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Beyond the beating

The problems in Pittsburgh go beyond the assault of Brandon White

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CORNERING THE MARKET: Pittsburgh residents are trying to keep gang members away from the corner where Brandon White was beaten. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • CORNERING THE MARKET: Pittsburgh residents are trying to keep gang members away from the corner where Brandon White was beaten.

Colloquially known as the Pink Store, 1029 McDaniel St. is a purveyor of cigarettes, soda, and junk food that also happens to be known territory for a gang that identifies itself as Jack City 1029 or Pittsburgh Jack City. Among locals and law enforcement, the block the store occupies has been a notorious hub of criminal activity for years. Now, the store is best known by a broader audience as the backdrop of a viral video that simultaneously demonstrates the repugnance and value of the Internet. As Brandon White exited the Pink Store on February 4, three men ambushed him on the sidewalk outside, while a fourth filmed the attack. In the 30-second video, the men are seen pumping themselves up, addressing the camera, and saying things like, "No faggots in Pittsburgh." As White exits the store, one of the men shoves him toward a wall and to the ground. He huddles beside a trashcan as all three men punch and stomp him. As was mentioned in the Pittsburgh safety committee meeting, one of them hurls a tire at him. The video ends as White gets his footing and is able to escape.

Throughout the video, passers-by witness the attack. Surveillance video shows a MARTA bus pass. One man appears to almost intervene. Still, no one called police.

The video was posted — presumably by one of the attackers or the cameraman — to WorldStarHipHop.com, a sort of urban YouTube, and was brought to the attention of police not long after. Within weeks, all three suspects in the attack were in police custody. On February 17, roughly a week after 19-year-old Christopher Cain was arrested, Dorian Moragne, also 19, turned himself in. The third suspect, Dareal Williams, had fled the state to stay with family in Pennsylvania — he turned himself in to Erie police on February 23, a day after the FBI announced he was a person of interest.

In the attack's immediate aftermath, prior to any of the arrests, White spoke at a press conference at a public library near Turner Field. He was joined by several representatives from LGBT advocacy groups — among them Change Atlanta, a previously little-known organization that has received considerable press coverage by attaching itself to White's cause — as well as LaShawn Hoffman, CEO of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association. Hoffman issued an apology on behalf of the entire neighborhood, saying, "This is not what we want. We're building a community for working families." It was also his organization's first opportunity to announce their dedication to making sure the store at 1029 McDaniel St. is shut down.

The Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association is tasked with revitalizing the entire neighborhood, though, so it's Hoffman's job to look at the challenges more holistically. And he's good at it.

On a rainy Friday afternoon, Hoffman sits in his office in PCIA's headquarters, his desk strewn with papers and proposals. He's eager to discuss strategies he hopes might help fix some of Pittsburgh's persistent problems, ones that will ultimately improve public safety. "Housing," Hoffman says, "is a catalyst to creating safe neighborhoods." Driving down Welch Street — stretches of which have more vacant, boarded-up homes than occupied ones — it's more than plausible that the opposite would be the case.

Pittsburgh was devastated by the foreclosure crisis (an issue the 2010 CL cover story "City of Blight" explores in detail). By 2008, 50 percent of the properties in the 1-square-mile neighborhood were foreclosed, and the neighborhood became a sea of vacant and dilapidated properties, and a breeding ground for crime. (The neighborhood is home to approximately 3,200 people, almost all African-American.) Utilizing grants, the PCIA partnered with the Casey Foundation and purchased nearly 100 foreclosed homes. They've renovated seven so far — all of which are currently occupied — and Hoffman plans to renovate 10 more with $760,000 in loan grant money from the city.

Since moving to Atlanta's Pittsburgh neighborhood in 2003, Hoffman's home has been broken into three times, once when his mother was visiting from Michigan to recover from surgery. He's relatively sure that youths who live in the neighborhood, some he suspects have gang ties, were involved. He describes the experience as "discouraging," especially since his work involves encouraging families and businesses to move into the neighborhood.

The attack against Brandon White and the negative attention that came along with it could prove to be a significant setback for Pittsburgh, at a crucial moment. The PCIA is completing its most recent master plan for revitalization. If there's been a silver lining — besides that White escaped the incident without physical injuries — it's the increased police presence. "I have to say, we've had a great relationship with the [APD] zone commanders. That's not a new relationship," Hoffman says. "I will say that I don't think they've had all the resources they needed to help them combat crime. And what we are seeing, because this incident went nationally, and now the neighborhood is on this national profile because of something else unfortunate, I think now they've been given more tools and resources to combat crime here."

Zone 3 Commander Barbara Cavender told CL that she and other officers "continue to meet and plan strategies to address such issues with the community and other agencies to see the best avenue to combat criminal activity." As far as strategies go, Sgt. Hoos isn't convinced that organizing a boycott and eventually shutting down 1029 McDaniel St. is the right one. Addressing the Pittsburgh safety committee, he says, "1029 has always been a problem for us. Always. That location definitely needs to be taken care of, but these gangs, they claim territory. And it's not just this store. You close that store, and they're going to move to another store." CL's attempts to reach the owner of 1029 McDaniel St. — Ygnacio Cruz, according to property records — were unsuccessful.

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