Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Pittsburgh filmmaker Chris Ivey has spent over twelve years documenting the lives of the people displaced so that the city can achieve its “cool” status.
In a CityLab interview with former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, producer of the HBO series “The Deuce” and “The Wire,” Simon was asked which cities were “doing a pretty good job.” His response:
I’d say Pittsburgh. They’ve never had the same rates of entrenched poverty, never had the same rates of under-education, never had the same rates of drug abuse as in Baltimore or Philly, places like this. The last few times I’ve been to Pittsburgh I’ve been pretty impressed with what they’ve managed to achieve.
Pittsburgh is streaking. Earlier this month, the city was honored with having two of its neighborhoods listed among the top ten coolest in the U.S. by Lonely Planet and Time.com’s “Money” blog. This was just the latest of several top-of-the-class rankings, accolades, and superlatives bestowed upon Pittsburgh in terms of livability. They’ve all made for a nice collection of resume enhancers the city can exploit to make its case for landing Amazon’s much-coveted HQ2 site. The thirst is so real that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shamelessly knocked several cities, including a few currently hobbled by disaster, to make its case for the Amazon prize:
Pittsburgh would be a much better headquarters choice than many other likely contenders, including Philadelphia, with its East Coast weather and swaths of abject poverty; Houston, now under water; St. Louis, battered by racial strife; Chicago, with its sky-high homicide rate; or Detroit, with a labor pool nowhere near as deep and educated as Western Pennsylvania’s. Pittsburgh has good housing stock, a diverse population, reasonably good race relations, a low crime rate and an availability of land within the city and nearby. Uber and Google already have operations here. Amazon has a small presence, too, on the South Side.
That part—“reasonably good race relations”—is a dubious claim at best, though, especially in Pittsburgh’s East End neighborhoods that LonelyPlanet has a huge crush on. Several incidents have happened there in recent years that undermine such honors. It was the East End neighborhood of Highland Park where unarmed African American Leon Ford was shot five times by a Pittsburgh police officer and left paralyzed in 2012—no officer has been convicted of any crime for this yet. It’s also the new East End neighborhood of Bakery Square—“the sleeper hit your hipster sensibilities have been craving,” writes Lonely Planet—where white Alt-Right, Free Speech-Truthers recently planned to rally just days after the racist unrest their followers caused in Charlottesville.
It seems that those editorialists and city rankers who’ve been quick to make East End Pittsburgh all the rage perhaps haven’t lived or spent enough time there to understand all the rage that’s been bubbling beneath. But Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Chris Ivey has been exploring and documenting that rage for well over ten years now. During that time, he has used his camera to meticulously cobble together various stories from struggling East End families who don’t fit into the “coolest neighborhood” narratives. He’s used these stories to create a series of documentaries called “East of Liberty,” which focuses on the displacement of families.
“What’s it gonna be like when that big Bakery Square opens?” asks “Kwame,” a young black man in Ivey’s “Unlivable Times” documentary, released right before Bakery Square opened. “They’re gonna look at us like, ‘What are they doing in here?’ I can’t even walk into Trader Joe’s over there, without them looking at me weird. I can’t even go into the Whole Foods without getting weird looks, and this is in our neighborhood.”
For Ivey, there is no way to tell the story of Pittsburgh’s new trendy real estate zones without shining light on the families sacrificed in the pursuit of gloss. Less than ten years ago, one could find a dense collection of subsidized housing for low-income and elderly households, not far from Bakery Square, in the East End hub called East Liberty (which Ivey’s film series derives its name from). This housing cluster was situated by a business district once home to a bunch of pizza joints, Jamaican restaurants, sneaker shops, barbers, and other local boutiques. However, East Liberty still could have used a large anchor business back then—the kind that could supply jobs that come with health benefits.
The retail department store Target ended up becoming one of those anchors when it opened in 2011. But at that point, the city had already begun dismantling the nearby public and senior housing complexes, which housed people who could have benefitted from those walking-distance jobs. Today, most, if not all, of that subsidized housing is gone and Target is almost completely surrounded by luxury condo buildings that advertise studios in the $1,300 range. So much market-rate housing has been built there, in fact, that developers are now halting further development, because, curiously, people haven’t been snapping up those units as quickly as hoped.
Meanwhile, many of the former residents have been involuntarily (or forcibly, depending on who you ask) relocated, and it’s in dispute whether they got what they were promised. This clip below from Ivey’s series features some of the people who claim they caught a raw deal and confronted Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto about it.
