of the nonprofit’s board, had lunch with Jackson, president of the Larimer Consensus Group, and Lane, a member of the community organization and a longtime community activist.
During lunch, Jackson laid out the organization’s long-term strategy for the neighborhood. At the end of lunch, Lane suggested that the two men tour the neighborhood with her.
“She drove us around Larimer for two-plus hours and gave us an oral history of Larimer and it was, to this day, one of my favorite times in Pittsburgh,” Young says. “I remember coming down Larimer Avenue and we had just looked a the Larimer School and she told us about the cool stuff that is going on there.
“We get down here and she said, ‘And that’s where you’re going to build your facility.’ Well, Lafe and I kind of looked at each other and we said ‘OK, we’ll take a look at it.’’’
Nearly three years later, Jackson and Lane spoke at the groundbreaking. The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh sold the property to Steel City Squash for $122,000.
Lane, who has lived in the community for 52 years, says, “I would have ridden them around for a year if that’s what it took to make it happen.”
“This doesn’t happen in an African-American community,” Jackson says about building the squash facility, “but this is happening in Larimer.”
The new center is being constructed next to the former Larimer School, which is being renovated to become housing in memory of Ora Lee Carroll, one of the founders of the Larimer Consensus Group. The building will be renamed for Carroll.
Even before the groundbreaking, site work had begun for the $10 million, 19,000-square-foot facility designed by GBBN.
David Hillman, chairman of the Steel City Squash board of directors, says the center will be the largest squash facility between Philadelphia and Chicago.
In addition to members playing squash, the center will be used to teach the sport to children in the community.
Steel City Squash has operated a youth squash program since 2015, starting with a program for fourth and fifth graders, which now serves children from fourth through 12th grades. The new center will have the capacity to host 120 children, who also will have access to tutoring and homework help. Since 2015, the program has boasted high school graduation and college matriculation rates of 100%.
In addition to the classrooms, the facility will house eight squash courts including one with glass walls so that spectators can have a better view of the game.
The facility will also be used by the Chatham University men’s and women’s squash teams.
Chatham University President David Finegold says the university has strategically placed its team facilities in neighboring areas, such as the soccer and lacrosse field in Wilkinsburg that is also used by youth football teams from the community.
Chatham started its squash program four years ago and its men’s team is now ranked 11th nationally and the women’s team is 19th.
The new Larimer facility is scheduled to open in early 2024.
The organization’s annual fundraiser, the Steel City Cup, takes place on Saturday, April 29, at the Pittsburgh Golf Club in Squirrel Hill.