Category Archives: Hill District

Confidentiality, Community Development & Power

This post has been sitting for a second, but I’ve been a little distracted. It is written in protest of the confidentiality component of the recently launched (March 30th) Hill District Development Review Panel, the process developed by the Hill Community Development Corporation and the Hill District Consensus Group to facilitate the process by which new developments can be said to have community support. I was nominated to the DRP by the Hill District Consensus Group (where my wife is the co-director) and went to the December orientation meeting, but had real disagreement with both the actual power of the Panel, which appears limited, and process of the Panel. Maybe I will devote a future post to the power of the panel ( you can see some of my thoughts in the linked email below), but I want to call out a particular part of the process and that is its confidentiality. That is in order to participate on the Panel the participants must sign a confidentiality agreement, a confidentiality agreement so strong that the signers agree to not mention the agreement itself.  BradPittFightClubI sent an email to the signers of my initial  invitation to join the DRP in January, Ms. Marimba Milliones, Ms. Chloe Velasquez of the Hill District Community Development Corporation and Mr. Carl Redwood and Dr. Emma Lucas Darby of the Hill District Consensus Group saying that I would not sign the confidentiality agreement to which I did not receive a response. However, according to Mr. Redwood, chair of the HDCG, I am still one HDCG’s nominations to serve on the DRP which is cool because the idea of communities engaging development and developers is a good one. I will not recount the explanation I was given for this mandatory agreement as it I don’t fully understand it and I might get it wrong, but you can read my criticism of what I was told in my email to the parties saying I would not sign the agreement. I sent an email a couple of weeks ago to both organizations seeking to confirm that the confidentiality agreement was still in place and Mr. Redwood’ said the Panel has not actually been convened since it met in December.

Maybe the most important question in terms of community development work is how does confidentiality contribute to community? My view on the role that community planning processes should play in the development of community go back to Laing letter to Lavelle-Support the Planning Forum in 2012. Our community development leadership just doesn’t seem to see building collective power as being in our individual best interest. Were we to face any of these hateful acts of police murder, or even as we are traumatized by our young family members being murdered by other young people in the community we are not organized sufficiently yet to change these outcomes. This same logic applies to how the Penguins failed to meet our goals for community development, or how the Lower Hill is discussed as a critical location by the City and my employer, The Heinz Endowments,  do we have the collective power to make sure the Master Plan and its goals are our an important part of the conversation? If we take our recent inability to get the Penguins to honor our affordable housing goals as evidence of where this neighborhood’s ideas for itself sit in Pittsburgh’s economic, social and political thinking, the answer to that question is no.

Planning, Art & Identity in the Hill District

Jorge Myers, Born and Raised Hill District Artist

Jorge Meyers,  Hill District Artist

Very productive Arts Plan meeting sponsored by the Hill District Consensus Group last week, March 17th. I am on the steering committee along with Tanika Harris of the Hill CDC, Karen Abrams, resident, Suzie Sparks of the Hill House Association and my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing, Hill District resident and Co-Director of the HDCG. The purpose of the meeting was to get us back on track after a slowing of momentum over the end of the 2014/beginning of 2015 and share the plan the steering committee had come up with to get us going again. The meeting had nice attendance with 15-20 ppl and a good representation of Hill District artists with that being the majority of folks there.  To see the meeting agenda, click here.

Bonnie got us started by sharing slides of the data from more than 250 surveys and for those slides that are a work in progress click here. A few highlights of the data:

Kim El-Born and Raised, Hill District Artist

Kim El-Hill District Playwright and Actor

  • 65% of the respondents identified as Hill District residents;
  • 85% identified as African American
  • Most commonly used word to define art?–“Expression”
  • When asked about preferred art words most commonly used were “Children” “African/Black” “Music” & “Dance”;
  • There’s a broad set of tastes in the neighborhood with lots of arts mentioned when asked about preferences;
  • An influence from international travel;
  • A desire for opportunities for youth;
  • “Festivals” was the most frequently mentioned method by which people got art and the Three Rivers Arts Festival, specifically;

There was a good conversation that followed about how the data showed there was an interest inarts & experiences in the neighborhood and a willingness to spend $, but a lack of venues. Folks also talked about how more options need to be given to the community because we don’t know what we don’t know when it comes to art choices. An idea that stood out to me came from visual artist, Kaceem Barnett, about the Hill having an “Art all Night” experience like Bloomfield. What would that look like??

Conversation then moved to the definition of what a Hill District artist might be (see previous post) and folks were good with the definition we were using with the amendment that there should be space for artists who have lived here a “significant” period of time, but no longer live here in addition to the space for artists who were born here and no longer live here. The main issue here is that if we are going to advocate for Hill District artists to support their work and enliven the neighborhood and build on its cultural legacy, then the definition of

Mark Southers, Hill District Artist, Born, Raised and Current Resident. Executive Producer of Pgh Playwrights Theater

Mark Southers, Hill District Executive Producer of Pgh Playwrights Theater

who is a Hill District artist is needed. This then brought up a spicy question and a missing part of the definition: the geographic boundaries of the Hill District we would use. This hole was revealed in the question someone posed–“Is Uptown in the Hill?” This got some murmurs and multiple comments from the room that could be summed up in “It depends. Sometimes Uptown wants to be in. Sometimes they don’t.”

