Not Knowing How To Feel About Gentrification

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Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an op-ed I wrote detailing my ambivalence about the development and gentrification going on in my old neighborhood. It’s an extended version of a piece I wrote for EBONY a couple weeks ago. I’ve included a good portion of it below. 

Although it deals specifically with Pittsburgh, the subject is something I’m sure many (if not most) of you can relate to. We’re all aware of the macro ills of gentrification. People being displaced, businesses getting priced out, neighborhoods losing their identities, etc. But — and this is a question especially targeted towards those who grew up in a crime-ridden area that experienced gentrification and doesn’t have as much crime now — what about the micro? How do you deal with enjoying some of the benefits of the “new” neighborhood while also “feeling a certain way” about the means taken to get it there? Do you feel conflicted at all about any of this? If so, how do you deal with that conflict? And, if not, why not?

My old neighborhood is now the trendiest place in Pittsburgh. And I don’t know how this makes me feel.

I’m not angry about it. The neighborhood is an undoubtedly better and safer place now.

Restaurants stay open until 1 instead of closing at dark. There are far fewer Aaron Rays stalking the streets for red sweatshirts, and there’s a place where you can rent some very ugly bikes to ride from Trader Joe’s to Whole Foods.

The shifting cosmetic has even affected the neighborhood’s name. What used to just be “East Liberty” is now “Eastside” — a euphemistic hybrid of East Liberty and the neighboring Shadyside.

This change has crept up Penn Avenue as well. Surreal is not strong enough of a word to describe what it’s like for a person who grew up on Mellon Street in the ’90s to attend a gallery crawl in Garfield.

But, I just … I still feel “a certain way” about it all.

I feel a certain way that the neighborhood’s demographics had to change before it improved. I feel a certain way that others were able to recognize and take financial advantage of the resources sitting right under my nose. I feel a certain way about the irony of me feeling this certain way … but writing this while sitting at Panera Bread.

I guess “ambivalent” would be the word to describe this feeling. But, as many of those who wrestle with the same thoughts about their “new” old neighborhoods will likely tell you, it feels more awkward and amorphous than that. It’s a state of reactive cognitive dissonance you can’t quite articulate that happens when others use the resources you’re sitting on to create something you’d wholeheartedly appreciate in any other context.

There’s a natural parallel between the thoughts I often see expressed about gentrification and about the type of cultural appropriation many white artists have been accused of. But what makes this feeling different is the fact that I enjoy this version of the neighborhood more. Much more. This isn’t just feeling a certain way about Robin Thicke “borrowing” Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” to create “Blurred Lines.” It’s feeling that certain way, but also believing Robin’s version is much better than Marvin’s.

To be clear, “better” doesn’t mean that the new Target is better than the old Giant Eagle or that the new Pizza Sola is better than Vento’s. That’s a matter of taste.

The preference I’m speaking of is less about policy, politics and development and more about memory.

East Liberty was my home. It’s where my dad first taught me to shoot a jumpshot. Where I got my first job. Where I first met the kid who’d end up being my oldest and closest friend. Where I first learned not to trust a big butt and a smile. And where I also first learned not to listen to everything Bell Biv Devoe said.

But it’s also where Peabody High School was shut down for an entire week because a star football player was murdered in a Wendy’s parking lot. And where, since the Bloods (red), Crips (blue) and L.A.W. (black and gray) were at war with each other, there was a span of five or so years where wearing the wrong color could get you killed. And where both a random tire screech and a car going 10 miles below the speed limit meant “Get the hell down!” because there’s about to be a drive-by. And where our front window was blown out and our house was shot into because we lived three doors down from Mellon Street’s Stringer Bell and a rival crew mistook our house for his.

So even as I lament the injection of and appropriation by others in East Liberty — and even as terms such as displacement and pricing-out enter my consciousness — I value the reduction in familiar and conspicuous danger more than I’m put off by the means taken to get it there.

Read more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

No Church In The Wild

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My mornings usually begin the same way. I’ll wake up at 7:30, immediately pick up my laptop, and spend a half hour reading emails, checking VSB, and doing EBONY-related work. I’ll also pray. By this time, my fiancee is usually awake too, so I’ll lay back down with her for a couple minutes. By 8:15-8:20, I’ll get out of bed again and make my way the bedroom upstairs, my de facto office. Sometimes I’ll stop in the kitchen and grab some orange juice or a granola bar before heading up. From then until approximately 9:15, I’ll work exclusively on EBONY stuff.

