Brookline is the place that made me. It’s the place where my siblings and I learned to swim with the patient help of my dad at the now closed Brookline Memorial pool. And the place where I once collected more than a thousand signatures to try to keep that pool open in the early 2000s. It’s the place where I was primarily raised. It’s the place where my mom once blew up an inflatable swimming pool with her breath alone because we were too poor to afford an air pump; it was an act of love and left her breathless. But it’s also the place where my siblings and I were abused – much like our parents were abused before they had us. And it’s the place where my siblings and I watched on in desperation as our younger brother endured two battles with Leukemia and cancer; one in his blood and one in his central nervous system. It’s the place where the first Las Palmas opened and is home to a small but growing Latino community. It houses Brookline’s commercial corridor which contained “moon-sized” pot holes for nearly all of my life, until it was re-paved a few years back. It’s home to Resurrection parish and the locally famous church carnival dubbed the Fun Flair. It’s the place where my siblings and I would play with our beloved dog Shadow in the backyard and where we cultivated bug gardens when we were too young to second guess picking up a spider. It’s the place where my best friend and I used to send each other to the hospital because of how dumb we were – which included an epic bike race down Brookline’s steepest cobblestone streets and a lot of stitches. It’s the place where I would wake up anxious during summer mornings when the sun had reached above my neighbor’s house; nervous that I had missed the chance to watch my feet illuminate with the sun’s glare as I sat on the stoop of our front porch on Rossmore Avenue.
It’s the place where my neighborhood friends and I used to save up enough change so we could buy a pack of Pokémon cards at the former Fancy Nancy’s back in the 90s. And also the place where we played countless neighborhood wide games of basketball, release, had water balloon fights and screamed obscenities at each other while we played the Nintendo 64. It’s the place where we made horrible home movies with special effects including baby powder, the Titanic soundtrack and the machine gun noise from Jet Force Gemini (that’s it). It’s the place with one of our former rental homes on Fordham Avenue; the house where I was afraid to walk down the basement steps for fear that I would fall between the empty spaces. It’s the place where my first crush told me that, “Looks aren’t everything” and then kissed me on the cheek by the hoop out behind the house. It’s the main subject of my most recent band’s record literally called “Placed.” It’s the place where I learned to play guitar, learned to love and became resilient. It’s the place where I was once an altar server, Boy Scout, terrible baseball player and it was my escape for all those days I skipped school. It’s a place that some suburban kids with money from my High School associated with poor White people – even if I was one of only a small percentage of poor White families living in Brookline. They called me “White Trash.” I eventually gained enough confidence to call them “Yuppies.” It’s the place where my childhood best friend and I grew up; we were born in the same hospital 3 days a part and we’ve known each other for 30-years now. It’s the echo of nearly every cherished childhood memory I have. And it’s the place where I currently live. There are too many moments, places and people to speak of in Brookline. And while I may not remember all of them, they have shaped me.
Brookline is accessible via the 39 and its north-western border is accessible via the 41. However, bus service stops well before midnight and the 39 doesn’t run at all on Sundays – which makes the neighborhood a bit inaccessible for people like myself who do not own a car and rely on public transit. And much like neighboring Beechview, it is extremely convenient for those who work downtown, and commuters can make it to town via the south bus way in less than 15-20 minutes. Like many of Pittsburgh’s hilly neighborhoods, Brookline streets are narrow and they often do not follow any sort of grid. As such, navigating them is a learned skill. Despite its many hills, the neighborhood is extremely walkable but has steep streets north, south, east and west of Brookline Boulevard. And city steps are a necessary form of transportation that allow residents to navigate Brookline’s various short cuts and its steepest streets. The border of Brookline is much like a Diamond. West Liberty Avenue comprises Brookline’s north-western border and meets at a northern point with the neighborhood’s north-eastern border – which is made up of the south bus way and Saw Mill Run Boulevard. Similarly, McNeilly Avenue, Dorchester Avenue and a number of other streets comprise the south-western border and Brookline Memorial Park and several other streets come together to form Brookline’s south-eastern and southern borders. Beechview and the suburbs of Dormont, Mount Lebanon and Baldwin Township border Brookline to the north-west, west, south-west and south, respectively. And Bon Air, Carrick and Overbrook border Brookline to the north-east, east and south-east, respectively. Saw Mill Run Boulevard cuts Brookline and other south Pittsburgh neighborhoods off from the neighborhoods located in the south Hilltop.
