Urban Gun Violence in the City of Pittsburgh

Since February of last year I’ve completed a number of Neighborhood Profiles for some of Pittsburgh’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. These profiles were informed by my street by street walk of each respective neighborhood, resident interviews, publicly available data and analyses I’ve completed for this project and by projects I’ve completed at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

As part of my resident interviews, I ask what residents like best and least about their respective neighborhoods. One of the most common refrains from the residents I spoke to was “Something has to be done about the gun violence.” As a result of these conversations, I decided to dedicate the past few months to writing the following essays on Urban Gun Violence in Pittsburgh; both to better understand just why our most disadvantaged neighborhoods suffer from comparatively high levels of gun violence and to see what the city is doing to address it.

These essays were informed by the Black residents I spoke to, prominent Black urban violence reduction practitioners, poverty, race and homicide/non-fatal shooting data (via the American Community Survey and Allegheny Analytics) and by national experts on neighborhood effects and urban gun violence.

These articles were published via Public Source. Please click on the links below to read them.

Urban Gun Violence Part 1 explores the community level antecedents of gun violence and shows that Pittsburgh’s Black communities are the primary victims of Urban Gun Violence. The essay makes clear that historic and current racism have led to these outcomes. The loss of life due to gun violence in our Black communities is astounding and tragic, and yet it does not receive the same public attention as other violence reduction efforts.

Urban Gun Violence Part 2 presents the most effective Urban Gun Violence reduction strategies. Several of these strategies require collaboration between law enforcement, community groups and social service agencies. However, the essay makes clear that aggressive policing and police violence against the Black community have eroded community trust in the police.

Black men stand at a frustrating crossroads because they are simultaneously the most likely to die from Urban Gun Violence and the most likely to be killed by the police. If Urban Gun Violence is to be effectively reduced, then the trust between the community and the police must be repaired, which will take considerable effort, policy changes and time. Black Lives Matter and this issue must be discussed with respect, data and urgency.

 

Neighborhood Profiles: Sheraden and Esplen

Up until the 2010 census Pittsburgh neighborhoods contained at least one or more census tract and those tracts roughly (or wholly) confined to the border of each individual Pittsburgh neighborhood, depending on the decade examined. However, it is assumed that population decline in certain neighborhoods has made it so some communities now share a tract. I bring this up to inform the reader that there can be major drawbacks regarding data analysis for neighborhoods that now share a border.

Take the South Hilltop neighborhoods of Bon Air and Beltzhoover as an example. The two neighborhoods are quite different regarding demographics; the former has been historically low poverty and majority white and the latter has been historically higher poverty and black. But now that Beltzhoover is joined to Bon Air, it’s impossible to assess how each neighborhood has changed since 2010 – at least independent of one another.

Likewise, Sheraden and Esplen are two independent neighborhoods that now share the same census tract as of 2010. And because it is now impossible to assess them separately, they will also share the same neighborhood profile and be referred to as the Sheraden and Esplen neighborhood area. This same method will be applied to all such neighborhoods that share the same tract.

The Sheraden and Esplen neighborhood area is located on Pittsburgh’s West End. For all intended purposes the west busway acts as the area’s southern border, Middletown Road makes up much of the western border and Chartiers creek and the Ohio river makeup the northern and eastern borders, respectively. It is bordered by the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Chartiers City and Windgap to the west, Crafton Heights and Elliott to the south, Marshall-Shadeland to the east (to which Brunot Island is a part of) and is bordered to the north by the borough of McKees Rocks. Sheradan is accessible via the West Busway and the 26 from Downtown. However, due to Pittsburgh’s typography, it is noticeably less accessible if you’re coming from other sections of the city.

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The Sheraden and Esplen neighborhood area is on Pittsburgh’s West End.

The bulk of the neighborhood area is comprised of Sheraden, while Esplen is a small sliver of land that hugs Chartiers Creek and the Ohio River valley. As such, this profile will primarily focus on Sheraden. The former was originally farmland while the latter acted as a railroad camp for workers who built the tracks that surround the neighborhood. Sheraden was founded by early settler William Sheraden. William divvied out his land for residential development and a railroad depot. His former homestead still exists to this day and can be found on Bergman Street (as pointed out to me by my friend Cam). The home is highly recognizable due to the joined sycamore trees which watch over the entry way; Sheriden’s grandson was a horticulturalist and cultivated the archway. Sheraden was annexed by the City of Pittsburgh in 1907.

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William Sheraden’s former homestead on Bergman street. Two sycamore trees join to form an archway over the entrance to the home. 

I started my walk of the neighborhood near its “entrance.” Chartiers Avenue forms a bridge over the West Busway and the busway largely acts as the neighborhood’s southern dividing line. The former Langley High School (now Langley K-8) towers at the intersection of Chartiers Avenue and Sheraden Boulevard; the two of which serve as sites for the bulk of Sheraden’s scattered businesses.

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The former Langley High School which is now Langley K-8. The high school stopped operating during the 2012-2013 school year. Architecturally, the building is in the style of Tudor Revival.
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The Sheraden Shoppe n’ Kitchen off of Chartiers Avenue. There aren’t many active businesses in the neighborhood. 

Sheraden, Esplen and the West End in general are parts of Pittsburgh that I have few personal ties to. And this was something I was reminded of throughout my walk. Unlike previous profiles which covered neighborhoods on Pittsburgh’s Northside, East End and those in the South Hilltop and South Pittsburgh, the West End does not reveal (for me) any feelings of nostalgia or longing for the places that so many folks in its 11 communities call home. And that’s what makes exploring these neighborhoods so exciting. My best friend’s father grew up in Sheraden, and he visited his grandfather there until he passed away some years ago. I also remember that I once dropped my brother off in Sheraden so that he could complete a project for high school; he attended Bishop Canevin which is itself located in the West End neighborhood of East Carnegie. But minus exceptions like these, the West End is totally foreign to me.

Growing up in a low income home in Carrick and Brookline meant that our ability to travel was at the mercy of how much money we had (which wasn’t much). And by “travel” I don’t mean to other states, let alone out of the country; I’m referring to the ability to travel to different sections of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s 3 rivers, intense typography and the Port Authority’s “in to town/out of town” bus system make some sections of the city feel particularly isolated and hard to traverse. While Pittsburgh residents may scoff at having to “cross a river” doing so is a huge challenge for residents without a car and for those that have limited means to travel. I can easily recall all the times my family scraped nickels and dimes together to get enough gas money to go grocery shopping (because Brookline didn’t and doesn’t have one). I say all this to illustrate just why the West End is so foreign to me. I didn’t have family or friends there and we were broke. The result was that the West End may as well have been in another country. As will be detailed in a forthcoming post, I didn’t experience much beyond South Pittsburgh, the South Hills and the South Hilltop until I was late in my 24th year on this earth (with the exception of jobs I did with my dad).