While upstairs, I’ll hear my fiancee get up. This usually happens around 8:45. Within five minutes, the shower will begin to run. 15 to 20 minutes later, I’ll hear her:

“Morning babe. I need to be at work at 9:30. I’ll be ready in 15.”  

Sometimes it’ll be this instead:

“Morning babe. I need to be at work at 10. What do you want for breakfast?”

(These are my favorite mornings)

If it’s one of those “9:30″ mornings, I’ll stop working, put on whatever sweats and sneakers are near, and come down stairs. The dog — who usually sleeps upstairs — will follow me. I’ll put food and water in his bowl. He’ll ignore it — for now — and I’ll take him to the backyard to pee and shit. If it’s cold, I’ll throw on my parka.

If you looked out our front window then, you’d see a collection of well-manicured brownstones. You’d also see (mostly Black) families and various young professionals doing their morning routines (Taking the kids to school, going to work, walking dogs, jogging, etc).

The back of our house is a different story. Behind our backyard is an alley. Behind that alley is a group of three dilapidated row houses. And behind those houses is where the “hood” part of our neighborhood begins.

One of these houses is boarded up. One houses an interracial couple (Black man, White woman) who used to argue so loudly that it would wake us up. (They haven’t argued in months. Maybe they went on Marriage Boot Camp or something.) And one houses a drug dealer who sees light traffic throughout the day.

The drug dealer guy and I are usually cordial. If our eyes happen to meet, we’ll nod at each other. Sometimes you might even get a “Hey. What’s good?” out of both of us. His friends and customers, on the other hand, aren’t as friendly. They’re usually not out there. But when they are…let’s just say I pay very close attention to my surroundings then.

I’ll go back inside. If it’s a “10:00″ morning, we’ll sit down and eat breakfast together. Usually some combination of eggs, bacon, and fruit. If it’s a “9:30″ morning, she’ll be in the kitchen making and packing her lunch, getting ready to go.

We’ll leave five minutes later. She only works five minutes away, but in that short time we’ll use our shorthand to share a half hour’s worth of information with each other. I’ll drop her off, we’ll kiss, and I’ll head back home.

My route back home takes me through the hood part of the neighborhood. Sometimes there will be cops circling around. I do not consider the police to be an antagonistic entity. But I do not feel safe around them. I don’t necessarily feel unsafe either. I guess the best word to describe how I feel is aware.

They’re just doing their jobs, I’ll say to myself. Don’t pay them any mind, and get back home so you can finish your work.

But there are also times when I notice them paying me more attention than I’m comfortable with. I might even get followed for a block. And then, at that point, I realize nothing matters. I’m a popular published author and professional writer with a fiancee. A fiancee with multiple degrees. We’re renting a brownstone with hardwood floors throughout and 12 foot ceilings. We’re getting married in July. We go to gallery crawls and board meetings. I own t-shirts proclaiming my love for Bougie Black People. We have four corkscrews, collected over time from the parties we throw and attend. I have a morning routine. And a dog.

But, in that moment, I’m a Black man in a sketchy neighborhood wearing a parka, sweats, and sneakers, and driving a Charger. To them, I am a potential suspect. Or, even worse, a potential threat. One awkward move or one overzealous officer could end everything for me.

I’ll eventually make it home and I’ll finish working. Maybe I’ll moderate comments on VSB. Or, maybe I’ll make some edits to something I’m writing for Complex. I’ll forget about the morning. And I’ll forget that, between the people across the alley and the cops on my way home, I’ve had to be on guard every moment I was out the house. Because I’m Black in America. And when you’re Black in America, there really are no safe spaces, no recluse from potential danger, no time when you can be certain that what you do and who you are will not cease to matter because someone considers you to be a threat. Nowhere I can relax without reservation. Nowhere where I can be me and not worry.

But I will forget about all of this. Because it’s everyday. And when something happens everyday, it becomes forgettable. Mundane, even. I’ll relax in my chair, play with our dog, and moderate comments on my blog. It’s just another day.

  —Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

On The Dangerous Thinking Behind “THOT”

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(The following is from Justin Laing, a Pittsburgh-area educator and activist. This is a version of a piece originally published on his blog, Hillombo.)

I had a thought-provoking and somewhat troubling conversation with a broad range of Black men at my barbershop a couple Saturdays ago. New to me and a few of the men was THOTS — an acronym for “that ho over there” that young people (primarily young men) are using with increasing frequency.

