‘Unfortunately in Pittsburgh, We Have a Tale of Two Cities.’

Local filmmaker Chris Ivey stands at the entrance to East Liberty, now marked by new development. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL

Local filmmaker Chris Ivey stands at the entrance to East Liberty, now marked by new development

Pittsburgh is poised for growth for the first time in 60 years. Will the city’s African-American community grow with it?

By Ryan Deto

Pittsburgh City Paper

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. (Continued)

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.

The stakes

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.

“We are close enough [to Pittsburgh] that people will move here without transportation, and not realize the impact,” says Davis.


She says the dearth of bus service worsens residents’ access to jobs and amenities like grocery stores. Davis says a typical sight in Penn Hills is residents walking with grocery bags in tow, on hilly, sidewalk-less streets, like Hulton and Verona roads. 

Charlotte Foster lives in the Mt. Carmel Road area of Penn Hills. Last year, she had trouble hiring a caretaker for her ailing father because there was no way for caretakers to reach her home without a car. In her neighborhood, bus service operates only on a limited commuter schedule (out in the morning, and back into the community in evening) and doesn’t run on weekends.

“There are probably many wonderful caregivers that my dad will never meet because of the bus,” says Foster. (Davis, Foster and other Penn Hills residents are currently involved in an advocacy campaign to have the Port Authority increase service into the municipality. Service changes will be considered by Port Authority over the next year, and spokesman Jim Ritchie told CP in November that Port Authority will have a tough decision considering the volume of similar requests.)

In addition to problems like Foster’s, poor public transportation also increases living costs for residents. According to research from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, an urban think tank, Penn Hills residents spend around 24 percent of their income on transportation. In neighborhoods like East Liberty, Garfield and the Hill District, that number is around 17 percent. 

Penn Hills planning director Chris Blackwell agrees that transportation is the biggest obstacle for low-income residents of Penn Hills. “The existing services we have in Penn Hills are sufficient for growth, but not the services we don’t control, like transportation,” says Blackwell. “We don’t have the resources to [fund transportation] ourselves.”

Blackwell is optimistic about Penn Hills’ future, though. He says the area is relatively safe and is working to attract investment. “Pittsburgh is growing and eventually we will grow here too,” he says. 

And while Penn Hills’ population appears to be leveling off like Pittsburgh’s, a noticeable difference between the two remains: According to 2014 estimates, Penn Hills added 1,000 black residents since 2010, while Pittsburgh lost 4,000.  

When discussing African Americans in Pittsburgh, one cannot ignore issues relating to low income and poverty. Estimates from 2014 surveys show that African Americans in Allegheny County make an average of $19,000, while whites make on average more than $35,000. The Pittsburgh metro area’s black poverty rate was around 32 percent in 2012, higher than national averages and on par with the struggling cities of Detroit and Cleveland. 

A tale of two Pittsburghs

Becky Cowan and her husband, Rander Thompson, opened up Steel City Rib House in East Liberty in 2006. Cowan says that at first, they had received strong support from many organizations in the community, including the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce, and were told they were “a marker of the revitalization of the community.”

Cowan says they were consistent with rent for the most part, but failed to pay rent one month. After they fell behind, she says, they paid what they could manage each month, but the owner announced they would be kicked out in 2009. Cowan says she looked everywhere for help to stay open, but was told there were not many resources, and did not stay open through 2009. In 2012, Union Pig and Chicken opened in the same location.

Ivey says this is ironic because Union is also a barbecue restaurant, and because the owner, acclaimed chef Kevin Sousa, has also had financial struggles at the restaurant. However, Sousa has received about $900,000 in loans and donations over the years to finance his restaurants from public and private entities like Heinz Endowments and East Liberty Development Inc., according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Cowan says that she received around $75,000 in start-up loans from nonprofits like ELDI and Bridgeway Capital.

“It is crazy, because when people before wanted to do the exact same thing, they did not get that kind of help,” says Ivey. “And now mom-and-pops can’t afford to set up shop [in East Liberty].” 

Kendall Pelling, of ELDI, says it’s “preposterous” to say that the new developments and the growing popularity of East Liberty has driven out mom-and-pops. He notes that are many other small, locally owned businesses in the neighborhood.

However, Pelling says there could be a better philanthropic effort to help existing small businesses stay, and provide those businesses with not only capital, but connections. 

“It would be great if there was an entrepreneurial program that does other things too, not just write a check,” says Pelling. “Like connect them with partners that already know how to succeed in their type of work.”

Cowan, who is originally from Southern California, says that it can be tough for African Americans in this city and that without good connections, starting a business is difficult.

“This city is black and white,” says Cowan. “It is tougher for African Americans, but if you do the right things and find [good connections], you can make it.”

Ivey says stories like Steel City Rib House’s signifies a dichotomy in Pittsburgh, where some are enjoying growth and others are still struggling. City Councilor Daniel Lavelle recognizes this, too.

“Unfortunately in Pittsburgh, we have a tale of two cities,” says Lavelle. “One that is considered most livable and one that has one of the most impoverished African-American communities in the entire country.”

Ivey says this division has created urgency among some in East Liberty to rush to find subsidized housing before rents get too high. Currently, East Liberty has more than 860 subsidized units, but the wait lists are two to five years long. 

ELDI recognizes demand for affordable housing will increase when more than 300 units at Penn Plaza are demolished over the next two years. Pelling says 150 to 200 affordable units are in East Liberty’s pipeline, but he wishes there were more, and not just in East Liberty. 

“If we could add another 250 to 300 affordable units in East Liberty, that would be great,” says Pelling, “but the whole city needs thousands.”

Bringing African Americans back

Pittsburgh needs 21,580 permanently affordable housing units, to be exact, according to a study by the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. According to a amendment to the city’s zoning code proposed by city councilors Lavelle and Ricky Burgess, “an estimated 8,000-12,000 new housing units are proposed to be built in the city of Pittsburgh, none of which will be affordable for low-income families.” 

Redwood says that the city’s past failures in requiring developers to produce housing at rates corresponding to average African-American income, effectively excludes black families from living in places like the Lower Hill.

Kyle Chintalapalli, housing manager for the mayor’s office, was unable to comment on the city’s affordable-housing plans by press time.

And while some affordable-housing successes have occurred in a few neighborhoods, Lavelle says city-wide legislation is still needed. The city’s Affordable Housing Task Force, which formed this past summer, should have its recommendation for city council by the summer of 2016, according to Lavelle. 

“What we need is funding that is tied to the entire city, so housing can be placed all throughout our city,” says Lavelle.

And the city still has many neighborhoods with weak market forces, so officials can get out in front of the problem. Uptown, for example, has low density, great transit and close proximity to major job centers. Jeanne McNutt, of Uptown Partners, says Uptown is in a unique situation because most of the land is vacant and they “don’t have buildings that will come down and displace people.”

The area has already attracted investors, including those interested in the nearby former Civic Arena site, and has around 345 subsidized units and new market-rate lofts opening in 2016. Justin Miller, head city planner for Uptown, says the city is doing extensive data collection on the neighborhood and equitable development is at the top of the list of priorities. 

And equity is a top priority for McNutt, too, who says, “We want Uptown to be the neighborhood that young people can afford … young people of all colors.”