The Voices Behind the Clash at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Alexis Johnson, an African-American journalist based in Pittsburgh, was barred from reporting on the Black Lives Matter protests in her hometown by her employer, it created a whole new uprising. She was told by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that a tweet she sent comparing damages from protests to damages from a Kenny Chesney concert evinced bias that would compromise her reporting. More than 100 of her Post-Gazette co-workers disagreed and tweeted #IStandWithAlexis, including Michael Santiago, a Dominican photojournalist with the paper who usually covers protests. For that, he and the other reporters who pledged support for Johnson were also forbidden from covering anything protest-related.

Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, says her tweet was “benign” and “innocuous” and has rallied the Guild to Johnson’s defense. This week, the Guild called on advertisers to “exert pressure” on the Post-Gazette to show their disapproval. And so far, it seems to be working:

  • The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which sets the economic agenda for the greater Pittsburgh region, released a statement saying the Post-Gazette demonstrates “not only a failure in journalistic leadership, but also a deep insensitivity to the historical moment we are experiencing.”
  • The Pittsburgh Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the region, announced it was “pulling advertising commitments and upcoming promotional relationships” with the Post-Gazette.
  • Giant Eagle, the largest grocery store chain in Western Pennsylvania, announced yesterday that they would stop selling the newspaper in its stores.

Here’s some of what Johnson had to say about the incident in a June 8 press conference:

None of you should be here today. We should all be covering one of the biggest moments of our generation. Instead, we’re here talking about another issue of racism, diversity and discrimination on another level. I was just very upset and frustrated when I was told that I was taken off of coverage of the protests because of a tweet, that I thought was funny, that I thought was clever, that I thought was food for thought. I was told that I violated our social media policy, which in fact doesn’t exist. They’re just a set of guidelines that the Guild never agreed to.

Yesterday, Post-Gazette executive editor Keith C. Burris penned an editorial arguing that Johnson’s protest coverage ban had nothing to do with her race, and doubling down on the idea that her tweet exhibited bias — but without explaining what the bias was toward or against.

“[N]o fair person could make the case that our actions were race-based. And we will not apologize for upholding professional standards in journalism or attempting to eliminate bias,” Burris wrote in defense of the newspaper. He did not respond to a CityLab request for an interview.

CityLab did speak with Johnson, Santiago, and Newspaper Guild President Fuoco about not just the controversy, but also the pressure of multiple racial shocks to their physical and mental well-being. We also spoke with Tereneh Idia, an award-winning black journalist for the Pittsburgh City Paper who regularly writes about how racism manifests not only in the media landscape, but throughout the city at large.

Idia’s voice was also lost for a moment when the City Paper had to suspend her column because they couldn’t pay her — the coronavirus pandemic crippled the alt-weekly’s finances such that they had to pause assigning work to contributing writers and freelancers. City Paper has since obtained a media grant, which would allow Idia to write again. But for the past few weeks, Pittsburgh was short yet another black voice during one of the most critical times in the city’s history.

Alexis Johnson, Post-Gazette reporter

Alexis Johnson (Shantale Davis)

Given all that’s going on — George Floyd, the protests, the pandemic, your collision with the Post-Gazette — how are you doing mentally and emotionally?

I’m overwhelmed. It’s not something I feel like experiencing. I’d rather be out there doing my job. But I’m super happy people are supporting me and validating my feelings when I felt I was being treated unfairly. It’s helping me feel seen and heard. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for all the support, but also frustrated that this is happening, that I became the story.

What were your expectations for your role at the Post-Gazette when you first started there two years ago and what are the expectations for your role now as you understand it?

In October 2018 I came to Pittsburgh to work at the Post-Gazette as its digital news editor. I later moved from the web team to a reporter role [at my own request] to cover viral, trending news — basically to scan social media to see what people are discussing and to report on that. They had me start at 6:30 in the morning to see what people were talking about and then use that to write stories to increase our digital audience. I thought that definitely would’ve been the case for the George Floyd protests.

