If you visit Chris Shelton’s Stanton Heights home, you’ll be greeted by Rufus, a 2-year-old Boston terrier who springs so high into the air that he must be part kangaroo.
It was through Rufus and his need for walks that Shelton and his husband Shawn Howering began to recognize the diversity of the neighborhood shortly after buying their home in 2014. For an interracial gay couple, it was yet another plus on top of their home’s spacious backyard and three-tiered garden.
Shelton, an operations engineer at American Eagle Outfitters, said the diversity makes it feel like you’re not isolated.
“Because if you're the only black person in a predominantly white neighborhood, you kind of feel it...or if you're the only white person in an entirely black neighborhood, it's easy to feel a little out of place,” he said. “But when I'm walking my dog and I see a white person here, a black person there, you feel like you're just one of the neighbors...and in that respect, it takes a little something off your mind.”
As PublicSource mapped the diversity of Pittsburgh's 90 neighborhoods and spoke with residents, we found that not every diverse community was a healthy community.
That sent us on a search for the most diverse and integrated neighborhoods that also have aspects of what everyone is looking for in a community: safety, good schools and affordability.
The four neighborhoods that stood out were: Stanton Heights, Highland Park, Point Breeze North and Windgap.
Stanton Heights is a rarity among Pittsburgh neighborhoods because it has about as many white residents as black residents. It consistently has one of the lowest crime rates in the city with property values that are affordable to middle-class workers ($100,000-$200,000). While it lacks a business district, it is up the hill from Lawrenceville and a short drive to East Liberty and Shadyside.
Highland Park, which is tucked into the same northeastern part of the city as Stanton Heights, has higher property values and a greater proportion of white residents compared to black residents, but is still just as diverse because more residents of other races and ethnicities live there.
Point Breeze North, in between Point Breeze and Homewood, has a mix of large houses, warehouses and businesses such as Construction Junction, the East End Food Co-op and the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse. On the western edge of Pittsburgh, Windgap stands out as a city neighborhood with a large black population and low poverty.
Everyone we talked to in Stanton Heights agreed that it’s a fairly unknown neighborhood, even for some real estate agents. Nettie Henning, a retiree who has lived in the neighborhood with her husband Donald since 1989, recalled the day a real estate agent a couple doors down needed to use her phone. “I never even knew this neighborhood existed,” the agent told Henning. “She said, it's so quiet,” Henning recounted.
Jessica Varone, president of the Stanton Heights Neighborhood Association, said she and her husband Dave Matlin don’t mind the neighborhood’s quiet 1950s suburban feel. She said they wouldn’t want to be crammed into a Lawrenceville rowhouse.
Pointing to their neighbors’ houses, Varone talked about why it matters to live in a diverse place.
“I only know my own life experience and it's completely different than the neighbors next door or these neighbors next door and I wouldn't know as much about the world without talking to them,” she said.
More so than in most cities, it’s easy to be isolated in Pittsburgh. The city’s character comes from its neighborhoods, but many people probably only visit a handful of them on a regular basis. If your neighborhood isn’t diverse, your experiences of the city and its people may be limited.
In Stanton Heights, being a diverse place doesn’t mean everything’s perfect.
When Henning, who is black, and her family moved in more than 25 years ago, she said their teenage son, Ramone, was regularly harassed by the police.
“They would make him lay on the concrete. They would frisk him,” she said. “They would do all of these things. We went to community meetings. We spoke about it.”
Another black family from down the block relayed similar concerns at those meetings in the early 1990s. That family’s husband was an attorney, and Henning said they just moved to Fox Chapel instead of putting up with it.
“What happens is you lose those types of people,” she said. “You lose the professionals from the city. You lose those kinds of people out of the community and having that kind of diversity because they don't want their children to go through that.”
Stanton Heights compared to Marshall-Shadeland
Stanton Heights and Marshall-Shadeland are among the most diverse neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. But the health of a neighborhood is not solely defined by diversity.
The proportion of black and white residents in both neighborhoods is almost 50-50, which is unique when you consider that the city as a whole is roughly one-quarter black.
However, Stanton Heights is one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. Here are some 2015 crime statistics.
And properties in Stanton Heights are worth more than twice as much on average than properties in Marshall-Shadeland.
Sources for this graphic include the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 2014 for population data; the Pittsburgh Police Bureau 2015 Annual Report for crime rates; and Zillow Home Value Index for the property values.
Andres Tapia-Urzua grew up in Chile and his Stanton Heights home reminds him of his childhood home in the coastal town of Viña del Mar. It’s accessible by a steep outdoor staircase and surrounded by nature. He spent more than a year renovating the home before moving in this summer. He’s brought modern fixtures and natural light into the house with new skylights and a wall of east-facing windows. It’s a style he hasn’t seen around Pittsburgh, except for maybe Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.
As a filmmaker and visual artist, remaking the home allowed him the creative freedom to adapt the house to his style, something that wasn’t possible in his previous East Liberty Victorian home.
“When you are in a Victorian house, you cannot do much because you ruin the whole concept of the house,” he said. There are more possibilities with his new renovation project: “It's already a space that you can be creative within, not something that was established.”
There’s even enough room between him and his neighbors in Stanton Heights that he can play electric guitar at 2 a.m. if he wants.
As for Shelton, he made two benches for the backyard, plans to put a pergola in the side yard and has repainted almost every room in the house from “builder’s beige.”
The neighborhood and the house are a big part of their aspirations as a family. For now, Rufus is their “training child” as the couple shores up their financial future.
“Well, it would be nice at some point to adopt a child. We've got three bedrooms more or less for that foreseeable future,” Shelton said. “There's lots of room for them to run around and play and there's a good school right up the street. I could see us having a nice happy family here.”