PITTSBURGH — In September, Flo Taylor heard about a juvenile-involved shooting down the block from her Downtown apartment.
So the 65-year-old took to the streets near the Wood Street T station, where there have been numerous violent incidents over the last several months, including shootings, stabbings and a rape.
Since a September shooting, Taylor — mother to three, grandmother to 10 and great-grandmother to three — has taken it upon herself to “chaperone” young people in the area three to five days a week.
With a straw hat covering her graying dreadlocks, she weaved between groups of young people congregating between Wood Street and Liberty Avenue on a recent day, just as schools began to let out.
Taylor spotted someone smoking marijuana and didn’t miss a beat edging her way into a circle of giggling girls. But before she could get many words in, another girl nearby asked her to rap.
What came next, Taylor later admitted, was her first attempt at rapping.
“If you wanna be good and you live in the hood, you gotta put that (expletive) on out,” she said in rhythm, drawing exclamations from the young crowd. The smoker walked away.
For Taylor, making change is about talking to kids in a way they understand and empathizing with them, she said. Their energy and inability to resolve issues can lead to problems, and with thousands of young people coming through Downtown every day, things can get out of hand.
On July 4, a 16-year-old shot four people on Seventh Street near Liberty Avenue after an argument. The youngest victim was a 15-year-old girl.
That same day, a 15-year-old was accused of following a woman from the Wood Street T Station to the Baldwin stop and raping her.
On Sept. 13, a 17-year-old boy was shot about 4 p.m. outside the Wood Street station. Ten days later, three people were wounded in a stabbing in the 400 block of Wood Street.
It’s not usually so violent around Wood Street, of course, but congregations of young people can still be bothersome.
John Keidel, managing owner of Penn Station East Coast Subs, said fights occasionally occur outside his business, but his employees often have to deal with people blocking the doors or congregating in the restaurant without placing an order.
“Once a few stop, before you know it, there’s a big crowd,” he said.
On school days, about 2,000 students are Downtown from the Pittsburgh Public Schools alone, said school district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh.
The three public high schools Downtown — CAPA, City Charter High School and Urban Pathways — have a combined enrollment of 1,200, while an additional 800 public school students in the district travel through Downtown via the Port Authority to and from their schools, Ms. Pugh said.
Those numbers do not include private schools.
Sonya Toler, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety, said additional police officers are sent to the area when schools are let out. She wouldn’t release specific numbers, however.
“When we have adults talking with the youth, encouraging them and discouraging negative behaviors, it’s helpful,” she said. “The more people setting a positive example for our children, the better.”
For Taylor, the September shooting wasn’t her first brush with violence Downtown.
More than a decade ago, Taylor said, she was having a producer’s meeting for Pittsburgh Community Television (Channel 21) — where she has volunteered for the past 15 years — in her ninth-floor apartment at the Roosevelt Hotel when she heard gunshots. She said soon after she saw three boys she believed were responsible for the shots running outside of her building from the police.
“People were scattering everywhere,” she said. “It twisted me up. This is not the Wild West. This is Downtown.”
The next day, Taylor decided to go to the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center and find the three boys whom she believed had been arrested the day before to talk to them about their behavior.
Though she didn’t find the boys, she did find many kids who told her about their troubling lives. In return, she gave them advice their parents weren’t always there to give, she said.
“I don’t think most parents are prepared for the teen years,” said Taylor, who raised three teen boys as a single mother. “I wasn’t.”
Though she’s no longer as directly active with the kids at Shuman, Taylor has been on the advisory board at the center for the past three years.
Rich Gordon, director at Shuman, said Taylor isn’t afraid of the youth she serves. That, coupled with her outside-the-box thinking and ability to meet challenges head-on, helps her help them, he said.
“Ms. Taylor does a good job of going out on the streets and talking to kids about more appropriate ways to hold themselves,” he said.
She isn’t alone in her Downtown effort. A group of about 10 women, whom she refers to as the “Wild Women,” often volunteer to help her patrol the area after school, occupying nearby benches and keeping an eye on the crowd.
Some teens work with her, too. Indarah Mitchell, 15, of Homestead, met Taylor at the Wood Street Station in the fall and is one of about a dozen students who help her out. Indarah said she tries to keep “drama-filled” kids from hanging around Downtown.
“A lot of people are saying this generation is lost, but I say no,” Taylor said.
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com