Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: When (not if) Pittsburgh pops, how can we keep its mix?
January 4, 2016 12:00 AM
Sean Wharton, right, gets helps from friends as he and his wife move out of Penn Plaza Apartments on Dec. 23. The couple lived at Penn Plaza for five years and wanted to stay in East Liberty but rents were too expensive. After about four months of searching, they are moving to a one-bedroom apartment in Swissvale.
The double-deck of the Ft. Pitt Bridge is covered in the fog as birds fly past the Pittsburgh skyline.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As we begin a new year, the future of our city — what it will look like and who will live here — is very much on my mind.
The displacement of residents from the Penn Plaza Apartments in East Liberty piqued that concern last summer, but as the city moves forward, the crisis of imbalance in housing costs looms larger.
The other night, I sat beside a 37-year-old software entrepreneur at my neighborhood pub. We began talking about two trends that cause elation and deep worry. The conflicting feelings can sit beside each other and even merge because they are born of the same source.
Pittsburgh has been enjoying an investment boom and celebrating some cachet from the technology sector, and that’s exciting. It’s also lucrative business for everyone who gets to take part in it.
But one need only look at San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle to see the future of Pittsburgh if we do not bring more entities, more humanity and more weight of policy toward diligent and creative balance of affordability for middle- and lower-income people. One solution would get vacant existing housing renovated for home ownership.
The people who are struggling to stay in the city, and those who can no longer afford the desirable places, are not the Other. They are most of us.
My bar mate came to Pittsburgh for college, then left and returned. He is confident that within a few years students at Carnegie Mellon University will come up with the Next Big Thing, just as students at Harvard came up with Facebook and students at Stanford came up with Google.
He believes that when that happens, Pittsburgh is going to pop and it will not be your father’s pop. We agreed we want Pittsburgh to pop but not to hurt anyone when it does.
We want young brainiacs and their spending power in the city, and we hope they will stay and put down roots. But the fact is, many of these people — who have pools and gyms and luxury rentals near transit — are not committed to the neighborhoods from which lifelong people are being expelled.
Many who are leaving East Liberty can’t find rental housing under $800. Many are having to accept living without adequate services, including transit, outside city neighborhoods where they have earned a sense of belonging. The vast majority are our elders, lifelong laborers and the working poor. Nobody should get sick with stress in the struggle to pay their expenses, then get sent off to the fringes. That’s just wrong.
I love Pittsburgh because it has so much character, a legacy that still pulses and people whose stories are shaped by diverse life experiences. That mix makes life rich. That mix says “city” like nothing else.
Numerous nonprofits have worked tirelessly for years providing affordable housing, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Mayor Bill Peduto’s office are taking steps toward balance. But there is no way we can build affordable housing fast enough for the demand.
In November, playwright Mike Eichler, Mary Ohmer and 13 of her students in community organizing at the University of Pittsburgh collaborated on staged readings of his play “Repulsing the Monkey.”
It’s about siblings whose parents die and leave them a South Side bar. They get offers from a couple from Los Angeles and a couple from New York City, both for $200,000. A local guy offers $90,000 so he can keep sitting at his old bar stool. The story is funny and sad and hits on the issues of gentrification — a word whose use often shuts the door on discussion about a much more nuanced dilemma.
Mr. Eichler’s play was performed for a week in San Diego earlier last year and drew capacity audiences. (He’s retired from teaching social work at San Diego State University and earned his master’s degree in the field from Pitt.)
“In San Diego and San Francisco, there are no communities left that are affordable to working-class people,” he said. In neighborhoods once occupied by maids and bus boys, he said, rents are $2,900, $3,700 for a one-bedroom apartment.
“Nothing would be sadder for Pittsburgh,” he said. “We still have a chance for a mix here, and that would make a truly great city.”
He’s right, we still have some time. But we had better get hopping.
If Pittsburgh pops before leaders of conscience and goodwill get busy applying adequate care and intervention, it will no longer be Pittsburgh. Not mine and not anyone else’s.
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.
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