The question of Uptown brings up that little issue of race and community identity. When the Hill District was working  on the Hill District Master Plan and my wife, Bonnie, was writing up the history section talking about the Hill as a neighborhood predominantly shaped by African Americans, there were white residents of Uptown who talked to her and were insistent that this legacy be reshaped in the Master Plan to speak in multi-racial terms. Terms that she thought (and I agreed) gave disproportionate voice to the multi-racial history in comparison to what we had lived and heard  (Bonnie living here her almost entire life and a mom born and raised here and my working and living here about 25 years). Ironically, when you enter Uptown from Oakland, you see it marketing itself as it’s own neighborhood and selling its real estate in the same manner with no reference to the Hill District.

A meeting participant shared a history of the Hill District that included a certain section of Uptown as African American called Soho and we discussed including that section in the definition of a Hill District artist. The thinking being that if white representatives of Uptown are not going to be consistent in their identification as being a part of the Hill District, and when they do identify they

Hill District artist, Kaceem Barnett

Hill District visual artist, Kaceem Barnett

want their participation to be recognized as white contributors to the history of the neighborhood,  then we should not include them in this definition of the Hill, while not penalizing African Americans

in Uptown who have long identified as members of the Hill. It may be that Soho no longer exists in this same way, but it was a way of defining a Hill District Artist using the first principle of the Master Plan and that is “Build Upon The African American Cultural Legacy.” If we took a vote today, mine would be to not include Uptown because I think it would lead to disparate benefit to artists who I have not seen as general participants in Hill District and because Uptown arts activities like the Gist St. Reading Series never seemed to me to see folks on the other side of fifth ave as part of their audience, but this will be a subject taken up a later point. Maybe some kind of positive, NAFTA-like, cross 5th Ave Trade Agreement?

The next step will be a convening of artists in mid April to share the data and conduct focus groups that seek to find out how the neighborhood can better support the creation of art by Hill District artists in general and how we can support more of it being made and made visible in the neighborhood. Can’t wait to see what folks come up with.

Still thinking of a Master (Arts) Plan

Rolling again on the Hill District Consensus Group Arts Plan! Meeting this Tuesday at 6 pm at the Hill House Kaufmann Program Center. One of the things we’ll discuss is what defines a Hill District artist i.e. musician, actor, dancer, craftsperson, painter, doll-maker, filmmaker, photographer, quilter, rapper, choreographer and infinity plus 1. The idea being that the plan should serve Hill District artist and so this category needs to be defined. Additionally on the agenda will be reviewing the data we’ve collected from more than 200 surveys and planning an artist focus group to be held in April.

We’ll propose this definition of a Hill District Artist:

She or he has always lived here
Was born here but raised elsewhere;
Was born elsewhere but raised here;
Lives here now;
Works for an arts org/company based in the Hill;

Looking forward to the discussion.

Stories We Tell & Stories We Don’t: Racial Peekaboo in the Lives of Youth

I recently read Everything I Never Told You by Pittsburgher/Ohioan, Celeste Ng, who grew up here and in ShakPic of Celeste Ng and Everything I Never Told of Youer Heights, OH. The story is set in a small, all-white town in Ohio and revolves around the death of teenager, Lydia Lee, the bi-ethnic child of Chinese American, James Lee, and White American, Marilyn Lee.

Despite the rave reviews, and my love for the title, I was pretty much “meh” about the story: it dragged in too many parts, I wanted the characters to take on racism in more dynamic ways and while Ms. Ng (pronounced “ing”) lets us see how the Asian characters struggle with their own racial image, we don’t get that opportunity with the White characters.  In this way, the story suffers from unexamined whiteness in kind of the same way the Asian characters in Everything I Never Told You suffer from the unexamined whiteness of the all white people in the all white town.

Still, it is not without interesting moments. It was intriguing to hear the voices of the Chinese American father and his bi-ethnic children (while the town calls the children “Oriental” we do not learn how they make sense of their ethnic identity) as they struggle with INTRA-racism, how they internalize racism, and INTER-racism, how racial ideas are imposed upon them in their interactions with white people. Interesting to me was the way the intelligence of the characters was never at issue, almost always a part of the racial oppression of people of African descent. Rather, the characters struggle with both standing out and yet being ignored in their community – what the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond call the hyper-visibility and invisibility that people of color experience. In keeping with this motif, the Asian-nesss of the story’s fulcrum character, Lydia, goes unseen by her White American mother. Even as Marilyn reflects on Lydia’s death, we don’t hear her comment or even think about what her daughter might have faced as a girl of Asian descent.  In the Chinese father we see the hope that class privilege and a quality education will overcome the child’s “otherness” among all-white groups of children and allow Lydia  to experience a full childhood outside the box of race.  Sadly, that’s a time-tested formula that never works and, ultimately, contributes to Lydia’s death. This is not to say that Ms. Ng is not writing about race and racism, she is, but she just doesn’t sufficiently take on whiteness IMO. Critical in the story is the fact that Lydia is the rare person of Chinese descent to have blue eyes, and not coincidentally, she is the clear favorite of her parents (a shout out to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye?). All of this is then wrapped up in how we grow to understand Lydia’s death. Btw no spoiler here, Lydia’s death is noted in the book jacket cover.