At your press conference, you sounded like you didn’t know if you wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. Is that what you were trying to convey?

I don’t have plans to leave the Post-Gazette. The issue is this is possibly the largest civil rights movement moment since the 1960s, and I want to be able to report and share these stories on my home turf, in my hometown. That’s why I was excited about switching from the web desk to reporter. I’d be lying if I said it’s not going to be uncomfortable staying here, but the Guild and I have only been wanting to put this to rest.

But looking at the stats from the recent report that came out saying Pittsburgh was the least livable for black women, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make any connection between my company here and the city. This happens not just in newsrooms, but I’m sure in other offices and industries in Pittsburgh as well.

Growing up here, did it feel like a most unlivable city for you?

What’s interesting is growing up here I didn’t really notice the lack of diversity, or it’s so small I didn’t notice how much of a minority I was until I moved out of the city. Philadelphia [where she earned a Masters degree in journalism from Temple University] has a larger black population and is more diverse, but moving back to Pittsburgh as an adult and knowing more things and seeing more things in the world, I did see the things spoken of in the report — things I didn’t notice before because I just thought that’s what things were. I was used to being the only black person in the classroom or in the restaurant, or in the room. In Philadelphia, that was almost never the case.

Michael Santiago, Post-Gazette photojournalist

MIchael Santiago

You were tear-gassed and almost arrested while shooting the protests, before they took you off. Tell us how you felt in those moments.

The thing about that is I wasn’t targeted for following a group of protesters. I was going where the police were telling us to go. They were telling us, “Go here, go this way,” and we went the way they told us to go, but they still tear-gassed us. So I spent maybe five minutes trying to recover from all of that. I couldn’t see. I was choking. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes were burning. I felt like I was going to pass out. Then someone gave me a bottle of water and poured it all over my face. But I was still having difficulty breathing.

That’s when I told the cop that I was media. I’m even flashing my press credentials, but they said, “Well, if you don’t leave from here, you will be arrested.”

I was worried about being put in jail where people are testing positive for Covid. I felt like, I knew people who’ve been tear-gassed and they all recovered after a while, so I figured I’d be fine after a couple of hours. I just didn’t want to get arrested and put in a confined space where a lot of people are positive for Covid.

How did it feel to be threatened even though you showed your right to be there as press?

It’s been frustrating. The good thing is seeing our co-workers at the Post-Gazette have our back. They silenced Alexis first, and I came to bat for her, and then the rest of the newsroom joined in. This was dope. But mentally I’m still dealing with the fact that America’s protesting because of the death of another black man, and I’m a black journalist having to cover this again. Now I’m being barred from covering this, and I feel distressed knowing that I can’t cover one of the biggest stories that’s going on right now. That’s just where my head has been at, just distressed. I’m sick to my stomach. There’s a movement happening and things are changing rapidly everywhere. It’s not just black people. It’s white people, Latino people, everybody is out there protesting. I’m sick that I can’t go out there and contribute to this the way I know how, as an image-maker. That’s depressing.

What I hear you saying is despite your tribulations, you still want to be a journalist and serve the public.

It’s not just about being a photojournalist, it’s about being a black photojournalist. And now that’s even more important because when I take off my press pass and put my cameras down, I’m just another black man that can be treated just like anybody else. But at the same time, it doesn’t matter that I have a camera and a press pass; I had that last week and you see how they still treated me. If I wasn’t working, I would be out there protesting myself. It’s like that viral video of the black National Guardsman who’s standing there while the crowd is chanting, “I’m black and I’m proud,” and he’s saying it with them. Honestly, that’s me when I’m out there photographing. I’m hearing the protests and all the songs that they are singing. I’m whispering them because I’ve been out there so long I’ve memorized the songs.

Having been here two years, do you feel that it is a “most livable city” as some rankings have dubbed it?  

