Neighborhood Profile: California-Kirkbride

Located just north-east of Manchester, California-Kirkbride is a majority black and extreme poverty neighborhood that is bridged between the City’s lower and upper Northside. As such, California-Kirkbride is split between a southern section which is topographically flat, filled with vacant lots and is home to historic row homes and a northern section that sits directly south of the architecturally beautiful and distinct Oliver Citywide Academy, a sparse collection of homes and the breathtaking Union Dale Cemetery; the two sections are connected via Pittsburgh city steps and the neighborhood’s eastern border of Brighton Road.

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A pair of city steps connect the southern section of the neighborhood to the northern section. The steps sit off Morrison Street and connect up to Sunday Street.

California-Kirkbride is bordered to the north by Marshall Shadeland, to the west by Manchester, to the East by Perry South and to the south by Central Northside, which is more commonly known as the Mexican War Streets. Allegheny Avenue and California Avenue are adjacent to the Norfolk Southern Railroad and comprise the western border, Island Avenue and a section of Marshall Avenue makeup the northern border and Brighton Road and Pennsylvania Avenue constitute the eastern and southern border, respectively. The community is accessible via the 13, 16 and 17 but is somewhat cutoff from the rest of the lower Northside. Formerly an industrial rail yard, the U.S Postal Service now houses a sorting center that takes up a significant amount of land in the most south-western part of the neighborhood. Other industrial sites exist off of California Avenue and in the northern section of the neighborhood off of Sunday Street.

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Cal-bride acts as a bridge between the city’s lower and upper Northside.

Neighborhoods like Northside’s California-Kirkbride are a microcosm of the decline, disinvestment and extreme poverty and inopportunity that many black Pittsburghers face. While much attention has been given to Pittsburgh’s revitalization, that revitalization has not taken place in most of Pittsburgh’s poorest and blackest neighborhoods, and the living wage opportunities that stem from economic growth often remain out of reach for Pittsburghers of all races without a college degree. And while the northern part of the neighborhood is quiet and tucked away, the southern section is largely green and emptied – with the effects of its overwhelming poverty and abandonment evident. But neighborhood groups like the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing aim to revitalize the neighborhood in an equitable manner and helped give life to a colorful play space surrounded by public murals off California Avenue. Likewise, Project Destiny sits off the neighborhood’s western border and offers programs to engage inner city youth. Project Destiny runs an afterschool program, mentoring networks and offers a 6-week summer camp program and more and is partnered with the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. Lastly, Northside Common Ministries is located in the south-eastern section of the neighborhood and offers employment services, a homeless shelter, a food pantry and other services to disadvantaged populations of the Northside and beyond.

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The southern section of the neighborhood conveys a visual sense of emptiness and abandonment. A considerable number of lots are now green and unoccupied and reveal just how dense this neighborhood once was by both population and housing stock.

 

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A playground that was constructed with the aid of Kaboom!, the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing and others. It sits in the southern section of the neighborhood off of California Avenue. A unique mural overlooks the play space.

As workers of the former rail yard, slaughterhouses and other local industries increased residential demand during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the neighborhood became densely populated with industrial style row homes. But California-Kirkbride shares a similar history with many of Pittsburgh’s other poorest neighborhoods. Increasing suburbanization and white flight emptied out neighborhoods following World War II and the collapse of the region’s Steel Industry delivered the final blow. Additionally, the practice of redlining and other discriminatory housing and lending policies concentrated blacks in the poorest neighborhoods and was legal until the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Although, Pittsburgh passed an anti discrimination law regarding the rental, purchase, sale or financing of residential housing 10 years prior to the passage of the federal law, but neither law has had a significant impact on changing patterns of economic and racial segregation overtime. And as can be seen in the graph below, researcher Patrick Sharkey found that the number of black versus white children living in high or moderate poverty neighborhoods remained nearly unchanged both before and long after the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.[1] As those who sought new opportunity went elsewhere and/or others left for racially motivated reasons, local businesses collapsed, religious and social institutions slowly closed their doors as membership declined and those that remained did so in a still depopulating neighborhood and city without the tax base to properly address such cemented issues of poverty and disadvantage.

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Sharkey defined high poverty neighborhoods as those with 30% poverty or more and moderate poverty neighborhoods as those with rates between 20 and 29%. The 1968 Fair Housing Law was past in 1968, but a number of factors ranging from deindustrialization to implicit and explicit means of continued discrimination and exclusion kept the law from achieving the intended effect of changing such segregated residential patterns.