Sadly, sickening, frustratingly, too, death regularly visits teenagers and our families in the Hill District. While white supremacy plays out differently than we see in Everything I Never Told You, hyper visibility and invisibility are in full effect. As happened with Lydia Lee, and with middle class white youth as the norm, in death the media seizes on our teenagers’ otherness, their exoticness, on the racial stereotypes that will somehow justify the tragedy as their fault and the fault of the family with no implications for the surrounding (read white, middle class) society. This is the hyper visibility. The shootings that we hear blamming out multiple times a week in the Hill deserve a wide-ranging, community wide, public health response, not just a police response. But we do not see it. Year after year, the deaths mount. The invisibility.

About two 1/2 months ago, my nephew, Eric Young was killed on his way to school. Through sadness, anger and frustration, I have watched this cycle of visibility and invisibility “Now I see you. Now I don’t.”

Eric's playfulness, ignored in media accounts

Eric’s playfulness, ignored in media accounts

First, there was the initial hyper visibility of certain elements of the story i.e. “teenage student shot to death on his way to school” , a picture of Eric with a gun, another with money. At the same time there is the almost complete invisibility of his death and hundreds/thousands of others in the public narrative, including public officials and philanthropy. Despite, or maybe because of this reality, young people keep his name in public spaces as they do so many others they’ve lost. They’ve changed their twitter names, held public gatherings and are still tweeting with dedicated hashtags. These expressions of love & pain are part of the ongoing memorializing that makes visible the loved ones who have been taken. Those who couldn’t be saved. I see this community pain and trauma in the Rest in Peace/Rest With God t-shirts, hashtags, twitter names & “gone but not forgotten” tattoos. These  are  ways that so many  keep their missing friends and family alive and present, while the public narrative draws our attention to the event, the spectacle and turns its eye from a coordinated response.

While many such as Richard Garland,continue to work in this space and advocate for even greater attention to this public health epidemic,  that work is being supported with micro responses that help us  understand and respond to white supremacy  (shout out to my friend Heath Bailey who yesterday had an fb post asking friends to call out white supremacy  as the psychological health problem that it is). Of course by “us” I don’t mean African Americans alone. One of the encouraging and distinguishing things to see in the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the way white people are bringing attention to their own whiteness in these murders. Locally, there is the work of  WHAT’S UP Pittsburgh an anti-racist organization with an acronym that stands for “Working & Healing to Abolish Total Supremacy Undermining Privilege.”  One question might be what does focus on whiteness from white people  look like as a movement to educate white children? This too is already taking shape and a number of ideas can be found on twitter at #FergusonSyllabus.

But I think the white community has so many models to take from the International African and African diasporic  community in this area as we have dealing with the pain of internalized racism for going on five centuries. One example of this movement is a project with which I am directly affiliated called the Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy. Beginning February 7th at the Kingsley Association, Iota Phi, the local chapter of my

Flyer for 2015 Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy

Flyer for 2015 Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy

fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., will begin our 4th year running this ten week, Saturday school teaching arts, history and science in an African American cultural context. Dr. Woodson, often called the “Father of Black History” and the founder of The Association for the Study of Afro American Life and History, the organization responsible for Black History Month, was a member of our fraternity. This program is designed as a programmatic response to his most famous work The Miseducation of the Negro. Among many themes, “Miseducation” deals with how intra-racism is developed in African American students through the educational process and how this then shows up in all kinds of ways in the lives of African American people and communities. Iota Phi developed the program as one response to a rash of murders four years ago and it continues in that vein. If we want Black young people to live by the creed #BlackLivesMatter, we need an educational process that lives that creed as well. For more information or to register your children, please call 412.200.7829 or email us at

If you have gotten this far, thank you. Love and light to the spirit of Eric Young, the Young and Potter families, and the families and friends missing young people  this holiday season due to what so many see, but some do not, Pittsburgh’s ongoing homicide epidemic.

Hill CDC Meeting Announces Lower Hill Deal

Take two after losing the post I wrote last night. Last night, The Hill District Community Development Corporation (The Hill CDC) had a community meeting focused on two subjects: The recent deal outlining what would come back to the Hill from the gift given to the Penguins by our local government in order for them not to leave i.e. the rights to develop the 28 acres in the Lower Hill District.  The second element of the meeting was an envisioning of what might happen on Centre Ave. As there were a lot of details and potential implications to both issues, I will not try to handle this all in one post. First- what I heard from Councilman Daniel Lavelle re: the deal on the Lower Hill.

I came in on the tail end of the presentation and so the part that I was able to hear pertained to a fund that will be created to spur development in the entire Hill. According to the Councilman, the fund will get its dollars from  a TIF or Tax Increment Financing deal that will send 65% of the increase in taxes raised by the redevelopment of the Lower Hill to the Hill District Growth Fund and 35% back to the City of Pittsburgh. TIFs are something I am still trying to get my head around, so I hope to come back to that in a later post, but the headlines that I heard are the following:

  •  the deal could lead to anywhere from $22 million to $70 million in dollars to fund development across the Hill District;
  • the signatories were the Mayor, the Councilman, the Penguins and the Hill District CDC;
  • the committee currently managing the Hill District Growth Fund will appoint new members to the body and other political entities, such as the city or county will not be able to weigh in on who sits on the committee;
  • the agreement will be posted on the Councilman’s page.

