Hilltop Men’s Group

By Martha Rial & Alyse Horn

“Someone called and said, ‘Someone was shot on Freeland Street,’ so I walked down to Freeland Street to see who it was.”

Jmar Bey was on the other side of the neighborhood when he heard the shots ring out in Beltzhoover. It was 1994, during the height of crime in the city when gangs like the Bloods and Crips were prominent in Allentown, Beltzhoover and Knoxville.

“My friend and I looked alike, and people used to mistake us for one another,” Bey said. “When I saw the ambulance, there was a crowd of people around it, and this older guy saw me walking over and when he looked at me it was like he had seen a ghost.”

“He thought it was me, and that’s when I knew it was my friend.”

That was the last time Bey saw his friend alive, he had been shot by the Darccide gang from St. Clair.

“He lost his life for nothing,” Bey said. “Absolutely nothing.”

A roadside memorial to a victim of violence in Beltzhoover.
Christian Nowlin (left ) takes a call from his wife while Jmar Bey engages with his daughter Lael, age 7, at Hilltop Mens Group offices in Allentown.

Bey is the president of the South Hilltop Men’s Group, an organization he created a year ago with Christian Nowlin in conjunction with Pittsburgh Works. The group was formed to quell the violence found in the Hilltop neighborhoods and to be the missing link for adolescents growing up without positive role models in that area.

Bey said he was fortunate to have his mother and father around to raise him, but when hard drugs became prevalent in the city and the Hilltop, it took a lot of children’s parents out of the household and into prison.

“When teenage boys grow up without fathers, they mistake manhood for aggression; they confuse manhood for ego,” Bey said. “And that’s one of the main reasons why you see the violence you see today.”

“Grownups who don’t know how to be men and trying to be, but they don’t know what a man is.”

In 2015, Bey held his first community meeting called “Save Our Youth” at St. Paul’s Church in Knoxville. Bey has lived in the Hilltop his entire life, and he felt that more should be done to change the cycle of violence and drugs within the community.

Bey said he remembers a time when “it didn’t rain heroin and bullets in my neighborhood,” and he was determined to figure out a reason why.

Nowlin was asking himself the same question, and he attended “Save Our Youth” to see what was being done to bring attention to the issue.

“A lot of issues that plague our community are because children’s bottom floors are being ripped out,” Nowlin said. “We want to empower children to have employment and education opportunities, to help them stand up.”

Bey said after the meeting, Nowlin came up to him and said he “felt as though we weren’t doing enough.” The next day they had their own meeting and by the end had started the South Hilltop Men’s Group.

"Grownups who don’t know how to be men and trying to be, but they don’t know what a man is."

The group’s first collaboration was over the summer with the Pittsburgh Summer Youth Employment Program, where the SHMG had 20 students from the Hilltop who were paid hourly minimum wage by the city to create their own jobs for the summer. Bey said they wanted the program to revolve around theater, so he let them do it.

At the end of the summer, Bey said the students wanted to personally thank Mayor Bill Peduto for the PSYEP so they used a handful of artistic tactics to express their gratitude, such as creating a short video and performing spoken word.

Nowlin said the kids “talked about teen pregnancy, murder, and the struggles they go through on a day-to-day basis.”

“It was very touching and sentimental,” Nowlin said. “It gave us a window into what they’re going through.”

Since the summer, the programs have come to a halt on the Hilltop.

“Everything is behind the computer right now,” Bey said.

Currently, Bey and Nowlin are working on launching a program called “Lots of Pride” that will hire and train teenagers and adults to reconstruct and beautify the vacant lots around the Hilltop. In turn, residents from the community will maintain the lots.

Bey said “Lots of Pride” would run April through September, and then in October they want to launch their housing rehabilitation program. The two programs are meant to compliment each other, and those participating in the lot cleanup program could then start working on fixing up dilapidated houses in the neighborhoods.

Adolescents and adults would be in different programs, but both would learn different skills that would lead to future job opportunities, such as installing dry wall and roofing.

Bey said KDKA-TV Reporter Harold Hayes donated his old family home to the men’s group for it to be the first house rehabilitated through the program. He also donated $5,000 to go towards stabilizing the house.

William Spencer is the lead contractor who is stabilizing the home and is excited to be participating in the project.

“Everyone is welcome [to come learn],” Spencer said. “But we’re focusing on younger people to get them off the streets and take care of their families.”

Spencer said the idea is to have the program morph into its own self-sustaining construction company, and then be able to go out and establish the same concept in other communities.

But to do that, Bey said he has to secure financial support to keep the project going.

“We need funding for beautification, sustainability [efforts] and being efficient, and to get people jobs because it improves their quality of life,” Bey said.

“We’re really looking for support.”

Jmar Bey (left) listens to contractor William Spencer discuss next steps for a rehabbing a donated house in Beltzhoover.

4/22/2017 UPDATE:
Over the last year, the South Hilltop Men’s Group has received grant funding from Neighborhood Allies, the Heinz Endowments, The Grable Foundation, Pittsburgh Office of Public Art, and the Sprout Fund.

Read the group’s continuing story here: The Power To Save Lives

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Story Credits

Photographer: Martha Rial
Writer: Alyse Horn
Web Producer: Will Halim

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