Wilkinsburg, The Side Of America’s “Most Livable City” Pittsburgh Doesn’t Want You To See » VSB

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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.

From “Wilkinsburg to close high school, move students to Pittsburgh“:

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.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Michael Smith

    Still, last night’s shooting was over the top, even for a neighborhood we frequently (and with too much acceptance) associate with violent crime. It wasn’t a drunken argument turned violent. And if it was racketeering-related, it was an Al Capone level of bloodletting.

    All the same, you’re right about Wilkinsburg, Homewood, East Hills, etc. When I worked in Wilkinsburg, the people who lived there actually considered themselves to live in a relatively nice area compared with East Hills and Homewood. Events like last night’s shooting can show you how relative that “niceness” is.

    As traditionally “bad” neighborhoods improve, their black populations just get shifted to different repositories of urban decay, with all of the quality-of-life problems that come with it. Education and job-training can only get you so far. When they gentrify the neighborhood and offer you a job manning the register at the new Target, or busing tables at a vegan cafe, chances are you still aren’t covering rent.

    I don’t know what the solution is. They aren’t building any new factories with middle-class wages any time soon.

    • Brooklyn_Bruin

      “As traditionally “bad” neighborhoods improve, their black populations just get shifted to different repositories of urban decay, with all of the quality-of-life problems that come with it. Education and job-training can only get you so far. When they gentrify the neighborhood and offer you a job manning the register at the new Target, or busing tables at a vegan cafe, chances are you still aren’t covering rent.”


      The obvious solution is employing barely educated people with high wages making something to sell. Basically what the 50’s-70’s were for white Americans

      Well that was the solution, but manufacturing has gotten so cheap and the managerial class so greedy that it’s not possible.

      Not to get too science fiction, but we’re at the end of profitability for most physical goods. Maybe we’ve been that way for decades. Most of us pay premiums for new.

      The production of intellectual goods is the next step…except for piracy

      • Me

        The problem is that there are very few OTJ training opportunities for even the simplest tech jobs. If OTJ came back, and folks were being paid to learn the most relevant skills, it would be our “industrial revolution”, but that would require companies sacrificing profits for future labor.

        • Brooklyn_Bruin

          There aren’t any short term incentives for OTJ. Nowadays they push it off to colleges and universities, and make people pay for the privilege.

          And since companies have no loyalty, the best workers don’t have any either.

          Race to the bottom

  • It sounds so similar to New York. Everyone is so afraid of the second coming of Robert Moses that it’s incredibly difficult to build anything here. As a result, any investment either has to go to the rich (to pay off all the bribes necessary to get the go ahead) or requires large government subsidies to pay for the expense of the hoops you have to jump through.

    I’m not sure what the homeownership situation is in Pittsburgh, but I do know that we need to be smarter about promoting home ownership. Things like community land banks and titling over projects to residents make a difference and give people permanent sources of capital to use at their disposal.

    • Sigma_Since 93

      A few months back, Wilkinsburg had a home tour to show folks what could be if you moved to the area. I pass through there daily and there are a lot of houses with nice bones; they remind me of dilapidated brownstones and you know how much those can go for in NYC.

      Nobody wants to be first. If you move there, you are going to pay a grip in taxes and you must factor in private school since the school system is in shambles. There is a farmer’s market in the warm months and a Save A Lot; access to the city isn’t that hard so it’s got a lot going for it.

      The issue is that somebody has to be first.

      • Me

        Do you have any plans to put your money into it? Being first doesn’t necessarily mean living there. It could mean buying, renovating, and renting out until things start picking up.

        • Sigma_Since 93

          I frequent the farmers market but there’s not much there. The Mrs. doesn’t shop at the Rainbow and there’s a Popeyes on my side of town. I don’t need rims and I don’t think the fish spot is open anymore.

          With the Mrs in grad school and my oldest getting ready to hit college, my debt to income ratio is not ready to assume two mortgages. I have dreamed about buying a place to move my mom up so she can be closer but I need to fee up some dollars first.

          • Me

            I hear you on all of that. Just keep in mind if you do have a few coins, strategically purchased rental property could get you a nice investment that pays for itself in full or nearly so.

            • Kas

              Sufficient capital to make moves is a never ending battle.