Brookline is a durably low poverty neighborhood that is primarily comprised of middle class and working class residents. Unlike other very low poverty neighborhoods such as the affluent Squirrel Hill North, Point Breeze and Regent Square, which have the 3 highest median incomes in the city, Brookline is relatively affordable and has a considerably lower median income. And unlike durably high poverty neighborhoods like Knoxville and Garfield, Brookline has low levels of gun violence and crime. Brookline offers a myriad of economically accessible and community driven enrichment activities for children and teenagers, has a vibrant commercial corridor with properties ranging from a local video game development incubator and arcade to the spacious Carnegie Library of Brookline and offers a number of local restaurants and a comic book store known as the Geekadrome – a place where teens can gather and play Magic the Gathering. Brookline is also home to the Pittsburgh famous Fiori’s Pizza and Pitaland, has two recreational parks and hosts a number of neighborhood youth sports’ teams. And as of 2015, it’s home to the Brookline Teen Outreach Center. BTO is a youth community outreach center that offers a variety of free programming, a safe space and activities for teens 10-18. My younger sister Joan has volunteered there since its inception and is one of the center’s therapists. BTO is a space that Joan and I wished we had access to when we were kids. And it’s one of the only programs like it in south Pittsburgh; the section of Pittsburgh that has one of the highest percentage of youth and yet has surprisingly little outreach regarding free counseling, tutoring, programming and connection to community service opportunities for teens. It is a welcomed addition to the neighborhood and needs support.
Like a number of Pittsburgh neighborhoods which are shaped by their respective topography, Brookline is contained and feels like a small town, not a dense City of Pittsburgh neighborhood. Named after its founders who hailed from Brookline, Massachusetts, the neighborhood was once a part of West Liberty borough and was annexed by the city in 1908. Brookline’s coal veins and rich land made the location ideal for farmers and miners. And it’s assets paved the way for a southern railroad and the construction of tunnels – in order to move goods to the city’s Monongahela river corridor. As a former trolley line and the construction of the Liberty Tunnel paved the way to Downtown Pittsburgh, the Southside Flats and the city’s East End, an influx of new residents drove dense residential development in the form of modest single family homes along the neighborhood’s peaks and valleys. Brookline is the second largest neighborhood in the entire city and has the 3rd largest population of all Pittsburgh neighborhoods and neighborhood areas (13,072 as of 2017 American Community Survey estimates and following behind Squirrel Hill South and Shadyside in total population, respectively). The neighborhood is home to Brookline Elementary and South Brook middle school. As of writing this, all of Brookline’s Catholic Schools are closed or closing – which include the former church of Resurrection’s school, Our Lady of Loretto and the former Brookline Regional Catholic – which was renamed as St. John Bosco Academy and is scheduled to close. My sisters and I attended all of these Catholic schools and received financial aid from the diocese of Pittsburgh and my younger brother attended Our Lady of Loretto, the former Brookline Regional Catholic and Brookline Elementary.
Regarding my street by street walk of the neighborhood, I cheated this time. Through-out my over 30-years of life, I’ve lived in Brookline for more than 20 of those years. As such, I’ve walked every single street in Brookline many times over. The neighborhood has one of the highest elevations in the city and it’s always amusing when flurried snow falls only settle on the streets of Brookline and not in neighborhoods that are closer in elevation to the river beds. And given this elevation, the U.S Steel Tower and other downtown buildings are visible from the top of Rossmore Avenue and Flastbush – in addition to other high up vantage points. While the neighborhood is comprised of a maze of tightly tangled streets and avenues, there is ample green space in Brookline. The untamed wooded valley east of Moore Park proper is the perfect place for paintball games – as evidenced by the many games I played there in my early 20s. And the would be forest surrounding either side of Edgebrook Avenue is vast and evokes an eerie feeling when driving down it after the sun has gone down. Likewise, a massive green space exists south of Whited Street and even more greenery is found via Brookline Memorial Park in the south-eastern part of the community.
Brookline is the space where my walks and my fascination with this city’s neighborhoods began. When I was younger, the streets of Brookline acted as a giant playground for my friends and me. And as a teenager and young adult, they offered an escape from my bouts of depression, panic disorder and loneliness. To this day, literally, my brother and I have walked Brookline in search of beauty, an ice cream cone from Scoops and to completely indulge ourselves in nostalgic conversations of our youth. Implicit in these statements regarding what Brookline is and what it has to offer is the idea that my growing up in Brookline offered me a form of stability that is not always found in Pittsburgh’s high poverty neighborhoods. And that growing up in a low-income home in such a connected, low violence and enriching community is not the same as growing up in a low-income home in areas of concentrated poverty; a reality that too many low-income black children face, while the majority of low-income whites in Pittsburgh live in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates as compared to those inhabited by the majority of low-income blacks. As shown in the data brief regarding economic and racial segregation in Pittsburgh, nearly all of Pittsburgh’s majority black neighborhoods are high or extreme poverty while only 3 of the 50 majority white neighborhoods and neighborhood areas are considered high poverty – with rates of 30 to 39% of individuals living below the Federal Poverty Line. There was no majority white neighborhood that was considered extreme poverty with rates of 40% poverty or more, while 41% of majority black neighborhoods were extreme poverty as of 2017 estimates.
