Resident Interview: Garfield

As many longtime Pittsburghers know, we learn to take advantage of days when the sky is actually blue and it isn’t raining. This is especially true during the winter when the constant dreariness and frigid temperatures can be somewhat oppressive. And so, I embarked on my street by street walk of Garfield on a beautiful and rare 50 degree day in mid-February. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and walking up Garfield’s steeper slopes pushed me to remove my jacket on a number of occasions. The East End neighborhood is topographically and geographically diverse with streets that run west to east and hilly avenues that run south to north. And while sections of the north-western part of Garfield are quite wooded, the remainder of the neighborhood is densely populated by solid brick single family homes and row homes  – with streets along the upper part of Garfield that give way to magnificent vistas of other neighborhoods that inhabit the East End down below.

About a quarter way through the grid like street patterns that comprise most of Garfield, I traversed a flight of city steps that connect Hillcrest and Rosetta Streets and made my way down N. Winebiddle until I came to Kinkaid Street. While heading eastward on Kinkaid, I ran into an approachable and soft-spoken black woman named Alisha. She was waiting on the 89 at Kinkaid and N. Aiken and had a few moments to spare before her bus arrived.

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Alisha has spent 34 of her 37 years of life in Garfield and she loves her neighborhood.

Alisha has lived in Garfield for 34 of her 37 years on this earth. When asked about her favorite part of the neighborhood, Alisha stated, “Garfield feels more like a community than just a neighborhood.” When I asked her if she could elaborate, Alisha mentioned that the neighborhood has become more racially diverse in recent years. And she thinks this is a good thing. As also covered in the Garfield Neighborhood Profile, she went on to explain that the majority of whites fled the neighborhood a few decades back, but that their return for her has been a welcomed one. Implicit in Alisha’s comments is a value placed on diversity and the benefits that such diversity can potentially bring to her and her neighborhood; and on an equally important note, the benefits that Alisha and her neighbors can bring to new comers. Alisha enjoys the fact that her neighborhood is becoming somewhat less segregated.  But when I pondered Alisha’s welcoming comments towards her new white neighbors, I wondered if Alisha would receive the same arms-wide-open welcome in Pittsburgh’s whitest and equally segregated areas.

When I asked Alisha about her least favorite part of living in Garfield she said, “There used to be a lot of gang banging, but not so much these days. So there’s nothing I don’t like about Garfield.” For Alisha, the neighborhood feels safer these days and gang activity has decreased. She went on to say that gun violence has been a harsh reality for decades, but as people, investment and commercial activity have returned to her neighborhood so too has some peace of mind. Although Alisha’s comments are hopeful regarding a perceived decline in this type of violence, the neighborhood still suffers from comparatively high degrees of fatal and non fatal gun violence and shootings. From 2012-2017, and according to Public Source, there were 3 incidents of homicide by gun in 2012, 2 in 2013, 5 in 2014, 1 in 2015, 2 in 2016 and 3 in 2017 just from January to mid-august – with Garfield surpassing all other Pittsburgh neighborhoods in the first 6 months of 2017 alone regarding the total of murder by gun, shooting with injury and gun assault with no injury incidents. But as my friend James mentioned to me, perhaps Alisha’s part of the neighborhood has seen significant declines in violence; given that gun violence tends to be carried out by a small number of residents who create a disproportionate amount of that crime and because gun violence also tends to concentrate in micro-sections of high poverty areas like Garfield.