I laughed when that came out, specifically because when it did, I was already deeply embedded in a project on child poverty across Allegheny County, and the majority of the neighborhoods we were working in were primarily black. So I knew right away — most livable for who? Because I’m not seeing that. One of the reasons I never go out [to bars, clubs] is because wherever I go, I don’t see anybody who looks like me. So who are you trying to attract? Because it’s not the people I’m reporting on. They’re not experiencing any of that. Especially not black women, and we saw that with how we’re seeing Alexis treated.

Tereneh Idia, columnist for Pittsburgh City Paper

Tereneh Idia

You just officially started working as a journalist in the city two years ago. What have been your overall observations of how Pittsburgh and its media treats race?

The way that Pittsburgh talks about itself is very much through a white-led media lens. And there’s this really strong energy and narrative that supports “the most livable city” mythology. There’s a lot of black-and-yellow flag waving. I’m often told we have to boost Pittsburgh because we’re on the rise and we need to come together. But again in coming together, it’s through this white umbrella. It’s  not even Pittsburgh, it’s Whitesburgh, and the stories and the framing, the icons, the symbols are all coming from a very white place. To try to attempt to tell stories from a multicultural black or brown framework, you’re dealing with a white gatekeeper at some point.

What has your experience been like navigating your own media tribulations amidst a pandemic and mass protests.

The pandemic just adds another layer, the protests add another layer. And for the most part, the media outlets in Pittsburgh are not set up for really supporting black journalists. There is not a framework or a foundation to understand the black experience and to support black journalists.

Were you surprised when you heard about what happened to Alexis Johnson and Michael Santiago?

It’s one of those things where, you know, things happen and it’s so believable, but then it’s so unbelievable at the same time. The thing that’s been the most interesting for me as an observer is just seeing the way that some of the white journalists at the Post-Gazette have had their world shaken. This whole changing the rules and moving the goalposts are all the things that we know happens when you’re black, because we’ve experienced it. Our whole life is something that they’re seeing now. And they’re really, really surprised. Like, they’re really shocked. And that for me is so interesting to watch because it just shows how different our experiences are.

It’s emblematic of exactly what happens when you’re black in Pittsburgh. Any time you try to do anything, the rules change, and instead of doing the right thing, a lot of times they will just double down on being wrong. All the rules are applied differently if you’re black, and the hypocrisy of it is just so evident. But that hypocrisy based on race is so American. It is exactly what America is about.

How are you feeling mentally and emotionally about all that’s happening?

So, even in my design work, I’m really focused on creating community, centering black and brown and indigenous people, using design as a way to free each other and to dismantle systems that are not serving us, that are built on our backs. Because right now we’re serving this really small minority of people. But this morning — I usually take walks or ride my bike — but I was too scared to go out last week. Today was my first day that I took my little walk. I’m very mindful that I’m vocally against the police. I’ve written about it. I’ve said it out loud, tweeted it. So I am fearful. I can’t lie about that.

But I also think about my grandparents who had to protect their family against Pinkerton guards who were trying to intimidate my grandfather, who was a union organizer and a coal miner. So for me, there’s always been the need to protect and the need to be vigilant. It’s just a legacy that we have to live under, and hopefully we can change that so that we really do have freedom.

Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, and Post-Gazette reporter

Michael Fuoco, left, interviewed by local news outlet. (Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh)

Do you agree with Post-Gazette executive editor Keith Burris that Johnson’s tweet exhibited some kind of bias?

You notice in her tweet she doesn’t mention the city of Pittsburgh in it. She doesn’t say anything about white people. I saw it and my reaction was I thought it was really clever, witty, and thought-provoking. I may have even retweeted it. I never thought there was any problem with her doing that. I thought it was a really interesting perspective coming from the black experience. It was not controversial. It was benign, innocuous.

