Marita Garrett
Marita Garrett stands across from the Wilkinson Borough building on Ross Street. Heather Mull

Wilkinsburg has not succumbed to the momentum to be absorbed into neighboring Pittsburgh. And its first black woman mayor is ramping up the fight to protect her community's distinct interests.

The story of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, is the story of how a small black city fights from vanishing, or rather, from being vanished away, and the black women who were recently installed to lead that fight. In May, Marita Garrett was elected the first black woman to serve as mayor for the Borough of Wilkinsburg, which sits on the eastern border of Pittsburgh in the Big Tech-centric city’s shadows. The Wilkinsburg she is inheriting is one that, like a lot of small municipalities, is fighting for its own visibility, and even its very existence.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I still don’t know where Pittsburgh ends and Wilkinsburg begins,” says Damon Young, co-founder of the popular VerySmartBrothas blog who once worked as a teacher in Wilkinsburg. He wrote last year that many of the problems Wilkinsburg faces today are the “intentional results” of Pittsburgh’s historic disregard of black people in the region.

“It’s almost like when you invite someone over to your house, and you’re bragging about how nice your new place is, but your place is actually dirty, but you don’t want to clean it up, so you just stuff all of your mess into the closet. I feel like Wilkinsburg has kinda been Pittsburgh’s closet for the last few decades.”

Garrett understands this perception. She got questions all the time as she went door-to-door asking people to vote for her for mayor, like: “Wait, Wilkinsburg is a city?” And, her favorite: “Sorry, but I’m voting for [Pittsburgh Mayor] Bill Peduto,” from residents who were unaware that they were not eligible to vote for Pittsburgh candidates—because they live in Wilkinsburg.

When Garrett first arrived in Wilkinsburg, in 2010, the borough was in the process of integrating its fire department into Pittsburgh’s, which it finally did in 2011 when the borough could no longer afford to pay for firefighters. Pittsburgh also began collecting Wilkinsburg’s trash, and is now collecting a huge portion of Wilkinsburg’s students after the borough closed its only public middle school and high school last year. There are fears that Wilkinsburg’s police department will be the next to be merged, dissolved, shared, and then so goeth the entire borough, swallowed whole...disappeared.

Wilkinsburg’s shuttered high school. (Heather Mull)

But Garrett, who currently serves as city councilor, is fighting against this momentum to simply let Wilkinsburg be absorbed into the surrounding jurisdictions.

“We very much are of the mind that we are our own municipality,” says Garrett. “The shared services are to cut down on the additional tax or fee burdens that are on our residents, and I know people are saying that if we keep doing that piece-by-piece then eventually we'll just be Pittsburgh. But no, we don't want that.”  

If Garrett succeeds, she will have cracked the conundrums confronting many small municipalities across the country: How to grow in the era of the shrinking city; and also, how to restore visibility to a city that many no longer want to see. And, for small black cities specifically, how do you make sure the issues unique to African Americans don’t get lost in the shuffle? The white suburbs in the south and west parts of the region want to conquer opiates; Pittsburgh wants to conquer tech—so where does that leave a population like Wilkinsburg’s?

“We treat small black towns like we do black people,” says Andre Perry, an urban studies fellow for the Brookings Institution who grew up in Wilkinsburg. “I don’t think every town is destined to exist forever, but Wilkinsburg’s survival is more about our willingness to bring justice to its residents who deserve justice. Wilkinsburg deserves to exist because racism and classism don’t.”

Roy Clark, Public Works Director for Wilkinsburg, socializes with friends on a summer evening on Wood Street. (Heather Mull)

Wilkinsburg is a predominantly African-American town in a sea of white municipalities across the greater Pittsburgh region, and one of just two municipalities in that region with a majority black population. All but six of the 40 neighboring boroughs found in Pittsburgh’s suburban inner ring have a population that’s at least 85 percent white. Of that ring, Wilkinsburg’s median household income, $33,484, is the fourth lowest—a bit below that of Pittsburgh’s, $40,009, and well below the state of Pennsylvania’s, $55,702.

Which means Wilkinsburg has different priorities than the rest of the region. While all of those white suburban communities are battling an opioid epidemic, opioids are far from Wilkinsburg’s biggest problem. Wilkinsburg is fighting just to keep its schools open and its public safety services intact, while dealing with gun violence, which is also a public health issue. For Garrett, this will mean working herself and her borough onto the radar of all those other municipal leaders—almost exclusively white, and mostly male—to convince them that Wilkinsburg deserves their attention.

“We're going to need their assistance,” says Garrett. “One opioid death is one death too many, and that’s very important, but gun violence is very much a public health epidemic also. So we’re going to need their support on that too because this is very real for our community.”

Prepared by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and the Allegheny County Health Department.

Wilkinsburg already has some of the highest property tax rates in the state—which hasn’t helped with keeping people in the borough. These are the dilemmas facing other small municipalities like Ferguson, Missouri and Compton, California—places overshadowed by neighboring Big Cities (St. Louis and Los Angeles, respectively) and weighed down by financial distress and impending disasters.