I did my street by street walk of the neighborhood on a fifty something degree day in late March. And while I’ve been though California-Kirkbride on a number of occasions over the years, I had never explored the neighborhood in such an intimate way. Most notably, the southern part of California-Kirkbride feels empty and there are few Pittsburgh neighborhoods that convey such a sense of vacancy and abandonment. Boarded up businesses and vacant lots give a sense of what the neighborhood used to be like. However, there were a handful of homes that appeared to be undergoing renovations, especially so in the more historic sections of the neighborhood. These sections were composed of large, unique and sturdy brick row homes. Pella, a door and window replacement company, had their stickers on a number of these row homes which suggest that some development is returning to the neighborhood. Colorful murals were scattered throughout the southern part of the neighborhood and portrayed black portraits of children, workers, past community members and a bride walking through a door. As I walked past historic row homes and dilapidated housing, black bodied children were laughing and returning from school, a handful of residents were walking through the neighborhood and a few women did gardening work in their backyards.

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Historic row homes off Brighton Place. The neighborhood was once an alienated, unpopulated corner of the former Allegheny City. But industry brought workers and housing to the neighborhood. However, today, the neighborhood is depopulating and again feels alienated from other more prominent neighborhoods in the lower Northside.
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Mural with complementary color tones in the southern section of the neighborhood.

As I walked northward up the city steps off Morrison Street, I immediately noticed that the housing was not subject to the sort of emptiness present in the southern section. This part of the neighborhood was quiet and tucked away; something that a young black resident said that she enjoyed about the neighborhood. Her name is Britney and she has lived in the area for about 13 years. I spoke with her off Island Avenue and Winifred Street. Britney is quiet, shy and reserved and said that the peaceful calm of this part of the neighborhood is only sometimes interrupted by children and teens at Oliver Citywide Academy. Oliver is a school that is composed entirely of special needs children and teens throughout the city and was once the former Oliver Highschool. The sounds of teens were evidenced by the track meet that was about to start in the athletic field just north of the neighborhood in Marshall-Shadeland. Because of her shyness and avoidance of social media, something I should aspire to, she did not wish to have her picture taken, but said that she liked how her neighborhood was close to school. Although, she wished that there were more to do in California-Kirkbride; the community does not have its own commercial corridor and is almost entirely residential, except for the swaths of land owned by nonprofits and industry. She attends the Community College of Allegheny County’s Northside campus and stated that she has to go to the Mexican War Streets or the businesses off Western Avenue in Allegheny West to, “Have something to do.” However, the shops are not too far by foot and are very accessible by bus.

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Single family homes in the northern section of the neighborhood.

The northern part of the neighborhood was serene and home to another playground. However, the playground looked quite old and had features reminiscent of the original play equipment that was housed in Moore Park and Brookline Memorial Park in Brookline during the 90s. But Brookline’s equipment had been replaced when I was still a child and has received additions since then; California-Kirkbride’s playground has not. Surrounded by Oliver Citywide Academy, Highwood Cemetery in Marshall-Shadeland and Union Dale cemetery, the most north-eastern section of the neighborhood is breathtaking. Old tombstones from the 1800s, large green spaces and ancient trees collide with the brick of old row homes and single family homes, and the sound of bouncing basketballs echoed throughout the landscape as a few black children shot hoops off of one of the compact streets. As is the same with many other Northside neighborhoods, the steeper parts of the California-Kirkbride give way to wide vistas that show the Northside down below and Downtown in the distance. And much like the rest of Pittsburgh, the neighborhood showcased both what had changed during the period of Pittsburgh’s deindustrialization and what has remained largely the same since.

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Old playground off of Success and Winifred Streets. Old row homes line the northern section of the play space.
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The tree-lined Brighton road. Oliver Citywide Academy is located in the most southern part of Marshall-Shadeland but the section of Union Dale Cemetery located in California-Kirkbride is visible in the distance.
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The entrance to the beautiful Union Dale cemetery in the northern part of the neighborhood. Downtown, the West End and Duquesne heights and Mount Washington are visible from the most southern part of the cemetery.  