Just so we’re clear, Alexis hadn’t covered any protests yet when they took her off. We had protests the weekend when she wasn’t working. She came in on Monday morning and pitched four or five stories that were protest-related, and that’s when they said don’t do anything until they talk to her. That’s when they told her she couldn’t do anything protest-related. So she hadn’t covered it yet. It was like, going forward you can’t cover anything that’s related to the protests.

When you spoke with Post-Gazette management, how did they articulate their feelings about her tweet?

They said that it showed her bias, and my response was: But are there two sides to racism? She doesn’t in any way demean anybody. I think because it went viral, that’s what got their attention. They told us and told her that it basically disqualified her from any coverage going forward about the killing of George Floyd and systemic racism. And traditionally we have very few black journalists. I think their voices need to be heard. They have the lived experience. We have a 90% white newsroom, which I’m a part of. We should be adding black journalists, not taking them away.

If it had been a white person, you know, we would have objected to the company also, but the fact that it was a black person and they were barring her from covering the biggest civil rights story in a generation in our country, we felt was just ridiculous, unjustified and really hurtful. I can’t understand it and it’s wrong. It’s wrong on a moral level at wrong on a journalistic level, and it’s wrong on a contractual level.  

How do you feel as a white journalist in this moment?

I feel like I’m living in some kind of parallel universe, because this stuff is not supposed to be happening 2020. It shouldn’t be happening at any time, but, you know, it’s just of all times for them to be taking this kind of stance, to silence coverage of black protest, systemic racism, because the newsroom is supporting a black co-worker who unfairly and not justifiably was taken off of any coverage of black issues — it’s just, I just can’t wrap my head around that.

You’ve worked at the Post-Gazette for decades — have you seen anything like this before?

I’ve never seen anything like this. We told them they didn’t have to go down this road. Just let her pitch stories and you can take them or not take them. Don’t put any kind of handcuffs on them. That was a really bad decision they made and they’re now exponentially compounding it. And that’s why you’re seeing the uprising in the newsroom. That’s why you’re seeing the uprising on social media, because you don’t have to be a professional journalist to know that they’re discriminating against a black woman who should be out there covering it. Who better to cover the black experience than somebody who has lived that experience?

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What It Means to Be a Black Journalist in Pittsburgh Right Now

Michael Santiago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and one of the few people of color on staff there, stood in front of his newspaper’s building and tried to explain to reporters why his managers wouldn’t let him cover perhaps the largest protest for African American causes in history. But, he didn’t really have an explanation. On Saturday, Post-Gazette managers pulled him off of a shoot he was scheduled to do with one of the main organizers of Pittsburgh’s recent protests against racism and police violence, but they haven’t told him why.

“I haven’t gotten a reason yet,” he said today at a press conference for the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which is defending him and another Post-Gazette staff journalist, Alexis Johnson, who was also pulled from protest coverage. “It’s been two days and I’m still waiting for that answer.”

Newspaper Guild President Michael Fuoco, a reporter at the Post-Gazette, said that the paper pulled the Santiago and Johnson from protest coverage over a tweet that Johnson sent where she jokingly compared looting with pictures of trash and damage from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. The post went viral, and Johnson says Managing Editor Karen Kane told her that her tweets showed bias in her coverage. Fuoco and Guild members disagree, as does Johnson, vehemently, and have filed a grievance on her and Santiago’s behalf, saying they were denied due process. Kane didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, other Post-Gazette staffers who tweeted last week in support of Johnson under the hashtag #IStandWithAlexis were also pulled off of protest coverage. In one case, two protest stories that were written by reporters who publicly proclaimed support for Johnson were temporarily pulled from the site and then republished with words and photos modified, and without the reporters’ bylines. Fuoco said the Guild is now asking the Post-Gazette’s advertisers and the public to “exert pressure”on the newspaper over how Johnson and Santiago are being treated.

“Of course, I want to go back to work, and I want to pretend none of this ever happened because it shouldn’t have, but the reality is that it did,” Johnson said at the press conference. “To say that it didn’t make me uncomfortable, and to just sweep this under the rug would be a lie. I can’t say that I’d be jumping for joy, ready to go work under these people again.”