In the course of the discussion, I remarked that the term was terrible and likely to boomerang. A young man responded that what was terrible was that young women do the things that make them worthy of such names. Obviously, there is no mystery in what makes a young woman supposedly “worthy” of that dehumanizing distinction: either engaging in sex with a number of partners that young men determine excessive, or “acting” like you do. And, as is often the case with terms like this, sometimes all a young woman has to do to be referred to as a “THOT” is…exist.

It felt good that the young man later followed up his comment with some empathy, reflecting that there could be a reason for the young woman’s behavior. Interestingly enough, no mention was made, explanation was given, or word was created about the sexual behavior of the men these THOTs are involved with. After all, you can’t be a THOT without willing male partners.

The young man who made the comment was by no means expressing a viewpoint unique to him or even a minority view. We live in a White supremacist, patriarchal culture (literally, rule of the father) so the image and identity of Black women and girls are under regular assault. So, I guess what really struck me about the this term was that it was even more dismissive and dehumanizing than what I normally hear, but it’s important to consider it because the language of youth tells us a lot about where we stand as culture. Who did they learn it from? Also, I have to reflect on why the term might be striking to me when I’m aware of the culture we live in.

There is this term, “middle class subterfuge,” that a former professor of mine taught to explain how middle class people hide their ideas, particularly around power, with all kinds of euphemisms. So, I shouldn’t be surprised at hearing a term like “THOTS” in a community that is largely working class and less prone to euphemisms, but still the dehumanizing language literally sent a shockwave of fear through me. Fear, because we dehumanize classes of people to justify all kinds of things that are done to them, very often violent things, and so dehumanizing women and girls in language is simply a stage in a continuum of violence. And, I have seen on one occasion walking with my daughter at Kennard Field, how the idea that young women are little more than sexual props sits very present in the minds of boys not even 14 years old.

This got me to thinking about where does the desire to prevent male violence against women show up in neighborhood planning beyond well lit streets? When we talk about building on the cultural legacies we often are thinking about supporting our identities in racial and ethnic terms, but what about in gender terms? What kinds of design choices would we make if we wanted to build on a cultural legacy that challenged the thinking behind THOTS? The thinking that leaves women and girls vulnerable to rape and abuse and traps men and boys in ideas of manhood and boyhood that encourages unprotected sex with multiple partners and all of the consequences that can follow when we are still very young.

What part of Master Planning and neighborhood revitalization asks questions about the impact of the environment on the identities of men and boys and how those identities can be engaged with to prevent violence and the dehumanizing of women and girls, even if we are “only” talking about dehumanizing language?

(You can follow Justin at @jdlaing)

When Dead Police Dogs Are Worth More Than Live Humans

***Damon’s latest Op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on how the news coverage and condolence given to a dead police dog compares to the lack of attention usually given to human (and mostly Black) homicide victims.***

This burgeoning relationship has provided a bit of nuance to my feelings about the avalanche of attention Rocco, the recently fallen police dog, has received. Mickey is so warm, so loving and so lovable that it’s not too hard to imagine how losing a dog could cause grief. And, considering the tragic manner of Rocco’s death, it’s easy to empathize with those devastated by it.

But this hasn’t made the last couple of weeks of news coverage given to Rocco feel any less surreal.

While no one would expect each resident of the city to mourn each and every time a fellow Pittsburgher fell to violence, the attention given to and sympathy expressed for Rocco feels bizarre when juxtapositioned with the consideration usually given to homicide victims. Even the recognition given to homicide victims who also happen to be nationally recognized heroes — as Hosea Davis was when saving Allison Meadows’ life last year — pales in comparison to the coverage and public condolence Rocco has received.

There were 91 homicides in Allegheny County in 2013. And, little more than a month into 2014, we’ve already seen 13 (as I write). More than 100 living and breathing human beings who are no longer here. People who loved and were loved. People with dreams, families, fears, aspirations, plans, baby pictures, memories, mortgages, jobs, ex-girlfriends, Facebook accounts, pet peeves, regrets, YMCA memberships, bus passes, anxieties, favorite movies, least favorite foods, savings accounts and student loan debts.

