(Re)Considering Pittsburgh: Getting to know Allentown (Part I of IV)

These homes in the two photos are about 200 feet apart in the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Long-term residents will soon be forced to make some tough choices in response to imminent market pressures. Can the city adopt policies to protect long-term residents so that they may also benefit from urban change?

Neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh are undergoing rapid change. Because each neighborhood is different to begin with – the people, the housing, the valleys, the amenities, the train tracks, the eyesores, the streams and rivers, the businesses, the trees, the bus routes, the hills, the schools, the roads, and the next-door neighborhoods – each neighborhood is experiencing that change differently. At UrbanKind, we are interested in the geography of that neighborhood change. In particular, we are curious about how that change happens, when it happens, why it happens, who makes it happen, and how people experience it differently. Through this Getting to Know series, we intend to explore these issues in neighborhoods across the city. We begin our discussion with a neighborhood close to us up here on the Hilltop: Allentown.

Many people are aware of the massive amounts of change occurring in other parts of the city. Most notably, the last ten years have seen the near complete and intentional transformation of East Liberty from a black urban center serving the people of East Liberty, Garfield, Homewood, Larimer, and Lincoln-Lemington to a white urban center serving the people of Highland Park, Shadyside, Point Breeze, and the new residents of East Liberty. While crime rates there have gone down and housing prices up, the people of the old East Liberty, their communities, their businesses, their buildings, and their everyday routines have been displaced for new renters and owners, expensive stores and restaurants, and luxury condominiums. Fears (or, for some, excitement) of the displacement spreading to Garfield, Homewood, Larimer, and Wilkinsburg have grown. While attention has been focused understandably on these processes in the East End and in Lawrenceville, change has been creeping into the neighborhoods south of  (the) Mënaonkihëla.[i]

Up on top of Mt. Washington, with Mt. Washington (the neighborhood) to its northwest and the South Side Slopes to the east, Allentown drapes gently down from the crest of the mountain overlooking the river in Grandview Park to the upland plain where it meets its southern neighbors, Knoxville and Beltzhoover. According to the 2010 Census, 59% of Allentown residents identified as white and 33% as black. This compares to 86% and 10%, respectively, in Mt. Washington, 89% and 7% in the South Side Slopes, 43% and 52% in Knoxville, and 10% and 83% in Beltzhoover.

Bisecting the neighborhood west to east are Warrington Avenue and its business district. For years, this district has been a typical post-industrial, devalued urban landscape. A convenience store, a dollar store, a laundromat, a pizza place, a tax preparation office, a cell phone store, a bar, a diner, a payday loan office, a doctor’s office or two, and vacant storefronts all lined the pothole-ridden street. There is a senior citizen high rise in the center of the district, across from an upscale Italian restaurant unaffordable to nearly all who live nearby. A church and senior center are a block away; the funeral home, across the street. Until 2010, the light rail (curiously named the “Brown Line”) ran right through the district, providing regular, fast service to downtown. The tracks and powerlines are still there, but the only trains that come are ones detouring around the transit tunnel under the mountain as they carry suburban spectators through this once-bustling center from which many of their parents and grandparents flew south 50 years ago.

This landscape has begun to change. The Zone 3 police station moved up the hill from the South Side to the corner of Warrington and Arlington. The Port Authority repaved Warrington Avenue a few years ago. A caterer opened a kitchen and small restaurant. The florist closed. An entrepreneur renovated a building into a workspace for entrepreneurs. A Jamaican take-out restaurant started cooking. A tiny Carnegie Library pop-up space popped up and one-and-a-half years later ended its chapter in that storefront. A children’s learning center took its space and soon moved to a bigger location around the corner. A punk metal café replaced it. The local diner served its last meal in 2015, and a new one served its first this past spring. A large convenience store located in an old neighborhood movie theater went through several name and ownership changes before it eventually closed its doors. The high-end Italian restaurant annexed that former movie theater, former convenience store. A sewing store moved in, as did a barbershop, a kid’s clothing store, and, most recently, a guitar store. In the northeast corner of the neighborhood, a short walk from the business district, right next to Grandview Park, newly constructed condominiums have replaced a large stand of old trees. The condos start in the $500k’s.