Black journalists across the nation are publicly struggling with how to maintain their professional composure amid widespread protests, ignited by the viral video of a white Minneapolis police officer killing African American George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. They are also publicly vexed about being targeted, harassed, and injured by police and military at demonstrations while trying to adhere to editorial rules about staying objective.

“I was taught the importance of the so-called balanced take like every other journalist, but early in my career I noticed the bar was always higher when black reporters were writing black stories,” said Deborah Todd, a former Post-Gazette reporter, in an interview. “The credibility of my sources, the accuracy of my stats and the overall news value of the topic were all picked apart in ways that felt like sabotage. For Alexis and Michael, who have to swallow their opinions and participate in this uprising as observers to do their jobs, being taken off the story is being taken out of this moment in history altogether.”

Johnson and Santiago’s trials with the newspaper have garnered the attention and support of elected officials and journalists nationally (including this journalist, who is a native of Pittsburgh and has voiced support via social media). The Guild backing them is demanding that the Post-Gazette apologize to them, reinstate them back to protest coverage, and stop retaliating against reporters. The Guild and the reporters said they have yet to hear from the paper’s management team. These black journalists are essentially working for a newspaper that won’t work for them, in a city that hasn’t worked for black people since its beginning.

The problems between the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and black journalists long predate coronavirus and the current protests against police violence. The Post-Gazette’s op-ed page is known nationally and disgracefully for unapologetically running racist editorials — ”Racism as Reason” and “Remnants of Slavery” are two stand outs — and for its lack of diversity. But it’s hard to separate the racism of the newspaper from that of the city at large — if anything it’s a reflection.

Letrell Crittenden, a black media scholar, detailed the unique pains of being a black journalist in Pittsburgh in a 2019 report he produced for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. For that study, he interviewed 20 former and current journalists in the city to document how they felt about their treatment in newsrooms and in the city.

What he found was that journalists’ ideas and pitches for stories related to black and non-white communities “often fell on deaf ears,” that newsrooms did not cultivate environments where black journalists could express their concerns, that they did not receive “the same level of mentorship or advancement opportunities” as white journalists, and that the city itself is “unwelcoming to people of color.”  The report is clear throughout that it’s not just a Post-Gazette problem, but a “Pittsburgh problem,” that keeps African Americans from living their best life. The report reads:

The city, due to a multitude of factors, is not a place where people color can thrive. Compared to whites, they have significantly less wealth, fewer social spaces and feel less respected in their workplaces.  One under-appreciated impediment to recruiting and retaining diverse talent is that many people of color have no desire to live in areas where they believe they will not be able to thrive—even if that place has a large population of color. If a newsroom is in an area that people of color do not find appealing, many potential journalists will not be inclined to seek employment in such areas. If they do arrive, fail to plant roots, and perceive the area to live down to low expectations, they likely will not stay long.

Santiago arrived in Pittsburgh in 2018 after shooting for several national media publications including The New York Times, The Undefeated, and BuzzFeed News. One of his first big assignments landing at the Post-Gazette that year was covering the protests after Antwon Rose was killed by a police officer. He also covered protests when Rose’s killer, former East Pittsburgh officer Michael Rosfeld, was acquitted by a jury. His photos from the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 won him a Pulitzer. And despite having a job with a steady, livable income he says he immediately felt the sting of racism in Pittsburgh

“I got the illest crash course in journalism here,” says Santiago. “When I moved here I was able to move into an area that is now considered one of the best places to live, East Liberty — but I’m hyper-aware that it’s considered this only because black people got pushed out of here. There are people who grew up in this neighborhood, who now can’t move back because they can’t afford to move here.”

Johnson was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and she also joined the Post-Gazette staff in 2018, after receiving a master’s degree in journalism from Temple University. Her father is a retired state trooper and her mother is a retired probation officer, which as Guild members pointed out at the press conference, makes her perhaps one of the best-qualified reporters to cover protests against police violence.

