It took me two separate trips to complete my street by street walk of the racially mixed and high poverty south Hilltop neighborhood of Knoxville. In not making the greatest decision, I left my winter coat at home on a moderately temperate February day and regretted it almost immediately as the temperature began to dive. When I returned to complete my second walk of the neighborhood, I was prepared.
As mentioned in the Knoxville neighborhood profile, I have a close connection to the neighborhood. My mom grew up in the northern, and blacker, part of the Knoxville on Rochelle Street and my grandma lived there until she passed around 2007. I have an aunt and uncle who still live there and several cousins who I haven’t seen in at least a few years. Also, the very first rental apartment complex that I lived in with my parents and older sister is a block down the road from Knoxville in the northern-most part of Carrick.
For my first walk of the neighborhood, I walked southward from the northern border of Knoxville at Cedarhurst Street. And so, for my second walk of the neighborhood, I decided to start walking from Knoxville’s southern border near St. John Vianney Cemetery, which is where my grandma and other extended family members rest. As I walked northward and zigzagged through some of the winding streets and alley ways of the southern part of Knoxville, I noticed just how white the southern part of the neighborhood is – as compared to the section of Knoxville north of Suncrest Street. Knoxville is one of only 7 neighborhoods and neighborhood areas in the City of Pittsburgh with no clear simple racial majority as of 2017 American Community Survey 5-year estimates. And yet, it is still fairly segregated.; something my interviewee agreed with.
In a moment of serendipity, given my realization and the conversation that was about to take place, I ran into an amicable, honest and forward black woman named Dana as I walked eastward on Suncrest Street. She possessed character traits that I deeply appreciate. I stopped, informed her of the project and she agreed to talk, as long as it didn’t take too long given the cold. While I attempted to talk to several neighborhood residents that cold afternoon, Dana was the only one who wasn’t in a rush to get somewhere and she didn’t mind spending a few extra minutes outside in the frigid weather.
Dana told me that she was originally from Philadelphia and that she had been in Pittsburgh now for roughly 20-years. Before living in Knoxville, Dana had rented in several other south Hilltop neighborhoods including Mt. Oliver, Beltzhoover and Allentown. I mentioned that my previous neighborhood profile had been on Manchester and she excitedly said that she had lived there too. Dana mentioned that she’s been in Pittsburgh for so long because of family. At one time, she had a full scholarship to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but a set of unlucky circumstances kept her from going there. Around the time of receiving the scholarship, her dad went to jail, and she selflessly chose to stay behind and take care of one of her two sisters. She currently works in the service industry and has an affinity for good barbecue. She mentioned that I should check out the recently opened Fat Daddy’s just a few blocks down on Brownsville Road in Mt. Oliver borough and I plan to.
When I asked her what her favorite part of living in Knoxville was she said, “Because it’s cheap.” Knoxville has the 5th lowest median home value in all of Pittsburgh and maintains rents that are comparatively cheaper than in demand locations on the City’s East End. For a brief time, Dana lived in Highland Park and said that she was paying upwards of $700 for a rental unit. Here in Knoxville, she was paying $400 something for the same type of unit. Her and her finance are saving up to buy a house, and Knoxville helps her save.
When I asked her about her least favorite part of Knoxville she immediately said, “Being brown and the cops. The shops on Brownsville Road don’t say “whites only,” but as a black person you come to understand which ones you’re welcome in and which one’s you aren’t. It’s tough being black in Knoxville. And as a black person you definitely avoid Carrick and you especially avoid Brentwood. And if you’re a black person that lives in Carrick, well good luck to you.” She then asked, “Have you heard of Jonny Gammage?” And I replied, “No, I haven’t.” Dana went on to explain how Jonny was just visiting Pittsburgh back in the mid-90s and was killed by several police officers in the south suburban municipality of the very white and middle to upper middle-class Brentwood. All for getting stopped for his driving. When I looked up Jonny, I found a somewhat recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published after a cop in the municipality of East Pittsburgh shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Antwon Rose. According to the police office, Antwon had “bolted” from a car during a traffic stop. He was only 17.