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Attached brick homes line the streets of Sheraden. 

The factors that may literally or figuratively isolate Sheraden and Esplen from the broader Pittsburgh region also make them attractive in their own right. The neighborhood of Sheraden is divided into 4 main quadrants: north east, north west, south east and south west. While the northern sections are dense, urban and filled with children at play, the southern sections felt suburban and scattered (with some streets having no sidewalks). My walk revealed a compact, mixed race community that is truly alive. And as detailed in my Knoxville profile, another mixed race community, true mixed race communities are rare in Pittsburgh. Sheraden felt especially alive in the north eastern section of the neighborhood. Black and white bodied children were at play, kids were helping their parents take care of their houses and adults were sitting on porches to escape the summer sun.

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Black children help their mom out around the yard. There were children playing on nearly every street that I walked in the north eastern section of the neighborhood (directly east of Sheraden park).
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The south eastern section of the neighborhood felt suburban in design. Taken at a side street off Mutual Street.

If I had to describe Sheraden in one word it would be “community.” In many ways, it felt like a fusion of Knoxville and Brookline. Like Knoxville, Sheraden was racially diverse and dense. And like Brookline, Sheraden was filled with children at play and had a vibrant display of neighbors who know and talk to each other (as opposed to the transient nature of so many of our student heavy communities in the East End). The exterior of Sheraden and the sections adjacent to Esplen were wooded, but single family homes and small – to – mid size apartment complexes dominated most of the landscape in the neighborhood at large. At times, the most north eastern section of Sheraden gave way to wide vistas covering McKees Rocks, Brunot Island and the mainland of Marshall-Shadeland, especially atop the slopes in the eastern section of the neighborhood.

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View atop the city steps that connect lower and upper Glasgow street. McKees Rocks is visible in the distance beyond Chartiers Creek.
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Brick street east of Sheraden Park.

Sheraden Park is large and acts as a sort of anchor for the neighborhood; everything seems to be built around it. The park is home to facilities and the Sheraden swimming pool. I’ve been an active, daily swimmer for over a year now and I took advantage of my stopping by the pool to take a swim. A few black children were playing games that I played as a kid, but it was pretty empty otherwise. Anyone remember playing gator? After I finished swimming, I walked south of the park and explored the dense patches of housing on its western edge. My westward journey eventually brought me to an old skate park located off of Tuxedo Street.

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Sheraden Public Swimming Pool located off of Adon Street in Sheraden Park.
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Sheraden Skate Park off of Tuxedo Street.

I eventually came upon an elderly black man who was tending to a plotted plant in front of his apartment off Ashlyn street. Ben has lived in Sheraden for 11 years and used to live in Beaver Falls. He came to Sheraden because he wanted to “get back in the thick of it.” Ben was kind to talk to me on such a hot summer day. He used to do maintenance work and we talked about his work, the work my dad did as an electrician and what he liked best about living in the area. For Ben, he loved his proximity to the Carnegie Library, Langley K-8, Sheraden Park and some of the scattered shops off Sheraden Boulevard and Chartiers Avenue. His street was quiet, apart from the laughter of children at play. But he took issue with the gun violence in the neighborhood. “I’m too old to be dodging bullets,” said Ben. He said this as he pointed east. Ben mentioned that the bulk of gun violence happens in the north eastern section of the neighborhood; a thought that worried me given the number of young kids I saw at play there. When I asked him how frequently the violence occurred, he said “not too often, but it shouldn’t happen at all.”

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Ben has lived in Sheraden for the past 11 years. A retired maintenance worker, he likes his proximity to the local library and park, and the quiet sanctuary that is his corner of Ashlyn street .
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Blighted building and the closed Holy Innocents Catholic Church at the corner of Ashlyn and Sherwood. 

The comparatively high incidences of homicides, non fatal gun violence and aggravated assault with a weapon are subjects I also heard about via residents in Knoxville and Garfield, both of which are high poverty neighborhoods. While the Sheraden and Esplen area teeters on the edge of what would be classified as high moderate or high poverty, the neighborhood was subject to similar degrees of disinvestment, blight and poverty that I saw in Knoxville. And as detailed in both the Knoxville and Garfield profile, comparatively high rates of violent crime at the neighborhood level tend to be the product of prolonged in-opportunity, concentrated poverty and extreme segregation, according to a number of notable criminologists and sociologists. Crime is often most likely to be carried out by males aged 15-24 and a select few cause a disproportionate amount of that crime. And to restate what I’ve said elsewhere, while crime is still comparatively high in higher poverty areas, crime it still much lower than it was in the early 90s in most major cities. In fact, high poverty neighborhoods have seen the steepest declines in violent crime.

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One of many blighted properties that I witnessed on my walk. This property is off Brunot Avenue in the eastern most section of Sheraden (Esplen is down below the cliffside).

As detailed in a recent piece I wrote in Public Source, concentrated poverty is overwhelmingly linked to communities of color in Pittsburgh (whether those communities be mixed race or those with black populations upward of 51%), and neighborhood poverty is often lasting – despite decades of economic growth and decline at the national, state and local levels. Concentrated poverty is the product of a troubled history of government led racial discrimination in the housing and lending markets, demographic change and market disruption that disproportionately affected blacks.

Likewise, I found that racial segregation is often lasting in Pittsburgh. A regression analysis reveals that the relationship between percent black in Pittsburgh neighborhoods is nearly one to one from 2000 to 2017 (0.93 at p < .01). Despite my research in this area, I was surprised by the strength of the relationship, given the degree of public housing that was demolished or rebuilt as mixed income housing in the late 90s and throughout the 2000s (and given the degree of market pressure and rising rents in several Pittsburgh neighborhoods). In fact, with the exception of St. Clair Village, which was a majority black public housing project (and now the site of what will be the largest urban farm in the U.S), the largest declines in percent black overtime were Downtown and the Strip. The Strip and Downtown likely declined in percentage black due to market pressure (i.e. rapid investment and increased residential demand) and/or population saturation as new households moved in (since few residents were living in these areas in 2000).

