Pittsburgh’s vaunted turnaround and rebirth as a magnet for educated millennials has a weak spot: African-Americans. Certainly some are choosing Pittsburgh, but not in the kind of numbers to offset the migration to places like Washington D.C., Atlanta and Charlotte, which have long exerted a pull on African-American professionals.
“Nothing surprised us, to be honest,” says Daren Ellerbee of African-American Neighborhoods of Choice (AANC), a research group studying Pittsburgh’s middle-class African-Americans, and the neighborhoods they choose. “The study confirmed what we all expected. People viewed Pittsburgh as a place that lacks culture and opportunities.”
Their report, entitled “Neighborhood Attraction Factors Impacting the Young Professional African American Population in the City of Pittsburgh,” was compiled with help from the University Center for Social and Urban Research at Pitt, and support from The Heinz Endowments.
By studying both the “push” and “pull” factors, the group feels like they have a baseline of knowledge to start addressing some of the long-standing issues keeping African-American millenials from arriving and staying.
“The initial driver was the 2010 census that showed that while the population in Pittsburgh stabilized, the region was still hemorrhaging African-American professionals,” explains Ellerbee.
“It seemed like the voice of that particular demographic is missing from the narrative. We wanted to see what was driving black flight, which is almost a reversal of the trend in the ‘40s and ‘50s.”
Pittsburgh was then one of the capitals of African-American culture, which ranged from the crusading journalism of the Pittsburgh Courier to a music scene that birthed legends like Billy Strayhorn, Art Blakey and Mary Lou Williams, among many others.
Of course, a lot has happened since then. The Lower Hill was demolished for the Civic Arena. The steel industry went bust. Official segregation ended, but less official forms persisted.
“If you lived in a black neighborhood, it was probably marginalized or disinvested,” says Majestic Lane, Deputy Chief of Neighborhood Empowerment, in the Office of Mayor Bill Peduto. “In a white neighborhood, there was more access to resources.”
Lane, one of the founders of AANC, said the project was sparked by conversations about other cities.
“Lots of us in government or community development got talking about the presence of a black middle class [in Pittsburgh] versus cities like New York City, DC, Atlanta, Chicago,” he says. “What were the differences, and why were some of the elements not found here? We could look at it from a demand level and a supply level.
“We can find out ‘What do people want?’ Then institutions can start to provide those options.”
Though its main conclusions weren’t a shock, a lot of interesting and even surprising things can be found in the data.
For instance, the number of African-Americans with Bachelor’s degrees (or higher) has increased from 2000-2014. Neighborhoods with the highest number of African-Americans with degrees includes the stable middle class enclaves of Stanton Heights and Point Breeze North, the rapidly-changing East Liberty, and a neighborhood known mostly for blight and abandonment, Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar.
“I think it’s interesting that many of most diverse neighborhoods in Pittsburgh are pretty desirable: Highland Park and Stanton Heights, Lawrenceville, North Point Breeze, Swisshelm Park, East Liberty [are thought of] as being very functional, diverse neighborhoods,” says Lane. “But the problem there is that they’re getting to be unaffordable to younger people.”
“In the report, Beechview is a neighborhood that had a relatively substantial amount of African-Americans with degrees. Its’s also a place where younger African-Americans feel comfortable.”
The study also included a lot of interviews with young African-American professionals, to find out what they wanted to see in Pittsburgh.
“In my work, it’s important to have a diverse city, in the long run, that is attractive to all residents,” says Lane. “For many folks, the lack of African-American cultural options becomes a barrier in deciding where to go.
“Cities with burgeoning African-American middle class populations tend to have other populations that are thriving.”
Sometimes the problems are larger, structural issues. Sometimes, they’re pretty simple.
“Presently, we have one high-end African-American-owned [dining] establishment,” says Lane. “Folks felt like there needed to be more options. You don’t even hear of restaurants with African-American chefs. You can only go to Savoy so many times.”
Of course, there are some things that Pittsburgh does well, and some things that appeal to young people in general.
“Folks want to be able to get Uber, have safe neighborhoods, broader amenities,” says Lane. “Folks want to be able to get a good cocktail.”
“The relatively inexpensive cost of living, for the time being, is a benefit. If a young person can start their career here, the cost of living is a benefit.”