From 1960 to 2017 the neighborhood changed from 3% black to 73% black and the population dropped from 4,235 to an estimated 717, according to census data. And from 1990 to 2017 the poverty rate remained extreme poverty with levels upwards of 40% and rose from 42% to 49%. In fact, California-Kirkbride is one of only 8 Pittsburgh neighborhoods that have poverty rates of 40% or more as of 2017 ACS estimates; all but one of which hold a black simple racial majority with respective black populations of 51% or more. When adjusting for student heavy neighborhoods, California-Kirkbride is the 4th poorest community in the entire city after Northview Heights, Bedford Dwellings and Homewood North and is the least populated city of Pittsburgh neighborhood. Like many other high poverty, majority black neighborhoods, the area suffers from a high male unemployment rate (33%) and has the 8th lowest median income in the city ($20,268), when adjusting for student heavy centers. From 2012 to 2017 the median gross rent and the median home value saw significant declines (from $750 to $516 and from $81,292 to $54,700, respectively), along with a substantial population decline composed of mainly black residents (a 7% decline). And as of 2017, the community had the 8th lowest median rent in the City. Unlike those few neighborhoods that are rapidly changing in the direction of increased rent, investment and residential demand, California-Kirkbride is declining in value, has gotten poorer and continues to lose a significant portion of its population.

Regarding other measures of need from 2012-2017, those 25 and up without a bachelor’s degree decreased by 6% (89% to 83%), male unemployment decreased by a sizeable 19% (52% to 33%), the white poverty rate rose by 12% (17% to 29%) and the black poverty rate decreased by 12% (64% to 52%). However, the steepest decline in need was rate of single mothers with children which decreased by an incredible 51% (57% to 6%). While ACS data is known to have sizeable margin of error, this kind of steep decline may not be due to that error alone. Something else significant may be at play due to such a steep decline over such a short period of time. Regarding income, median income rose $12,158 to $20,268. And while the white median income declined by an incredible $45,945 (roughly $61,000 to $16,000), the black median income rose from $10,280.21 to $23,750. Very few whites were estimated to leave over this time (just 13) and over 300 blacks left over the 5-year period. Perhaps those few whites who left had significant incomes, which led to such a decrease; but that is just speculation. And perhaps the most disadvantaged blacks are leaving the neighborhood. One thing is clear, while issues of affordable housing are an issue in high and low poverty areas alike, the rent and home value are declining at a high rate in California-Kirkbride, not increasing. Such a steep drop and raise in indicators of need and value by race are more than likely tied to the continuing and significant depopulation of the neighborhood. But other factors may be at play as well.

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Vacant lots and row homes off B Street in the southern part of the neighborhood.
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Dilapidated house in the southern section of the neighborhood.

Despite it’s incredibly high poverty and male unemployment rates, the neighborhood experienced minimal gun related violence as compared to other high poverty Pittsburgh neighborhoods over the last decade. As with the Knoxville and Garfield neighborhood profiles, concentrated poverty, prolonged inopportunity and unemployment and high rates of single mother families tend to have strong relationships with violent gun related crime, as discussed in those profiles. And the fatal and non fatal gun violence and shootings in Knoxville and Garfield are considerably high. However, California-Kirkbride is fairly safe, which affirms that these aforementioned measures alone are not the only predictors of comparatively high rates of gun violence. By all measures, gun related violence is lower in most U.S cities than it has been in decades, with the exception of spikes in crime in the past few years. In fact, 2014 was one of the safest years in American history according to researcher Patrick Sharkey. But as discussed in his new book, violent gun related crime is still comparatively higher in high poverty neighborhoods than low poverty neighborhoods, and is often carried out by a small number of individuals in micro areas of a given neighborhood. The emergence of crack cocaine in the 1980s hit poor neighborhoods hard and led to an explosion in drug and gang related gun violence. But not all poor neighborhoods were hit by these same forces. And crack’s hold has since declined in many of the nation’s high poverty areas. Comparatively, many poor urban neighborhoods are far less violent than they were during the peak of violent crime in the early 1990s. But again, many are still much more violent than low poverty neighborhoods. [2] While such a low and steadily declining population may be a factor in the neighborhood’s low rates of crime, other factors may be at work, although it is unclear what they are. Age is often a factor regarding the likelihood to commit crime with crime significantly tapering off after 30. But 47% of the neighborhood is below the age of 30 and only 10% is above 65, according to 2017 ACS estimates. Whatever the reasons may be, California-Kirkbride is a much safer neighborhood for residents when compared to other high poverty neighborhoods profiled so far, as can be seen below via Allegheny Analytics.

