It started out pretty good, says Saba, with him and Alo joining council majority and learning the ropes of local government. “A big reason why we ran was to get things done,” says Saba.
But, eventually, contentious issues came to council. Disagreements erupted over hiring a police officer, how to manage the borough’s sewage system, and development decisions. Last weekend, a councilor in the minority, who is a longtime Crafton resident and former borough police officer, organized a public protest against the council majority.
Saba and Alo say this protest against them and the two other members in the majority disturbed them. They claim it has rekindled homophobic, nativist, and offensive attacks from some residents that were used against them when they ran for office.
Fred Amendola, the councilor who organized the protest, denied that residents who are supportive of his cause were being homophobic and says the protest was focused on how opinions of some longtime residents are being ignored.
The battle over Crafton depicts a small borough undergoing a transition. Many small towns around Pittsburgh have experienced a cycle of population decline for decades, usually being outcompeted by newer suburban development near the edges of Allegheny County. But Crafton is undergoing a rebirth. Its property values are going up and its population is getting younger. It also appears to be getting more liberal.
This is personified by contentions on council that pit young against old, progress versus nostalgia. And the coming months will determine which way Crafton wants to go.
Crafton borough has less than 6,000 residents, and it is still shrinking. Residential communities like Crafton were popular in the days before the automobile dominated Pittsburgh, since the borough was on a trolley line, which gave it easy access to the city, while still maintaining its small-town, mainstreet charm. By 1960, Crafton hit its peak population of more than 8,400 residents. Starting that decade, however, the borough started to shrink and that has continued today.
In 2019, 5,770 people lived in Crafton. In the Pittsburgh region, this usually means that young people raised in Crafton aren’t sticking around, leaving an older population to become the dominant cohort.
In 2010, this was the case in Crafton, when the most numerous cohort of residents were 45-54 year olds. But by 2018, demographic shifts were coming to the community. The borough is still overwhelmingly white, but by 2018, the age of its residents has shifted. Not only did the median age of its residents drop by two years, the most populous cohort in the borough was 25-34 year olds.
In the span of eight years, Crafton’s dominant voting block had shifted from baby boomers to millennials.
Saba says Crafton needs serious investment to capitalize on its potential. He notes that even as municipal taxes have remained the same, the town's revenue is increasing, which he believes is because of a growing housing market. According to Zillow, the property values have gone up 6% in Crafton since last year, which is higher than the average increase for Allegheny County properties.
“We are on the busway, you can walk around the town,” says Saba. “We want the new growth.”
He acknowledges that the school district taxes have increased over the years, which is out of borough council’s control. But he wants to make Crafton an even more attractive place to live to counter any school-district tax increases.
Alo says part of that is upgrading the borough's sewer system. He says the upgrade will be part of a county-wide plan being spearheaded by ALCOSAN, the agency involved in sewage control, and that it's needed to avoid sewage runoff.
“Whenever we have heavy rain, you will see raw sewage that goes into Chartiers Creek,” says Alo. “But there are some people who don't want to participate.”
On top of that, Alo notes that this upgrade is required, according to a mandate from the EPA, and that council is applying for grants that will cover the vast majority of the costs of any upgrades.
He says this is what led him to hold a protest on Aug. 1, accusing the council majority of corruption.
Amendola says that he was not specifically criticising Alo or Saba with the protest. But Saba says that after Amendola spoke, some people attending the protest started to complain about how Crafton held its first ever Pride parade this year, an idea spearheaded by Saba and Alo. Saba says that one protester called it a “fairy parade.”
Saba notes that residents approached the two councilors in June and requested they do something to celebrate Pride. After deciding on a car parade to comply with coronavirus safety protocals and getting the OK from the fire chief, they held a small parade through the borough that included honking cars and celebratory posters. Saba says it was supported by borough residents.
The alleged criticism of Pride opened up recent wounds for Saba, and especially Alo, who faced intense homophobia when he was first elected to council. Alo says he received an anonymous letter after winning election that called him a homophobic slur and accused him of being a “disgust to Crafton.” Crafton council discussed the letter during a meeting and eventually turned it over to county police to investigate.
Alo says that Amendola is “not a fan of diversity.” Amendola rejects any assessment that he opposes diversity. He says he agreed with the rest of the council that the letter targeting Alo was wrong. He says he didn’t hear anyone at the protest express homophobia.
At his protest, Amendola appeared to be appealing to residents' nostalgia when currying favor, noting that he was a former police officer and that his dad owned many old buildings in town. He is worried that Crafton’s new council majority is ignoring some of the voices that have, like him, called the borough home for decades.
“They have lived here for 60 to 70 years, they have a lot of wisdom,” says Amendola. “The council needs to be brought together.”
However, Alo and Saba say that it’s Amedola who is driving the wedge between the council minority and majority. Alo says Amerndola has been known to scream during council meetings when he is in opposition, which Amendola admits he has done at times. And Saba believes Amendola’s actions are encouraging longtime residents to target and criticize him and his husband, which usually devolve into nativist attacks.
Additionally, any focus on older residents' opinions being more important may be fading. Not only is Crafton getting younger, it's getting more liberal. In 2012, Democrats across all ballots received 58% of the vote and in 2016, that increased to 61%. By 2018, Democratic candidates Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey won the borough with 71% of Crafton’s vote. Saba says it was disappointing to see the council majority, which is made of younger residents, have their vision for the borough cast in such a negative light by Amedola. He notes that many of their initiatives, like holding Crafton’s first Pride parade, have been popular with residents.
Saba says Amendola’s opposition is indicative of hurdles that places like Crafton must overcome as they progress, even as council is typically united on many issues, with the exception of Amendola.
“We aren’t even given a chance to promote this vision without being portrayed as corrupt. Not going to lie, it hurts,” says Saba. “It has been a very stressful 10 months. We have been working together, and we are actually very cohesive. But what seems to be the issue is we upset the old guard, and they don’t like what we are trying to do to progress Crafton.”