Brookline has remained very low poverty for 27-years. From 1990 to 2017 the poverty rate remained below 10% (from 6% to only 9%). And the community is overwhelmingly white (91% in 2012 and 86% in 2017). In fact, with the exception of Squirrel Hill South, there are more whites in Brookline than any other neighborhood or neighborhood area in the city per 2017 ACS estimates. Luckily, the neighborhood has become at least marginally more diverse in the past 5-years. The percentage of blacks has grown from 4% to 6%, the Asian population from 1% to 3% and the Latino or Hispanic population from 1% to 2%. While this percentage of Hispanic or Latino residents appears to be quite low, Latinos or Hispanics make up only 3% of the entire City of Pittsburgh population per 1-year 2017 ACS estimates. And Brookline has the 3rd highest number of Hispanic or Latino residents when excluding student heavy neighborhoods (only Beechview and Greenfield have higher numbers). However, even marginal increases in the diversity of the community have been met by hostility and hate from a subset of the population. And while I owe much to this community, Brookline is not without its problems.
In December of 2015 and March of 2016 the Mexican owned and operated Las Palmas on Brookline Boulevard was graffitied with hateful messages, which opened its doors to a growing Latino population in 2009 in Brookline. Phrases such as “Go Back to Mexico,” “Illegal Trespassers” and “Liars” were graffitied on the store. But luckily, and in a show of support against such bigotry, students from Brashear High School and other volunteers painted over the remarks and added their own mural and the phrase “Welcome to Brookline” in Spanish on the building. And a number of Brookliners lined the Boulevard to purchase food from the Las Palmas taco stand. In doing so, they showed that Brookline will in fact be defined as a neighborhood that welcomes minority groups, not one that detests them. But again in November of 2018 yet another highly visible display of hate was tied to the neighborhood. Dozens of white supremacy and neo-nazi fliers were hung throughout the neighborhood just before the midterm elections. Phrases such as “Better Dead Than Red” and “Support Patriot Front” were written on the fliers. And this occurred only a week after the mass anti-Semitic shooting that left 11 dead in the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill North. While the posters were torn down immediately and business owners and representatives denounced the messages of hate, these displays of hate are a reminder that there are those in Brookline that may welcome families like mine, but not ones that are different shades of hue or belief. Like Squirrel Hill North and many other overwhelmingly white Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Brookline is highly segregated by race and income and its racial composition reveals just how separate so many black and white Pittsburghers are from one another.
Besides some growth in the non-white population, Brookline has changed little over the past 5 years according to ACS estimates. As of 2017 estimates, the percentage of single mothers with children was low at 9% (well below the citywide estimate), the rate of males unemployed or unattached to the labor force was below the city estimate at 21% and the neighborhood is becoming more educated with a 7% decline in those 25 and up without a Bachelor’s degree or more (75% to 68%). Regarding that last point, such a decline may be due to the more recent influx of educated families looking to work downtown and who wish to live in a contained and affordable neighborhood like Brookline. This influx may be represented in the growth of the median home value as well – which increased by nearly $7,000 from 2012 to 2017 (from roughly $91,000 to $98,000).
But besides some of the aforementioned changes in measures of need and value, most other indicators have barely budged. As of 2017, the median income stayed nearly unchanged at roughly $56,000 and median asking rent also barely changed and was roughly $850. The more noticeable changes are those regarding measures for black individuals and families. While the white poverty rate barely decline over 5-years (roughly 9% to 8%), the black poverty rate fell by 10 percentage points (32% to 22%) and the black median income rose from roughly $46,000 to roughly $61,000. Clearly, and like in most Pittsburgh neighborhoods and neighborhood areas, there are racial disparities in the rate of those living below the FPL by racial group – with the black poverty rate more than double the white poverty rate. However, Brookline is one of the few areas where the black median income is higher than the white median income (roughly $61,000 to $57,000, respectively). Thus, it appears as though a small number of higher income black households are calling Brookline home, given the large increase in median income and the sizeable decrease in black poverty.