“I felt like my voice was silenced,” says Johnson. “Black journalists have been covering these stories since the beginning of time. Racism is in the fabric of our country. So whether we tweet our sentiments or how we feel, we still have to experience that trauma in real time and then show up to work and be able to report the news fairly and accurately.”

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How Racism Became a Public Health Crisis in Pittsburgh

A week after Pittsburgh’s city council signed an ordinance declaring racism a public health crisis in late December, a fog began to develop over the city. Or at least, people on Twitter and Instagram thought it was a fog and began posting photos of the ethereal mist blanketing the city over the Christmas holidays. It was actually soot—particulate matter (PM) 2.5, the kind of lung-prickling pollution that used to coat the sky regularly in Pittsburgh’s steel-making heyday. Pittsburgh has been trying to scrub that reputation for decades, but here the stuff was hanging in the air again, the result of temperature inversions on an unusually warm winter week, trapping air pollutants close to the ground across the region. It lingered in the air all the way into the new year, forcing the Allegheny County Health Department to explain its presence:

We know from research that inversions are expected to get worse with climate change. … While we will continue to advocate for residents to do what they can to reduce emissions, we must also explore new regulations that would impose corrective action requirements on industry during short-term pollution events. These extended exceedances and higher pollution levels are a clear threat to the health of the county’s residents, but ACHD’s current regulations do not provide options to address this issue.

This kind of environmental distress places that “it is precisely [Towne’s] ability to pack up, write this article, and move on to the next Google-sponsored town that is the problem. Because it’s not people like Dennis who are in danger; it is the people that he steps on as he makes his exit stage right.”

Melanie Meade, a black woman who lives near one of the U.S. Steel coke plants wrote in a recent op-ed for Public Source: “While I feel like I’m fighting for our basic rights to clean air, I’m living in a city that doesn’t seem to make a big deal over the pollution and its adverse effects on children and the community, especially people of color.”

There is little language on pollution and environmental justice in the public health crisis legislation. Instead, the ordinance refers to policy agendas that emphasize economic inequities, such as enhancing home ownership and entrepreneurship-employment among Pittsburgh’s black residents. As the ordinances were debated at hearings, town halls, and city council meetings through the winter, Jamil Bey, a local black activist who is helping steer one of those foundational policy agendas, Policylink’s All-In Cities strategy, began to wonder what was going on with the “public health” part of the equation.

After all, Pittsburgh is coming off a year where the air was deemed unsafe to breathe for three months, according to a report from the Penn Environment Research and Policy Center. It’s also the year the city’s air quality was graded an “F” by the American Lung Association. Meanwhile, black babies die in the region at four times the rate of white babies, and it’s disputable whether owning more houses and businesses will change that. Allegheny County Health Department maternal and child health program manager Dannai Wilson has said that “chronic exposure to structural and institutional racism, regardless of a mother’s socioeconomic status or educational attainment” is the primary culprit for high infant mortality rates among black women.  

“On the one hand you rightly identify that this is a public health crisis, but then you mostly propose economic solutions,” said Bey, the president of the local environmental justice-focused Urbankind Institute, which is one of the partnering organizations in Policylink’s All-In Cities Pittsburgh collaborative. “If we are going to attach it to the All-In effort, a better strategy would have been to include public health officials, scholars, and advocates in the process to think about the content of the legislation before it was drafted. Nothing that you propose addresses public health.”

Even the mayor’s grip isn’t exactly the tightest on the environmental-health justice issues. Just months after voicing opposition to petrochemicals, Peduto tweeted opposition to Green New Deal legislation, saying that it doesn’t “put people first.” The Green New Deal is rare among climate-change minded proposals in its focus on prioritizing workers left behind by new economies.