              • Me

                But it’s not impossible. People are doing it everyday with less than you think. We have to be willing to participate in the market.

                • Kas

                  Not saying it’s impossible, just acknowledging a fact. I work in the Community Development space, and I see far too many of us that want to participate with great ideas but don’t have the balance sheet to get financing.

            • mr. steal your costco samples

              done did it and I agree wholeheartedly. rent checks will put a smile on ya face

              • Me

                Hey fellow landlord! Ain’t it nice though? I’m only on my first property but I have big plans.

                • mr. steal your costco samples

                  everybody got a plan until they get punched in the face (or until the boiler falls in which happened one January a month after a closing and cost 30k, or until a sewer issue arises, or the roof falls in).

                  get ya cash reserves up.

                  • Me

                    They’re up. I’m a planner by trade and by nature. I’m ready.

                    • mr. steal your costco samples

                      also selling is way less fun than buying. we offloaded a couple dogs this year and it was PAINFUL

                    • Me

                      I don’t like either side of the transaction. Buying is a necessary evil, but I could do without the back and forth between me, them, and all the middlemen.

      • mr. steal your costco samples

        my real estate agent does development down there. tryna be christopher columbus which is smart. there’s beautiful stock there as you say.

    • You don’t think the Queens to Brooklyn streetcar is going to get funded?

      • That’s a definite maybe. I’m surprised the MTA hasn’t gunned for either control or the funding though. I do understand why developers love the streetcar though. Developers prefer rail to buses mass transit wise as a rail line is a much more concrete commitment to an area, and it’s hard to shut down without causing major issues.

  • aar_nr

    can we take a moment and reflect on voter participation in this neighborhood and also its peers?
    lets also digest the fact that in the current Democratic Primary, only 11% of eligible voters have participated.

    the era of austerity, fueled by Republican thinking and officials only sweeps through the despot communities, whenever those communities discard their obligations as citizens. Not voting is indirect agreement with the policies of austerity.

    • Example: Ferguson, Missouri.

    • Val

      I think this happens because people in these communities do not trust that any form of government has their best interests in mind. When a system constantly works against you it’s not easy to see that becoming apart of the system can help.

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        Most can’t be bothered, and those that can don’t have the luxury of voting when they need to be at work.

        Lack of both general education and specific knowledge of the issues.

        And then you got issues with whether the elected official can actually carry out what you want them to do when everyone is working against them. See Obama.

      • Well, if government can’t be trustworthy, why not just give up government and do you?

        • Val

          Lol. Okay, Mr Libertarian.

          • Welp, guilty as charged.

    • Brass Tacks

      I get your intent, but it ignores a few things.

      1. I’m sure these neighborhoods could give two Fawkes about voting when they see absolutely zero change reflected in their neighborhoods.

      2. I have to walk these streets and navigate these interactions on the daily. I live with the understanding that any disagreement I engage in, could potentially escalate into gun violence.


      Who are you?

      How are you going to come on my block, and try to tell me what’s what, Or question why I act the way I do, when you aren’t here for the violence. You ain’t feeding my family, and you ain’t adding nothing to my pockets other than a voting pamphlet.

      • Cake

        Agree 100. I would add that our political system isn’t designed to include or protect neighborhoods like Wilkinsburg. A median household income of 26,000 ain’t middle class, so taking part in elections would do little to change the circumstances Wilkinsburg. Areas like this are seen as the problem regardless of whether or not they vote.

        • Sigma_Since 93

          Sticks and Carrots; Wilkinsburg lacks both so things have yet to improve. The city officials I know are working hard but when you don’t have anything of value to entice business or people to move in you are stuck.

          The other problem would be is if they did have incentives to bring folks in, would the current residents be able to enjoy it or will they be displaced? My Brother in Law lived very close to the casino they put up. When the project was just about complete, his landlord raised his rent by 40%. Guess who lives in his old apartment now??? You guessed right, some white folks who can pay over a $1K a month.

        • aar_nr

          Amen Cake. seriously, our political system does what at times looks like the opposite of protection :( We judge a society by how they treat their weakest citizens

    • SeptimusSmith

      What current Democratic primary? The Pennsylvania primaries aren’t until April 26.