At UrbanKind, we are concerned about what these and future changes portend for the Hilltop neighborhoods and the residents who inhabit them. At the recent p4 Conference, Mayor Peduto challenged us to imagine and create a Pittsburgh with “equity baked in” to the plans and design. This challenge is significant because it has no precedent. How do we balance the needs of long-term and mostly low-income residents with the pace of development and the demands for investment returns by developers and real estate barons?

Change is inevitable. Still, we are concerned about the process through which this change occurs. We are concerned about whose voices matter in this process and about who reaps the benefits of whatever change happens. As the Allentown business district is physically accessible to all of the adjacent neighborhoods on the Hilltop, we are concerned about all of the Hilltop residents feeling welcome in that space. We are concerned about the business district serving the pressing needs of the current residents of the Hilltop. We are concerned about what has happened in East Liberty happening on the Hilltop.

Through this four-part blog series on Allentown, we will discuss issues related to the change happening on the Hilltop. We’ll write more specifically about some of the changes, about the processes through which this change is happening, and about the stakeholders involved. Over the next several months, UrbanKind will ask our neighbors, new and long-standing, about the changes they see, the changes they welcome, and the changes they fear. We will ask them about the changes they want and need. We hope that in doing so, we will be able to help these neighbors shape the neighborhood and community they have long wanted.

[i] The Lenape name for the “Monongahela” River.

About the author: Jason Beery is a Sr. Research & Policy Analyst at UrbanKind Institute. A geographer by training, his work focuses on the intersection of a variety of areas, including environmental justice, community development, food systems, transportation, and housing.

Pilgrims & Indians

As the assistant pre-K teacher and I are bundling up my son to leave daycare the week before Thanksgiving, she mentions that “the three-year-olds are usually Pilgrims and the four-year-olds are Indians,” but this year they have way more four-year-olds than three-year-olds.

Noted but not digested. Tuck that away. Come back to it later, the night before the big daycare Thanksgiving feast.

I’m wide awake thinking about Pilgrims and Indians, thinking about members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe being sprayed with water in freezing temperatures as they protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Thinking about the Cleveland Indians and the pre-World Series protests over the team’s mascot, the fictional and caricatured “Chief Wahoo.” Remembering my award-winning Halloween costume back in third grade, complete with moccasins and beads. Thinking about the name of the football team in our nation’s capital, the city from which I just moved back to Pittsburgh after about ten years. Thinking about the pact I made a few years ago – with myself (a white woman), with my husband (a white man): call people out on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Try to engage people in tough conversations.

But, how do I “engage” when I’m volunteering at the Thanksgiving feast and my son’s wearing a feather?

Maybe they won’t actually dress up.

Day of the feast. Scan the room. Yep – construction paper feathers, headbands, vests. In typical three-year-old fashion, my son refuses to wear the Pilgrim hat he made. Immediate crisis avoided – at least my son’s opting out of the thing altogether. The kids are lined up to wash hands, the teachers and handful of parent volunteers are focused on the tasks at hand – food mainly.

I’m assigned heating up mashed potatoes and gravy, I divvy out the Jell-O molds, I move a baby from one room into the other. I start talking to one of the other moms, who is African American. Her children are part of a small minority of non-white kids at the daycare. She asks me what I do. I say I’m a sociologist and confess that I’m not sure what I think about the kids dressing up as Indians, that I want to say something to the head teacher. “Will you, please?” she says.

Yes. But where to begin? How do I say something without seeming like I’m telling the teacher how to do her job? How can I communicate in short conversations over drop-off or pick-up what’s taken me years to learn? Do I say that dressing kids up like “Indians” runs the risk of simplifying and freezing in time complex cultures and people and leave it at that? Or that it teaches kids a mythical version of history and culture perpetuated by Hollywood? Or that it lays the groundwork for education that whitewashes a long and violent history?

