Located just north-east of Manchester, California-Kirkbride is a majority black and extreme poverty neighborhood that is bridged between the City’s lower and upper Northside. As such, California-Kirkbride is split between a southern section which is topographically flat, filled with vacant lots and is home to historic row homes and a northern section that sits directly south of the architecturally beautiful and distinct Oliver Citywide Academy, a sparse collection of homes and the breathtaking Union Dale Cemetery; the two sections are connected via Pittsburgh city steps and the neighborhood’s eastern border of Brighton Road.
California-Kirkbride is bordered to the north by Marshall Shadeland, to the west by Manchester, to the East by Perry South and to the south by Central Northside, which is more commonly known as the Mexican War Streets. Allegheny Avenue and California Avenue are adjacent to the Norfolk Southern Railroad and comprise the western border, Island Avenue and a section of Marshall Avenue makeup the northern border and Brighton Road and Pennsylvania Avenue constitute the eastern and southern border, respectively. The community is accessible via the 13, 16 and 17 but is somewhat cutoff from the rest of the lower Northside. Formerly an industrial rail yard, the U.S Postal Service now houses a sorting center that takes up a significant amount of land in the most south-western part of the neighborhood. Other industrial sites exist off of California Avenue and in the northern section of the neighborhood off of Sunday Street.
Neighborhoods like Northside’s California-Kirkbride are a microcosm of the decline, disinvestment and extreme poverty and inopportunity that many black Pittsburghers face. While much attention has been given to Pittsburgh’s revitalization, that revitalization has not taken place in most of Pittsburgh’s poorest and blackest neighborhoods, and the living wage opportunities that stem from economic growth often remain out of reach for Pittsburghers of all races without a college degree. And while the northern part of the neighborhood is quiet and tucked away, the southern section is largely green and emptied – with the effects of its overwhelming poverty and abandonment evident. But neighborhood groups like the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing aim to revitalize the neighborhood in an equitable manner and helped give life to a colorful play space surrounded by public murals off California Avenue. Likewise, Project Destiny sits off the neighborhood’s western border and offers programs to engage inner city youth. Project Destiny runs an afterschool program, mentoring networks and offers a 6-week summer camp program and more and is partnered with the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. Lastly, Northside Common Ministries is located in the south-eastern section of the neighborhood and offers employment services, a homeless shelter, a food pantry and other services to disadvantaged populations of the Northside and beyond.
As workers of the former rail yard, slaughterhouses and other local industries increased residential demand during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the neighborhood became densely populated with industrial style row homes. But California-Kirkbride shares a similar history with many of Pittsburgh’s other poorest neighborhoods. Increasing suburbanization and white flight emptied out neighborhoods following World War II and the collapse of the region’s Steel Industry delivered the final blow. Additionally, the practice of redlining and other discriminatory housing and lending policies concentrated blacks in the poorest neighborhoods and was legal until the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Although, Pittsburgh passed an anti discrimination law regarding the rental, purchase, sale or financing of residential housing 10 years prior to the passage of the federal law, but neither law has had a significant impact on changing patterns of economic and racial segregation overtime. And as can be seen in the graph below, researcher Patrick Sharkey found that the number of black versus white children living in high or moderate poverty neighborhoods remained nearly unchanged both before and long after the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. As those who sought new opportunity went elsewhere and/or others left for racially motivated reasons, local businesses collapsed, religious and social institutions slowly closed their doors as membership declined and those that remained did so in a still depopulating neighborhood and city without the tax base to properly address such cemented issues of poverty and disadvantage.
I did my street by street walk of the neighborhood on a fifty something degree day in late March. And while I’ve been though California-Kirkbride on a number of occasions over the years, I had never explored the neighborhood in such an intimate way. Most notably, the southern part of California-Kirkbride feels empty and there are few Pittsburgh neighborhoods that convey such a sense of vacancy and abandonment. Boarded up businesses and vacant lots give a sense of what the neighborhood used to be like. However, there were a handful of homes that appeared to be undergoing renovations, especially so in the more historic sections of the neighborhood. These sections were composed of large, unique and sturdy brick row homes. Pella, a door and window replacement company, had their stickers on a number of these row homes which suggest that some development is returning to the neighborhood. Colorful murals were scattered throughout the southern part of the neighborhood and portrayed black portraits of children, workers, past community members and a bride walking through a door. As I walked past historic row homes and dilapidated housing, black bodied children were laughing and returning from school, a handful of residents were walking through the neighborhood and a few women did gardening work in their backyards.
