Wilkinsburg, The Side Of America’s “Most Livable City” Pittsburgh Doesn’t Want You To See
In many of the news stories you’ll read today about the mass shooting in Wilkinsburg Wednesday night — which left five dead and three others wounded — it’ll be referred to as a suburb of Pittsburgh. While this is technically true, it’s a bit of a misnomer. One because none of the qualities commonly associated with suburbs — tree-lined streets, healthy business districts, good schools, etc — are true with Wilkinsburg. The median income for a household is $26,621. The crime rate is consistently one of the highest in the county. And the schools? Well, the high school — where I worked as a teacher for two and a half years — has been underperforming, understaffed, underfunded, and underpopulated for so long that, when the 2016-2017 school year begins, it will no longer exist.
The struggling Wilkinsburg School District plans to close its middle and high school and send those 200-plus students to Westinghouse Academy 6–12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The plan was unveiled simultaneously Wednesday night in Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh.
The Wilkinsburg School District plans to spend $10 million to renovate its two elementary schools.
But there are no plans to fix the middle/high school built in 1910 and last expanded in 1940 because the district expects only 217 students to be enrolled there next year. The district says enrollment is so low, it can’t provide quality education either in the classroom or the playing field.
Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, Wilkinsburg students in grades 7-12 would attend Westinghouse Academy in nearby Homewood. Wilkinsburg will be responsible to transport its students daily and cover the cost of tuition.
Wilkinsburg’s suburb status is also misleading because being a suburb of a city implies a certain physical distance between that larger city and the suburb. Wilkinsburg however isn’t just Pittsburgh adjacent. It’s Pittsburgh adjoined. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for practically my entire life, and I’m still not quite sure where Pittsburgh ends and Wilkinsburg begins. I suspect it occurs when Braddock Avenue is crossed, but again I’m not certain.
If fact, Bakery Square — a multi-million dollar redevelopment that currently houses, among other things, Google and 500 sq ft studios that rent for up to $1700 a month — is two miles away from the Wilkinsburg High School building and exists on the same street (Penn Avenue) as Wilkinsburg’s business district. A three minute drive down Penn doesn’t just put you in a different community. You travel to a different galaxy.
As Pittsburgh enjoys, promotes, and congratulates itself for its status as America’s Most Livable City, its not hard to picture Wilkinsburg as one of the proverbial broom closets junk and trash are stuffed into before guests come over. The crime, the failing schools, the rapidly decreasing property values — these are not unintended coincidences or even unfortunate inevitabilities. They’re intentional results of Pittsburgh’s decades-long disregard of its Black population. Funnel all the poor Black people to Wilkinsburg and Homewood and East Hills and out of East Liberty and Garfield and every other space targeted for revitalization. And then forget about them until its time to air a news story about crime. What happened in Wilkinsburg last night and the amazing things happening in Pittsburgh’s East End right now are opposite sides of the same coin.