Ivey’s “East of Liberty” series might be the only comprehensive video archive of everything that went into the transformation of these neighborhoods over the last twelve years: the explosions and implosions of the residential towers, the razing of the Penn Plaza low-income housing developments, the closing of the much cherished Shadow Lounge, the erasure of a popular community mural, the deaths of community members throughout all of this—all of the realities that put any narrative about East Liberty’s “coolness” to shame. Which is probably why Ivey’s work has become less popular among the city’s business elites and social entrepreneurs.
“People have been getting really angry with me with these films because they think the black communities look too negative in the Pittsburgh light,” says Ivey. “I’m like, y'all are worried about how you look while they're taking your communities away. People were looking at the documentaries seven years into the project and saying, ‘Oh, but now it's too late.’ It was too late when I started making the films!”
Ivey is far from the only person out there making the case that Pittsburgh is not all that it’s cracked up to be. The Brookings Institution’s recent 18-month study on the city found the same promise that David Simon saw, calling the once mighty steel town “the vanguard of … the new localism,” for transforming from an obsolete extractive industry-based economy to an economy that thrives on knowledge- and tech-based industries. However, reads the report:
Pittsburgh’s scientific and technical strengths have not fully translated into broad-based economic activity. In fact, if the region had the same share of hightech employment as university research, it would employ 9,000 more in the software industry and 5,500 more workers in drug development, not to mention tens of thousands of workers in related jobs. Instead, the city currently has seven percent fewer jobs in high-wage, hightech advanced industries than it did in 2000.
Earlier this year, Brookings found that the median wage for African Americans in Pittsburgh dropped nearly 20 percent between 2010 and 2015. Every other race saw an increase in average median wages in that time. Poverty, meanwhile, increased by 25.9 percent amongst African Americans during that period, according to the Brookings metro monitor index. It decreased for whites and Hispanics, the latter dropping 19 percent.
These problems are not concentrated in just the East End neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. The Brookings data applies across the entire Pittsburgh metropolitan region, especially the outer-ring communities and municipalities that were more dependent upon the steel and coal jobs—the ones that have yet to benefit from the largesse of the new Google/Uber-based economy. Wrote John Russo about these failures for The American Prospect this summer:
It isn’t that the Pittsburgh story is wrong. It is simply incomplete. The narratives about this city, like the broader debates among new urbanists and economic and urban planners, do not fully consider the continuing costs of deindustrialization, disinvestment, globalization, and neoliberal austerity programs on individuals and communities. These personal, community, and national costs rival the displacements caused by natural disasters and armed conflicts. The devastation of economic change has left far too many with limited options and little power to improve their lives or communities.
Ivey gets this and expounds upon his displacement thesis in his upcoming fourth installment of the series, “Youth Rising.” This documentary is a collection of stories Ivey captured from travelling beyond Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and as far away as Johannesburg and Capetown, South Africa. In these cities, he talks with black youth in both street and classroom settings about how they are coping under the constant pressures of community change.
Some of the “Youth Rising” footage was captured during the Baltimore uprising after the funeral for Freddie Gray, the young, black man who died in police custody in 2015. Ivey spoke with Bloods gang members, who—not knowing the Pittsburgh filmmaker apart from any other stranger descending upon Baltimore—sought to dispel any misconceptions about why those riots were happening.
“The government is the biggest gang,” says one Bloods member, a red flag draped over his head under a black Yankees cap, “because they have the power to change everything we’re going through, but instead they let us live in poverty, so this is what they get,” he says, sprawling his arms out, beckoning to the chaos of the riots going on around them. In the trailer below, students from Baltimore and New Orleans schools discuss with Ivey the impacts of poverty and violence on their livelihoods:
All of this is why Ivey tends to roll his eyes whenever the new Amazon HQ2 location comes up. He’s been to enough of these communities, commiserating with families and young folks left behind to know that few cities actually deserve the awards they’ve claimed. This would especially hold true in Pittsburgh, where East Liberty’s residents weren’t even fortunate enough to be sustained for the opening of a Target, let alone a behemoth like Amazon.
“I get really pissed off when I see them try to jump through hoops for shit like this when we have worse fucking water than Flint,” says Ivey, referring to the Pittsburgh’s current problems with lead in the municipal water system. “I don't see Amazon contributing, and I definitely don't see the city seeing to it that they contribute. These are the stories they don't want to talk about, like, we get so focused and excited about all these new developments, but what about the people?”