When these cities do gain visibility, it’s often for the wrong reasons: Compton is known for being overtaken by gangs of both the police and street varieties; Ferguson became the nativity scene for the Black Lives Matter movement when riots exposed the city’s penchant for criminalizing its poor, black residents; and last year Wilkinsburg hit the national radar after a daylight shootout at a birthday party there that led to five deaths, including a pregnant woman. For that tragedy, the word “massacre” is now the first entry in the drop down when you type “Wilkinsburg” in a search engine.

And if Wilkinsburg suddenly disappeared, who then would fight for the underlying issues of poverty and segregation that led to that “massacre”? Opiate rehabs won’t save everybody.

Some fear Wilkinsburg’s police department will be dissolved. (Heather Mull)

So enters Mayor Garrett, who’s sometimes compared to John Fetterman, the brawny mayor of Braddock, another adjoining Pittsburgh municipality of small size, that is also struggling with growth, visibility, and shaking off stigmatizing reputations. A more apt comparison, though, would be Compton’s Mayor Aja Brown, another black woman who, like Garrett, has been tasked with cleaning up the messes that all the men-mayors who came before them either created or failed to address.

Wilkinsburg has never had an African-American woman for mayor, and part of Garrett’s job will, no doubt, be fighting for visibility—not just for the borough, but for her own. The Pittsburgh metro region has been historically run by mostly white male leaders who are deeply entrenched in political power. The ceiling she’ll have to break to keep Wilkinsburg on the map isn’t made of glass, it’s made out of white steel. Not only that, but she also is dealing with the hopelessness and lack of political confidence that sets in among women and people of color in places that have only experienced white, male leadership for so long.

“A lot of people of color here have accepted the mindset that says ‘We can't do any better so why would I even try?'” says Garrett. “So when I invite black people to these meetings and events, it’s always 'No, it's just going to be a bunch of white people'—OK, well let's still go, because we gotta get this information. I don't like being the only black woman in these spaces, but most of the time I am. But that’s life.”

Fortunately Garrett is not totally alone on this ride: Both the Wilkinsburg police chief and school superintendent today are black women as well—the first time in the borough’s history, in fact, that all three of these leadership positions were held by black women, which could very possibly mean that shit might actually get done this time around.

The Wilkinsburg school district, despite its recent major shakeup with the middle and high schools, is already showing new signs of life. The school district’s budget finally has a positive balance for the first time in four years, and the borough can actually talk about lowering property taxes for once.

“The administration’s leaders traditionally have been men, so you come into a district like Wilkinsburg where that’s all they’ve had so that’s their only frame of reference,” says Dr. Linda Iverson, Wilkinsburg’s school district superintendent. “So women do have to work harder and have to really hold their ground and just be confident about their work.”

The next move for Garrett is dealing with the blighted properties that cover roughly a fifth of all of the borough’s properties and bringing them back into commerce. A demolition plan is in place for those abandoned properties. Garrett’s agenda is clearly pro-growth, and she knows she’ll have to draw in new residents to make that happen. However, she’s also aware that those kinds of agendas often end up triggering the kind of massive messy gentrification woes that mayors today are feverishly trying to avoid.

The main drag on Penn Ave in Wilkinsburg. (Heather Mull)

It’s already set in right down the street from Wilkinsburg, along the Penn Ave corridor, but in Pittsburgh, where the once culturally and income-diverse neighborhood called East Liberty has been almost completely made over into an oasis of stentorian condo towers, dubiously themed restaurants, and reproachfully priced osterias. Garrett knows she can’t have that, if for no other reason that that would constitute a de facto disappearance of Wilkinsburg.  

“No one should get displaced or kicked out, and these are places that are over 15 years vacant, haven’t been touched and ages, and really are a safety issue,” says Garrett. “And so in my view we have the opposite problem of displacement—we don't have enough people to put in our properties here.”

Assuming this political leadership mantle is no small risk for a black woman. Being the mayor of Wilkinsburg doesn’t pay very well—$240 a month. If she helps pull off the Wilkinsburg rebound she will share the glory, but if it doesn’t happen, she, as mayor, shoulders the blame. This would only make it tougher for the next black woman seeking political office in the region because this demographic does not get the nine political lives that white men do.

“If anyone can make it happen, Marita is that person,” says Damon Young, who also worked on her mayoral campaign. “There’s still a very difficult path ahead of her and I would hate to see her seen as some kind of failure if she’s not able to do that, because whatever happens with Wilkinsburg, if its decline continues it won’t be because of her. But also, I would like to see talented black women like Marita get the chance to lead something that wasn’t already failing. It’s great that they are leading the charge in Wilkinsburg, but it’s almost like, well, no one else wants to fix it, so let’s now let black women fix it.”

Garrett has already defied the odds with her election. She’s originally from Akron, Ohio, and moved to Wilkinsburg less than eight years ago. She was elected to city council less than three years ago, and elected mayor less than four months ago. Garrett, now 31, emerged victorious in that race among a field of three other candidates—all of whom had lived in Wilkinsburg far longer than her. As a black woman running a majority black city, both she and Wilkinsburg will be invisible to many. One might ask how a person like Garrett with such a short tenure in a city could ascend to the throne in such quick fashion, and the answer could just be that they never saw her coming.

This article is part of our project, “Race in American Cities,” which is supported by a grant from Living Cities.

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