Media Coverage | ‘We want to support the community’: Big Tom’s gets $500K to expand barbershop at important Hill District site

Apr 13, 2021

By Ashley Murray | Pittsburgh Post Gazette | April 12, 2021 | Read the full story

Big Tom working at his current barbershop on Centre Avenue. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Post Gazette/Emily Matthews.

An iconic Hill District barber shop location will soon be buzzing again on the community’s main street, signifying growth where boarded up buildings have become the norm, community members say.

Thomas Boyd Sr., owner of Big Tom’s Barbershop, was awarded a $500,000 grant to move his business from a small rental space on Centre Avenue to the site of the former Hamm’s Barbershop, a community fixture that has sat vacant for several years on one of the avenue’s busiest intersections.

“It’s just been a hard time on Centre Avenue because the business corridor has been dilapidated,” said Mr. Boyd, who has operated his barbershop since 2005. “We’ve been there doing business for all those years, and I’ve been renting….With a lot of help from the community, it’s my opportunity as a lifelong Hill District resident to own, and we just want to stay here.”

The half-million-dollar Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency grant, announced Thursday, will help Mr. Boyd fund planning and construction costs at the 4,200-square-foot, three-story brick building at 2178 Centre Ave., which he is in the process of acquiring from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Mr. Boyd, under his new development company TomTom24, plans to build four affordable apartments and a second commercial space in addition to his barbershop and an outdoor community area.

The building at the intersection of Centre Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street has sat vacant for a decade after the death of Walter Hamm, a neighborhood pillar who operated his barbershop there for 40 years.

“Mr. Hamm himself, and his barbershop, for decades was a fixture of our community,” said Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District. “And where it’s located, that is the main corner in the Centre Avenue corridor. It connects east to west, south to north. It’s such an important corner that we’re going to be able to revitalize and bring back to life.”

“To have such a steward like Big Tom will be tremendous,” Mr. Lavelle said.

Two $50,000 grants from the URA and Neighborhood Allies, an organization that builds partnerships in distressed communities, have already jump-started predevelopment, including cleaning out the old space.

The project has enlisted two local Black architects — Lakeisha Byrd, of Communion Place, and Gerrod Winston, of Winston Design + Development.

“To have an opportunity to revitalize an old barbershop and make sure we have affordable housing and have African Americans working on this project — I’m beyond ecstatic,” said Glenn Grayson Jr., Neighborhood Allies’ senior program manager for neighborhood development.

Mr. Grayson’s organization supported Mr. Boyd through applying for the $500,000 award.

“To really navigate through this system is a barrier itself that Neighborhood Allies wanted to make sure we addressed. It’s one thing to apply for a grant, but, number one, you have to know that the grants exist, which a lot of people in our community don’t. But then you need the help to get from point A to B,” Mr. Grayson said.

The effort was worth it because Mr. Boyd’s investment in the building “will make sure that he sticks around as a community anchor,” said Matt Madia, the group’s director of real estate.

Mr. Boyd credits Neighborhood Allies, the URA and community groups as well as state and local elected officials for helping him move the project forward.

“I really feel blessed,” he said. “And the barbershop has always been a safe place for the community, a gathering place for young men to feel safe. The guys leave with a fresh cut and feel confident. We like to keep positive talk in the barbershop. We’re in there talking about credit scores and owning houses. We want to support the community like the community has supported us.”

Top Header Image Photo Credit: Prototyping Larimer Stories by artist John Peña, photo by OPA