Collaboration and accountability are key to making Pittsburgh a truly “All-In” city
Photo: The decrease of Pittsburgh’s population since the 1950s has taken its toll on neighborhoods such as Perry Hilltop. By Lauren Stauffer
By Ashlee Green and Alexis Draut
Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle grew up in the Hill District, one of Pittsburgh’s historic Black neighborhoods, and remembers a time when it—and the city as a whole—thrived.
“When I was a kid, there were always kids just outside playing,” said Lavelle, who represents District 6, which includes the Northside neighborhoods of Perry Hilltop, Manchester, Chateau, California-Kirkbride, and part of Central Northside. “Now we just don’t have the population, so you don’t have as many kids just outside playing and occupying those spaces.”
In 1950, at its peak, Pittsburgh’s population was reportedly 676,806; that number declined by close to 55% by 2010 to reach 305,704.
“I can remember when I was a kid, every seven and a half minutes, a bus always came, to any bus stop I was at, which is obviously no longer the case,” Lavelle said. “Now, you may need to wait 20 minutes for a bus to come.” He sees the effect of Pittsburgh’s decrease in population in the vacant and dilapidated properties in both the Hill District and parts of the Northside such as Wilson Avenue in Perry Hilltop; also, in the loss of mom-and-pop shops.
“I think in my one little neighborhood, we had three corner stores when I was growing up, and on the Northside, Perrysville Avenue, you had numerous corner stores,” Lavelle said.
According to 90.5 WESA, the overall population of Pittsburgh has reportedly stabilized, but between 2014 and 2018, close to 7,000 Black residents left the city.
The resources are here, the reach is not
Though he wasn’t born in Pittsburgh, Northside artist Corey Carrington grew up in the Northside and has lived there since. According to him, phenomena like gentrification are partly to blame for why those who identify as Black or African American, who make up the largest minority group in Pittsburgh, are leaving the city.
Black people, he said, especially “Black geniuses,” Carrington’s catchphrase for successful Black artists and entrepreneurs in the area, aren’t being recognized enough. This is especially true, he said, when their families and communities are being displaced “to the edges of the city.”
On top of unrecognized Black talent, Carrington also addressed how Pittsburgh has a great circuit of universities and hospitals, yet the resources don’t always reach into underrepresented and underserved communities.
Lavelle shares a similar sentiment. Women of color, he points out, and specifically Black women, are the fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs in the U.S. However, the level of minority business support in Pittsburgh, he said, is severely lacking.
“If the most likely person to start a business is a woman of color, and we have the least amount of them, that’s not a good recipe to help grow our city, right?” Lavelle said. “We should be investing in minority and women-owned businesses; we should absolutely be doing that work.”
Lavelle said dollars from the All-In Cities Investment Fund, which he established last year, could help. Managed by the POISE Foundation, the only African American foundation in the Pittsburgh region, the Fund will work to advance equitable development in the city.
“Many—most, actually—of the people that I grew up with, my friends [who I] came through primary school and graduated high school with, left the city for other opportunities and have not come back,” Lavelle said. “…You have many seniors who own their homes who have passed away, but you have the children, or the grandchildren…who aren’t here to take care of those homes.”
Dilapidated homes and struggling business districts, though, are only a symptom of the larger public health crisis in Pittsburgh: racism. City Council made it official last December.
As a Black man, Carrington says he’s experienced firsthand how racism affects his life in Pittsburgh and the lives of other Black citizens.
“Racism is worse here [than other U.S. cities],” Carrington said.. “It’s a Midwest, Rustbelt kind of place and geographically we are not able to get the influx of diverse populations the way that other cities are. Essentially it creates for a vacuum where it’s like [only] Black and white people.”
Building traction for equitable development
By now, you’ve heard about the report, “Pittsburgh’s Inequality across Gender and Race,” released last year by the City of Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission. It highlights the gross disparity that exists between residents of various racial identities—most notably between Black and white people—in the city of Pittsburgh, by observing factors such as average life expectancy, poverty and income, employment, education, and fetal and maternal mortality rate. The report found, for example, that female Black infant mortality in Pittsburgh is higher than it is in 70% of comparable cities.
“How do we have some of the best hospitals in the world and have such a high infant mortality rate for our African American populations?” Carrington asked. “We need to be better about connecting these opportunities and knowledge to the people who need it the most.”
Lavelle told The Northside Chronicle that while the Gender Equity Commission report itself was “monumental for a number of reasons,” the response it generated has been a long time coming.
