- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Jeannette is the “Glass City” where empty storefronts along the main drag, Clay Avenue, convey a bleak picture of its once-bustling downtown.

New Kensington is the “Aluminum City,” similarly pockmarked with vacant properties in a downtown grid where economic changes have been no kinder this century.

The two Westmoreland County cities 25 miles apart are both reachable from Pittsburgh within a half-hour. They both have attractive residential neighborhoods - particularly the higher the streets get from their urban cores - despite their downtown blight and the loss of industries that once defined the two towns.

But poverty trend data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey convey a surprising contrast between them:

Jeannette is reported to have the biggest improvement in its poverty rate among Pennsylvania’s 57 cities - as opposed to nearly 2,500 other municipalities of more suburban or rural nature - in a span that covers the past decade. At the same time, New Kensington experienced the worst increase in poverty among those cities.

Officials in both cities were surprised to hear of the two extremes, and no one interviewed in either community or at the county level could identify a clear reason for the stark contrast - or to corroborate that the Census income estimates fit the everyday reality they see.

“Honestly, working here you see the difficulties of clients, and most of the time the number in need of help seems to be growing,” said Lisa Scalzitti, who mentors youths at the Jeannette Salvation Army and was underemployed and in subsidized housing herself before a local anti-poverty course helped her lift herself.

The cities’ poverty trends come from comparing the American Community Survey’s compilation of data from 2010-14 with the prior five-year aggregate from 2005-09. The census bureau says that combining five years of estimates enhances reliability by covering about one of every eight households.

The resulting estimates were that Jeannette’s poverty rate dropped from 18.1 percent in 2005-09 to 12.7 percent in 2010-14, while New Kensington’s increased from 14.8 percent to 23.8 percent. New Kensington’s level of poverty was by no means the worst among the state’s cities - 22 others had rates above 23.8 - but its 60.8 percent increase between the two five-year periods represented the worst change.

Cities typically have more poverty than other locales. Westmoreland County’s rate rose from 9.8 percent to 10.3 percent in the same span, one in which the housing-bubble-related recession impacted many people’s incomes.

“Across the board, the economy as a whole has not been kind to a lot of people in a lot of cities,” observed New Kensington Mayor Thomas Guzzo, a fervent believer that his community along the Allegheny River is on “an upward trajectory.”

Jeannette officials and residents hold their own optimism, touting it as a community long on pride even when stuck with a negative image by outsiders - and they believe recent events give them more to be proud of.

Scores of residents spent 2015 developing a state-funded comprehensive plan for community improvement with the help of a Pittsburgh consultant, Pashek Associates; a city planning commission is to be resurrected early next year as one result. A tax credit program is being used to begin upgrading the downtown’s appearance. Two blocks of run-down rowhouses on South Sixth Street have been demolished and replaced by two dozen new homes. A summer farmers market drew crowds downtown. An artists’ council has formed to promote the area as an affordable location for creative souls.

And some 70 local residents like Scalzitti have graduated over the last six years from the anti-poverty course called Bridges to Prosperity, sponsored by the Westmoreland Community Action nonprofit group.

Scalzitti, 29, said she was a nervous, low-income young woman five years ago who was nurtured to manage a household budget, attend community college and interact with people from higher socio-economic levels. She now takes weekend classes at Seton Hill University and has moved to a better apartment in nearby Greensburg.

But not everyone in Jeannette is better off. Most food banks there are as busy as ever serving clients, just like in New Kensington and elsewhere.

“For a person trying to survive, they’re not going to be able to do it in today’s economy, not on the jobs they have,” said Jack Middleby, 55, as he picked up food and toys for Christmas at the Jeannette Salvation Army. He described full-time jobs being downsized by employers to part-time jobs - and even the latter being difficult to get for an unemployed general laborer like himself.

But the same data that show Jeannette’s poverty rate declining also suggest its unemployment rate had somehow improved from 11 percent in 2005-09 to 3.9 percent in 2010-14. This in a city where property that contained the city’s longtime No. 1 employer, the Jeannette Glass Co., constitutes a hulking, vacant eyesore bordering downtown as local officials wait impatiently for an out-of-town owner to raze it.

Also meshed with the poverty numbers are census estimates that Jeannette’s black population has dropped in half, from about 8 percent to 4 percent, which is quizzical to local residents. The black poverty rate is typically more than twice that of whites, which would help explain Jeannette’s drop in poverty if it has experienced such a racial change. It’s hard, however, to find anyone in the city of 9,400 who has noticed a dramatic turnover.

“It comes as a surprise to me,” said Robin Mozley, an African-American newly elected to city council who has lived in Jeannette since 1991.

Both Jeannette and New Kensington have suffered population losses since the mid-20th century. New Kensington, with a bigger footprint, still has about 3,000 more residents and has more institutions, services and retailers.

Maj. Elvie Carter, of the New Kensington Salvation Army, who grew up in Homewood, said the poverty rate there could be affected by an influx of low-income people moving out of Pittsburgh. New Kensington provides plenty they might find useful - including a downtown community college, library, YMCA and community health clinic - but with more affordable housing and a safer environment than troubled parts of the bigger city.

“It’s a city here, but it doesn’t have big-city problems,” he said. “You don’t have the gang violence.”

New Kensington is more oriented toward the other communities of the Allegheny Valley than those across Westmoreland County near Greensburg, so there’s little interaction with Jeannette, said Guzzo, New Kensington’s mayor since 2010.

He said two business districts along road corridors outside of the city’s downtown are thriving, and demolition of nearly two dozen vacant downtown structures in recent years will help its center, which he hopes to see burgeon with new professional services. The Penn State-New Kensington campus, where officials have taken an interest in combating poverty, is creating a new entrepreneurial center downtown for faculty and students to promote business ideas next year.

Community Better Block days, drawing crowds downtown twice this year, highlighted the community’s potential, leading a couple of small businesses already to occupy once-empty storefronts. Guzzo said he’s happy for Jeannette if it’s showing a turnaround, but he believes his city has also bottomed out despite that report of 60 percent growth in poverty.

“That’s an odd statistic - it seems really high,” the mayor said. “But even if it’s not 1,000 percent accurate, it’s just one more thing to make us work harder moving forward.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1NRNo4h

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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