Vulgar urban mythology has it that the “riots” after ML King’s 1968 murder instigated white flight from the Pittsburgh neighborhoods with a sizeable Black population, resulting in the patterns of urban segregation we now witness.
The truth is somewhat different.
Pittsburgh, with a relatively small modern-era African-American population segment compared to similar or larger cities, offered some hope that the apartheid-like patterns of segregation and white suburbanization found in most US cities could be avoided. Indeed, in 1930 only 6 census tracts were 50% or more African-American, a count that expanded to 23 by 1960.
But the last hope for a reasonably integrated city was squashed by the post-War “urban renewal” project, Renaissance I, foisted on the city by a cabal of elites. By displacing 1551 low-income African-American families in the lower Hill District and hundreds of businesses, the moguls realized their vision of an imposing entertainment center, commercial real estate, and hi-rent apartments for 594 families. Thus began a process of dislocation of African-Americans variously dubbed “serial forced displacement,” “ethnic cleansing” or “American Apartheid,” a process that continues today with the nearly instantaneous gentrification of East Liberty.
Renaissance I not only drove African-Americans from the lower Hill, it also set in motion other processes of which the city fathers didn’t anticipate or didn’t care. An influx of residents into the upper Hill District brought social problems to an already overcrowded neighborhood. A vigorous outmigration ensued to Homewood Brushton and East Liberty. In a decade, stable, integrated Homewood Brushton went from 21% Black to 71% Black. The demographics of East Liberty shifted even more dramatically. Social tensions, poverty, instability, and other pressures predictably destabilized once integrated communities.
By 1960, 36% of Pittsburgh’s Blacks lived in the Hill District—the first time in history that fewer than 50% of the city’s African-Americans resided in that neighborhood. Renaissance I disrupted African-American historic housing patterns, raised racial tensions, exacerbated social problems, and sparked white flight.
As Ray Lubove wrote of Renaissance I in 1969, “…for the Negro community it has been a highly visible symbol of old-style renewal, indifferent to the housing needs and preferences of low-income families.”
But Renaissance I was not unique to Pittsburgh; it was one instance of a massive dislocation of one million people— 75% minorities—through 2500 projects in 993 US cities. Nor was it the last of a particularly pernicious set of avoidable or manageable processes that systematically displace African-Americans or destabilize their communities. Academics Mindy Thompson Fullilove and Rodrick Wallace identify nine such processes, many of which struck Pittsburgh’s Blacks disproportionately: segregation, redlining, urban renewal, planned shrinkage/catastrophic disinvestment, deindustrialization, mass criminalization, gentrification, HOPE VI, and the foreclosure crisis.
They, in part, explain the Hill District’s loss of population from 38,100 in 1950 to 9,830 in 1990.
American Apartheid Today
The continuation and intensification of these processes impoverish and erode Pittsburgh’s Black population. And once again, the lower Hill is the epicenter (along with East Liberty) of the struggle for just and equitable policies that benefit all citizens and not just the elites and their political enablers.
It is a bitter irony that the lower Hill—once the location of modest homes and rooming houses for mainly low-income Blacks—has been virtually gifted to moguls who make their money from one of the few remaining strongholds of celebrated white dominance: professional hockey. Today and going forward, the anchor of the area is an oasis for the entertainment of mainly white suburbanites who only favor our city for downtown office jobs, gladiator extravaganzas from the Steelers, and the Penguin celebration of white athleticism. When the cost of their engagement with the city is tallied, they take more than they give.
Similarly, the Penguin owners are takers more than givers. Under threat of the owners moving the financially troubled franchise (2007), politicos bundled the building of a new rink with the awarding of a local casino license in an arcane effort to disguise any appearance of public financing. When that deal collapsed, a new deal was constructed that put the state (and tax payers) on the hook for nearly 40% of the annual debt payments on the Stadium Authority issued bonds. And now that public funds have radically pumped up the value of the once-nearly-broke franchise, the owners—including the sainted hockey puck, Republican Mario Lemieux—hope to cash out by selling the franchise and its publicly funded perks for three-quarters of a billion dollars. A nice return on a once rummage sale franchise.
The Peduto administration, the Stadium Authority, and the URA are scrambling to put lipstick on the piggish owners and the deal that the city’s power brokers constructed to court them. In addition, the development rights to the surrounding area were awarded to the Penguins as a bonus along with $15 million in credits to buy the land and tens of millions in tax breaks! Adding to the embarrassment, the Federal government has refused a $21 million grant to advance the development of the 28 acre site. And an anchor tenant, USX, has reneged on its commitment to move its headquarters to the site.
In an effort to rectify some of the sins of the past inflicted on the lower Hill District, the Hill District Consensus group fought vigorously to insure the inclusion of affordable housing as part of the 28 acre development. But they have been forced to file a complaint with HUD over the Penguin’s failure to live up to the plan accepted in 2011.
With the Hill District Master Plan, the Penguins were to develop 30% of all housing for lower income residents who would, by HUD standards, be able to pay for housing affordable by those making 50% or less of the area’s median income. But that low bar is no longer acceptable to the City or the Penguins who have countered with a plan that would establish a benchmark for affordability at over twice the median level of Pittsburgh’s African-Americans, effectively denying all but a few Blacks an opportunity to live in the new development. The Hill District Consensus Group correctly identified this as a heavy handed ruse to escape any obligation to lower income Blacks and a further step towards the gentrification of the Hill District. Thus, they turned to HUD for relief.
Kudos to the Hill District activists who have challenged the juggernaut—the combined forces of the City administration, the Sports Authority, the URA, and a sports team. They and their counterparts in other neighborhoods hopefully constitute the beginning of a city wide resistance to the destruction of our neighborhoods, the dominance of urban elites, and the rejection of diversity. We sorely need a counterforce to the arrogance of elites.