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Analysis includes 74 neighborhoods and neighborhood areas in the City of Pittsburgh. While St. Clair is mentioned above, it was not included in the analysis because of having a population < 100 as of the past few years. Likewise, Chateau and South Shore were excluded for having populations < 100. 

The Sheraden and Esplen area is an example of a Pittsburgh neighborhood(s) that has gotten poorer and blacker from the 1990s onward (roughly 18% to 29% poor from 1990 to 2017 and 21% to 41% percent black from 2000 to 2017). And when considering the combined standardized measures of homicides and non fatal gun violence per 500 residents, poverty, single motherhood and male unemployment, the Sheraden and Esplen neighborhood area is the 12th most disadvantaged community in the City of Pittsburgh, as of 2017 American Community Survey estimates and 911 data via Allegheny County analytics. Below is a detailed table regarding more recent changes in a variety of measures in the Sheraden/Esplen area over a 5-year period.

Data Snap
Table assembled via 2012 and 2017 5-year estimates from the American Community Survey. Census tract level estimates have sizable margin of error and this may impact results. Crime data pulled from Allegheny County analytics. The Sheraden and Esplen neighborhood area is comprised of 2 census tracts that were combined using a weighted average based on population proportions. 

There are several factors that set Sheraden apart from other Pittsburgh neighborhoods. While I will refrain from looking too closely at differences between indicators in 2012 and 2017 due to sizable margin of error, I’ll comment on several things that stood out as of 2017 estimates. On the positive end of things, Sheraden is a diverse community. This was evident throughout the entirety of my walk. Neighbors talked with each other, children of different races played together and several residents stopped and said hello to me even though I was just walking through. Truly, dense social networks were highly visible among and between neighbors. The neighborhood also has a male unemployment rate that is slightly lower than the average (but still comparatively high).

However, like other higher poverty areas of Pittsburgh, Sheraden is impacted by a comparatively high degree of gun violence. Sheraden ranked number 1 in 2017 regarding aggravated assault with a weapon in raw incidents (and 4th when adjusting for population). When accounting for population differences, Sheraden had the 16th highest rate of homicides and non fatal gun violence in 2017 per 500 residents. However, it’s important to note that Sheraden’s ranking is comparatively much better than the two other high poverty, high gun violence neighborhoods we’ve profiled so far (Knoxville ranked 5th and Garfield ranked 8th on the same measure). The Sheraden/ Esplen area actually ranked directly below California-Kirkbride on homicide and non fatal gun violence per 500. And as detailed in Cal-bride’s profile, Cal-bride is an incredibly safe community considering its high degree of extreme poverty; which is another reminder that poverty and population demographics alone are by no means the only factors that contribute to neighborhood violence. Sheraden also has a rate of single mothers that is twice the average among Pittsburgh neighborhoods and is the 7th highest regarding rank, which add to the degree of disadvantage in the neighborhood.

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The former Holy Innocents Catholic Church. Like many other Catholic churches in Pittsburgh, the church has been closed for some time, along with the school of the same name. Our family friend Ron detailed the history behind the church and the memories he had here and elsewhere in Sheraden. 

Sheraden is a community that struggles with disadvantage, but it’s also a community that is diverse, filled with community activity and is home to a contained neighborhood that feels like it inhabits its own space in Pittsburgh’s West End. The community is also home to local nonprofits like the The Education Partnership, which provides school supplies to teachers and students of low-income communities in southwestern PA, and several local churches. Some of these churches promoted free lunches for low-income kids and others advertised upcoming summer events in the community. While the commercial corridor was sparse, several small markets and convenience stores seemed to attempt to fill the void of providing goods in the absence of a neighborhood grocery store; the West End appears to be one of the more obvious food desserts in Pittsburgh as compared to the availability of grocery stores in the city’s East End. I didn’t know much about Sheraden and Esplen going in, but I discovered an intimate, active community that folks seemed pleased to call home.

Methodology Notes

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. Crime data pulled from Allegheny County analytics. 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 the Sheraden and Esplen neighborhood area consists of 2 census tracts, neighborhood level estimates were calculated via a weighted average based on census tract 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.*

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.*

Garfield: A Neighborhood Profile

I want to get this out-of-the-way now; I adore Garfield. My first ever rental home was on Broad Street in Garfield and I lived there with some of my best friends for roughly 2 and half years before moving back to Brookline. Our neighbors were overwhelmingly hospitable and sociable. Cook outs were abound (shout out to the time when our neighbor Jimmy liked my instant potatoes more than Cory’s methodically prepared steak). The neighborhood is close to just about everything in the East End via a high degree of walkability and a myriad of public transit options. Grocery stores are quite accessible and Garfield is home to a vibrant business district filled with wonderful Vietnamese, Indian and black owned restaurants and businesses, the arts and First Fridays and my favorite DIY (Do It Yourself) all ages music venue in Pittsburgh (aka the Mr. Roboto Project). Well, technically speaking, Roboto is in the most northern part of Bloomfield, but it’s literally across the street from Garfield. And I’ve had the pleasure of both playing and going to shows at Roboto for years. Garfield is filled with some of my favorite post-college and graduate school memories. As such, it’s hard to remove my positive bias towards the neighborhood itself, its institutions and my former neighbors. But like many other neighborhoods in the city, longtime residents of Garfield face steep challenges.

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I rented this house on the eastern side of Broad Street with some friends from the fall of 2014 to the summer of 2017.

The durably high poverty and overwhelmingly black Garfield is situated in the northern section of Pittsburgh’s East End and residents on its southern and eastern borders have easy access to several major buses via the Penn Avenue and N. Negley corridors. The 88 rides along the southern border on Penn Avenue and the 77, 87s and the 71 A and C stop at Penn and N. Negley Avenue. And you can catch the 64 just a few blocks north of Garfield at the intersection of Stanton and N. Negley avenues on the border between East Liberty and Highland Park. Much like East Liberty, Garfield is in prime port authority territory and residents can get to Downtown, the Lawrenceville neighborhoods, the Oakland Neighborhoods, the Strip District, Friendship, East Liberty, Bloomfield, Highland Park and a number of suburban boroughs and more with ease. However, the northern most part of the neighborhood grapples with extreme poverty, and residents there are much more isolated than those on the southern and eastern borders of Garfield – as will be discussed. Garfield is bordered to the west by N Mathilda Street and Mossfield Street, to the north by Mossfield Street and Black street, to the south by Penn Avenue and to the East by N. Negley Avenue. Allegheny Cemetery of Central Lawrenceville borders the neighborhood to the West and Bloomfield, Friendship, Stanton Heights and East liberty border the neighborhood to the south-west, south-east, north and east, respectively.