Other efforts in the past have exposed Pittsburgh’s racial disparities, Lavelle said. These include “The State of Black Pittsburgh,” an annual community forum hosted by the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, the annual reports made by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP), and “Blue Gold & Black: From Doorway to Distinction,” a documentary based on a treatment written by Dr. Robert Hill, former vice chancellor for public affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. The documentary chronicled the history of the African American experience at the University of Pittsburgh from 1829 to 2009. Pittsburgh media organizations are paying attention, too. On Feb. 12, Pittsburgh City Paper and PublicSource hosted the first-ever Pittsburgh Black Media Panel at the August Wilson Center.
It was the traction of the Gender Equity Commission report, though, that laid the way for what Lavelle called an “avenue” in local government for legislators to address racism in the city systematically. In addition to the package of bills recognizing Pittsburgh as an “All-In City” that he co-authored with Councilman Ricky Burgess last year, Lavelle said Pittsburghers can expect the City Council to consider more like them in the coming months.
Lavelle knows that systematic racism in Pittsburgh is an urgent issue, and stresses that while city government has been actively trying to address it, they can only do so much on their own.
“When we did the legislation regarding an All-In City last year, we created an ordinance around policies that said all new legislation must be tied to equity; our budgeting process must now be tied to equity. Working with the mayor, he created the Office of Equity. So, we’ve been doing this work, but there’s obviously more that needs to be done.”
Lavelle believes that corporate, educational, and philanthropic communities also need to play a role to make a lasting impact on the quality of life for African Americans in the Pittsburgh region. Even though Pittsburgh City Council passed legislation to “ban the box” for jobs in local government back in 2012—that is, to limit employment discrimination based on an applicant’s criminal history—other communities, he said, need to take the same steps.
“The City of Pittsburgh, we can ban the box… but we need the corporate community to ban the box…. We need partners from those other sectors to be at the table,” Lavelle said. “So, we need the Allegheny Conference to be at the table to say, ‘Yes, we too are going to ban the box…’ because that’s where the vast majority of economics and jobs and influence lies. It doesn’t lie here within the walls of City Hall.”
Hope for Pittsburgh’s future
Coming up on Lavelle’s agenda is introducing legislation similar to that of Washington state: a campaign that’s become known as the CROWN Act, which bars discrimination based on natural hair texture and hairstyles such as afros and locks. He also plans to reintroduce the Affordable Housing Impact Statement, which will help ensure the equity of new developments in Pittsburgh.
“If you build this, what happens around it?, What happens to the values around it? What happens to the population around it?” Lavelle explained. “Does the population become more racially divided… is it becoming more racially diverse? Are we adding diverse incomes to the neighborhood? Are we pushing people out?” These are the types of questions the Affordable Housing Impact Statement will raise.
Despite all of the work that has yet to be done for racial equality and peace in Pittsburgh, Carrington still has hope for the future of his city. Last summer, he curated an art exhibit entitled “BREATHE” to fight racism by bringing people together.
Not only did his exhibit create discussions among the Black and white communities while strictly showcasing the work of Black artists, but it also allowed others to see his vision for the future: a life for Black men and women “without oppression, without struggle, without pain.”
“Pittsburgh has a perception they want to give that they’re a world-class city,” Carrington says. “Sooner or later they’re going to have to address institutional racist ideas and problems here. If we’re not focused on solutions, it’s all for nothing.”
Lavelle knows that there’s a hard road ahead, but he too is optimistic.
“Despite the statistics, there are phenomenal African Americans doing phenomenal work every single day in this city,” he said. “I think up until this point, the largely white-controlled corporate community didn’t necessarily see or value the need for diversity, but literally, within the business world, lack of diversity can kill your business,” Lavelle said.
“There are businesses who will not relocate their offices to this region for the lack of diversity, right? And so, it’s actually necessary,” Lavelle continued. “Supporting and growing and sustaining a thriving African American population—that’s our largest minority community—but also embracing the Hispanic, the Asian, the Indian, and every other community, is actually paramount to the survival of Pittsburgh.”
Lavelle also said that an essential question for Pittsburgh’s body of government to ask themselves is, ‘How did we get here?’ The answer, he said, will inform the future of their work.
“How do we get to a place where the best thing a Black woman can do is leave, right? Like, how did we get here?” he asked. Understanding Pittsburgh’s history with practices such as redlining, he said, should be a conversational backbone.
Lavelle believes that the City’s administration and a majority on City Council do want to see Pittsburgh flourish for everyone, and that the local business community finally understands how to make it happen.
“There’s clearly a lot to be done, right? And the road is going to be long and hard… but the positive side is there’s now a lot to be gained through this, and so I actually do see a bright side for Pittsburgh, and I think we’re beginning to head in the right direction.”