It used to be that community activists, politicians and developers would fight over allowing the gentrification of city neighborhoods. If you eliminated affordable housing and replaced it with housing that was not as affordable, most people agreed it was at least the start of gentrification.
These days, the battle is apparently a little more nuanced.
On Nov. 5, for example, Mayor Bill Peduto tweeted: “So far Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood has avoided gentrification while reducing crime & improving investment,” with an accompanying study by local analytics firm Numeritics.
The study claims gentrification is “obviously not the case in East Liberty” because all new market-rate development happened on vacant land, and because neighborhood demographics from 2010 to 2013 remained the same.
However, Pittsburgh filmmaker Chris Ivey feels differently.
“The [report authors] certainly knew the story they wanted to tell and chose to ‘back up’ that story with the facts that happen to support it,” wrote Ivey, who documented the demolition of an East Liberty housing project in 2006, in an email to City Paper.
Ivey notes there has been a demographic shift in East Liberty since 2000, with the numbers of blacks declining three times as fast as whites, according to U.S. Census data. Census data also indicate that the northern tract of East Liberty lost hundreds of African-American residents since 2000, and that the median black income there went up 14 percent as a result — or, as Ivey puts it “poor blacks moved out.”
Another statistic foregone by the study was homeownership. According to statistics compiled by Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group (PCRG), from 2011 to 2014, East Liberty saw 55 homes purchased by whites, while only three homes were bought by blacks.
So while some may argue whether what’s gone on in East Liberty and other city communities is gentrification, one fact is uncontroverted: African Americans are leaving some of their long-time Pittsburgh neighborhoods in droves because they can no longer afford to live there, and that urban flight could get worse before it gets better.
With thousands of residential units slated for development, the city is seemingly poised for growth for the first time more than 50 years. But will Pittsburgh’s black population grow with it?
Historically, many African Americans came to Pittsburgh in the years between World War I and World War II. During this era of black migration, African Americans settled in the city neighborhoods of South Side, Garfield, East Liberty and Homewood, with the Hill District becoming the preeminent black neighborhood.
Then came Pittsburgh’s urban renewal of the 1960s, when much of the Lower Hill was razed for the Civic Arena, and Penn Circle rushed drivers around East Liberty. Citywide, more than 5,400 families were displaced, according to the 2010 book Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh since World War II, by historians Joe Trotter and Jared Day.
Even through these hardships, Pittsburgh’s black population reached an all-time high of around 105,000 residents in 1970. Some of the city’s long-standing black neighborhoods remained — like the Hill District and East Liberty — but new enclaves emerged as well, many closer to the edges of the city, like Northview Heights and Lincoln–Lemington.
The trend of African Americans moving farther out of central neighborhoods continued through the new millennium. By 2010, large black populations emerged in historically mostly-white suburbs such as McKees Rocks, Swissvale, McKeesport and the eastern portion of Penn Hills. In fact, according to U.S. Census figures, 2010 was the first time in 100 years that the percentage of the city’s black population declined.
Pittsburgh City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, of the Hill District, believes that the city has a crisis when it comes to attracting people of modest income and people of color.
“It is extremely hard to attract those new black and brown individuals when we have done such a horrible job of taking care of those who already live here,” says Lavelle.
He says that intentionally investing in African Americans in Pittsburgh brings economic benefit. Lavelle says that African-American women are the fastest growing entrepreneurial demographic in the country, but in the Pittsburgh area they have one of the lowest average incomes of any region in the nation.
“If we are not investing in those people, then we are not investing in the long-term future of our city,” says Lavelle.
Carl Redwood, of the Hills District Consensus Group, also believes that the city is not addressing the issues affecting the region’s African-American community with enough intention.
“Some call Pittsburgh the most livable city in the United States, but it is also the place where black people rank second from the bottom for economic opportunity,” wrote Redwood in a letter to CP.
Redwood says that city policies over the decades have forced the migration of black residents out of Pittsburgh. Redwood says there have been years of missed opportunities to provide affordable housing that might have kept more black residents in the city. He says that zoning changes would go through the city, and officials would not “even consider the stated goal of developing affordable housing.”
Ivey, who has worked in Philadelphia and Baltimore, says the black community is less combative here, but that it might have to get louder so the region addresses the problems plaguing African Americans. He says the community can’t rise up only over big issues like the recent evictions at East Liberty’s Penn Plaza apartment complex.
“We get complacent and we get quiet, and we only get loud when it’s really knocking on our door,” says Ivey. “You can only be nice for so long, but at the end of the day, when lives are at stake, then you have to be honest.”
Ivey says the reserved nature of Pittsburgh’s black community also hampers the growth of the African-American population. “A lot of black people move here, and then a lot of them quickly go because they don’t see too much going on in the black community.”
And Lavelle notes that fostering a diverse city is paramount to attracting all of the young talent Pittsburgh is trying to recruit. He says cities like Los Angeles and Miami have flourished in large part thanks to their incredible diversity.
“Our country is moving towards a demographic that will be dominated by people of black and brown skin,” says Lavelle. “When you look at any city across this country that is thriving, they have been able to do so because they have accommodated that growing demographic.”
But Lavelle believes that before moving forward, the city must officially acknowledge the damage done over the years by policies that have driven African Americans out of the city.
“We now need to formally right that wrong,” says Lavelle. “And understand that righting that wrong is in our economic interest. It is in our economic interest to invest in our minority class and to bring as many African Americans back into the city as possible. It is in our economic interest to rebuild our low-income communities, because with that comes our future economy.”
Downfalls of suburban migration
For decades, low-income African Americans throughout the nation have been moving to the suburbs out of necessity, not desire.
Pittsburgh is no different.
From 2000 to 2010, Penn Hills, a large suburb east of the city, gained more than 4,000 black residents while Pittsburgh lost more than 13,000. According to stats from PCRG, since 2011, Penn Hills has seen more than 380 homes bought by African Americans, which is more than triple the number purchased by blacks in all majority-black Pittsburgh neighborhoods combined during the same period. According to census figures, Penn Hills’ black population was around 11 percent in 1980; estimates today put that number near 35 percent.
Joyce Davis, of the Penn Hills NAACP, works with many black families who move to Penn Hills, particularly poor families that come from East Liberty and other city neighborhoods. She says many move to Penn Hills, because it’s easier for them to find a home or rental within their price range, and that it’s usually not an “intentional decision.”
Intentional or not, Penn Hills currently has more than 14,000 black residents, the second highest total after Pittsburgh in Allegheny County. But Davis says many are struggling through the municipality’s inadequate public transportation.