Pittsburgh’s the most livable city? It’s time to follow through on what rankings claim

By Simon Brown / Columnist

If you live in Pittsburgh and occasionally check Facebook, then you’ve surely seen every “Another Reason Why Pittsburgh is Awesome” link that surfaces on a weekly basis. The attractive image of the city found in these rankings, however, whitewashes over one ugly reality — the quality of life in many black communities in this city. 

Although the Steel City enjoys its reputation as the “most educated” and the “most livable city,” it also tops the less glamorous list of cities with the highest percentage of its black population living in poverty, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Those highly-publicized accolades seem little more than grim ironies for many of the city’s residents. The city’s sizable university population makes it the “most educated,” but the city also maintains an achievement gap between black and white public school students that stands at a sobering 26 percent when measured by PSSA scores. What is more, “the most livable city” tolerates nearly two-thirds of its black children under the age of 5 living below the poverty line.

Unfortunately, these facts should come as no surprise to black Pittsburghers who have lived in the city throughout the past half century — or anyone acquainted with the city’s recent history. The destruction of much of the historically black and vibrant Hill District to lay the foundation for Mellon Arena in 1960 displaced black families to failing housing projects across the city, often far from job opportunities. 

Today, neighborhoods such as Homewood, East Liberty, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington, Homestead and much of the North Side still retain the majority of the black population. Their landscapes are punctuated by dilapidated public high-rises that marked an era of increasing segregation and a collapsing steel industry. Pittsburgh has received praise for its robust recovery from the latter, but it has failed to correct the former.

The revitalization, unfortunately,, has largely bypassed the concentrated black neighborhoods. The dominance of “meds and eds” — medicine and education — as the new engines driving the city’s economic strength has attracted a young and well-educated population to the city. Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University not only attract grants and employees for their extensive research operations, but they also serve as gateways between talented students from across the country and national firms and hospitals.

In turn, these institutions and their employees attract businesses into their neighborhoods — which accounts for the notable prosperity of Oakland and Lawrenceville, and increasingly, East Liberty and Garfield.

It’s not difficult to see that education is the central cog in this vehicle for metropolitan development. But when institutions primarily focus on attracting a creative class to Pittsburgh, rather than granting opportunities to residents of neighboring communities, the result is both economic and racial segregation.

The challenge, then, is to open the gates to the city’s most dynamic institutions so the next generation of black Pittsburghers can also prosper. And just as no single actor alone could successfully transform the city from a steel town to the model 21st century city it is today, all institutions must take responsibility for including the black population.

Any solution, however, must begin with the city’s educators, who provide marginalized communities with the only possible path out of poverty.

First, the Pittsburgh Public School District must supplement existing programs designed to raise the achievement among students from black neighborhoods to counter the pronounced gap in grades and test scores. Though the district directs considerable attention to this problem, they only exacerbated it after recently closing schools that overwhelmingly served black neighborhoods and redirecting their students elsewhere. 

To counter this, the district ought to better integrate its schools so that the segregation among neighborhoods does not manifest in their children’s education. As it stands, two schools — Pittsburgh University Prep 6-12 and Westinghouse Academy 6-12 — serve black populations of 95 percent and 97 percent, respectively.

The responsibility of extending educational opportunities does not end, however, with the public schools. Pittsburgh’s institutions of higher education, credited for the region’s recent success, ought to become more accessible to all residents of the city, who have allowed them to thrive. Universities such as Pitt and Carnegie Mellon ought to fund partnerships with schools in neighboring communities — such as the Hill District — that would benefit most from SAT practice sessions, undergraduate tutors and financial aid information sessions, which the universities are particularly qualified to provide.

By funding these sustainable partnerships, an education at Pitt and a role in Pittsburgh’s Renaissance wouldn’t seem so distant to the children who walk to school in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning.

Write to Simon at [email protected].