Questions from the audience ranged from how would the fund be governed and ensured to benefit the Hill District residents to could the fund help with the eventual tax increases that property owners in the Hill will face as a result of the new development, which is a fascinating idea in and of itself. Wouldn’t that mean from a taxing strategy perspective that the city was developing property in the Lower Hill to raise taxes for its own operations, sending a chunk back to the Hill to help it redevelop “itself” (the Hill is still a part of the City) and then some of these same dollars were then coming back to the City treasure chest in the form of abatements given to residents to offset the the taxes caused by the redevelopment?  Owning two properties in the Hill, I can’t say I’m mad about that idea, and what I like about it is that it essentially means that Hill District residents would not have to incur the same price for the redevelopment of their neighborhood, but could reap the benefit in increased home values.  Interesting.

Anyway, the Councilman’s response on making sure the dollars allocated to the Hill were actually going to benefit the Hill had much to do with governance. Here he talked about the way the current members of the committee managing the Hill District Growth Fund would manage these dollars and that this committee would be the only one with the power to appoint new members, so that there could be no interference from other entities such as the City or County. This was posited as community control and while it surely will be controlled by residents and stakeholders of the Hill District (there was a resident clause to the membership on the committee that I missed), I have raised questions going back a couple of years as to how “community” is operationalized. This will be key if the fund is going to provide anything approaching equal access to all ideas and not be severely weighted towards those close to the Councilman and the Hill District CDC, which can happen even without intentions of graft, corruption and the like. Funding organizations (and I work for one) are notorious for providing access based on proximity to the board and staff of the organization, so this fund, garnered in the name of the Hill District community, has both the opportunity and burden of actually developing a process that leads to attracting and fairly funding all kinds of community ideas and to date. One idea I suggested two years ago that I don’t believe has happened and was not mentioned last night was to rotate members of the committee governing the fund.

The opportunity is to set a standard for how communities could decide funding processes and priorities for themselves and that all kinds of funding orgs, like philanthropy, government and intermediaries could learn from or be encouraged to take up. From what I can see this hasn’t happened to date  I was encouraged that the Councilman spoke of a need to think about the processes governing the fund, but said it was best to speak to the POISE Foundation as to how this would actually happen. In a later twitter exchange that included my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing, who has written about anti-displacment policies and how cronyism helps to foster and preserve slums, Councilman Lavelle weighed in that he agreed that the governance of the fund and its transparency was all important.

Lavelle Laing twitter exchange

As Mayor Peduto has said this is the largest TIF deal in the city’s history, there will be much to think about as to how this will benefit the neighborhood and I am very glad we have this to think,  talk and act about.


Hey, Affordable Housing in the Hill District is About You Too

The brownstone across from my sister’s house.

I was just at my sister’s and brother-in-law’s apartment in Brooklyn, NY and so was in one of the most talked about places in the country when it comes to gentrification, so I will try to avoid the clichés and focus on a piece that I think connects well to the Hill District and a larger issue re: owner choice when it comes to prices. She has lived in Brooklyn for 11 years and Bed Stuy for the past 8. Nina is a renter and has been blessed to live in an apartment that has not had its rent increased since she moved in. After seeing the housing prices of this neighborhood, I attribute this lack of an increase to the personal values of the owner. The issue of owner values is important because it contradicts the always repeated mantra of “the market” as this is  a giant from the hills that we have no control over (Mos Def’s “Fear Not of Man”  uses this analogy to talk about people asking about the direction of Hip Hop) . The market as price raising giant. A giant wholly separate of the values of the people who actually own the thing. C’mon. Stop that.

So, at some point we went outside to walk with my nephew and Nina points to a house across the street and notes that what looks like a pretty basic brownstone says “I hear that place is going for $1.6 million.” As luck would have it,  the house happens to have an open house going on at that time and so we go in to check it out. The realtor makes a point to say the this three- plex over a two bedroom apartments will be sold “as is”. When we go inside to see the place, we see what he means. Stained carpet, old stove, rickety stairs, just generally kind of funky. Nina is looking around and is noting that there is no way this place costs $1.6 million.

My sister asks the gentleman how much the house is going for and he says not $1.6 million.. but $1.69 million! Wow. So, if you are not familiar with what a three-plex over a two bedroom apartment means, it means three floors of a house above a 2 br apt. I am no real estate expert, and we don’t have any traditional AA neighborhoods that are at this stage of gentrification, so comparisons are difficult, but I am thinking this house is more expensive than what we’d find in Pgh, by a factor of 5. However, what’s more telling is that the #’s were staggering to my sister who, as I said earlier, has been in this neighborhood for almost a decade.