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Garfield is located in the city’s East End near the Allegheny River Corridor.

At one time, Garfield was home to Irish immigrants who worked in the mills and foundries along the nearby Allegheny river corridor. And this concentration of working-class Irish Catholics remained in effect from the 1880s to the late 50s and early 60s. However, as was the case with a sizeable portion of Pittsburgh neighborhoods that will be profiled, suburbanization and white out-migration from the 1950s onward, de-industrialization from the late 1970s and 1980s and Urban Renewal in the 1950s and 60s heavily contributed to the depopulation and economic decline of the neighborhood and its transition from one that was once overwhelmingly white and working class to one that is now overwhelmingly black. And a significant portion of the black population lives below the Federal Poverty Line. In an attempt to lure suburbanites back into the City, the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority used eminent domain to buy up houses, businesses and land to repurpose them for automobile focused development and suburban like amenities in nearby East Liberty – which once had the 3rd highest economic output for a business district in Pennsylvania. The plan massively back fired and led to further depopulation and economic depression. And when black housing projects were erected in the Northern portion of Garfield and in East Liberty, whites fled the neighborhoods in droves. Thus, it was racism against blacks that delivered the another blow to a Garfield of times past. The neighborhood was roughly 10,000 strong and 80% White in 1970. As of 2017 American Community Survey estimates, the neighborhood is 72% black and has a population of 3,846 – a roughly 60% decline in population.

The neighborhood may be high poverty, but its local community development corporations aim to revitalize the neighborhood while keeping it both affordable and mixed income through low-income, moderate and market rate housing rehab and development. The Bloomfield Garfield Corporation and Garfield Jubilee Association have been committed to affordable housing development in the neighborhood, and it shows. Additionally, the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation has a number of home rehab and development initiatives, business improvement programs and an income eligible rent to own program that is dubbed the Garfield Glen Project. The latter was funded via an awarding of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency and received additional gap funding from the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Redevelopment and blight reduction were evident throughout my street by street walk of the neighborhood. Unlike other high poverty neighborhoods, as with our Knoxville profile, Garfield does not appear to be plagued by high rates of neighborhood blight. There were examples of new and rehabbed housing everywhere. And with my own eyes, I saw at least 6 housing rehab crews at work on the beautiful 50 something degree day that I walked the neighborhood. A revitalized commercial corridor focused on the arts and mixed income housing development and rehab have played a significant role in making the neighborhood more desirable for longtime residents, artists and new renters and for home owners looking for a neighborhood that is affordable and close to just about everything and anything the East End has to offer.

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A small section of Garfield’s vibrant commercial corridor at N. Winebiddle and Penn Avenue. Spak Bros is featured in the center of the frame. The all ages Mr. Roboto Project music venue sits directly across from Spak on the other side of Penn Avenue.

I started my walk on the western portion of the neighborhood near Allegheny Cemetery and made my way north via N Mathilda Street and then Schenley Avenue. The latter part of my walk northward was covered by trees and felt like I was walking into the woods, and not a dense Pittsburgh neighborhood. The typography of Garfield is one of relatively flat streets running west to east in the western and central portions of the neighborhood and avenues that rise in slope as traveled from south to north. In the northern most part of the neighborhood is Garfield Commons, which is a mixed income community comprised of a significant number of public housing units owned by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and affordable, moderate and market-rate units for residents not living in public housing. A 6000 feet community center is also available for resident use. Garfield Commons is large and stretches around Schenley Avenue, Columbo Street, Mossfield Street and more. The Water Tower Homes at Garfield Commons are situated off the most northern portion of N. Atlantic Avenue and give way to a beautiful look out where one can see much of the central East End down below and even downtown in the distance. The main issue is its disconnection from the rest of Garfield and the business district below. While residents of the commons have access to the 89 which runs as a looper bus between East Liberty and Garfield, the 89 runs less frequently than the 88 on the neighborhood’s southern border. But residents of the commons have easy access to the Garfield Community Farm off Columbo and Wicklow Street.

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There are northern parts of the neighborhood that feel as if you’ve entered a forest and not a dense neighborhood in the City of Pittsburgh. A cabin like house sits off a wooded Schenley Avenue.
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The public and mixed income housing project sits in the most northern part of Garfield.
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Atop a lookout at the Water Tower Homes at Garfield Commons which is located off the most northern stretch of N. Atlantic Avenue. Downtown and the now closed Fort Pitt elementary school are visible in the distance.

Hillcrest Street is situated in the northern and more traditionally residential part of the neighborhood. Modest brick and single-family homes run throughout the remainder of the neighborhood and larger homes with intricate architectural detail line the most eastern part of Garfield off of N. Fairmount Street. Hillcrest offers beautiful views of Garfield, Friendship and beyond – with the Cathedral of Learning in North Oakland nearly always visible in the distance while walking southward down Garfield’s sloping avenues. Hillcrest is also home to Most Wanted Fine Art, the Hillcrest Urban Farm and the now permanently closed Fort Pitt elementary school – which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. The football field directly west of the school is home to the neighborhood’s youth football program the Garfield Gators and connects kids in the program with a structured activity and other mentor and afterschool-based programs in the neighborhood.

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Most Wanted Fine Art is just one example of the growing artist population that has come to call Garfield home over the years. The art space sits off of Hillcrest Street.
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Garfield and beyond as viewed via gaps between single family homes on Hillcrest Street. The Cathedral of Learning looms on the horizon.

The football field is also home to the annual turkey bowl between neighborhood residents on Thanksgiving. But much like Knoxville, gun violence has plagued the neighborhood over the past few decades. 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. As just one example of black lives lost in the neighborhood, a father of five children and a caring husband named Sidney Barlow was tragically taken after trying to break up a dispute during a turkey bowl game way back in 1999.

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The now closed Fort Pitt elementary school. The field that the Garfield Gators plays in is directly west of the school. The annual Turkey Bowl is also played by neighborhood residents on the same field.