As I walked northward up the city steps off Morrison Street, I immediately noticed that the housing was not subject to the sort of emptiness present in the southern section. This part of the neighborhood was quiet and tucked away; something that a young black resident said that she enjoyed about the neighborhood. Her name is Britney and she has lived in the area for about 13 years. I spoke with her off Island Avenue and Winifred Street. Britney is quiet, shy and reserved and said that the peaceful calm of this part of the neighborhood is only sometimes interrupted by children and teens at Oliver Citywide Academy. Oliver is a school that is composed entirely of special needs children and teens throughout the city and was once the former Oliver Highschool. The sounds of teens were evidenced by the track meet that was about to start in the athletic field just north of the neighborhood in Marshall-Shadeland. Because of her shyness and avoidance of social media, something I should aspire to, she did not wish to have her picture taken, but said that she liked how her neighborhood was close to school. Although, she wished that there were more to do in California-Kirkbride; the community does not have its own commercial corridor and is almost entirely residential, except for the swaths of land owned by nonprofits and industry. She attends the Community College of Allegheny County’s Northside campus and stated that she has to go to the Mexican War Streets or the businesses off Western Avenue in Allegheny West to, “Have something to do.” However, the shops are not too far by foot and are very accessible by bus.
The northern part of the neighborhood was serene and home to another playground. However, the playground looked quite old and had features reminiscent of the original play equipment that was housed in Moore Park and Brookline Memorial Park in Brookline during the 90s. But Brookline’s equipment had been replaced when I was still a child and has received additions since then; California-Kirkbride’s playground has not. Surrounded by Oliver Citywide Academy, Highwood Cemetery in Marshall-Shadeland and Union Dale cemetery, the most north-eastern section of the neighborhood is breathtaking. Old tombstones from the 1800s, large green spaces and ancient trees collide with the brick of old row homes and single family homes, and the sound of bouncing basketballs echoed throughout the landscape as a few black children shot hoops off of one of the compact streets. As is the same with many other Northside neighborhoods, the steeper parts of the California-Kirkbride give way to wide vistas that show the Northside down below and Downtown in the distance. And much like the rest of Pittsburgh, the neighborhood showcased both what had changed during the period of Pittsburgh’s deindustrialization and what has remained largely the same since.
From 1960 to 2017 the neighborhood changed from 3% black to 73% black and the population dropped from 4,235 to an estimated 717, according to census data. And from 1990 to 2017 the poverty rate remained extreme poverty with levels upwards of 40% and rose from 42% to 49%. In fact, California-Kirkbride is one of only 8 Pittsburgh neighborhoods that have poverty rates of 40% or more as of 2017 ACS estimates; all but one of which hold a black simple racial majority with respective black populations of 51% or more. When adjusting for student heavy neighborhoods, California-Kirkbride is the 4th poorest community in the entire city after Northview Heights, Bedford Dwellings and Homewood North and is the least populated city of Pittsburgh neighborhood. Like many other high poverty, majority black neighborhoods, the area suffers from a high male unemployment rate (33%) and has the 8th lowest median income in the city ($20,268), when adjusting for student heavy centers. From 2012 to 2017 the median gross rent and the median home value saw significant declines (from $750 to $516 and from $81,292 to $54,700, respectively), along with a substantial population decline composed of mainly black residents (a 7% decline). And as of 2017, the community had the 8th lowest median rent in the City. Unlike those few neighborhoods that are rapidly changing in the direction of increased rent, investment and residential demand, California-Kirkbride is declining in value, has gotten poorer and continues to lose a significant portion of its population.
Regarding other measures of need from 2012-2017, those 25 and up without a bachelor’s degree decreased by 6% (89% to 83%), male unemployment decreased by a sizeable 19% (52% to 33%), the white poverty rate rose by 12% (17% to 29%) and the black poverty rate decreased by 12% (64% to 52%). However, the steepest decline in need was rate of single mothers with children which decreased by an incredible 51% (57% to 6%). While ACS data is known to have sizeable margin of error, this kind of steep decline may not be due to that error alone. Something else significant may be at play due to such a steep decline over such a short period of time. Regarding income, median income rose $12,158 to $20,268. And while the white median income declined by an incredible $45,945 (roughly $61,000 to $16,000), the black median income rose from $10,280.21 to $23,750. Very few whites were estimated to leave over this time (just 13) and over 300 blacks left over the 5-year period. Perhaps those few whites who left had significant incomes, which led to such a decrease; but that is just speculation. And perhaps the most disadvantaged blacks are leaving the neighborhood. One thing is clear, while issues of affordable housing are an issue in high and low poverty areas alike, the rent and home value are declining at a high rate in California-Kirkbride, not increasing. Such a steep drop and raise in indicators of need and value by race are more than likely tied to the continuing and significant depopulation of the neighborhood. But other factors may be at play as well.