As we were leaving we noted to the realtor that it was a hefty price tag. He commented off handedly that the reason he could have an asking price this high was because there was no space left in Manhattan. This immediately struck me and made me think of the Hill. Around 2:30 pm a ride to my sister’s from Midtown Manhattan was about a 25 minute cab ride. Take into account NYC non-rush hour traffic and we’ll call it a 15 min ride in Pittsburgh. Now keep in mind that Mayor Peduto is said to want 10,000 to 20,000 new residents in Pittsburgh over the next decade (Thanks to Majestic Lane, formerly of Senator Ferlo’s office and now of A+ schools for this info). So, if housing in the Lower Hill District will average about $300,000, what will happen to housing in the Hill District once that housing fills up? Obviously, its likely that housing prices will go up dramatically, though not automatically, since there really is not a price raising giant (there really isn’t). It’s obvious because you can drive across the Hill and back 2x in that same 15 min drive that is needed to get toinside the house top floor “The Stuy” from Midtown, so of course we will be impacted by housing in the Lower Hill. What I haven’t really thought much about is what the Lower Hill housing prices might  mean to neighborhoods like Manchester and Lawrenceville.  If Manhattan, NY’s center city,  is driving Brooklyn housing prices, isn’t that akin to the Lower Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods?  And it’s not just housing prices. My sister has noted food and daycare prices escalating as well, because owners i.e. are sensing there is money left on the table and making choices to raise prices. The issue of affordable housing is usually framed as an issue where we in the professional and “caretaking” classes talk about the impacts on poor people, but Nina and her husband are professional class folks with multiple degrees between them and the giant is impacting them as 2-2

Thus, affordable housing in the Lower Hill District is about all of us in Pittsburgh and this remaining a more affordable city than many.  Of course we know that the Penguins development is built on land given them by the city for free when they threatened to go to Kansas City and that that land was acquired by the city when it used eminent domain to take the property from its largely African American population. So, the issue of the Lower Hill is also about the increasing ways the public sector is used to enrich those who are very wealthy already,  in this case, Mr. Ron Burkle, Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. Seriously, how do they talk so stridently about the market and how it can’t tolerate 30% affordable housing on this piece of land they did not buy. If a housing owner can decide to maintain an affordable rent for a young family in Bed Stuy as personal policy, why can’t major corporate owners have a value for affordable housing as a citywide policy that impacts thousands of people? Everyday we hear allusions and direct references to the values and of poor people, whether in the need for certain kinds of mentoring programs so kids can learn values “not in Mario_Lemieux the businessmantheir homes” or in the “ratchet” videos on Facebook.  However, I don’t think we spend 1/2 that amount of time thinking about the values of the very wealthy and the choices they make that impact us far greater than the young men who are sagging.  I’ve heard Pgh Black folks get on Pgh Black athletes for their lack of commitment to the Pittsburgh Black community, but what of Mario Lemieux? Honestly, what Pittsburgh athlete has received  more benefits from  Pittsburgh’s Black community? Who is the proverbial “giant” in this story? Don’t get mad. It’s a fair question.

Thinking of a Hill Art Plan

A couple of weeks ago, the Hill District Consensus Group (for whom my wife works, I am a supporter and the organization I work for, The Heinz Endowments, is a funder) held its second art plan meeting at the Hill House Association. The focus of this meeting was, in accordance with The Greater Hill District Master Plan, to take another step in the development of a plan for arts and culture in the Hill District. The meeting was facilitated by HDCG staffer, Brian Brown, and was attended by a range of interested parties including Errol Reynolds (Moe) and Charlotte Ka and who are working to build a cultural center to host artist residencies, performances, classes and more on Centre and Soho, Karen Abrams, Hill District resident and URA staffer, Thomas Chatman, Hill District resident and Executive Director of Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble, IAsia Thomas, teaching artist & poet, Ayisha Morgan Lee, Executive Director of Hill Dance Academy Theater, which holds its classes in the old St. Benedict the Moor School on Bedford Ave, an organization also funded by The Heinz Endowments, and Marimba Milliones, Executive Director of the Hill District Community Development Corporation, who came in during the latter part of the meeting and as I was leaving. Additionally, there were a range of youth staff from the HDCG, staff of Public Allies and Luqmon Salaam who was there in his capacity as a member of S Consulting.

There were a few guiding questions that we worked on in the meeting and the agenda can be seen here HDCG Arts Plan Working Group Agenda & Action Plan_Feb 11 2014. The section of the conversation that was most memorable in my mind was the discussion with Karen Abrams  and Moe around the idea that arts plan should have a balance of work that is designed to help the community remember the best of its past thought and behavior (cultural legacy) as well as facilitate  creative production from professional artists, organizations, and non professional adults and youth (art). Celebrating past creative production and facilitating current production, particularly by African Americans, could play an important role in maintaining the neighborhood’s African American identity, attracting Black artists and attracting former residents to return and new African American residents to want to make the Hill their home while making this neighborhood a much more interesting and child friendly place. My suspicion is keeping the Hill predominantly African American will also keep it more affordable since everything is monetized or given a dollar value  in capitalism and Black life is deemed less valuable in our culture. Think of the “There goes the neighborhood” phrase. I can hear my friend and colleague, Karen Abrams, sucking her teeth and pointing to Harlem, so that could be a misplaced hope. What I am most interested in as a different conversation and set of actions when it comes to artists and “redevelopment” in predominantly African American neighborhoods. So often when Pittsburgh talks “artists” and cultural/economic/neighborhood development what is imagined is the facilitating and relocating of  artists who often do not have a history of being in dialogue or being inspired by the neighborhood, its culture and history and this only continues when they arrive. Most often these are white artists and this only compounds the feeling that a neighborhood is being “taken”. More to say on this matter, but I want to get this up and posted because it’s been a moment since I have posted.

