Torpy at Large: Amazing Atlanta Beltline properties! Murders a bonus!

The notorious Pink Store on McDaniel Street, pictured here in 2012, has been the scene of two murders in two months. Police recently launched an effort to “take back” the corner. JONN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

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The notorious Pink Store on McDaniel Street, pictured here in 2012, has been the scene of two murders in two months. Police recently launched an effort to “take back” the corner. JONN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

I worked my way down the 1000 block of McDaniel Street knocking on doors and peering in windows of seemingly empty houses to assess what I already knew — hardly anyone lives here anymore.

I noticed I was being watched by a fellow standing on his porch across the street. The man’s house stood out because it was recently painted bright green (actually, any recently painted house stands out) and it seemed nicer and less abused than the other structures.

The man on the porch, Thomas Webster, wondered what I, a white guy with a flattop, was doing snooping around. He was being a nosy neighbor, the kind the Pittsburgh community needs more of.

Webster said he's lived in the home for about three years and "got it for a steal." It was $20,000 and in a historic neighborhood just two miles south of downtown Atlanta, skipping distance from two interstates. The Beltline, the enormously popular project turning old rail lines to walking paths, is scheduled one day to come through Pittsburgh.

“Why not?” the 55-year-old figured. He said he fell into some family money, allowing him to grab a chunk of the American Dream, as modest as it may be.

Then, a dawning interrupted that dream. “I moved in and then I see the notorious Pink Store across the street,” he said. “People try to sweep it under the rug.”

Clearly, Webster, who works concrete construction jobs, is not a savvy investor, albeit one with his heart in the right place. The Pink Store is a grubby convenience store at 1029 McDaniel, long a center of trouble, a hoodlum hangout and the spot where two men have been shot to death in separate incidents in the past two months.

It’s exactly the wrong thing to have across from your fixer-upper.

Nevertheless, Webster has continued to fix up the property, painting the interior in earth tones and putting in a new floor, wiring (it had been torn out by thieves), plumbing (ditto) and a security system. But I noticed he had no refrigerator, stove or dishwasher.

“Oh,” he said matter-of-factly. “Those are the first things they’d steal.”

Webster’s dilemma is not uncommon in the neighborhood. Just three of the nine houses on his block are occupied, as are three of the 15 on the next block. He pointed out three homes across the street buttoned down with security doors and heavy-duty boards on windows. The owners are out-of-state: South Carolina, Alaska and South Carolina, he said, ticking them off.

The neighborhood is a confluence of societal ills: poverty, low education, unemployment, crime and a tidal wave of foreclosures during the recent Great Recession, a troubling time many folks here think never ended.

A couple years ago, the AJC used Pittsburgh as ground zero for a story about the housing collapse, noting that from 2006 to 2012, the average home value in Pittsburgh plunged from $84,972 to $13,241.

Prices were driven up pre-recession by out-of-state buyers blindly looking for “in-town steals.” They were abetted by mortgage fraudsters who sold and resold properties to straw buyers for fabulously inflated prices. In fact, Webster’s home was sold six times between 2003 and 2008, ending up at $224,000, an amount that could now buy an entire block.

A city report last year found that almost a third of the 1,571 residences in Pittsburgh were vacant. That seems low.

Pierre Gaither, operations manager for the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association, came to the organization as an intern in 2007 and watched the real estate implosion devastate the community.

“Private investors were reselling properties and no one ever moved in there,” he said. “With more empty houses, we have reduced the number of eyes and ears in the community. Vacant houses create a sanctuary for crime.”

But identifying the owners of abandoned houses can be frustrating. Not long ago, Gaither tracked down the owner of a shabby, overgrown home, a woman from California who bought it sight-unseen.

“She said ‘I’m waiting for the Beltline to come through,’” Gaither recalled. “I said, ‘Ma’am this is a 25-year-program. Can you cut your grass until then?’”

The Pink Store’s owners are apparently hoping to find just such a gullible out-of-stater. The property is listed online for sale at $385,000. The listing reads: “Amazing Beltline Business Opportunity. Convenient Store on busy street, community centered, and walkable to The Atlanta Beltline Project.”

Gaither said his organization is trying to do its part. The association owns 44 homes and has fixed up 14, with four for sale and 10 for rental. The homes for sale are in the $80,000 range, which, at current real estate conditions, seems high. However, the neighborhood somehow must break the spiral.

“The residents we have care about the community,” Gaither said. “We just have to add more.”

Maybe more like Webster in the green house.

As for the cops, they recently started targeting the Pink Store’s corner with increased presence, trying to undo years of damage to the neighborhood.

Webster likes seeing more police patrols and doesn’t think they’ll let the corner across from him revert to how it was.

But he keeps a self-imposed curfew. If the streetlights are on, he’s in. (He also declined to be photographed for this story, on the theory that the best defense is a low profile.)

“It’s not like living in Johns Creek or Vinings,” he said. “You don’t sight-see. It’s tough, you have to leave for work. And when you come home you want your stuff to still be there.”

That would seem like a universal — and baseline — human wish, although burglaries are up 31 percent this year in the police patrol area he inhabits.

While Webster sounds streetwise, he also gushes optimism bordering on delusion. “When the Beltline comes through, when you have the community step forward, you might have something. I’m optimistic. It can’t get any worser.”

He’s hoping for a domino effect, one house at a time. He fixes his up. The guy from Alaska across the street gets tenants in his. Another owner fixes hers up. Or someone paints theirs. And so on.

“I want this to be,” he pauses and breaks into song, channelling Mister Rogers, “a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

Or at least come home to appliances.