As detailed in the Garfield Neighborhood Profile and the Knoxville Neighborhood Profile, urban sociologists and scholars of urban poverty have found that economic circumstance, durable economic and racial segregation and prolonged in-opportunity, among other structural and systemic variables, are often high predictors of gun related crime in durably high poverty neighborhoods like Knoxville and Garfield.  Researcher Robert Sampson of Harvard found that concentrated poverty had an incredibly strong relationship with high homicide rates (R = 0.96, p <.01) in his book Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect and also found that high homicide rates in turn predicted higher rates of low birth rate. And despite deep declines in violence from the 1990s onward in American cities, high homicide rates remained concentrated and durable with declines far less steep in slope in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty (pp. 110-114). This is especially troublesome given research regarding the effect of gun related homicides on childhood cognitive development via standardized measures of IQ. Researcher Patrick Sharkey found that the IQ scores of children within 6 to 10 square blocks of a homicide saw their IQ score fall by 7 to 8 points in one study, if the murder happened within a week of their taking the test (and as compared to low poverty kids who didn’t have a murder in their neighborhood). Lastly, when compared to incidents of non-fatal gun violence in nearby Friendship, the difference between gun related violence and shootings in high poverty Garfield and low poverty friendship is one of kind, not degree – as can be seen in graphs below. Data was pulled from Allegheny County Analytics.

Garfield Guns

Friendship GunsRegarding a shout-out to a favorite institution, restaurant or the like, Alisha was at a loss for words. She said that that’s an area where the neighborhood is lacking and is in need of more diverse kinds of spaces and places where her kids can play. When I asked her specifically about her thoughts regarding the revitalized commercial corridor down on Penn Avenue Alisha said, “The art venues on Penn are interesting, but they don’t do much for me and my kids. My kids aren’t into that. And we don’t have the money to go to those new restaurants that are opening up. We can’t eat art.” For Alisha, while there is a diversity that new artists bring to the neighborhood, not all of the long-term residents of Garfield are into art, or the type of art showing up at the neighborhood’s art gallery crawls on the first Friday of every month. To illustrate the lack of structured space for her kids, Alisha motioned down Kinkaid Street and said that she had to go out and buy her children a basketball hoop so that they have a place to play.

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A basketball hoop off Kinkaid Street offers a space for kids to play, but a hoop in the street isn’t the same as a structured and fenced off basketball court.
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Artistic murals line brick walls in the neighborhood which in some cases may signal where artists and other new comers to the neighborhood live.

As recently described in the Garfield Neighborhood Profile, Garfield is a neighborhood that has seen significant investments in affordable, moderate and market rate housing development and rehab via The Bloomfield Garfield Corporation and the Garfield Jubilee Association. And it is also home to a number of community groups and youth development programs that aim to connect Garfield youth and young adults to education and in-demand workforce development services. But despite these efforts, the neighborhood suffers from comparatively high rates of extreme poverty, rate of single mothers, rate of males who are unemployed or unattached to the labor force and non-fatal and fatal gun related violence and shootings. As such, and like other durably high poverty neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Garfield is a complicated place that is attempting to rise beyond the barriers that many of its African-American and other long-term residents face. And as someone who lived in Garfield for 2 and half years, I also love this neighborhood, my old neighbors and the proximity that Garfield has to grocery stores, public transit and the rest of the East End. But generational poverty and gun related violence are not easily alleviated through local and well intended community programs alone. It will take additional citywide efforts that compliment what local neighborhood groups are already doing to raise the income of residents, connect long-term residents to living wage opportunities and ultimately address the factors that contribute to the neighborhoods fatal and non-fatal gun violence.

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The Open Door Church at the intersection of N. Pacific Avenue and Dearborn Street in the southern section of the neighborhood near the Penn Avenue commercial corridor.

The Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project is deeply appreciative of Alisha taking the time to talk with me while waiting for her bus in Garfield. Check out the full Garfield Neighborhood 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 and a brief history of the neighborhood. And resident interviews like this one complement their respective neighborhood profiles. 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. You can check out my first data brief on racial and economic segregation in Pittsburgh and durable neighborhood poverty here. Please check out the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project to see what I’ve analyzed and written about thus far.*

Resident Interview: Knoxville

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.

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My grandma and mom’s old house on Rochelle Street in Knoxville. My aunt, uncle and cousins live in the white Row homes next door.

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.

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Dana has lived in several south Hilltop neighborhoods over the past 20-years. She described what it’s like to be Black in Knoxville.

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.

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Looking eastward on Suncrest Street.

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.

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View of the northern part of Knoxville from the vantage point of Knox Avenue and Brownsville Road. Dana and I were just a block or so away from this spot.

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.*