Next steps will be to involve more residents both artists and non-artists and Bonnie and Brian had the good idea to begin to take the questions listed on the agenda to a variety of community settings, rather than wait for folks to come to meetings, so I am excited about that strategy just for the kinds of conversations and visibility it can give to conversations of culture in the Hill.  I believe the next meeting will be in the next couple of weeks and residents (the current priority) should contact Brian Brown at to get more information. To see the good ideas already generated about what kinds of arts activity is desired for the neighborhood, please click on HDCG Arts Plan Working Group Notes_Meeting 2_Feb 19 2014 revised1.  Work on this plan will be ongoing and so I hope to have further updates as it progress. Onward and upward…

Thinking and Talking about the Danger of “THOTS”

Demonstrating the cultural center role barbershops often play, I had a thought-provoking and somewhat troubling conversation with a broad range of African American men at Big Tom’s barbershop on Centre Ave a couple Saturdays ago . New to me and a few of the other over 40’s was this phrase used in both electronic and verbal communication among the younger set called THOTS, which stands for “that ‘ho’ over there”.  In the course of the discussion, I remarked that the term was terrible and likely to boomerang and a young man responded  that what was terrible was that young women do the things that make them worthy of such names. Obviously, there is no mystery in what makes a young woman or girl worthy: engaging in sex with a number of partners that young men or boys determine excessive, but of course not too excessive to be a commentary on the men and boys who engage as well. It felt good that the young man later followed up his comment empathetically reflecting that there could be a reason for the young woman’s behavior, but interestingly did not mention that the participating boys’ behavior needed an explanation.

The young man who made the comment was by no means expressing a viewpoint unique to him or even a minority view. We live in a white supremacist, patriarchal culture (literally, rule of the father) so the image and identity of Black women and girls are under regular assault. So, I guess what really struck me about the this term was that it was even more dismissive and dehumanizing than what I normally hear, but it’s important to consider it because the language of youth tells us a lot about where we stand as culture. Who did they learn it from? Also, I have to reflect on why the term might be striking to me when I’m aware of the culture we live in. There is this term, “middle class subterfuge”, that a former professor of mine, Dr. Vernell Lillie, taught to explain how middle class people hide their ideas, particularly around power, with all kinds of euphemisms. So, I shouldn’t be surprised at hearing a term like “THOTS” in a community that is largely working class and less prone to euphemisms, but still the dehumanizing  language literally sent a shockwave of fear through me. Fear, because we dehumanize classes of people to justify all kinds of things that are done to them, very often violent things, and so dehumanizing women and girls in language is simply a stage in a continuum of violence. And, I have seen on one occasion walking with my daughter at Kennard Field, how rape sits very present in the minds of boys not even 14 years old.

This got me to thinking about where does the desire to prevent male violence against women show up in neighborhood planning beyond well lit streets? When we talk about building on the cultural legacies we often are thinking about supporting our identities in racial and ethnic terms, but what about in gender terms? What kinds of design choices would we make if we wanted to build on a cultural legacy that challenged the thinking behind THOTS? The thinking that leaves women and girls vulnerable to rape and abuse and traps men and boys in ideas of manhood and boyhood that encourages unprotected sex with multiple partners and all of the consequences that can follow when we are still very young.

But the Hill does have a legacy that challenges the thinking behind THOTS. We have a building named after Ms. Alma Speed Fox, one of the most prominent feminists in Pittsburgh, and the home of the non-profit organization she began, Freedom Unlimited (my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing, serves on that board), a professor/artist/blogger/social media magnate, Dr. Kim Ellis aka Dr. Goddess, has a national following and shares thinking that could be called Black feminism, Baba Rob Penny, love, light and progress to his spirit, who always talked about the need for a balance of women’s and men’s voices when talking about African American cultural legacy (thanks to Iya Valerie Adeniji Lawrence for reminding me of this a few weeks ago), and in my life there is my wife, Bonnie, who has been a strong voice for me about patriarchy and chauvinism. Still, are those voices and the thoughts behind them present in the majority of conversations men and boys have in this community? What part of Master Planning and neighborhood revitalization asks questions about the impact of the environment on the identities of men and boys and how those identities can be engaged with to prevent violence and the dehumanizing of women and girls, even if we are “only” talking about dehumanizing language? Maybe its having artists in the neighborhood who create work such as Luqmon Salaam’s “Blue Color Theory” off of his album “Ancestral Connections” (will try and post a link later)

Shout out to Tom Boyd and Big Tom’s Barbershop for creating a place where these conversations could be held, my nine year old could listen without my feeling he was in an inappropriate environment, learning could happen and he still got a fresh cut.

What I Want For Christmas? Fair Coverage from the PG

A few weeks ago, Mark Belko wrote a problematic piece in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s PGBusiness section titled “Penguins plans for Civic site hit snag”. As you can see, I haven’t been making time for posting of late, however, luckily for this blogger,  it was problematic in such a way as to still be relevant a few weeks later. As a “bonus”, it was problematic enough to be problematic on three counts, since pithy points are best made in threes.