The article went on to say that Jonny had been “erratically” driving a borrowed car. Mr. Gammage was a mere 31 years old and died in the custody of the Brentwood police on route 51 in 1995. The cause of death was found to be asphyxiation, which was the result of the five police officers who tackled Johnny to the ground and held him there. Jonny was just visiting from Syracuse, NY. But to Dana, he was black and in Brentwood. That’s the cost of being black in the wrong place, and even in the “right” place. Three of the five officers were charged with involuntary manslaughter, but none were convicted. And in Pittsburgh the black community arose in protest; much like they did after Antwon Rose was shot.
Dana passionately explained that she gets harassed by the police quite often in Knoxville. And even as I spoke with her at Suncrest Street and Roll way, not far from the McDonald’s on Brownsville Road, a few unmarked police vehicles and policemen had been patrolling the street for something or someone right before I started speaking with Dana. Dana mentioned a few occasions where she had been stopped by the police at night while walking home from her job in the service industry. “Sometimes after 12 hours or so on my feet I just want to smoke a cigarette on my walk back home. And I’ve been stopped just for walking and having a smoke,” said Dana. According to Dana, police officers would ask her invasive questions about what she was doing and why she was out so late, but she was just minding her own business and walking home from her job.
Being black in Knoxville is complicated. As described in Knoxville’s neighborhood profile, in 2018 alone, 3 young men were shot and killed in Knoxville, two of whom were black males, and many more black men, women and even children were the victims of gun violence in just the past few years alone. And as reported by the Pittsburgh Courier, 75 of the 109 Homicides in 2018 in Allegheny County were black. As researcher Patrick Sharkey’s recent book Uneasy Peace details, and in a brief write-up of the book by NPR, crime is at an all time low in American cities. And poor urban neighborhoods are significantly less violent than they once were in the 70s and 80s. However, high poverty neighborhoods like Knoxville are still disproportionately affected by gun violence as compared to low poverty areas in Pittsburgh and beyond.
And so, as described by Dana, being black in Knoxville means that you need to keep an eye out for the police. And that’s a shame, given that the other reality facing both white and black Knoxville residents is their exposure to the neighborhood level measures of disadvantage that are highly predictive of gun violence and the gun violence itself. Sociological research into crime shows that violent crime is often a matter of economic circumstance, systemically high rates of male unemployment and single mother households, drug trafficking and its connection to a loss of real economic opportunity and a product and reaction to the high poverty neighborhoods in which many low-income blacks are born into. Meaning, black on black gun violence is often a result of economic circumstance, severe lack of opportunity and is simply a matter of proximity given the reality of how racially segregated high and extreme poverty neighborhoods are. Black on black gun violence is not some moral or cultural failing of the residents who reside in these neighborhoods.
As urban researchers Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson have explained, local culture may play some role in gun violence, but local culture is a reaction to the severe constraints that face the residents of durably poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods. Being harassed or even killed for the color of your skin is a matter of circumstance that is beyond a person’s control. And being born into a poor neighborhood is also beyond a person’s control. And yet, young black lives are lost to circumstances like these every day.
The Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project is deeply appreciative of Dana taking the time to stop and talk with me on such a cold winter day in Knoxville. Check out the full Knoxville Profile here. The views expressed in this article and all other articles of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project are mine alone and may not represent those of my current or former employers.
*If this is your first experience with the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project, the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project is a street by street exploration of all 90 neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh. As each neighborhood is walked they receive a neighborhood profile detailing past and recent neighborhood level indicators and analysis, photos and observations from my walks, a brief history of the neighborhood and resident interviews like this one. The secondary goal of the project is to expose the high degree of racial and economic segregation by neighborhood in Pittsburgh and lasting neighborhood poverty. Data briefs address this secondary goal and are comprehensive statistical, geospatial and research driven analyses and extrapolations. Please check out the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project to see what I’ve analyzed and written about thus far.*