      • aar_nr

        talking about the states who have participated thus far (that 11% is Iowa through Michigan). It is a hideous trajectory for poor turnout

  • jbm

    Wilkinsburg was a great place to grow up until 92 and that’s when the decline started.

  • YeaSoh

    It is what it is… what we wouldn’t give to be accused of conspiring vs constantly feeling conspired against. Unfortunately, that’s a luxury we don’t have. Would love your notes from the one you do catch though, brotha. :-)

  • Keisha

    I remember this town name only because of a piece Damon wrote a while back in response to derogatory comments made in a paper about the merging of the different student populations.

    When I read about the shooting on open source, I had an entirely different place in mind. The article made this place seem like Pleasantville.

    “The crime, the failing schools, the rapidly decreasing property values — these are not unintended coincidences or even unfortunate inevitabilities. They’re intentionalresults of Pittsburgh’s decades-long disregard of its Black population. ”

    It’s sad, but it’s the world we live in .

  • mr. steal your costco samples

    yup, that Wendy’s is the border.

    i own some property about a half-mile west — one building on the north side of Penn and the other to the south, both with beautiful giant units.

    rent on one is 1/2 of the other and they are separated by maybe 6 blocks.

    • I hope the latter isn’t that big thing just west of N Lexington. My sister used to live there.

      It feels like rents in parts of Point Breeze North are starting to catch up though — I own (inherited) a duplex probably a little west of your properties, and being walking distance of Chatham and Bakery Square seems to matter to folks. (Speaking for myself, I do like being able to walk to the Google office when I visit.)

  • jolly

    “A three minute drive down Penn doesn’t just put you in a different community. You travel to a different galaxy.” & THIS “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.” I live walking distance between the two on the East End and it would be interesting to see if this mass shooting gets national media coverage beyond the usual “blacks gon’ wild again”. I once was fooled into proclaiming how livable this city is. I’m black. I think I half was making a plea for other young black professionals to stay. Then I actually lived here and experienced all the trash stuffed closets and some are white too. It just sucks that the redevelopment comes with displacement. It’s pretty livable…if you keep those closets closed. But as you said for the square footage of space we’re talking about the disparity is glaring.

    • mr. steal your costco samples

      Pittsburgh is wholly anti-black professional. it’s just stacked against us. I never thought I’d find myself pining for bastions of tolerance like upstate NY and Cleveland, but here we are.

      • Sigma_Since 93

        Don’t be fooled by upstate NY. It’s cool if you run a business or work for the State. Otherwise not so much. My upstate NY job relocated me here. Thanks for nothing Hilliary!!!

        • mr. steal your costco samples

          I grew up in upstate NY, lived in Cleveland for years before PGH. I was being highly highly sarcastic.

          • Sigma_Since 93

            If I recall correctly, you’re from Rochester right? I’m from the 518.

            • hey! 518 buddies ^_^ where abouts?

              • Sigma_Since 93

                Albany and you?

                • Schenectady

                  • Sigma_Since 93

                    Mt. Pleasant or Linton??

                    • LOL look at you showing your age. By the time I reached highschool, Linton was no more, and Mont Pleasant was a middle school. It’s all just “Schenectady High School” now

                    • Sigma_Since 93

                      I know. It was just a test to see how close we are in age and if I needed to begin to worry. Since I was in high school when Linton was around, I’m safe. lol

                    • LMAO no worries. I am an adult. I like running into ppl from the 518 online. It doesn’t happen often…outside of facebook

                  • The misspent weekends I’ve spent up in that city in HS. ROTFLMAO Lord forgive me…

                    • LOL So weird to run into people that know of Schenectady. Are you from 518 as well?

                    • No, but I did a lot of track and field meets up there. I threw the discus and shot put.

                    • oh really now? hmmm…

                • Brandon Allen

                  You from Albany? Small world indeed.

                  • Sigma_Since 93

                    Are you from Albany too?

            • mr. steal your costco samples

              ayup. you Muhammed’s boi.

      • Brandon Allen

        Upstate New York noooo!

  • Daniela

    Wilkinsburg also has the highest taxes in Allegheny County for owning a home. There are many great efforts out there to improve the area but sadly there is just too much help that is needed to rebuild and to help many who need it the most.