Despite it’s incredibly high poverty and male unemployment rates, the neighborhood experienced minimal gun related violence as compared to other high poverty Pittsburgh neighborhoods over the last decade. As with the Knoxville and Garfield neighborhood profiles, concentrated poverty, prolonged inopportunity and unemployment and high rates of single mother families tend to have strong relationships with violent gun related crime, as discussed in those profiles. And the fatal and non fatal gun violence and shootings in Knoxville and Garfield are considerably high. However, California-Kirkbride is fairly safe, which affirms that these aforementioned measures alone are not the only predictors of comparatively high rates of gun violence. By all measures, gun related violence is lower in most U.S cities than it has been in decades, with the exception of spikes in crime in the past few years. In fact, 2014 was one of the safest years in American history according to researcher Patrick Sharkey. But as discussed in his new book, violent gun related crime is still comparatively higher in high poverty neighborhoods than low poverty neighborhoods, and is often carried out by a small number of individuals in micro areas of a given neighborhood. The emergence of crack cocaine in the 1980s hit poor neighborhoods hard and led to an explosion in drug and gang related gun violence. But not all poor neighborhoods were hit by these same forces. And crack’s hold has since declined in many of the nation’s high poverty areas. Comparatively, many poor urban neighborhoods are far less violent than they were during the peak of violent crime in the early 1990s. But again, many are still much more violent than low poverty neighborhoods.  While such a low and steadily declining population may be a factor in the neighborhood’s low rates of crime, other factors may be at work, although it is unclear what they are. Age is often a factor regarding the likelihood to commit crime with crime significantly tapering off after 30. But 47% of the neighborhood is below the age of 30 and only 10% is above 65, according to 2017 ACS estimates. Whatever the reasons may be, California-Kirkbride is a much safer neighborhood for residents when compared to other high poverty neighborhoods profiled so far, as can be seen below via Allegheny Analytics.
California Kirkbride is a neighborhood that faces steep challenges and embodies the growing divide between durably affluent and durably high poverty neighborhoods in American cities. And even within the neighborhood, inequality is found. As of 2017, 52% of the black population lived below the Federal Poverty Line as compared to 29% of the white population and this trend holds for most of the city. In fact, an analysis shows that while only 14% of poor whites in the City of Pittsburgh live in high poverty neighborhoods, a staggering 59% of poor blacks do. Given the breadth and depth of sociological, economic and human developmental research that show the causal link between childhood development in high poverty neighborhoods and negative long-term socio-economic and health based adult outcomes, such a measure is alarming. Researcher Patrick Sharkey has shown the causal effect between childhood development in high poverty areas and generational poverty and impaired cognitive development and researcher Raj Chetty has reexamined data from the federally funded Moving to Opportunity experiment to show that a childhood move from a high to low poverty area has a significant positive effect on adult earnings.
There are several neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that are experiencing rising rents and affordable housing and wage policies must be enacted to ensure that long-term residents can benefit from investment, improved access and opportunity. However, the main challenges that poor and black neighborhoods like California-Kirkbride face is concentrated poverty, its effects on childhood development and the harsh reality of extreme racial segregation. While vulnerable residents of Lower and Central Lawrenceville, East Liberty and Manchester have to deal with the reality of rising rents that result from increased public and private investment and residential demand, California-Kirkbride and a significant majority of other high poverty neighborhoods must deal with depopulation, disinvestment and neglect. The history of Pittsburgh neighborhoods over the past 3 decades is not often change, despite the attention some neighborhoods undergoing change get. Our focus must also shift to the large number of neighborhoods that have simply been left behind.
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.
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.*
Sharkey, P. (2013). Stuck in Place (p. 27). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. Sharkey, P. (2019). Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City life and The Next War on Violence. New York City, NY: W.W Norton and Company, Inc.  Sharkey, P. (2019) (p. 99)
 Analysis used 2017-ACS 5-year estimates. The total percentage of poor whites versus poor blacks living in neighborhoods with 30% poverty or more was calculated.
[45 Sharkey, P. (2019) (pp. 83-86)