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What Is It That Keeps A City Going? Pittsburgh Has Some Answers


This week, I made a stop in Pittsburgh, Pa., for a live conversation we called Reinventing the American City. It was about how cities change and who benefits and who loses out when that happens. We had a lively discussion with our five guests who were Chris Ivey, director of the film "East Of Liberty," which documented some of the changes taking place in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood; Bill Generett, who heads a nonprofit that connects the city's innovation economy with underserved residents; Tamara Sherry-Torres, who works to create community spaces for Latinos and others in Pittsburgh; photographer person and 2015 MacArthur Genius Grant-winner, Latoya Ruby Frazier; and developer Eve Picker, a 30-year resident of Pittsburgh, who's been on both sides of the gentrification debate as both a developer and a person trying to preserve a neighborhood. And I asked her about those roles.


EVE PICKER: You know, when I arrived in Pittsburgh I really knew nothing about Pittsburgh, nothing at all. I did not realize that I had arrived in a city that had lost - just lost half its population. And it took me a few years to sort of even begin to understand what was going on. When we bought our house, we bought it in a neighborhood that looked just fine to us. We were pretty naive, and it was pretty beaten up. It had lost a lot of people. I think everyone on our street had retired or had Alzheimer's. No one had painted a house in 20 years. And so I think for me, the first 10 years here were really a remarkable learning experience. I learned about community development groups and how neighborhoods work. I got a job with the Planning Department. I really began to understand sort of the heartbeat of the city and how to make things happen, and I saw it from both sides. I saw it from the city's point of view as an urban designer and planner, and I also saw it from a neighborhood point of view. And I think it put me in a position to begin to think about how to drive change myself.

MARTIN: Is this city better or worse than when you first got here in your opinion?

PICKER: It's different. I think there are things that have happened that are worse, and I think there are things that are better. I'm one of the earliest developers of buildings in East Liberty, and they're beautiful buildings. But I am - I'm not happy with the change that I'm seeing there because I agree that a lot of people are being left behind. And that neighborhood, that main street is not becoming the place that I thought it should become.

MARTIN: Because why?

PICKER: Because it is becoming wealthy very rapidly and because it's not a diverse place, and that's for me not a good city.

MARTIN: Chris, what about you? Your film "East Of Liberty" is subtitled a story of good intentions, and it follows the changes in the East Liberty neighborhood over the years. What are the good intentions that you talk about in the film?

CHRIS IVEY: Well, I think it goes back to when I started doing some research about the area that I was documenting, East Liberty. It went through urban renewal changes in the '60s, and it was considered a failure. And that seemed like it was happening again around like 2000. And it seemed in certain ways, they kept on making the same mistakes. That was the frustrating thing for me in Pittsburgh. A lot of these things were happening, but everybody was afraid to talk about it. A lot of people were afraid of like backlash either from the city administration or from the developers. Everybody was afraid that if they spoke up, they were going to be pushed out with everybody else and getting everybody to understand, you know, you got to stand your ground.

MARTIN: Bill, you want to jump in on this? I think you do.


BILL GENERETT: You know, one of the things I think is real important is to really know - understand the history. So I - when I lived here through the '70s, I remember when the African-American communities - all of them were relatively healthy, not perfect, not strong, but all relatively healthy. And I saw in a matter of 10 years just this rapid decline, and, you know, I'm angry. And I say I'm angry because I've seen our city come back, but when I look at our communities and in every community that played a role in making me who I am, we haven't come back.

MARTIN: And tell me again why you're angry. You said you're angry. Tell me more about why you're angry.

GENERETT: I'm angry because I know we have the potential to be - you know, I've had the opportunity to live in a lot of cities. And we have an attitude, and we have a work ethic. And we have the assets here that very few places have. And the fact that we're still having this conversation about race makes me mad because I know where we were. I know where we were, and we can't glamorize that. If we didn't transform our economy, we very easily could have been in the same situation that our brothers and sisters in Ferguson are in.

MARTIN: Tara, do you want to jump in 'cause being, you know - for so long, you know - the way people thought about Pittsburgh was like white and black. And here you come into that mix. What's that like for you?

TAMARA SHERRY-TORRES: Well, I mean, I think, first of all, just to sort of reiterate the strong point that Pittsburgh - there's a black Pittsburgh, and there's a white Pittsburgh. And they're completely different planets, and I don't...

MARTIN: Do other people feel that way? Can I - people feel that way?


SHERRY-TORRES: From my first bus ride, I took the 28 - my first time in Pittsburgh I took the 28X from the airport, and it was pretty apparent to me in the first 10 minutes who didn't have money and who did. And that definitely cut across race lines. It was so stark that I was really startled, and for me coming in - I'm half-Puerto Rican and half-Polish - but being in a city that doesn't talk about race at all, you know it's black Pittsburgh and then it's white Pittsburgh. And if you don't belong in either one, you don't really have a place.

MARTIN: Do you feel welcome here?



SHERRY-TORRES: I do feel welcome.

MARTIN: Shall I ask it again?


SHERRY-TORRES: I do feel welcomed. I don't know how welcoming Pittsburgh is to other people. There is an old mentality here in Pittsburgh, and it exists both in white Pittsburgh and in black Pittsburgh. And it is a resistance to change which is probably a part of human nature. But I would say that if we really want to grow as a population, we have to think about young people. We have to think about millennials. Millennials are a diverse group of people. We're exposed to many different kinds of things, and Pittsburgh has not really understood that because we haven't kept young people. And so I think when we talk about the old boys' network, we have to sort of think about, well, how are we really thinking about neighborhood-based basis that are engaging young people - young people of color? Because those are the people that we need to keep here and those are our leaders, and that's really where the focus needs to be.


MARTIN: That was Tara Sherry-Torres, and you also heard the voices of Bill Generett, Chris Ivey and Eve Picker, panelists from our Reinventing the American City event in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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