I am proud to call Brookline home. And I’m beyond lucky that my parents were able to move us to Brookline and raise my siblings and I here. While our home life was far from stable, and I can say that I still very much struggle with the long-terms effects of that instability and exposure to trauma, the stability of the broader neighborhood offered an important counter balance to the risk factors we experienced at home and else where. And it’s also more of what we weren’t exposed to that also helped us move ahead, regarding the comparatively high rates of concentrated disadvantage and crime found in many of Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods; a harsh reality born of concentrated poverty and extreme in-opportunity that was explored in both the Knoxville and Garfield profiles. I firmly believe that my growing up in Brookline is connected to the social mobility that I’ve been lucky enough to achieve. And given that race has played such a large role regarding discrimination in our housing and lending markets and shaping the economic and racial compositions of neighborhoods across the U.S, my being white provided my parent’s with the ability to buy a house in Brookline – even though we were low-income. Our home life was extremely complicated and my relationship with my parents is extremely complicated as a result, but I’m grateful to have lived here.
Although the 1968 Fair Housing Law barred discrimination based on race and other protected classes, the effects of segregation are often lasting and racial discrimination has been found on a large-scale as recent as the 2000s regarding subprime mortgage lending discrepancies based on race. Likewise, the law does not protect against source of income discrimination – which has been linked to landlord refusal of subsidized housing vouchers and can be used as a proxy for racial discrimination. And unlike some of my Black and Latino neighbors, I never felt unwelcome in Brookline. Lastly, neighborhoods like Brookline offer hope for low-income families who are able to move there. And neighborhoods do not need to be affluent to help provide low-income kids with the conditions and opportunities to get ahead; they can be working class and middle class areas like Brookline – with its very low poverty rate, low levels of violent crime and connected informal and formal networks that can provide less fortunate neighbors with short-term and long-term living wage opportunities. A broad array of urban sociology and urban poverty research show that the neighborhoods in which we develop have profound and lasting impacts on our socio-economic and health-based outcomes. And researcher Raj Chetty of Harvard found that children below the age of 12 who were randomly assigned a subsidized housing voucher that restricted them to live in a low poverty neighborhood, via a housing voucher lottery, had significantly higher incomes as adults as compared to their peers who remained in high poverty neighborhoods. Results were found through his work with data from the quasi-experimental and federally funded Moving to Opportunity experiment. And so, if Brookline can be a welcoming place for low-income families with children of all colors and creeds, it may offer a pathway of social mobility for those families. Much like it did for me. Attitudes will not change over night, but as long as racial segregation and a lack of dialogue about the benefits of diversity are facts in many majority white Pittsburgh neighborhoods then these attitudes will likely persist. We must do what we can to welcome diversity in neighborhoods like Brookline, provide integrated and affordable housing options for low-income families, seek out and assist minority owned businesses and push to educate one another on the reality of racial segregation in Pittsburgh.
This neighborhood profile is dedicated to my siblings and my best friend Conner (all of whom I love deeply). And to Dillon and Cory whom are like brothers too and have learned to call Brookline their home over the years. And to my mom and dad who brought us here. I love you all. And I love Brookline.
All neighborhood level statistics were gathered via census tract level data from the 2012 to 2017 5-year American Community Survey estimates. Citywide statistics were gathered via the 2017 1-year ACS estimates. The 1990 poverty rate was gathered via poverty estimates from the National Historic Geographic Information Systems. The University of Pittsburgh Library System informed which census tracts comprised a given neighborhood in a given year. Because some neighborhoods share a census tract as of the 2010 census, several neighborhoods were combined and are known as neighborhood areas. There are 74 unique neighborhoods and neighborhood areas used in the analysis. 2012 dollar amounts, incomes and values were adjusted for inflation using the consumer price index. Because Brookline consists of 4 census tracts, neighborhood level estimates were calculated via a weighted average based on census to neighborhood population proportions.
ACS estimates at the census tract level have sizeable margin or error. This may impact results.
Snippets of broader Pittsburgh history were not cited because they are common knowledge. “Student heavy centers” include all those census tracts within known student heavy locations and those neighborhoods that contain a 4-year college or university.
In neighborhood profiles and data briefs, neighborhoods and neighborhood areas are considered to have a simple racial majority when a given race constitutes 51% of the total population. Otherwise, it is considered a mixed-race neighborhood.
Poverty intervals were informed by standards in neighborhood-level poverty research. Specifically, researcher Patrick Sharkey’s poverty intervals were referenced from his book Stuck in Place – regarding what constitutes an extreme, high, moderate, low or very low poverty neighborhood.
*The views expressed on this profile and blog are mine alone and do not necessarily represent those of my previous or current employers.*