Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The neighborhood that was home to the Tree of Life Synagogue is a model of inclusivity in Pittsburgh. That’s why it was so vulnerable.
The Tree of Life synagogue that Robert Bowers stormed, killing multiple members and police officers, is an anchor institution of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, which boasts a heavy concentration of Jewish institutions, families, kosher delis, grocers, bookstores, and other businesses. But calling it the city’s “Jewish neighborhood” obscures the diversity and variety of people and places that compose it. On any given day you’ll swipe arms at bus stops and cafes with people from a broad range of ethnicities and nationalities. Many of them are students from universities such as Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, and Chatham that all rest just beyond Squirrel Hill’s borders.
Tragically, the cultural diversity that attracts so many of them to Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh’s most populous neighborhood, is perhaps the same thing that makes it vulnerable to bigoted attacks like the one Bowers committed today.
In Squirrel Hill, mobs of folks flood every weekend for pancakes and hash from Pamela’s, where presidents and celebrities make pilgrimages when visiting Pittsburgh. Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but one where the taste and quality of the food actually matches its reputation. The neighborhood is also where you can get some of the best Chinese cuisine not just in the city, but arguably in the entire Rust Belt, at restaurants such as Chengdu Gourmet, Sichuan Gourmet, and Taiwanese Bistro Cafe 33. It’s where folks squabble over whether Mineo’s or Aiello’s has the best or most authentic Italian-American pizza, and where any DJ worth any ounce of respect on their name goes digging for vinyl at Jerry’s.
About a mile up the road from the Tree of Life synagogue is Allderdice High School; rappers Wiz Khalifa and the late Mac Miller are alumni, along with many other of the city’s fiercest hip hop talents. Just last month, a bunch of them gathered for a vigil for Miller at a park not far from the synagogue that was the reference spot for his 2011 debut album Blue Slide Park. Throughout the area, you’ll find signs on the front lawns of many houses that read: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” in English, Spanish, and Arabic. This is literally Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Simply, Squirrel Hill is the change that Pittsburgh wishes to be. This is a city that aspires to be a model of “inclusivity,” a city that is regularly anointed one of the “most livable” in America. But the overall lack of diversity here is glaring. Statistically, Pittsburgh is a pretty black-and-mostly-white occasion. Except when you come to Squirrel Hill, where cosmopolitan crowds—not all college students, many of them business owners—swirl regularly. It’s where you might find Leena’s Palestinian food truck selling falafel while parked in front of the Orthodox Shaare Torah Congregation synagogue—an indicator of just how open and welcoming Jewish people can be in “their” neighborhood. Perhaps that’s why it was such a prime target for Bowers.
The Tree of Life synagogue recently hosted an event by the organization HIAS, which helps refugees from countries in conflict, many of them from Africa, South America, and the Middle East. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on the morning of the shooting, Bowers reportedly wrote on a social media site: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”
That kind of zero-sum thinking—that increasing the population of non-white people equates to some kind of genocidal agenda against white people—is similar to words written by the terrorist Dylann Roof before he shot and killed nine people and injured three more in an attack on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. The details surrounding that Charleston attack are eerily similar to the details of Bowers’ attack: Roof’s massacre happened during a Bible study program; the Bowers massacre happened during a prayer service.
The idea of sanctuary—the idea that terrorists like Bowers and Roof assail when they attack actual religious sanctuaries—was important for someone like me when I lived in Squirrel Hill in 1998, as a student at the University of Pittsburgh. I was a young black man who was not well traveled; I’d lived in predominantly black neighborhoods for most of my life. As a student, I wanted greater exposure to other cultures, but that was difficult to find in Pittsburgh outside college campuses. To live black in Pittsburgh is to constantly be confronted by whiteness, as whites make up the majority of most of the city’s 90 neighborhoods.
While Squirrel Hill isn’t exactly Brooklyn in terms of access to non-white cultures, it is exceptional for Pittsburgh. It is one of the few places in the city where I am not regularly reminded of my proximity to whiteness. As a good friend of mine, also black, described it: “It is maybe the least racist of Pittsburgh’s many racist majority-white neighborhoods.”
Other black folk I know who grew up and lived in Pittsburgh most or all of their lives expressed similar feelings when I reached out to them about this. Writer Deesha Philyaw lived in Pittsburgh for more than 20 years. Her children have attended bar mitzvahs at the Tree of Life synagogue, and she told me she’s “never had a negative experience” in Squirrel Hill. Real estate broker and journalist Keith Reed attended middle school in Squirrel Hill and “never had any issues” with the kids in the neighborhood.
“I have always felt comfortable there,” says Janis Burley Wilson, president of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. “My mother took me and my sister shopping there when we were kids. It’s a neighborhood I felt comfortable having my kids walk on their own. Diversity in population and amenities—that’s what Squirrel Hill represents to me.”
This is not to say that there isn’t racism in the community. I know several people of color who’ve had tough experiences there based on their race or religion; Reed told me it was the neighborhood where he was first called a “nigger” by a white person. But he says he “never took that to be about the neighborhood.” Whether it was or not, the critical part is that he as a black man did not see it as a reflection of the community. The history of black-Jewish relations is far from one of complete harmony. But Squirrel Hill’s reputation challenges that tension.
Jewish families began filling in Squirrel Hill in the 1920s, with more migrating there in the decades afterward, particularly around the time of the Holocaust. They were seeking sanctuary. Once they hit critical mass, they could have closed the doors to the neighborhood behind them, building walls around its borders in the mold of Trump. Instead, they seemed more invested in not replicating the persecution that drove many of them to Pittsburgh in the first place.