Jill Evans grew up in Beltzhoover. She remembers a community where neighbors looked out for each other.
“You had a lot of freedom. The kids all knew each other," Evans said. "The parents -- like, say, for instance, a neighbor saw you doing something. They were able to say something to you, and then you’d hear it from your parents, also."
It was a reassuring feeling, she said.
"To me, it was a lot more comfortable and homely," Evans said.
Evans moved away in the late '70s, but returned to Beltzhoover in 1994 to raise her son. She said the neighborhood had taken a turn for the worse in her absence.
“I feel that I had to be outside when [my son] was outside because of the difference, and the changes," Evans said. "Before, we were told, ‘Go out and play, and come back when the streetlights come on.’ Now, it’s not the same.”
Beltzhoover got its distinctive name from a German tradesman named Melchior Beltzhoover, who lived there in the early 19th Century. Then mostly farmland, the roughly 250 acres of land were bought up by a company in the 1860s, and the street grid of today was laid out soon afterward. Pittsburgh annexed the South Hills neighborhood in 1898.
Today, Beltzhoover is facing plenty of challenges. The neighborhood had more than 8,000 residents in the 1940s, but now there are fewer than 2,000. Nearly one-quarter of those residents live in poverty, and almost 40 percent of its property is tax-delinquent.
Evans, whose day job is at the Head Start kids’ pre-K school in nearby Knoxville, wanted to help restore Beltzhoover’s sense of community. So, in 2002, she started volunteering for the south Pittsburgh nonprofit Voices Against Violence. Now, she runs the group’s community service program for young people.
“We help the seniors maintain their property, a lot of whom are older, where they can’t go out, clean up around their yard, cut their grass," Evans said. "We walk around, we do clean-up of the different lots, because there are a lot of lots now that people just throw their trash out, and nobody’s trying to keep it going.”
Evans also volunteers to run a senior center out of Beltzhoover’s McKinley Park. She said it’s important that there’s a place for seniors within the neighborhood.
“At one point, they would’ve had to go to Knoxville instead of being here," Evans said, "so we have the facility, where we’re able to make sure the ones who cannot get out of the area have a place in their neighborhood to go to.”
For Evans, it’s a matter of course to take care of the older generations -- and act as a mentor for the younger ones. She says cleaning up the neighborhood does make a difference in the lives of kids in Beltzhoover.
“If I’m out in a different area, they run into me, they come up and say, ‘Hey, I miss coming to the program. Can I come back?’ And that makes you feel good,” Evans said.