    • After reading up on the economy on Wilkinsburg, I think the problem lies in the fact that its economy isn’t attractive to businesses. All the cities in Allegheny County are pretty much incorporated municipalities and are very much on their own, thus there isn’t this pool of money they can get from other cities within the county to help fund them. I read there have been suggestions that a whole bunch of the poor cities in the County should just combine and form one big municipality, but that also means far less direct local governmental control.

      It also seems that the most profitable industries in Wilkinsburg are alcohol, restaurants and gas/auto. These aren’t high margin profitable companies, which means less tax revenue. The people are generally poor and not well off, so once again, even less tax revenue. They could issue out bonds, but that just means loads and loads of debt. Thus their salvation could only come from letting in big corporations which they could use for tax revenue, however, these aren’t the most benevolent institutions when they are in leveraged positions. If that did manage to workout, the city would be forced to sign ridiculous deals.

      Finally, most of the economy of Wilkinsburg is based off their own citizens participation. This means much of the spending is done by people who are making, on average 26K a year. P.A. sales tax is 6%, that’s not going to cut it especially if you’re trying to fund the school system. The city needs things and businesses that attract visitors and tourists so that they can have economic growth.

      Sadly, I don’t see any of these things occurring without some form of gentrification.

      • aar_nr

        for the love of god, i hope that they take a route which doesn’t embrace the occupation of big multi-national corporations. if anything screams entrenched despotism, it is a community where the only businesses are national chains. Coming from West Virginia, I’ve seen it too often. Very very limited economic footprint from small, local business.. areas are dominated by the national chains.

        • Lots of municipal governments prefer big corporations to small and local businesses for practical reasons. One big company’s taxes and ability to create low paying jobs, beats out the tax revenue of scores of small companies and local businesses.

          My family owns a small clothing store in Lowell, MA where we sell African clothes and stuff, and my mom who runs it mostly, used to constantly get harassed by inspectors and regulators coming up with all these things that she’s supposed to pay fees for, which always ended up being bluffs. One guy once came in and said she had to pay fees for each article of clothing she had in the store, after she said she’d get her lawyer to challenge him, he stopped bothering her.

          There are other options, but like I said they rotate around issuing out bonds. If not corporations, it can be foreign governments or foreign investors. India and the Middle is really big into investing in a lot of broken down cities like Detroit, because they believe their will be huge returns in the future. But yeah, if there’s to be rapid growth or improvements in an economy, someone always has to forgo the bill, with the hope that they will get a return of some kind.

          • aar_nr


            which just reiterates the dangerous death spiral that many communities are in. Small Business should be given an advantage, not big business. On the foreign investors topic, I’ve seen it first hand. You go into a county Sheriff’s Property sale, and the majority of big spenders (people buying 4-10 properties per auction) are foreigners. Its a crying shame that in America we are letting capitalism sell out literally our homes and property to wealthy Oil rich middle easterners or Indians, or Chinese, whoever they are, color and nation doesn’t matter :( its a god damn shame

            • I think Small Businesses should be given precedent too, it’s just the fact of the matter is that you cannot have a strong public sector and a strong community of small businesses. Usually where there is a strong public sector, it’s due to the taxes of the big corporations — American historically and culturally do not like paying high taxes, and thus in order to fund governments, whether it be local or state, they have to figure out how to get the money from somewhere. Small businesses simply do not have the profit margins or revenue needed to fund a large public sector. This isn’t so much capitalism as it is basic numbers.

          • That sounds similar to what’s going on in the Outer Boroughs of NYC. Unless the business owns its building (which a lot of the older ones smartly did in the 70s and 80s), landlords would rather deal with a large chain than a small business. Chains regularly implicitly guarantee their branches rents, so no matter how well the business is doing, a landlord can be made whole. Small businesses don’t have that backing, so they have to pay more in rent or get pushed out faster in order for that same spot.

            As much as people claim to love mom and pops, they love the tax revenue the Walmarts and Targets generate more.

  • Tina Hammond Conant

    So people what do we do?

    • -h.h.h.-

      we do the work “inside” and “outside”.

      i’d get more indepth, but the way my finances are set up, i can’t give out ideas unless i’m elected to office or paid a consultant’s fee

      • Audazz66

        ok thanks bunches

    • Never stop trying.

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