What’s left when the gentrifiers come marching in

Gentrification has had an impact on East Liberty, writes 16-year-old Jeremiah Davis, and such changes to the neighborhood shouldn't always mean displacement of residents. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Gentrification has had an impact on East Liberty, writes 16-year-old Jeremiah Davis, and such changes to the neighborhood shouldn't always mean displacement of residents. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Editor’s note: At PublicSource, we believe in giving a platform to voices not often heard or consulted. That's why we asked teenagers in the Pittsburgh region to tell us what matters to them and write about it. We will feature their stories as an occasional series.

When I was in elementary school, many houses in my neighborhood of North Point Breeze sat empty. There were abandoned homes right behind the one I lived in, and instead of being unhappy that they weren’t filled with families and kids my age, I always appreciated the quiet and privacy.

Five years ago, that all changed. The house directly behind ours turned into apartments —now anchored by the Bakery Square shops and restaurants — and in the house next door to ours, the elderly black couple was replaced by a young white family and their dog.

It was then that I realized that change was here, and it wasn’t going to stop. In the East End, the neighborhoods like North Point Breeze, Larimer and East Liberty have been at the center of change.

East Liberty has been affected the most by gentrification, from my point of view. Gentrification, according to the dictionary, is the process of renovating an area to appeal to the middle class. The changes leave little room for the poor. One of the major benchmarks in the gentrification of East Liberty was the destruction of the East Mall public housing project to make way for a Target in 2009. The East Mall had 519 units, and most of the residents were forced to leave the neighborhood, according a 2015 Pittsburgh City Paper story.

A similar displacement in the name of gentrification happened again in 2015 when the residents of Penn Plaza were delivered 90-day eviction notices. We keep hearing that many of the residents were not able to afford resettling in their neighborhood, so they had to leave.

My own experience growing up in the East End was much different than that of my brother, who is 11 years my senior. The idea of having pizza delivered to our house is still unreal to him. Back in the early 1990s, when he was growing up, the East End was the stereotypical rough side of town. I asked him to describe how our neighborhood has changed from that time: “It’s just … different. Today, it’s just a bunch of privileged white people. Back then, everybody was poor and black. It wasn’t this.”

A pedestrian crosses Penn Avenue near Bakery Square. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

A pedestrian crosses Penn Avenue near Bakery Square. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

He then told me about one time when he witnessed somebody getting shot in a drive-by in his early teens and the time when he saw a body at the top of his street, my street. With the new “rejuvenation” of the east side, there is almost no acknowledgement of the decades the East End was neglected and blighted — and of people who used to live in the East End.

I also spoke to Rev. Leola Cherry, the pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church in the East End, and asked about her view of how the East End has changed. Although she felt her neighborhood of North Point Breeze hasn’t experienced much change, she has known a lot of people from her congregation who have had to move out due to rising rent prices.

“It’s been a cleansing of black people in Pittsburgh to get rid of crime and drugs without addressing the root of the problems,” she said. Cherry told me about one member of her church who had to move to the edges of Monroeville because of the spike in cost of living. This woman, according to Cherry, now lives at the bottom of a steep hill, which makes it challenging for her to be mobile because she is elderly. This is a common story of people having to move to suburbs where amenities are not readily available for the poor, elderly or people who don’t own a car.

The East End I know is a community in flux. The change was evident even at my one bus stop: When I first started kindergarten in 2007, every student at the bus stop was black. By the time I got into middle school, there were only three black kids, including me; all the others were white. The black kids are gone, and the houses where they lived are occupied by white families.

I’m not saying that the renovation and rejuvenation of the East End is a bad thing entirely. But rejuvenation should not always equal displacement. There should be measures in place to keep prices affordable, and affordable housing should not be replaced with luxury apartments and “hip” coffee shops. The neighborhood culture and art shouldn’t be covered or erased because the new residents think it is an eyesore or to make way for something new or “shiny.” People shouldn’t forget the stories of those who lived there before it was “hip” or “cool.” It’s about legacy and dignity.

Jeremiah Davis is a 16-year-old who attends City Charter High School and is in the 10th grade. In his spare time, he enjoys reading books, watching Netflix (Star Trek in particular), and enjoys making art. He can be reached at jeremiah.davis@cityhigh.org or on Twitter @truthjeremiah.