I lived in the neighborhood from the fall of 2014 to the summer of 2017 and never felt unsafe. However, we did hear bursts of gun shots and were well aware of the violence. Violent crime has the tendency to be carried out by a small number of individuals who create a disproportionate amount of that crime. It also tends to concentrate in micro areas of a given neighborhood – with the northern part of Garfield tending to see the most heat. And because durable concentrated poverty, rate of single mothers and the male unemployment rate tend to play a large role in predicting violent crime, long-term residents of durably poor neighborhoods like Garfield are often the ones most exposed and subjected to that crime, not newcomers. A deeper look into the economic and structural causes of gun violence can be found in the Knoxville neighborhood profile. As mentioned in the profile, a number of urban sociologists state that gun violence tends to be a product of economic circumstance, high degrees of racial and economic segregation (and thus proximity) and prolonged in-opportunity (which is connected with drug trafficking) and is not some moral flaw of residents in the neighborhood. A resident who I spoke to said that the gang related violence appears to be declining and mentioned that the neighborhood feels much safer more recently. Her words will be the feature of a future resident interview. However, with the exception of a dip in non-fatal shootings, gun related homicide and aggregated assault in 2015, gun related violence is still clearly and sadly an ongoing issue in the neighborhood. To highlight the divide in gun violence often found between high poverty and low poverty neighborhoods, incidents of non-fatal gun violence for Garfield and Friendship are visible in the graphs below. The graphs are vastly different despite the fact that the two neighborhoods are literally across the street from each other. For an additional divide, the median home value in Friendship is $261,400 and only $72,709 in Garfield – despite their close proximity to one another. And lastly, Garfield is a durably high poverty neighborhood while Friendship is low poverty. Data for the following graphs was gathered via Allegheny County Analytics.

Garfield Guns

Friendship GunsGarfield is a neighborhood that has seen significant degrees of affordable housing development, mixed income and market rate housing development, investment in the Penn Avenue business corridor and more, but is one that has seen little demographic change and income related change over the past few years and beyond. And as stated, the neighborhood has seen a significant amount of gun related violence. Regarding the area of Garfield that reportedly sees the most gun related violence, Garfield’s northern most census tract has the 9th highest poverty rate among all census tracts in the City of Pittsburgh (45%) and is 89% Black per 2017 ACS estimates – when excluding student heavy census tracts from the poverty ranking. Additionally, the northern most census tract of the neighborhood has the 16th highest rate of single mothers (20%) and the 7th highest rate of males unemployed or unattached to the labor force (47%) – when excluding student heavy census tracts in the City of Pittsburgh. When looking at the entire neighborhood in the context of all neighborhoods and neighborhood areas in the city, Garfield is the 11th poorest (36%), has the 23rd highest rate of single mothers with children (14%) and the 13th highest rate of working age males who are unemployed or unattached to the labor force (34%).

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One of the many examples of work crews rehabbing homes in Garfield.
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A colorful assortment of row homes off of Dearborn Street on the south-western edge of Garfield.

Regarding neighborhood change from 2012-2017, Garfield has changed on some measures but barely changed on others. Over a period of 27-years Garfield’s poverty rate declined by a mere 2% (38 to 36%) and the white and black poverty rates have barely budged over the past 5-years. However, like found in our other neighborhood profiles, there is still a huge difference between the percent of black versus white residents living below the FPL (40% to 23% according to 2017 ACS estimates, respectively). While the rate of working age men has declined over the past 5-years (40% to 34%), the rate of single mothers with children has seen a more significant decline (29% to 14% or a decline of 15%). The rate of those 25 and over without a bachelor’s degree or more also declined by 10% but still sits at a high 76% as of 2017 estimates. While there have been some declines in measures of need, they are still quite high compared to the rest of neighborhoods and neighborhood areas in the city and are consistent with measures of need in other high poverty areas. As a whole, median income has increased by nearly $10,000 (roughly $23,000 in 2012 to $33,000 in 2017). Median income stayed roughly the same for whites ($37,000) and increased by roughly $7,600 for blacks (from about $23,400 to $31,000). And there is still a difference of roughly $4,000 in median income between black and white households. Lastly, measures of value have both slightly increased and decreased in the neighborhood over the 5-year period. Median gross rent increased by about $135 ($699 to $834) and median home value decreased by about $600 ($73,300 to $72,700). Lastly, the neighborhood is overwhelmingly black with a sizeable white population as of 2017 estimates (72% Black and 18% White). The small remainder of residents are biracial, Asian or Hispanic or Latino. And while white and black demographics are changing (a 10% increase in the white Population and 11% decrease in the black population), the neighborhood is still very much black.

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Single family homes at Kinkaid and N. Graham Streets on the north-eastern side of Garfield.

Unlike our Manchester profile wherein all measures of need had decreased by sizeable amounts over a short period of time and all measures of income and value had increased over that same period of time (and with Manchester also seeing the second steepest decline in poverty over 27-years), Garfield is much like our Knoxville profile in that some measures of need have stayed the same, some have changed, but all are still quite high comparatively. And while some measures of income and value have increased in Garfield, others have decreased. While an increase in median gross rent of roughly $135 dollars over 5-years may not sound like a lot, it can be sizeable for poor and working-class families and those households on a fixed-income, considering the reality of stagnating wages, rising housing and utility costs and a decrease in federal funds for affordable housing programs. But regarding those last two points, the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation and the Garfield Jubilee Association have built and rehabbed a large number of affordable homes in the neighborhood that are energy-efficient and their programs have allowed a number of a low-income renters to become homeowners through rent to own and income-based home ownership programs. These are necessary strategies that aim to protect the more vulnerable residents of Garfield as the neighborhood changes.

While affordable and mixed income housing development and commercial corridor revitalization play a role in blight reduction, deconcentrating poverty and protecting longtime residents from involuntary displacement (as neighborhood investments spur greater residential demand overtime), traditional brick and mortar community and economic development will not in and of themselves contribute to meaningful poverty and gun violence reduction. Garfield is a sobering reminder of this. The neighborhood is a truly charming area with breathtaking vistas, solid brick single family homes and a neighborhood social network that often feels tight and welcoming. I loved living in this neighborhood and I plan on attempting to purchase my first home there someday. But many long-term black residents live in extreme poverty and those in various subsections of the neighborhood are exposed to near constant gun related non-fatal shootings and to a comparatively sizeable number of fatal and non-fatal gun violence. Although affordable housing development is a necessarily step in stabilizing low-income renters and addressing the city’s affordable housing shortage, Pittsburgh can not simply build its way out of poverty and affordable housing shortages through affordable housing development alone. As mentioned, affordable housing development is a vital strategy to protect vulnerable residents from change and address the affordable housing shortage in this city. But it’s also one that can unintentionally reinforce concentrated poverty if it is primarily targeted to high poverty areas alone, and it is a strategy that may never meet the needed affordable housing demand. And as per research I do professionally, I can firmly say that the bulk of our affordable housing programs are highly segregated in areas of concentrated poverty and disadvantage. And I’ll be happy to share that research through this project as it is published.

