Robert Bowden grew up in the Hill District, watching his mother struggle to move her family from a housing project into a nicer neighborhood.
Later on, as a young man, Bowden said he was “just a typical guy on a corner.” He had never considered college, and held a job as the janitor at a jewelry store. Bowden said his attitude changed after an incident during one of his breaks on the job.
“A manager came down one day, and I’m reading there, and he looked at me reading that book, and he went into the bathroom, the downstairs bathroom, and he took the brush that you clean the commode out with, and he wet it, and he threw it over on the table," Bowden said. "It splattered all over the book, the pages and me, and he said to me, ‘That’s not your job.'”
That moment spurred Bowden to go to college. Eventually, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Carlow University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh.
Now, Bowden works as the behavioral health community organizer at FOCUS Pittsburgh, a nonprofit group that runs a health clinic, provides free career skills training and distributes free lunches to the homeless. Bowden is working to improve the neighborhood where he grew up, literally block by block.
First, FOCUS Pittsburgh selects a block whose residents could benefit from social services. From there, Bowden visits the neighborhood, knocks on doors and asks people what they need. That could be anything from health care services to home repair. Bowden said it makes economic sense to stabilize the Hill District one block at a time.
“If you could take $130,000, say, and stabilize say 20, 22 homes -- somebody might need a roof, somebody might need this, somebody might need that -- and you compare that to one brand new, shiny new building, house -- it’s hard to build one for $120,000,” Bowden said.
The Middle and Upper Hill neighborhoods together span nearly 400 acres in the heart of Pittsburgh, and the 2010 Census tallied roughly 3,700 residents. With about one-quarter of the population living in poverty, Bowden said economic strain has taken its toll on Hill District families.
Retired Hill District resident Edie Rhines says Bowden helped her get new flooring and repainted the walls of her home, but she said his support goes beyond the merely practical.
“He’s a blessing. He’s just a blessing," Rhines said. "And he’s very concerned, ‘cause he’ll call me and say, ‘Hey Miss Edie, how you doing?’ And I’m just flattered. ‘Do you need anything? Anything else we can do for you?’”
Father Paul Abernathy, the director of FOCUS Pittsburgh, said Bowden creates lasting personal relationships with Hill District residents. Abernathy said Bowden once helped a local family through the immediate aftermath of a shooting on their block.
“They were very traumatized and greatly afraid. I remember that it was in that day that Robert showed up at their doorstep," Abernathy said. "That was very important for them, because in that moment, they felt so incredibly isolated, and they feared even for their own life. When no one else was there, Robert was there.”
Bowden said his job can be tough, but he enjoys seeing the people in his neighborhood succeed.
“So, that’s how I know this is a good fit for me, doing this type of work, because it’s just in my spirit,” Bowden said.