The first problem was the PG/Belko brought neither critical eye nor ear to the article and instead choose to be megaphone for the Pens’ talking points, this is not just a problem for the article, though, it’s a problem because it’s an example of the larger challenge the Hill District faces in getting balanced coverage in the local media. Particularly coverage that helps the public avoid the cliché of angry, dissatisfied Black communities and instead consider the fact that the Penguins are a fairly massive corporation, with international reach, getting private benefit from public goods. Of course there is also the fact that the PG covers the Penguins almost year round… Second problem, Travis Williams once again showing the Penguins to be our disingenuous corporate neighbor to the west, brazenly “misspeaking” about what the Pens know of the Hill District’s desires and interests in the Lower Hill District.  Finally, and third, Councilman Daniel Lavelle’s comment that making sure that 30% of Lower Hill housing is affordable is a non-negotiable “at this time”.  As Slick Rick said, heeeeere we go.

Belko as shill

Essentially, it appears a few weeks ago someone from the Pens’ communications office called over to the PG to give them the following “story”: the Penguins won’t be calling another community meeting or submitting their Preliminary Land Development Plan as they planned. To hear them tell it, at the meeting they called a month ago at the Hill House (and covered on this site in Ms. Renee Aldrich’s “Pens Meeting Goes Nowhere Fast” ) they “heard the community” and now know the Hill wants the Lower Hill development to have 30% of its housing dedicated as affordable for households earning 50% of the average median income.  Secondly, the Pens and their developer, McCormack Baron Salazar, would like the PG readership to know that they are offering to “designate 20% of the units as affordable to households earning 80% of the average median income.” However, according to the Penguins Chief Operating officer, Travis Williams, now that the Penguins are clear that this is issue of affordable housing is “an important issue to them [the Hill]”, they are prepared to delay their own forward progress, hold off on the submission of the plan and have a “broader conversation”. What a crock…

That Belko just allows the Penguins to make these kinds of statements unchallenged is sad, to say the least. A few facts:

  • The Hill District’s stand on the % of housing that should be affordable and what would make it affordable is stated clearly in the Community Master Plan completed in, wait for it ….2011.
  • The Penguins point of view of what should be offered and their definition of affordable housing was first shared in the assumptions they used to draft an economic impact study in, wait for it …2010. How much have they moved on this issue of affordable housing after more than six months of talking to the Hill District in the personage of the Lower Hill Working Group, wait for it…it appears not one iota.

Now, maybe Belko knows none of this (mind you, a quick search will show Belko has covered the Hill District’s battle with the Penguins and the City going back to 2008), but the following question to Travis Williams “If you did not know what ‘the community’ wanted, what have you been talking to Councilman Lavelle and the Lower Hill Working Group for more than six months about?” would have showed the Penguins to be playing games.  However, there is another section of the story that suggests the PG is not simply naively repeating the Penguins’ talking points and that is the following section: “City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, whose district includes the Hill and the adjacent (emphasis mine) arena site…” Note also the title of the article which calls the Lower Hill District the “Civic site”. So, now the we refer to the area clearly marked in the Greater Hill District Master Plan as the “Lower Hill District” as an area “adjacent to the Hill” or as the “Civic site”? As though the Lower Hill is not  a part of the Hill District? What then is the meaning of the name Lower Hill Working Group i.e. the group negotiating around the Lower Hill. The renaming of the Hill District has been going on for quite sometime (see Oak Hill) but this is one of the more brazen attempts that I have seen in a moment, particularly since it’s the PG serving as “objective” certifier.

The Mis-speaker: Travis Williams

Obviously, if the Greater Hill District Master Plan has been out for more than 1 1/2 years and the housing goals are a part of that plan, it’s absolutely ridiculous for Mr. Williams to pretend that they are just learning about this issue…now. So, what was the real reason for calling that community meeting? Not knowing Williams and not being involved in these discussions with the Penguins, I really don’t know, but I would venture it was to test the political strength of the Lower Hill Working Group and see to what extent they had a constituency ready to kick up a fuss. So, the Penguins call the meeting, the Councilman and community drum up interest and then we see where the chips fall. Well, Hill District, according to the PG, mission accomplished on that front since apparently we showed enough color to prove to Williams and the Penguins that they shouldn’t submit the PLDP to city planning, yet. However, what’s so problematic is that one of our city leaders, Travis Williams, would get up and so grossly misrepresent the truth to the PG readers. Does anything hold this city back more than the lack of honest communication from of our leadership? Pittsburgh’s tolerance for leadership that obfuscates and lies, particularly to its African American communities, is a problem.

Councilman Lavelle and Affordable Housing

“When asked whether the community would accept less than 30% [affordable housing], Mr. Lavelle replied ‘At this time, I would say no'”. Okaaaay?  So, at a later time, the Councilman could presumably say “yes, I accept less than 30%”? I guess we should infer the answer is  “yes, but only under the “proper conditions.”? But what conditions? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I would imagine it would be conditions where the Councilman was offered something on the behalf of the community that he felt was worth accepting less than 30% affordable housing. That’s concerning. Because of our city’s extreme racial disparities, in order for Pittsburgh to maintain and even grow its African American population in the City and the Hill District, this 30% affordable housing is important. The 30% is also critically important to this city’s burgeoning movement to develop structural responses to the gentrification of predominantly African American communities. I would also say that I have talked to African American professional class folks in the Hill who have stayed and moved to this neighborhood because they want to live in a predominantly African American community (count me among them), and would be very disappointed to see this criteria negotiated away for something else, for example a development fund, probably the sexiest of the remaining issues still at play. To see what those issues are, see my prior post on my conversation with Councilman Lavelle. So, I hope this is an issue that the Councilman and community representatives stand and win on. I realize that the newspaper coverage is not what it once was, but it would be great if Belko could give have given us some inkling as to the potential implications of Lavelle’s comment by asking a follow up question. Even if only on the paper’s online version.

