Living in Pittsburgh’s ‘Eastside’

I wish East Liberty could be more like it used to be, while also being much like it is, writes journalist DAMON YOUNG

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I’m writing this from Panera Bread. It’s a Friday. Cream of chicken and wild rice is on the menu. Which is the main reason I’m here. It’s my favorite cheap soup.

This Panera sits in Bakery Square, a multi-million-dollar redevelopment project that transformed what used to be a Nabisco plant into a sprawling campus of businesses and condominiums.

It’s also a half-mile from the street where I grew up.

Two blocks from where Aaron Ray approached and almost shot me when I was 15 because I had on a red sweatshirt and he thought I might have been a Blood. (His words: “My bad, D. Didn’t know that was you. But you can’t be wearing that red, man. There’s a war going on out here.”)

Across the street from the Reizenstein basketball courts where I caught my first alley-oop on the slanted rim. Those courts are gone now. Luxury condos exist there. The project high-rise that sat on the corner where Aaron approached me is also long gone. A two-story Target has taken its place.

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. Or even upset. 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.

I still haven’t fully processed this perpetual juxtaposition of old East Liberty and the new Eastside. And I still don’t know what any of it means. But I do know one thing. The cream of chicken and wild rice is really good today, and I’m going to get another bowl before I leave.

Damon Young, a contributing editor to Ebony Magazine (digital), lives in Manchester (damonjyoung@gmail.com). A shorter version of this article was originally published on Ebony.com.


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