How Pittsburgh Let (This) Black Woman Down

A few days ago, a white paper was released regarding various aspects of social inequity among Pittsburgh’s Black residents. Ad faring the worst (of course) are Black women – which is discouraging, but not surprising. Not to me at least.

To me personally, this is a fascinating topic. While I’m not from the City of Pittsburgh…and never lived within its borders; having been born and bred in the Mon Valley region, it has defined me as a person. Being from a family with generations of steel workers among their ranks. Having grown up in a small, ‘down on your luck’ kind of town. The humility and commonality of all your neighbors…regardless of race. Of having a culture that is unrefined, but friendly. And of course the pride. I give credit to the environment of my birthplace for not making me materialistic, flashy and shallow.

Downtown Pittsburgh in the winter – on Liberty Ave. by the Wood St. T-station. I used to work in the red-hued building in the right-side of the picture.

But I also won’t snub the city either. After all, I spent countless hours of my young adulthood hoping around the city. In spite of it’s size and ‘Gateway to the Midwest’ location…the city offered a lot in terms of entertainment and culture. Whether you wanted rich and high-brow…or gutter punk…you could find that social crowd in Pittsburgh. When it came to ethnic groups – the city does struggle there. The Latino presence is sorely lacking. But it’s been getting better incrementally…especially with the city’s tech & healthcare boom.

It is also not a secret that Pittsburgh has been repeatedly listed as one of America’s most livable metropolitan areas. But these reports always struck me more as FYIs and not confirmations of my day-to-day life; even while working for a swanky tech startup on the North Shore – where we struggled to recruit employees of color and about 1/3 of the ones that we did have on staff relocated or transferred in from other areas.

A candid pic I snapped at ‘Title Town‘ – a retro soul music dance party. This was at the now closed Shadow Lounge, circa 2010. While ‘Title Town’ still occurs elsewhere in the city…this entire area (East Liberty) has been gentrified and the Shadow Lounge’s Black proprietor has since moved on.

Flashes of Brilliance

The African-American experience in the Pittsburgh region quite frankly, is a conundrum to me. The area has produced amazing Black minds and talent. To Pittsburgh’s credit, the city feels like one great, big small town so there is a lot of opportunity to break in (or out) and accessibility to amazing resources to help you do that. But then once that happens…then what? Nine times out of ten, they move out of the city. It is almost as if Pittsburgh has no real homegrown Black roots that have sprouted beautiful trees of success that can be seen today. All of Pittsburgh’s Black neighborhoods have either been gentrified or written off as “bad areas”…left to rot in a city that is way too small for this to be happening on the periphery of Pittsburgh’s White masses. It is downright bizarre. Maybe it’s the hills/river/tunnel thing where if you are out of sight, then you are out of mind. I can see where it can be hard to address crippling Black poverty in marginalized areas of the county when you don’t like to cross rivers or go through tunnels to even go grocery shopping.

The Carl Arter Trio playing ‘The Zebra Room’ at Eileen’s in Homewood in 1980. The man on the far right is my late great-uncle, Herbert Marshall

And geography/locale does matter. I remember as a child, one key experience happened to me that really widened my worldview. It sounds silly, but there was a woman at the church that I went to as a child who got her Ph.D. and then subsequently became a college professor. She eventually relocated to Kentucky (of course) but while she was there she would organize really interesting, out-of-the-box type of activities for the youth group. One of these is that she had a friend who was a realtor, take us on a tour of houses that were for sale in Upper St. Clair – one of Pittsburgh’s most desired neighborhoods. The realtor was Black, like the rest of us. She went through a general overview of costs, and mortgages….what you would need to make in order to afford these particular homes (I distinctly remember in the early 1990s, the salary she gave was $55K). She even lived in Upper St. Clair herself so if she could do it, I could do it…right?

Well, when you grow up, you discover there is more to it then that. Money is not the only factor that comes into play when buying a home. You have to consider where you work (commuting issues); an entire slew of considerations in regards to tolerance; oh and the schooling issue. And what about a sense of continuing connection and community. I have family members who live in exclusive Pittsburgh enclaves in Moon and Cranberry. I’ve visited them only a handful of times. We don’t have family gatherings at their 2,500 sq. ft. McMansion off the interstate. No…they come back down to the Mon Valley and we rent a pavilion in the park if we need space. This is a far cry from my Jamaican family in Florida…..for when they buy nice homes…we see and visit them there. Oh, and they also have quite a few neighbors who are Black as well.