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Gun related violence in California-Kirkbride
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Gun related violence in Garfield.
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Gun related violence in Knoxville.

California Kirkbride is a neighborhood that faces steep challenges and embodies the growing divide between durably affluent and durably high poverty neighborhoods in American cities.[3] And even within the neighborhood, inequality is found. As of 2017, 52% of the black population lived below the Federal Poverty Line as compared to 29% of the white population and this trend holds for most of the city. In fact, an analysis shows that while only 14% of poor whites in the City of Pittsburgh live in high poverty neighborhoods, a staggering 59% of poor blacks do.[4] Given the breadth and depth of sociological, economic and human developmental research that show the causal link between childhood development in high poverty neighborhoods and negative long-term socio-economic and health based adult outcomes, such a measure is alarming. Researcher Patrick Sharkey has shown the causal effect between childhood development in high poverty areas and generational poverty and impaired cognitive development[5] and researcher Raj Chetty has reexamined data from the federally funded Moving to Opportunity experiment to show that a childhood move from a high to low poverty area has a significant positive effect on adult earnings.

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Analysis used 2017 ACS 5-year estimates. The total percentage of poor whites versus poor blacks living in neighborhoods with 30% poverty or more was calculated. As can be seen, lack of income may only explain a portion of why this pattern exists. Other factors must be at play to cause such a sharp divide between where poor black versus poor white residents primarily live.

There are several neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that are experiencing rising rents and affordable housing and wage policies must be enacted to ensure that long-term residents can benefit from investment, improved access and opportunity. However, the main challenges that poor and black neighborhoods like California-Kirkbride face is concentrated poverty, its effects on childhood development and the harsh reality of extreme racial segregation. While vulnerable residents of Lower and Central Lawrenceville, East Liberty and Manchester have to deal with the reality of rising rents that result from increased public and private investment and residential demand, California-Kirkbride and a significant majority of other high poverty neighborhoods must deal with depopulation, disinvestment and neglect. The history of Pittsburgh neighborhoods over the past 3 decades is not often change, despite the attention some neighborhoods undergoing change get. Our focus must also shift to the large number of neighborhoods that have simply been left behind.

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The historic California-Kirkbride.

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. Because some neighborhoods share a census tract as of the 2010 census, several neighborhoods were combined and are known as neighborhood areas. There are 74 unique neighborhoods and neighborhood areas used in the analysis. 2012 dollar amounts, incomes and values were adjusted for inflation using the consumer price index.

ACS estimates at the census tract level have sizeable margin or error. This may impact results.

Snippets of broader Pittsburgh history were not cited because they are common knowledge. “Student heavy centers” include all those census tracts within known student heavy locations and those neighborhoods that contain a 4-year college or university.

In neighborhood profiles and data briefs, neighborhoods and neighborhood areas are considered to have a simple racial majority when a given race constitutes 51% of the total population. Otherwise, it is considered a mixed-race neighborhood.

Poverty intervals were informed by standards in neighborhood-level poverty research. Specifically, researcher Patrick Sharkey’s poverty intervals were referenced from his book Stuck in Place – regarding what constitutes an extreme, high, moderate, low or very low poverty neighborhood.

*The views expressed on this profile and blog are mine alone and do not necessarily represent those of my previous or current employers.*

[1]Sharkey, P. (2013). Stuck in Place (p. 27). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.[2] Sharkey, P. (2019). Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City life and The Next War on Violence. New York City, NY: W.W Norton and Company, Inc.        [3] Sharkey, P. (2019) (p. 99)
[4] Analysis used 2017-ACS 5-year estimates. The total percentage of poor whites versus poor blacks living in neighborhoods with 30% poverty or more was calculated.
[45 Sharkey, P. (2019) (pp. 83-86)

Resident Interview: Garfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garfield Guns

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

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

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

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

The Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project is deeply appreciative of Alisha taking the time to talk with me while waiting for her bus in Garfield. Check out the full Garfield Neighborhood Profile here. The views expressed in this article and all other articles of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project are mine alone and may not represent those of my current or former employers.