People who loved shopping the day after Christmas just like you do. Who liked Primanti’s (but thought it’s a little overrated) just like you do. Who remembered exactly what they wore on Kennywood day in eighth grade just like you do. Who waited until the last possible day to file taxes every year just like you do. Who spent too much time on ESPN.com just like you do. Who took their niece and twin nephews to church every other Sunday just like you do. Who got lost every time they drove to the North Side just like you do. Who was struggling with losing a good friend to cancer just like you are. Who won a couple free tickets from their job and went to two Pirates’ games last year just like you did. Who stood in line at the post office Downtown on Monday, May 22, at 3:45 p.m. just like you did.

People who were … people.

And yes, some of these people had criminal records. Extensive criminal records. Some may have been doing something they had no business doing, with people they have no business being with. Some may have been murderers. Some may have been murdered while attempting to murder someone else.

This doesn’t make them any less human. Troubled? Likely. Severely flawed? Perhaps. But still a living, breathing human being whose death should inspire more collective empathy than a dog’s.

Also, one doesn’t need a Ph.D. in “racecardiology” or even a pair of contacts to see a correlation between the number of homicide victims who happen to be black (67 percent) and the public’s collective indifference to their deaths. I won’t go as far as to say that Rocco’s life seemed to be valued more than their lives were, but I wouldn’t begrudge someone who believed that to be true.

(Read more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Black And Invisible In Pittsburgh

(The Champ’s first Op-ed at The Pittsburgh Post Gazette. It’s a response to the Post-Gazette’s recent “People to know around Pittsburgh in the New Year” — a list whose lone Black representative was a college basketball player.)

“New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., are wonderful cities that can’t resist preening when passing mirrors to remind themselves just how wonderful they are. Pittsburgh is a wonderful city that doesn’t even see the mirror. It just turns to its buddies and says, “Hey, yinz guys, let’s go have a beer.”

Like many Pittsburghers — native, current, newly transplanted, newly transplanted away — I read the Chicago Tribune’s Josh Noel’s ode to our city with pride. Nodding with every laud, my fiancee and I even gave ourselves cool points for our familiarity with many of the venues Noel name-dropped. (Shout out to 720!)

We felt the same spirit when sharing and retweeting Buzzfeed’s “16 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Is the Greatest City on the Planet” months earlier, and Pitt Girl’s year-end “10 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Owned 2013.”

Although not without its faults, the Burgh has a beauty and character that somehow manages to be both sneaky and striking. It doesn’t just grow on you. It grows in you. And seeing it receive so much national love — so much proof that others finally recognize what’s happening here — is not unlike the feeling a father might have when his daughter’s soccer coach finally notices and acknowledges her hustle.

For black Pittsburghers, though, an annoying bit of ambivalence has a tendency to attach itself to this civic pride. Even as we boast about living in America’s “Most Livable” or “Most Welcoming” city, we question whether it is truly livable for and welcoming to us.

This is largely due to the fact that Pittsburgh’s relationship with its Yinzers of color has always been, for lack of a better term, complex. When you read “Pittsburgh is a wonderful city that doesn’t even see the mirror,” you can’t help but continue “ … and it doesn’t see its black people, either.”

There are myriad examples I can cite to prove the truth of that last paragraph; some mere microaggressions, some more serious, but none more apropos than the Post-Gazette’s own “People to know around Pittsburgh in the New Year” — a piece naming 14 of the Burgh’s burgeoning stars. While the list does a good job of reflecting the city’s occupational diversity, naming one African American — and having that one African American be an 18-year-old college basketball player — is surprising by how utterly unsurprising it was. Basically, it’s typical Pittsburgh.

“As you emerge from the tunnel, you feel you’ve never seen a more majestic little city: old but familiar, with swooping, curving lines, lushly green (in summer) and cut with a deep and expansive racial obliviousness that -spans wide from Point State Park to Point Breeze. This picturesque lack of progress is a sight to behold!”

Now, I’m certain Michael Young the basketball player is a fine young man, and I do not intend to disparage him by saying any of this. But when you have so many talented black artists and black educators and black engineers and black entrepreneurs and black activists and black scientists and black young professionals and black industry titans who contribute to the city’s cultural zeitgeist, neglecting to include any of them on a list like this feels intentional. Not intentionally racist, but intentionally oblivious.

What do I mean by “oblivious”?

Well, let me put it this way: Between contributing writers and editors, there were (at least) a dozen different eyes that had a hand in creating this list. Apparently none of them thought to say “Um, guys. Not to be a stickler or anything, but out of all the black people in Pittsburgh, don’t you think it’s a little odd that the lone black person we named happens to be a basketball player? Feels kinda, um, stereotypical or something, doesn’t it?”

(Read more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)