Jennifer Schulte called the cops on Black BBQers in Oakland, CA; but perhaps she learned her technique from a Pittsburgh area homeowner’s association?

Low Expectations Coupled with No Respect

There is another, clandestine, negative aspect of living in Pittsburgh as an African-American; and that is this underlying low expectation and low level of respect that we have in the area. It’s like, “Oh – you’re Black; you must be up to no good.” Beyond that, the lack of institutionalized support and effectiveness of programs and organizations that could building up and empowering the community…it all leaves a painful void. And over the years, Black Pittsburghers have grown weary of getting beat down — both psychologically and physically. No where can this be seen more than in this video below that was filmed in Pittsburgh’s Northside just a few days ago.

Things really get dangerous when this attitude spills over into law enforcement. The area reeled in the wake of the acquittal of a former (White) East Pittsburgh police officer in the shooting an Antwon Rose Jr. And this is not just an isolated incident. It was years in the making…stirred up in the bowels of a region where Jonny Gammage was murdered by police 25 years ago. In the shadow of a legacy of a city who had an officer who beat Jordan Miles. Pittsburgh is surrounded by a sea of little municipalities, boroughs, and a few smaller cities (like McKeesport) that insist on holding on to their own little ineffective police squads (and school districts…and, heck, local governments) for dear life.

And Black Women Truly Get No Love

This past summer, there was a double-stabbing in downtown Pittsburgh. Initial reports said that the woman was wearing a hijab…and that it could have been a hate crime. Progressive Pittsburghers were all over it – saying (especially in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting) that Pittsburgh has no tolerance for hate. But as time went on, it came out that the perpetrator was a Black guy from McKeesport; and the woman was a nondescript Black woman. Sadly the hoopla died down considerably. It’s almost as if White Pittsburgh liberals missed the “Black Lives Matter” memo here – since the killer was also Black, I guess to them, it somehow does not apply then.

The study specifically talked about Black infant mortality rates and Black women’s health. You can read elsewhere on my blog about my experience reproducing in Pittsburgh. Long story short, I needed to leave the area completely to get the care I needed and to have my concerns heard, respected and addressed. I thank God for giving me the sechel to not sit back and think that Pittsburgh hospitals were the end of the line. But not everyone has the resources to travel to address health issues. And my goodness…why should you need to?

Oh, and then there is the issue of when the baby is born. Godspeed to you if you need help along the way. WIC offices look like something out of the 70s. The welfare office is a painful, humiliating ordeal (and I’ve been to the welfare office here in Harrisburg….completely different process….sooo much better and quicker!). CCIS (daycare assistance) is housed in the YWCA downtown and takes weeks to process paperwork. That’s if you can even get your child into a decent daycare (I reached out to several, and one of them had a 2 year waitlist!).

You used to have to go to the YWCA downtown to start the process of getting a CCIS (daycare) subsidy. They lost the grant and administration of this program to another entity this past July. I transferred my case out in April.

Voluntary and Involuntary Segregation

Whenever you have a new, fast growing metropolitan area, it is inevitable the people will congregate and live in close geographic proximity. This is a not a bad thing nor is it unexpected. And Pittsburgh maintains a lot of pride about its 90+ local neighborhoods. But let’s be honest here; Pittsburgh has not been a rapidly growing region for several decades. The area has put forth lackluster efforts to combat the defacto racial segregation of the past — especially in the areas of redlining and school districts. In fact, gentrification seems to be making the problem worse. When I lived in McKeesport, I got an Uber…and the driver was a new resident who had moved in from Homewood. “Yeah I left one ‘hood for another” he told me. “But at least in McKeesport he gets more home and space for his money.” And I’ve heard this about other areas outside the city as well. But in my humble opinion, you jump from the frying pan into the fire (or at least into another frying pan). Black Pittsburghers due not tend to move into White areas and make them more diverse. They just tend to jump from ‘hood to ‘hood.