*If this is your first experience with the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project, the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project is a street by street exploration of all 90 neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh. As each neighborhood is walked they receive a neighborhood profile detailing past and recent neighborhood level indicators and analysis, photos and observations from my walks and a brief history of the neighborhood. And resident interviews like this one complement their respective neighborhood profiles. The secondary goal of the project is to expose the high degree of racial and economic segregation by neighborhood in Pittsburgh and lasting neighborhood poverty. Data briefs address this secondary goal and are comprehensive statistical, geospatial and research driven analyses and extrapolations. You can check out my first data brief on racial and economic segregation in Pittsburgh and durable neighborhood poverty here. Please check out the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project to see what I’ve analyzed and written about thus far.*

Resident Interview: Knoxville

It took me two separate trips to complete my street by street walk of the racially mixed and high poverty south Hilltop neighborhood of Knoxville. In not making the greatest decision, I left my winter coat at home on a moderately temperate February day and regretted it almost immediately as the temperature began to dive. When I returned to complete my second walk of the neighborhood, I was prepared.

As mentioned in the Knoxville neighborhood profile, I have a close connection to the neighborhood. My mom grew up in the northern, and blacker, part of the Knoxville on Rochelle Street and my grandma lived there until she passed around 2007. I have an aunt and uncle who still live there and several cousins who I haven’t seen in at least a few years. Also, the very first rental apartment complex that I lived in with my parents and older sister is a block down the road from Knoxville in the northern-most part of Carrick.

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

For my first walk of the neighborhood, I walked southward from the northern border of Knoxville at Cedarhurst Street. And so, for my second walk of the neighborhood, I decided to start walking from Knoxville’s southern border near St. John Vianney Cemetery, which is where my grandma and other extended family members rest. As I walked northward and zigzagged through some of the winding streets and alley ways of the southern part of Knoxville, I noticed just how white the southern part of the neighborhood is – as compared to the section of Knoxville north of Suncrest Street. Knoxville is one of only 7 neighborhoods and neighborhood areas in the City of Pittsburgh with no clear simple racial majority as of 2017 American Community Survey 5-year estimates. And yet, it is still fairly segregated.; something my interviewee agreed with.

In a moment of serendipity, given my realization and the conversation that was about to take place, I ran into an amicable, honest and forward black woman named Dana as I walked eastward on Suncrest Street. She possessed character traits that I deeply appreciate. I stopped, informed her of the project and she agreed to talk, as long as it didn’t take too long given the cold. While I attempted to talk to several neighborhood residents that cold afternoon, Dana was the only one who wasn’t in a rush to get somewhere and she didn’t mind spending a few extra minutes outside in the frigid weather.

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

Dana told me that she was originally from Philadelphia and that she had been in Pittsburgh now for roughly 20-years.  Before living in Knoxville, Dana had rented in several other south Hilltop neighborhoods including Mt. Oliver, Beltzhoover and Allentown. I mentioned that my previous neighborhood profile had been on Manchester and she excitedly said that she had lived there too. Dana mentioned that she’s been in Pittsburgh for so long because of family. At one time, she had a full scholarship to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but a set of unlucky circumstances kept her from going there. Around the time of receiving the scholarship, her dad went to jail, and she selflessly chose to stay behind and take care of one of her two sisters. She currently works in the service industry and has an affinity for good barbecue. She mentioned that I should check out the recently opened Fat Daddy’s just a few blocks down on Brownsville Road in Mt. Oliver borough and I plan to.

When I asked her what her favorite part of living in Knoxville was she said, “Because it’s cheap.” Knoxville has the 5th lowest median home value in all of Pittsburgh and maintains rents that are comparatively cheaper than in demand locations on the City’s East End. For a brief time, Dana lived in Highland Park and said that she was paying upwards of $700 for a rental unit. Here in Knoxville, she was paying $400 something for the same type of unit. Her and her finance are saving up to buy a house, and Knoxville helps her save.

When I asked her about her least favorite part of Knoxville she immediately said, “Being brown and the cops. The shops on Brownsville Road don’t say “whites only,” but as a black person you come to understand which ones you’re welcome in and which one’s you aren’t. It’s tough being black in Knoxville. And as a black person you definitely avoid Carrick and you especially avoid Brentwood. And if you’re a black person that lives in Carrick, well good luck to you.” She then asked, “Have you heard of Jonny Gammage?” And I replied, “No, I haven’t.” Dana went on to explain how Jonny was just visiting Pittsburgh back in the mid-90s and was killed by several police officers in the south suburban municipality of the very white and middle to upper middle-class Brentwood. All for getting stopped for his driving. When I looked up Jonny, I found a somewhat recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published after a cop in the municipality of East Pittsburgh shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Antwon Rose. According to the police office, Antwon had “bolted” from a car during a traffic stop. He was only 17.