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A spacious and intricate home on the eastern side of the neighborhood off of N. Fairmount Street.

While affordable and mixed income development can help stabilize lower-income residents, I believe that affordable housing development needs to be paired with city-wide efforts to raise the minimum wage, create and connect low-income residents to in-demand/high quality hard skill training programs that are financially accessible and offer some kind of a stipend to aid with getting to the program/cost of living expenses and place-based investments that focus on the people of neighborhoods, not just brick and mortar economic development/commercial corridor revitalization. As one resident I spoke to put it, “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.” And lastly, perhaps the City’s shift to community policing will have a positive effect on neighborhoods like Garfield, but that remains to be seen. Because the causes of violent crime in high poverty neighborhoods are often related to economic circumstance and prolonged economic in-opportunity, raising the income of residents, connecting them with living wage opportunities and addressing the place-based factors that prime violent crime all must be pursued if the city is serious about significantly and positively impacting those living in extreme poverty; households who are exposed to the conditions that create violent crime and the violent crime itself. And luckily, the Garfield Jubilee Association is hard at work doing market driven workforce development and education development for income eligible 16-24 year olds via its partnership with the Community College of Allegheny County and others through their Garfield YouthBuild program. Only time will tell if such measures can affect the level of disadvantage that so many low-income residents face. And typically, it takes far more than just a few local programs to curb the issues of generational poverty and violence. In that vein, citywide measures will have to compliment what community groups are already doing in neighborhoods like Garfield, if we are to see significant declines in poverty and gun violence.

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A Black bride walks up the stairs of a mirrored image of a spatious home off of Penn Avenue near the intersection of Penn and N. Graham Street.

Methodology Notes

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. 2012 dollar amounts, incomes and values were adjusted for inflation using the consumer price index. Because Garfield consists of 3 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 and 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.

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.*

Knoxville: A Neighborhood Profile

Once a thriving neighborhood home to middle managers of the Steel Mills that resided down below on the Monongahela river valley, the south Hilltop neighborhood of Knoxville is a topographically diverse area with a collection of flat streets and hilly avenues with modest slopes. The neighborhood is densely populated by brick single family homes and subdivided rentals. And no, I’m not talking about Knoxville, Tennessee; something I have to correct all too often when I speak of Knoxville to other longtime Pittsburghers. Anecdotally speaking, Knoxville is one of the many struggling Pittsburgh neighborhoods that seem to escape the attention and awareness of those Pittsburghers who don’t know the south end of the city beyond the Southside Flats. The neighborhood is bordered to the north by Cedarhurst Street, to the west by Beltzhoover Avenue and Tarragonna Street, to the east by Amanda Avenue and Brownsville Road and to the south by St. John Vianney Cemetery (the place where my grandma and cousins rest). The neighborhoods of Allentown, Beltzhoover, Bon Air, Carrick and Mt. Oliver Borough (the only suburb completely surrounded by city neighborhoods) are north, north-west, south-west, south and east of Knoxville, respectively. When atop some of Knoxville’s steeper slopes, the northern part of the neighborhood is in full view with the U.S Steel building towering over the horizon. Truly, Knoxville is a complicated place, but one that has always felt like home.

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Knoxville sits atop the city’s southern Hilltop.
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The dense neighborhood of Knoxville from the vantage point of Knox Avenue and Brownsville Road. The U.S Steel building towers in the distance.

The neighborhood of Knoxville was named after the fruit farmer Jeremiah Knox who settled there in the early 1800s and was known for his strawberries. The neighborhood was once home to Shade trees that lined the streets. Several streets were named after Knox’s extended family and others were named after the literal fruits of his labor: Rochelle Street, Amanda Avenue and Charles Street and Jucunda Street and Orchard Place, respectively. The neighborhood was a desirable site for farming because of two topographical shelfs that blocked out the smoke and smut from the Steel Mill below in what is now known as the Southside Flats, and shut out smoke from other mills lining the Monongahela river. The first shelf is a feature of Allentown and the Southside Slopes and the second is a topographical slope down from Cedarhurst Street. As the neighborhood became more accessible via the Mt. Oliver incline in the 1870s and via the Knoxville and St. Clair Electric railroad in 1888, the population began to increase and drove dense residential development. Managers of the South Side mills preferred Knoxville because of its low-level of pollution and easy access to the South Side flats. The neighborhood was annexed by the City of Pittsburgh in 1927.

Knoxville is 1 of only 7 neighborhoods and neighborhood areas in the City of Pittsburgh with no clear simple racial majority. The neighborhood is roughly 46% black, 40% white, 6% Asian, 6% biracial and 2% Hispanic or Latino – per 2017 5-year American Community Survey estimates. And it’s important to state that this racial mixing wasn’t by design. Like many other neighborhoods and suburban boroughs along the Monongahela river valley, Knoxville began to steeply decline in population as the Steel Mills shuttered and closed in the late 70s and early 80s. Even before the decline of the mills, neighborhoods like Knoxville were subject to the same sort of depopulation trends happening throughout the city as a whole from the 1950s onward – due to increasing suburbanization and white flight. And as the population continued to decline decade after decade, neighborhood churches, schools, local institutions and businesses on the Knoxville side of Brownsville Road closed as well. While there are no longer any secondary schools that are currently open in the neighborhood, the teenagers of Knoxville feed into Carrick High School – much like my mom did when she was young.

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Town houses in Northern Knoxville.

The neighborhood is a microcosm of the consequences of de-industrialization and depopulation across the U.S. As those who were able/willing to leave the neighborhood did, the poverty rate began to steadily rise. Only those families who were left behind remained, along with those families who intended to whether the change. Racial mixing did not so much occur via some package of intentional integration policies, but instead as the result of some 1,239 black families and 312 white families who were displaced from Crawford-Roberts in 1956; the result of an urban renewal project that demolished over 1300 structures, built parking lots and the Civic Arena in their place and sent roughly 66% of these families to public housing projects and private rentals in depopulating neighborhoods like Knoxville and others throughout the city. And as the bulk of those public housing projects were closed or demolished decades later, an influx of black families migrated to other south Hilltop neighborhoods like Knoxville (in addition to other parts of the city and east suburbs) as they were displaced from housing projects such as the former St. Clair Village – which was also located in the south Hilltop.