“The first time I heard there was trouble in the Middle East, I thought they were talking about Pittsburgh”

Gil Scott-Heron

More on McKeesport

Like I said earlier, I have never lived within the city of Pittsburgh. When I returned to Southwestern PA from South Florida, I went to Clairton. Then I moved to White Oak/McKeesport. Initially I was charmed by the affordability of the city. Even though the town was depressed and its best days were behind it, as a middle-class, educated young adult, I wanted to feel like my residency was making a difference. However I grew to realize that we can’t truly feel fulfilled living in a self-imposed idealistic bubble. Sure…there was public transportation available from McKeesport into downtown Pittsburgh. But the timing was left to the whim of PAT and if they felt your route was not necessary, it would be scaled back or cancelled.

But the two big things that really left a bad taste in my mouth were 1) the overall negative spirit of the residents and 2) obvious municipal mismanagement that could be seen everywhere. I mean the mayor is a relatively young guy who operates like the Wizard of Oz – you hardly every hear from him (contrast this to Clairton’s mayor who graduated with my Mom – frequently in the community or on social media…connecting with his constituents). The police are understaffed and underpaid; the city has no homicide unit but desperately needs one. The roads in the city are literally crumbling apart….yet they built a brand new bridge to nowhere. Houses are falling into the street. Garbage and municipal services were an absolute joke. Day after day, it felt more like I was living in an area of the former Soviet Union as opposed the the United States (you know, the ‘Land of Opportunity’).

People lined up all day long when a medical marijuana company, PurePenn, held a job fair. I was there with my Mom & maybe I’m jaded or something…but to me, it was a heck of an amount of hoopla for 25 jobs; some of which were already filled or you needed previous experience in the industry. Their latest job posting is for a part-time position stating that ‘applicants with previous experience’ are preferred. No salary is posted, but back in 2017 (when they had the job fair) they boasted of paying $15/hour.

Ultimately it was personal reasons that pushed me out of McKeesport quickly. But sometimes, that is just what it takes. I am almost 6 months into being a resident of Harrisburg…and (God willing, I’ll do a post on that next month) and the differences in just the day-to-day quality of life is really a big improvement. And it’s not that Harrisburg is a rich city by any means. But it is sure as hell run better — with street cleaning, an active city website, and reliable trash/recycling pickup w/city supplied cans. Harrisburg police held block parties this past summer. There are blighted and run-down areas. But the majority of the homes on my street (and on the ones around me) are occupied. It’s just a completely different vibe.

Embracing Disappointment – and Moving On

Pittsburgh is a special place; full of potential and infectious character and pride. But the city gives you the most mileage when you are White. World-class universities, a fledgling tech community, prestigious hospitals, and an impressive arts scene (for a city of its size) are not enough to help improve the quality of life of the area’s Black residents. The honest truth is that it is easier and cheaper to import in young, and often non-Black minds into the area from California, New York and even internationally…then it is to invest in and cultivate the young minds that live along the banks of the city’s three rivers (and beyond). And to me, this is incredibly sad.

It wasn’t until I relocated to Florida that others mentored me and gave me my first chance to grow professionally. Everything happens for a reason, and when I came back to the Pittsburgh area, I then had a resume (and degree) and could begin to make some professional inroads. But life evolved again and when my boys were born, I had to be very honest. Did Pittsburgh offer the opportunity for me to build a great future for them? Was there support for me and would there be support for them as they grow up to be multicultural men? Was I struggling to much for just the basics and could I simplify my life?

Ultimately the answers to these questions led me away from Pittsburgh yet again. And it has been hard; with 3 babies in tow…a bitter ex on a mission to kill my success…and with family that I miss with all my heart. Even so, I’m thrilled to have Pittsburgh, PA in my rearview mirror. Keep on failing and letting down your Black citizens year after year Pittsburgh. This Black woman here is done with you and settling down in greener pastures.

Pittsburgh idolizes Roberto Clemente – who was an Afro-Puerto Rican star of the 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates. But besides this and the August Wilson Center across the river, you really struggle to find any significant monuments to African-Americans in Pittsburgh.