The article went on to say that Jonny had been “erratically” driving a borrowed car. Mr. Gammage was a mere 31 years old and died in the custody of the Brentwood police on route 51 in 1995. The cause of death was found to be asphyxiation, which was the result of the five police officers who tackled Johnny to the ground and held him there. Jonny was just visiting from Syracuse, NY. But to Dana, he was black and in Brentwood. That’s the cost of being black in the wrong place, and even in the “right” place. Three of the five officers were charged with involuntary manslaughter, but none were convicted. And in Pittsburgh the black community arose in protest; much like they did after Antwon Rose was shot.

Dana passionately explained that she gets harassed by the police quite often in Knoxville. And even as I spoke with her at Suncrest Street and Roll way, not far from the McDonald’s on Brownsville Road, a few unmarked police vehicles and policemen had been patrolling the street for something or someone right before I started speaking with Dana. Dana mentioned a few occasions where she had been stopped by the police at night while walking home from her job in the service industry. “Sometimes after 12 hours or so on my feet I just want to smoke a cigarette on my walk back home. And I’ve been stopped just for walking and having a smoke,” said Dana. According to Dana, police officers would ask her invasive questions about what she was doing and why she was out so late, but she was just minding her own business and walking home from her job.

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Looking eastward on Suncrest Street.

Being black in Knoxville is complicated. As described in Knoxville’s neighborhood profile, in 2018 alone, 3 young men were shot and killed in Knoxville, two of whom were black males, and many more black men, women and even children were the victims of gun violence in just the past few years alone. And as reported by the Pittsburgh Courier, 75 of the 109 Homicides in 2018 in Allegheny County were black. As researcher Patrick Sharkey’s recent book Uneasy Peace details, and in a brief write-up of the book by NPR, crime is at an all time low in American cities. And poor urban neighborhoods are significantly less violent than they once were in the 70s and 80s. However, high poverty neighborhoods like Knoxville are still disproportionately affected by gun violence as compared to low poverty areas in Pittsburgh and beyond.

And so, as described by Dana, being black in Knoxville means that you need to keep an eye out for the police. And that’s a shame, given that the other reality facing both white and black Knoxville residents is their exposure to the neighborhood level measures of disadvantage that are highly predictive of gun violence and the gun violence itself. Sociological research into crime shows that violent crime is often a matter of economic circumstance, systemically high rates of male unemployment and single mother households, drug trafficking and its connection to a loss of real economic opportunity and a product and reaction to the high poverty neighborhoods in which many low-income blacks are born into. Meaning, black on black gun violence is often a result of economic circumstance, severe lack of opportunity and is simply a matter of proximity given the reality of how racially segregated high and extreme poverty neighborhoods are. Black on black gun violence is not some moral or cultural failing of the residents who reside in these neighborhoods.

As urban researchers Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson have explained, local culture may play some role in gun violence, but local culture is a reaction to the severe constraints that face the residents of durably poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods. Being harassed or even killed for the color of your skin is a matter of circumstance that is beyond a person’s control. And being born into a poor neighborhood is also beyond a person’s control. And yet, young black lives are lost to circumstances like these every day.

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

The Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project is deeply appreciative of Dana taking the time to stop and talk with me on such a cold winter day in Knoxville. Check out the full Knoxville Profile here. The views expressed in this article and all other articles of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project are mine alone and may not represent those of my current or former employers.

*If this is your first experience with the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project, the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project is a street by street exploration of all 90 neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh. As each neighborhood is walked they receive a neighborhood profile detailing past and recent neighborhood level indicators and analysis, photos and observations from my walks, a brief history of the neighborhood and resident interviews like this one. The secondary goal of the project is to expose the high degree of racial and economic segregation by neighborhood in Pittsburgh and lasting neighborhood poverty. Data briefs address this secondary goal and are comprehensive statistical, geospatial and research driven analyses and extrapolations. Please check out the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project to see what I’ve analyzed and written about thus far.*