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Historic Neighborhoods Slowly Vanishing

A Problem that Only the Natives Understand

By Tiara Strong

The $32 million Cap Park project is currently under construction in Downtown Pittsburgh. The park is said to reconnect the lower Hill District to downtown, bringing investment opportunities and jobs to the residents of the Hill District. However, not everyone is buying it, as Hill District residents have heard this all before.

As land developers move deeper into the Hill District and other inner-city areas in attempt to gentrify, rebrand and rename them, the historic value of those neighborhoods is being diminished.

Carl Redwood, a board member of the Hill District Consensus Group, has been fighting the same fight for decades. He has seen the displacement of longtime residents of the Hill District many times. His biggest concern is not that there is development, but whom the development is for.

“The park is really built for Penguins’ fans and new residents,” Redwood said. “It will continue to forcibly push people away.”

Historic neighborhoods such as Swissvale and Rankin just across the city’s boundaries are joining the Hill District, Garfield, East Liberty, North Side and other neighborhoods that are at risk for losing their historic value. There are many organizations and groups that are aiding in the fight against the renaming and rebranding of these neighborhoods.

With the Hill House Association being dissolved and having only a few programs remaining, this just seems like another loss the Hill District has taken. 

“The rent is too d*mn high and the wages are too d*mn low,” Redwood said of the major gentrification issue.

Over the past ten years, the Hill District has been a constant target for land developers. Schenley High School was closed down in 2011 and turned into luxury apartments. Then the Civic Arena was completely demolished in 2012 which caused many Hill District residents to be displaced. The North Side has seen many new developments between different shops popping up to the renovation of buildings that are being resold at prices native residents cannot afford. East Liberty and Garfield has been remodeled so that Penn Avenue is filled with fancy restaurants, coffee shops and stores. Rebranding and renaming of historic neighborhoods have begun to make its way to the Swissvale/Rankin area as well.

The Swissvale Community Action Committee was founded in 2013 and is comprised of Swissvale residents. Apart of their mission is to sustain the community. The community of Swissvale has begun to see land developers moving into the community. Old school buildings and churches have been turned into luxury apartments. Swissvale has even adapted a new name, “East Shore,” which is comprised of Swissvale, Rankin and Braddock.

“Swissvale can be the next East Liberty or Lawrenceville,” is what Samantha Laffey, a concerned long-time Swissvale Resident and Action Committee Member, heard Swissvale Council Members say. 

 Laffey did not think that was good, seeing the rebuilding of places like East Liberty and Swissvale over the past few years driving long-time residents out, and does not support the “East Shore” initiative at all. 

“I think there is a difference between what they convinced themselves they were going to do and what they are actually going to do,” Laffey said.

When many residents were displaced due to the demolition of the Civic Arena, some migrated to Swissvale. Laffey acknowledges that many residents worry about being pushed out again. Laffey welcomes new businesses that are for the betterment of the community and that re-invest in the community. Laffey thinks those that are for the “East Shore” initiative have a very different agenda.

According to the WorldPopulationReview.com, Pittsburgh’s demographic has roughly 23% Black population. This population continues to become scarcer as land developers move through primarily Black urban neighborhoods.

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Chart by Tiara Strong

In 2019, there was a proposal to rename the Civic Arena site the “Centre District.” This proposal concerned many lower Hill District residents and was eventually the idea was shot down. This was just another attempt to rebrand the neighborhood.

Lena Andrews is the Director of Real Estate Development for Action Housing. Action Housing was founded in 1957 to help preserve and renovate the existing housing stock in the city. Andrews believes despite those efforts, many seniors are also being exploited by being driven from their homes.

In 2019, Pittsburgh was voted the third most livable city in the United States according to the annual report by Economist Intelligence Unit. Those results did not represent the people of the Hill District, East Liberty, Garfield and Swissvale/Rankin.

“Funding to build affordable housing is scarce,” Andrews said.

East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI) was founded in 1979. They work with stakeholders during renewal efforts and engage with the community during phases of land development. ELDI knows it is inevitable that the market sector of East Liberty will continue to grow, causing costs to continue to go up for long-time residents. ELDI tries to help those residents through their various initiatives. ELDI has bought many properties and turned those into low income housing and help residents become homeowners to ensure housing security. 

ELDI’s deputy director, Skip Schwab recognizes that although the median income of East Liberty has been stagnant, he still feels accomplished with the work ELDI has done.

“We try to buy up as much substandard housing as we could and replace it with tax credit units,” Schwab said.

Due to a lack of income and residents being displaced, many non-profit organizations get to the see the brunt of it, hunger. Just Harvest is a non-profit organization was founded in 1986. They address economic inequality through providing food access. 

“Our concern is people are being pushed out of neighborhoods with access to food,” Ken Regal, Executive Director, said.

Due to a lack of resources, organizations such as Pittsburgh’s non-profit organization, Community Human Services, helps combat issues of homelessness and hunger. They do that through partnering with shelters and other programs. In 2019, they gave out a total of 56,000 meals and more than half of the shelter population was deemed chronically homeless. The homeless population is comprised of some people who were victims of displacement and have been in the shadows of the bigger problem.  

Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC) fights for the health of the community in several aspects. They have helped families by providing relief for tenants that are behind in rent. They try to provide all the necessary tools for residents of Bloomfield-Garfield to be able to sustain and secure homes in the Bloomfield-Garfield area. They also provide legal advice to tenants whose landlords are selling their home underneath them.

“We’re not just going to stand by and watch the neighborhood be taken over by outsiders and land developers,” Rick Swartz, the Executive Director of BGC, said.

There are other organizations, such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, that also helps to aid in the fight to bring in more affordable housing units. Some of their projects have been focused in areas that are underserved. They worked on the Community Land Trust project, that included the rehabilitation of upper Lawrenceville homes.

According to URA.gov, “the homes will be permanently affordable to households that are less than 80-percent of the area median income.”

There are other groups around Pittsburgh such as Serve the People, that serve the people of the community and focus on the empowerment of people. Their founding principles are revolution, not reformism, democratic centralism and anti-gentrification.

The youth within Pittsburgh wanted their voices heard. Due to being unable to vote, Pittsburgh Public Schools partnered with the Youth Participatory Budget Council in 2017. The Youth Participatory Budget Council spoke at the Pittsburgh City Council budget meeting regarding the budget for the year of 2020. Several students spoke about reserving the essence of Pittsburgh. In order to do that, displacement would have to stop. Displacement and Pittsburgh culture is clearly a concern to Pittsburgh’s youth.

The Northside Coalition for Fair Housing is a 501(c) (3) organization has been committed to serving the people of the community that are adapting to new development and changes since 1998.  They take part in activities that reserve the affordable housing with the community. They have provided their services by acquiring properties to create affordable housing and engaging with the community.

A study released in 2019 by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), placed Pittsburgh in the top ten fast gentrifying cities in the United States. The study shows Pittsburgh gentrification from the years 2000-2013 with a 20-percent intensity level. Pittsburgh was ranked the eighth top gentrifying city in the United States. Pittsburgh is a smaller city than most of the cities in the top ten, which means at the rate Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods are being gentrified, the rate of displacement is a fairly large amount.

The renaming and rebranding of Pittsburgh’s inner-city neighborhoods has caused displacement. As land developers continue to move in those neighborhoods, rent keeps going up and residents continue to be displaced. There is no safety net for residents that do not own their homes in those areas. The organizations cannot save the historical culture of Pittsburgh alone. The organizations only have the tools to put a band-aid on certain issues caused by gentrification but are not able to close up the wound entirely by themselves. 

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