Despite my existing knowledge of the neighborhood from my spending time there as a child and teenager, my street by street walk of the neighborhood revealed just how racially divided the neighborhood is; something I had never quite realized when I was younger. South Knoxville appeared to be home to many white residents. I even spotted some “Don’t Tread on Me” flags dotted throughout the southern tip of the neighborhood; a reminder of the more conservative political tendencies of working-class whites throughout the Hilltop and south Pittsburgh – despite their economic status and position. This feature was true of my own home growing up in Brookline. And obviously, not all working class Whites fall into this political category. As I walked north of Suncrest Street, the residents walking the neighborhood were increasingly black. And despite notable exceptions of integrated groups of whites and blacks in the neighborhood, some of the black residents I spoke to on my walk reinforced the notion of how different it is to be black in Knoxville. Their words will be the feature of a future resident interview post.

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Sturdy brick single family homes in South Knoxville.

Remnants of the once tree-lined streets are still present in south Knoxville and the housing stock is sturdy and compact. Much like my walk throughout Manchester, while dilapidated housing was littered throughout the entire neighborhood, its concentration tended to increase as I walked northward – especially so north of Bausman Street. A number of vacant lots broke open the otherwise dense housing landscape. But beautiful housing is present throughout the whole of the neighborhood and I have my own affinity towards my mom and Grandma’s old home on Rochelle street in the northern part of the Knoxville. Wide open vistas of the neighborhood can be viewed at the top of the certain alley ways and steeples of closed churches still permeate the neighborhood; including the now closed St. Canice on Orchard Place – which was the place where my sisters and I were baptized into the Catholic Church. While a small number of bars and convenience stores reside on the Knoxville side of Brownsville Road, a number of former businesses are vacant. Aprimo Pizza, Napa Auto Parts, McDonald’s and the remodeled Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh also call the Brownsville Road business corridor home. While not in Knoxville, the bars, stores and convenience shops of Mt. Oliver Borough are nearby.

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Tree-lined streets in South Knoxville
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An elderly Black man smokes a cigarette and leans next to a building that is adjacent to vacant lots on all sides. The vacant lots sit north of Bausman Street and Knox Avenue.

Unlike the small portion of formerly disadvantaged and poverty-stricken Pittsburgh neighborhoods that are emerging, and have seen steep declines in measured indicators of need and increases in measures of value in recent years, Knoxville is like most other high and extreme poverty neighborhoods in that it has gained in poverty overall and has remained durably poor for decades. While Knoxville’s estimated poverty rate has fluctuated over the years, the rate of individuals living below the federal poverty line increased by 11 percentage points from 1990 to 2017 (19% to 30%) and the poverty rate has generally stayed upwards of 30% in recent years. High poverty Knoxville has also continued to see its population decline with a loss of 968 residents from 2012 to 2017 – with an estimated population of 4,333 in 2012 and of 3,365 in 2017. Like is found in most Pittsburgh neighborhoods that will also be profiled, steep racial divides exist between the black and white population regarding median income and poverty rate – even in such a high poverty setting. While both the white poverty rate and black poverty rate saw declines from 2012 to 2017 (a decline of 7.9% and 5.6%, respectively), the black poverty rate is still 5.4 times that of the white Poverty Rate (43% for blacks and 7.9% for whites as of 2017). And while the white household median income has increased from an estimated $43,757 to $45,794.00 over the 5-year period, the black household median income has declined by a percentage change of 34% (from $27,972 to $18,537 or a difference of nearly $9,500). The white population also grew by 4% and the black population declined by 9% over this time – with a 4% increase in the biracial population.

Knoxville estimated measures of need and value are mixed regarding gains and declines from 2012 to 2017. Regarding measures of value, median gross rent and median home value have declined in the past 5-years (from $861 to $792 and from $46,635 to $44,300, respectively). Indicators of need such as those living below the FPL have decreased by 7% (down from 37%), single mothers with children has decreased by 14% (down from 37%), and those 25 and above with at least a bachelor’s degree or more have decreased by 4% (from 91% to 87%). However, while these declines in need may symbolize more significant change, they must be put in context. As of 2017 ACS estimates, and among all other Pittsburgh neighborhoods and neighborhood areas, Knoxville had the 8th highest rate of single mothers with children, the 7th highest rate of males who are unemployed or unattached from the labor force (when removing student heavy centers from the rankings), the 12th highest rate of those 25 and up without a Bachelor’s degree or more, the 11th lowest median Black household income (when removing student heavy centers from the rankings) and the 5th lowest median home value in all of Pittsburgh. And so, despite these declines in need, need levels are still quite high in both real terms and comparatively. These high measures of need come with a heavy cost on the community for such factors have contributed to the relatively high rate of gun violence found in durably poor neighborhoods like Knoxville.

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Unique single family architecture on Zara Street that has seen better days, but evokes a timeless sense of charm.

In 2018 alone, 3 young men lost their lives to gun violence in Knoxville: James Loughlin (a 23-year-old white male), Tamon Hatchin (a 24-year-old black Male) and Anthony Bullock-Fields (a 29-year-old black male). And on Friday, February 8th 2019, a home invasion resulted in the hospitalization of a suspect and home resident due to gun fire exchange. And sadly, gun violence has been present in Knoxville for years. In 2014, 36-year-olds Jason Eubanks and Cheralynn Sabatasso were shot and killed. In 2015, 15-year-old Curtis pounds was a 9th grader at Carrick High School and was shot and killed. Curtis’s Aunt said that Pound’s father had been shot and killed 6 years ago and that her sister had also been murdered in 1993. In 2015, Police Officers shot and killed a fugitive charged with rape of a young child, assault and other crimes. According to police, the man had held what turned out to be an all-black air gun “in a manner consistent with what one would see when trained to use a handgun against officers.” In 2016, a 6-year-old black girl named Isis Allen was tragically shot in the head by stray bullets in the summer of that year. 23-year-old black female Shanique Sanders was shot down and found dead on McKinley Street in November of 2016. In March of 2017, a murder/suicide occurred when 46-year-old Christopher Dancy was shot and killed by 47-year-old Joseph Goldsmith before turning the gun on himself. A 9-month year old infant was injured from glass due to an exchange of fire between two men in April of 2017. In November 2017, 52-year-old black woman Regina Beck Jordan was found shot in the head in her dining room on Rochelle Street and hospitalized. In July 2018, a man was shot at the intersection of Bausman and Brownsville Road and was taken to the hospital in stable condition. And in November of 2018, an 18-year-old man was taken to the hospital in critical condition after multiple wounds to the abdomen. This is not an exhaustive list, but a large snippet of gun violence that has occurred in Knoxville over the past few years. In being brutally honest, I cried when I read this list aloud to my younger brother – because so many of these young men and women were taken due to circumstance.

