Ode To My (problem) City or Why I Haven’t Left Yet

I am a city kid — born, raised, and lived all my life (except for one, very miserable year and a few wild and sleepless summers as a camp counselor).

On a summer afternoon after grumbling over a parking ticket, I daydreamed about a farm I had visited and volunteered at as a doe-eyed teenager. I swiveled back and forth in my desk chair on my lunch break and ate my last CSA peach, juice running down my chin after a frustrating morning of trying to engage with systems held together with duct tape and imagined packing up my family and moving us all to rural New England and doing social work on a farm. It felt so easy, just to escape my dirty and frustrating habitat. No more trying to fit together uneven pieces, or fighting for parking on my one-way street where I have to parallel park on the wrong side backing up a hill, no more sitting in after-work traffic, no more loud neighbors doing construction past 11pm, no more motorcycles roaring down the street at 2am, no more worrying about schools or gentrification encroaching on my neighborhood, no more fighting with systems that are messy and incomplete, that are racist and classist and leave people flailing…

That evening I met a friend and fellow social worker for dinner. Afterward we walked up a couple of storefronts and bought scoops of blueberry lime ice cream and walked around the block while the sun was settling down into evening. We caught up on our lives, on our experiences, on our frustrations about our jobs. We talked about our future plans and it was here that she reminded me how much I loved the city. I agreed with her, that I’d rather live in a closet in the center of things than have quadruple the space in the suburbs. I remembered that I’d rather fight for that street parking every night and wade through traffic than have a two-car garage and manicured lawn. rather love my neighborhood and make-do with my living space. It’s why I did so poorly at a college in the middle of nowhere where Walmart was the only hang-out spot.

And I remembered. I remembered what it was to love my city, flawed though it is and I felt that deep affection you have for a place you claim.

In the neighborhood I grew up in, my family’s little red house was one block back from a main road. It sat directly across from woods and a park in which I spent most days skinning my knees and collecting dirt on my clothes. The local dive bar pulled its regular patrons right up the street and you could wander down pothole ridden alleyways to the corner drug store that sold bouncy balls for a quarter and as many slush puppies as RX drugs without a prescription. Down the other way was the greasy pizza joint that was also probably a front for the mob. Despite some relative diversity in the neighborhood, do not mistake my childhood for some idyllic non-racist utopia (it was not). I lived on the right side of the tracks. I got a school bus to elementary school while kids with the same walking distance who were black and also from the mostly back neighborhood did not. Despite going to a progressive public school, most white folks and the communities I was in were in the 90’s fantasy of “post-racial” society, as if the metaphorical chains of slavery had actually been released and white people were now absolved of their position.

My city that once won awards for being one of the worst places to raise kids, now brings in trophy after trophy for being a mecca of affordable housing and a foodie scene. It boasts a shimmery shiny turn-around story of an economically discarded rust belt city that invested in health care and post secondary education infrastructure. The truth is a little different. My two-full-time incomes family couldn’t find an affordable apartment in the neighborhood I grew up in. My city is racist and deeply segregated. My city is experiencing gentrification that continuously threatens to put its long-time residents out and bring big business, big tech, and big real estate in. Luxury apartments pop up by the second in all the old and once decaying buildings no developer cared about until it was trendy. Finding an affordable apartment in the neighborhood I live in NOW even resembles something of a game of chance. The house next door to me sold for $500,000; a price tag you only used to see on mansions or in the suburbs. The poverty has begun moving outward to our first and second ring suburbs that have less resources and little access to infrastructure or transportation. I know how problematic my city is. I’ve been observant enough to see that, and I will continue to do more listening and pushing back on it.

The thing is, I still love it and believe in fighting for it, I want it to be a city for the people who are living and breathing (our still poor quality air) here. Sometimes I worry that it’s being stolen out from under the people who have loved it or at the very least tolerated it through the lean times, like the black residents who built their businesses and lives in these communities often fighting against white supremacism to create safe spaces for their community, seniors looking to age in place whose parking spaces to get their groceries are being eaten up by bike lanes, to people who bought homes and scrubbed them of dust and dirt of steel mills to make space for themselves, the fixed income folks who are being tossed from their affordable living communities for businesses and luxury living.

Acknowledging that my little moving away daydream is a deeply entrenched privilege afforded me by the color of my skin, the reality of my economic situation, and the family I grew up with. I by no means grew up in the lap of wealth, but my parents were able to do things like prioritize college and are one of many safety nets holding me in should the astronomical happen. I can prioritize self-care without worrying about judgement, I can do work I want to do, and pushing up against injustice is a choice. But it’s a choice I choose to make, and right now I am choosing to make it here.

And so Pittsburgh, my promise is to your firefly street lights blinking out, rough sidewalk corners, and roller coaster hills. It is to your parking chairs and jaywalkers, to your traffic. To your crumbling infrastructure and lead-laden water. I love you Pittsburgh, like a mama loves her child having a temper tantrum on the floor of the grocery store. You are growing, but you aren’t yet out of your stage of gimme-grabs. While I welcome change that benefits all, I won’t leave you behind to be snatched up by strangers and corporate greed, I’ll fight for you to be a better Pittsburgh for the people who need you most.

*If you want to read more, I cannot recommend enough Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas who sometimes writes about Pittsburgh and culture better than I do. I recommend articles like this one to start. All you need to do is search Pittsburgh on that site and find lots good pieces to get you started on this.

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