The next day I scour the internet for resources on progressive ways to teach about Thanksgiving. Still, I couldn’t find much guidance for teachers of very young children, especially on dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians. I try out my concern on a trusted 60-something (white) friend who was a long-time elementary school teacher. She pushes back a bit, and I realize I don’t know how to approach this conversation. I’m using words like “problematic.” She uses words like, “sharing a meal” and “role-playing” and other lessons from a three- and four-year-old curriculum. I come off as unnecessarily critical. I stumble down a few different avenues. I talk about the misguided notion of Indian as a single entity; we end up on historical accuracy of costumes and not on the act of dressing up. What’s an analogy she can relate to? Has she followed the news about mascots? Can she see how dressing up might be offensive? I cut the conversation short by saying that I’ll send her something I found from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

So I have some materials printed and ready to share with my son’s teacher. But how do I begin the conversation? I’m still working on the language.

About the author: Colleen Cain is a Sr. Research & Policy Analyst at UrbanKind Institute. A sociologist by training, her work has focused on regional demographic trends, the revitalization of older cities, federal funding to states and cities, and Community Benefits Agreements.

(Re)Considering Pittsburgh

Site preparation for the new Whole Foods Market in East Liberty

Thoughts on a changing city

Over the last several years, city boosters of all kinds – politicians, businesspeople, non-profit and foundation leaders, developers, and many other proud city residents have touted Pittsburgh’s transition from a dirty steel town to a clean, green, livable, family-friendly, creative, entrepreneurial, ‘Eds and Meds’, tech-driven sustainable city of the 21st Century. After many years “under the radar,” Pittsburgh and this transition story continue to garner recognition from outside of Western Pennsylvania. Indeed, Forbes Magazine regularly lists Pittsburgh as one of the – when not the – most livable cities in the U.S. and The Economist ranks it as one of the most livable Zagat Guide “Top Foodie City” that has appeared in numerous “top places to visit” lists and travel columns of national newspapers and magazines. It’s “the next” Portland, Austin, or Brooklyn.

Like all cities, Pittsburgh is undergoing change. Following the global political and economic restructuring over the last 45 years and the advent of the information age of the last 25, many cities have sought to re-imagine and re-position themselves within a closely integrated and interdependent global economy. Over the last decade or so, Pittsburgh city managers and business interests have advocated and invested in the development of a local/regional economy based on “high-skilled” industries such as technology, healthcare, education, and banking and on suburban/rural natural gas extraction. This economic shift has already brought about social and physical changes in and around the city, not all of which have been positive. Just like many other cities adapting to and asserting new economic identities, Pittsburgh wrestles with gentrification, displacement, affordable housing, public education, infrastructure, pollution, and job creation.

Recently, activists and others have disrupted the harmonious narrative of Pittsburgh as “the most-livable city in America.” They ask, “Most livable for whom?” This counter-narrative describes two Pittsburghs – one seen, the other seemingly invisible. One Pittsburgh is the hip, fun town with attractive and affordable neighborhoods and houses, great schools, microbreweries, artsy cultural events, accessible parks and trendy restaurants. It is the city of tech start- ups; it is the city of entrenched corporations. It is the city of disposable income; it is the city of disposable time. This is the Pittsburgh made by and for the “creative class.” It is the city of inherited privilege. The other Pittsburgh is the one that many do not see, even though it is right before their eyes. In this Pittsburgh, livable wages and employment opportunities are rare. Houses and apartments there are rented and seldom owned. Eviction, displacement, forced relocation, and trauma are common. Here, parents struggle to find safe play options for the children whose school systems fail them. In this Pittsburgh, environment-induced asthma abounds. So does lead paint. And so may lead water. Grocery stores and doctors’ offices are often long bus rides away. This is the invisible Pittsburgh built and staffed by the working and service class. It is the city of survival. While there is certainly much to celebrate about Pittsburgh’s transition from “Hell with the lid off” to the city that exists today. For many of its residents, Pittsburgh is still Hell, just with the lid on.

In the (Re)Considering Pittsburgh series of blog posts, we intend to explore Pittsburgh amidst the changes. Despite the similar structural situation and the similar issues that cities across the world face, how change plays out in each city is dependent upon its specific historical and contemporary political, economic, social, and environmental conditions and upon how those conditions relate to conditions elsewhere. Our topics will vary, but will be consistent in their commitment to critical, holistic thinking and inquiry.

Both of the Pittsburghs described above exist simultaneously and symbiotically with each other and with many other Pittsburghs in between. Their futures are intertwined and inseparable. Our hope is that our analysis will contribute to the creation of a Pittsburgh that is livable for all of its residents.