  • beluved

    I like the article, and I think it describes a lot of what has been going on in a lot of major urban cities. It’s like that too, here in Cincinnati. I and some other individuals are meeting up to address the severity of the problem, because a lot of White people with money have a cynical pumped up attitude of “White Privilege”, and have been doing illegal stuff to make people move out. Everything was like the big White secret. First they ran to the suburbs, then a lot of African Americans were set up with liar loans in real estate, jobs were taken away, and judges on the benches that always ruled to foreclose in favor of the banks. which ultimately made our neighborhoods look like war torn areas. When Wall Street and the Elite had acquired enough abandoned homes, they came in like a flood and got a lot of properties through HUD, and other deals for pennies on the dollar. They had the credit and cash to renovate, but when they did, they raised the rents sky-high, to keep long-time residents out. I compare it with the Trail of Tears that was done to the Indians in the 1800’s, except nowadays it’s done much more subtly.

  • Ginny Hildebrand

    Thanks Jeremiah and Public Source. Here in North Point Breeze (part of the East End) many neighbors are pushing the URA to include AFFORDABLE HOUSING in the development of 16 acres adjacent to Construction Junction. We hope some of those displaced by “Google” gentrification can move back near their old neighborhoods where public transit is available to jobs, hospitals, grocery stores and family…where neighbors welcome the economic, social and racial diversity of our community (an exception in most of Pittsburgh). In fact, it is that diversity that makes us love North Point Breeze. Ginny Hildebrand

  • Celinda

    When my family moved to East End in the late 1950s, the East Liberty shopping district was “gentrified”–that is, there were stores appealing to the middle and upper classes. Then, either in the 1960s or 1970s, there was a move to stop car travel through the shopping district and make it a pedestrian mall (this was changed perhaps a decade later). Also, low cost housing was put in. Gradually, the “middle class” shops moved away, partly because there was an increased incidence of crime. Peabody High School (now a magnet school) used to have lots of glass windows, but because there was a lot of breakage (someone correct me if I’m wrong), they were bricked over. I’m just writing this to show that although what the author of the original comments said was certainly true and interesting and important to know, there’s a long history of what the East End was like. It wasn’t always the way it was when he was growing up. (Further back in Pittsburgh history: people with means moved to the East End to get away from factory smoke in the late 1800s).

  • Catherine

    I’d like to see the history of East Liberty discussed a bit further back to the 60s (?). Many middle class families were pushed out through eminent domain so city planners could create the ill-conceived Penn Circle and build ‘project housing.’ Homes were taken and destroyed in the name of ‘progress.’ My friend’s family moved to Plum and never really recovered. It appears that we’ve now come full circle.

    • Celinda

      I just now saw your comments. I remember when “Penn Circle” happened. –Thanks for your comments. I don’t think I knew about those–like your friend’s family–whose homes were destroyed and had to move.

  • Rick Quinn

    This site is so one sided. If you’re not poor or black this site isn’t for you. Recently this site was complaining about the Hill District. Now it’s gentrification. The people with money who can affords things are the bad guys. This site panders to the low income/poor always looking to others for handouts while blaming everyone except themselves for their predicaments.

    • PJ

      I disagree with quite a few problematic assumptions that your response makes. You blatantly ignored the primary topic of this article. Pittsburgh, like many other cities rapidly develop in a manner that reduces the availability of resources to people who are not wealthy. It would be obtuse to ignore or deny that displacement certainly does occur and development takes place at the expense of people who do not have the monetary power to ensure their inclusion. Second problematic statement is the enforced stereotyping of low income or poor people looking for handouts or blaming others for their predicaments. There’s absolutely nothing about this article that supports such ignorant statements and you only succeeded in making yourself appear highly ignorant and also clearly oblivious to economic and social issues. If you have a valid point, express it in a manner that does not make you appear to be so incredibly imperceptive.

      • Rick Quinn

        Gentrification is a social class issue, not a racial issue. It’s the people who do nothing to improve their income, quality of life, etc who are the most vocal when they see folks who can afford to live in the new dwellings. Then when they realize no one will take them seriously about their lack of income, they attempt to turn into a racial issue “oh look, another black family is out of the neighborhood”. The author tipped at her racist and stereotypical views when she made the statement ““It’s just … different. Today, it’s just a bunch of privileged white people. Back then, everybody was poor and black. It wasn’t this.”
        The self loathing of people like this is ridiculous.

        • EN

          If you have any interest in learning more about why poor people in the United States remain poor, I recommend reading Nickel and Dimed. If you have any interest in learning why social class issues and racial issues are not mutually exclusive, I recommend Inequality in America: Race, Poverty and Fulfilling Democracy’s Promise. Please don’t perpetuate ignorant stereotypes when you have no understanding of the issues.

      • Rick Quinn

        And you fail to make one big point, if not for gentrification, how exactly would areas like this improve anyways? You see outsiders willing to improve a community while the current residents live in squalor and contribute to its degradation.