To be quite explicit, social science research shows that community level measures of concentrated poverty, percentage of men unemployed or unattached to the labor force, percentage of single mothers with children, drug trafficking and its connection to gun violence and other structural variables of disadvantage all have a hand in creating the conditions and opportunities for gun violence to disproportionately occur in high poverty areas like Knoxville. Meaning, gun violence is often a matter of economic circumstance and disadvantage, and is not some moral or cultural failing of the people who reside in durably poor communities. And often, it is carried out by a small percentage of the younger population who cause a disproportionate amount of the violent crime. And regarding the high degree of gun violence in majority Black neighborhoods (along with the fact that 69% of all victims of homicide in 2018 were Black – despite the fact that blacks make up only 13% of Allegheny County’s population), myself, and other urban researchers, would argue that the high degree of gun violence in impoverished black communities is a matter of proximity and multigenerational exposure to highly disadvantaged neighborhoods; meaning, because majority black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and else where tend to be so durably high poverty and segregated, young blacks are much more exposed and at risk to gun violence as compared to whites because of the neighborhoods and economic circumstances that they were born into. The exception of Knoxville is that it is a racially mixed neighborhood – albeit one that is still segregated. As such, both whites and blacks are exposed to both the economic and systemic conditions that cause the gun violence and the gun violence itself. Meaning, high gun violence is not an issue of race, but of the factors that create it – as described. However, the factors that create it have often been historically and systemically tied to areas of black concentrated poverty.

The neighborhood conditions that tend to predict violence are the result of systemic and macroeconomic forces and self-reinforcing patterns of multigenerational exposure to concentrated poverty and disadvantage. Researchers Robert Sampson and Patrick Sharkey have analyzed and written on these topics extensively (see Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect and Stuck in Place). As discussed in a previous data brief, blacks are far more likely to reside in areas of concentrated poverty in Pittsburgh than whites are. As found in the analysis, an overwhelming 76% of majority black neighborhoods are considered high or extreme poverty as of 2017 ACS estimates – compared to a mere 6% of majority white neighborhoods that are considered high or extreme poverty (with poverty rates exceeding 30% to 40% or more).

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A set of green and white homes on Grimes Avenue in northern Knoxville.

In one of the most cited papers of the past few decades regarding the structural causes of violent crime in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods, renowned researchers William Julius Wilson and Robert Sampson of Harvard argued that the rate of unemployed or unattached males to the labor force and concentrated poverty tend to disrupt families and affect the rate of single mother households with children. In turn, it has been found that high rates of single mothers with children is a leading predictor of violent crime – especially so among juveniles. More recent research from Sampson shows how higher rates of incarceration among blacks have also disrupted the family and led to an increase in single female houses with children. Regarding higher rates of incarceration, Sampson found that the rates of incarceration among blacks in Chicago neighborhoods for committing the same crimes as whites is a different of kind, not degree. While both researchers don’t ignore the fact that neighborhood culture may play some role in violence, they argue that cultural primers of violence are a response to the overwhelming disadvantage of many racially and economically segregated neighborhoods and the lack of living wage job opportunities for residents. Now, violent crime is complex, but my point is that structural variables at the neighborhood level tend to be quite predictive of crime. And as discussed, Knoxville has some of the highest rates of single mothers with children and men who are unemployed or unattached to the labor force in the City of Pittsburgh.

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Saint Canice is visible in the distance on Orchard Place – which is located in the most northern section of the neighborhood.

Knoxville, like many other durably poor neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, is a complicated place. While it is measurably disadvantaged as compared to low poverty neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, it is also home to residents who deeply care about their neighborhood and are doing their best to get by. And many are resilient, friendly, knowledgeable and charismatic – per my own personal experiences with family and friends in Knoxville and per my street by street walk of the neighborhood. Although not by design, Knoxville is one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in the entire city, but it is still segregated. Knoxville has access to transit via the 51, 44 and 54, but there is only one grocery store in the entire south Hilltop. Knoxville has sturdy, compact and wonderfully charming homes, but a high degree of vacancy and blight. Knoxville is the place where my mom and most of my mom’s side of the family grew up. And my grandma’s house holds a special place in my memory; whether the memory be of her neighborhood famous rigatonis or the times when my great-uncle would chase me around her house with a buzz cutter because my hair was “way to damn long.” And I once received some sage advice from my Great Uncle Bill; he also resided with my grandma in the house with the Japanese Apple Tree out front and the dark green porch swing that my siblings and I would play on when we were younger. He told me that a boy who never ended up in the hospital from doing something reckless with his friends would never really have that great of a childhood (and my best friend and I took his advice a bit too seriously growing up).

Knoxville is home to beautiful vistas and a visibly tight social network but is plagued by violence that is preventable. Knoxville is struggling, as are many of its most vulnerable residents, but its story doesn’t have to end that way – nor should it. While Knoxville is one of many high poverty neighborhoods that has not seen the benefit of Pittsburgh’s so-called renaissance and revitalization, there are strategies out there that aim to invest in the people of disadvantaged places and provide them with real opportunity. And there are already local non profits that deeply care about the social mobility and health of those residing in the Hilltop (such as the Brashear Association and the Hilltop Community Children’s Center). Pittsburgh’s economic growth alone will not solve the problems of durable poverty and cemented disadvantage in places like Knoxville. Intentional place-based and people centered policies, investments and strategies are needed to combat the barriers that residents have faced for generations.

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My mom and grandma’s former house is featured on the right side of the photo. A Japanese Maple Tree sits in the front yard. A seedling from that same tree became a Japanese Maple Tree in my parent’s front yard in Brookline. My uncle and cousins reside in the white row houses.

Methodology Notes

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. 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 and this may impact results.

Snippets of broader Pittsburgh history were not cited because they are common knowledge.

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.