C’mon PG, Step Your Game Up

So, a great Christmas present or New Year’s Resolution from the PG and Mr. Belko would be more thoughtful, balanced and incisive coverage of the Hill District and Penguins negotiation and a commitment to help this city understand the important questions of race and class that are being discussed on the streets, in meetings and boardrooms everyday. As Elwin Green of the Homewood Nation would say, “Let’s Elevate the Conversation”.

Pens Meeting Goes Nowhere Fast…by Renee Aldrich

On November 21, I attended what I thought would be yet another run of the mill meeting where the Penguins come to the Hill House and make a whole lot of noise about their plans for the lower hill, and we leave wondering what we just heard and what it means for us the “community”. That is not quite what happened.

A large turnout of over 100 community folks, business people, hill leaders, and others turned out at the Hill House Auditorium in anticipation of  hearing the plans about the Lower Hill (Irreverently referred to by the Pens as “the 28 acres”)

Initially it did seem like it was about to be a repeat of the same old same old –  a kind of leading the lambs to slaughter by way of fried chicken, mac and cheese, string beans, rolls, juice and chocolate chip cookies.

The screen loomed overhead, promising of the pending Powerpoint presentations of our neighborhood.   I knew they’d be a variation on the same slides we’ve seen any number of times—giving us a “history of the Hill”  a history of the processes that have been engaged over the past two-three years as relates to the Pens and the Community.  And along with this there was the COO of the Pens, Travis Williams,  waiting in the wings with  their 3 sets of urban experts , poised to meet us and attempt to assure this community that they have our total interest in mind.

Between the food, the motivational speeches, banal sentimentality, and a power point presentation of the track record of McCormick Baron Salazar, the next thing we knew,  45 minutes had passed and this meeting was nowhere near providing information to the community as to what they (the Pens) planned to take before the Planning Commission on December 9.

When Carl Redwood, Executive Director of the Consensus Group, brought this out, and said  “You guys are slow walking us through this presentation until we run out of time here and we don’t get to debate what these plans are going to be”, is when things begin to go south.  His challenge to them opened the flood gates and it seemed  that the community decided that would not wait until the Q&A portion to express their disdain at what they have already heard.

I raised the point as follows:  “With respect I am suggesting to you that it I snow 7:30 we’ve been here since 6pm, and motivational speeches are NOT what we came here for tonight.  We don’t need to be motivated, we need some substantive conversation about the Pen’s plans to make sure this community benefits from whatever is done in the lower hill.  Ms. Frankie Williams stated that she for one did not trust for one minute that they were being honest with us, and that she believes they intend to go forward with their plans and we will end up with NOTHING!!

Many others came to the mike to protest this empty process.  In the meantime, the Pens and their consultants were trying to take back the meeting.  But this was proving to be very challenging.  Questions never really got answered, except that in spite of the valiant efforts of the working group on the “Lower Hill” to convey to the Pens that the community was seeking 30 percent affordable housing, they (the Pens) had not agreed to that but were stopping at 20 percent.  This created great furor in the room and again voices were raised, while the Pens continued to try to convince this audience that they were making every effort to work with this community to ensure that  things could come out fair and equitable for the Hill.

In the meantime there were those who were wondering where the political leaders where whom the Pens kept saying they had been working with to come up with a plan that would satisfy the community’s demands—the Greater Hill District Master Plan, notwithstanding.

Marc Little, Executive Director of MWELA (Minority & Women Educational Labor Agency) expressed it best when he asked Travis Williams why had he kept mentioning Councilman Lavelle but Councilman Lavelle was not standing beside him enforcing the events of this evening.   He stated too that he was completely frustrated with the wheel spinning process that has not gotten anyone anywhere, a process wherein the Pens spend more time talking about why the can’t do what the community asks, then taking the steps necessary to change the history and landscape of a community that for far too long has been subject to ‘leftovers’ while corporations continue to get the cream.

Councilman Lavelle did come to the mic and expressed his appreciation to the community for coming out and making their voices heard, and for informing the Pens of where they  (Community) stand and what they saw as unacceptable.  He also said that he had not called this meeting because he wanted to bring “better” information to the community  and as soon as  he, the lower hill working group, and the Pens where able to return to the table and to agree on a plan that would create a more positive impact on this community in  his district, he would call a meeting to let them know, but from his perspective, this was not it.

This meeting showed that this community is finished  sitting in silence while the Pens pull the wool over our eyes. At the very least they (the Pens) will be challenged as to the level of their sincerity, and more voices will be heard in protest if they continue to conduct things, business as usual.  It was good to watch and take part in.