Burgess, the city council member, told CityLab that while air quality and pollution are important, “public health” is defined in these ordinances according to what’s called the social determinants of health—a somewhat amorphous term that carries varying definitions depending on the source. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines them as economic stability, education, social or community context, healthcare, and neighborhood or built environment. But economic stability, says Burgess, is most critical.   

Pittsburgh has some of the lowest rates of black women participation in the labor force and black men have some of the lowest average incomes of most cities in the U.S., according to Pittsburgh’s race and gender disparity study. The Cleveland Federal Reserve reported last year that Pittsburgh experienced one the largest gaps in earnings between white and non-white workers of any major metro between 2007 and 2017. Minority earnings dropped 4 percent in that time period while earnings for white workers increased by 13 percent.

“So it’s not a policy. It’s lots of policies and lots of resources,” said Burgess of plans to address the city’s constellation of race problems.

The ordinance doesn’t yet have any funding attached. But the hope is that funding will come from nonprofits—specifically large institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh’s medical system—and private corporations. Burgess said they would also reach out to “wealthy African Americans who live in and outside of the city” to contribute.

“We didn’t get here overnight. It took hundreds of years of systemic disinvestment and redlining,” Burgess added. “Now it’s going to take us multiple years—maybe 50 to 100 years—to undo this.”

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The House Flippers of Pittsburgh Try a New Tactic

Every week, Sandra Hazley gets one or two mailers offering to buy her house. Sitting on her back porch, Hazley, 74, pulls out a handful of the laminated cards. They all make the same offer: Investors are angling to snap up a two-bedroom home she owns and rents out on Pittsburgh’s North Side, quickly, with cash, as is.

The cash investors have also found her phone number. “A girl called me on my cell phone,” Hazley recounted. “She kept saying, ‘It could be turned into a really nice house.’ I kept on saying, ‘It’s not for sale.’”

It’s a sign of the times in Pittsburgh, where an influx of tech jobs is helping to push home prices in some neighborhoods to double or triple what they were ten years ago. As the real estate market heats up, wholesalers, house flippers, and other short-term investors are fishing for properties. The Steel City has one of the highest flip rates in the U.S., according to ATTOM Data Solutions. (A “flip” is two sales of a house within a year.)

The assessed value of Hazley’s North Side house has quadrupled since she bought it for $11,000 in 1998, but she isn’t selling. After retiring from a manufacturing firm, she had a stint as a real estate investor—buying, renting, and selling houses. She left that business, but held onto the North Side house, renting it to a couple who live on Social Security Disability Insurance. “They are nice people and they pay their rent,” Hazley said, “and I don’t care as long as I can pay the [property] taxes.”

Last November, Hazley found something else about her rental house in her mailbox—a notice of a building code violation from the city’s Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections, ordering her to scrape loose paint from the exterior. Hazley hired contractors to sandblast the paint from the house, but notices from DPLI kept coming, none of which acknowledged the work done on the house. The last set a court date with a district magistrate. It took a series of frustrated phone calls for Hazley to close the case.

Complainants to DPLI are kept anonymous, but Hazley thinks she knows who might have reported her: a cash-for-home investor. “They’ll do anything for an in,” said Hazley. “They’re like predators.”

Sandra Hazley says that house flippers are eager to buy the older home she owns and rents out in Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy Sandra Lee Hazley)

In Pittsburgh, almost all code inspections of residential properties are instigated by a complaint. So when homeowners in prime neighborhoods receive building code citations amid a flood of offers, many suspect that cash buyers—an unlicensed and largely unregulated segment of the real estate ecosystem known for their persistence and knowledge of building codes—are behind it. Community groups are also convinced that the flippers have essentially weaponized tip lines like the city’s 311 nonemergency service, trying to create a hassle that will incentivize homeowners to sell. “This is something I’ve heard of and we have confirmed reports of it,” said Dave Breingan, executive director of Lawrenceville United, a nonprofit community group that advocates for area residents.

Pittsburgh’s most dramatically gentrified neighborhood, Lawrenceville has transformed from a slope of working-class rowhouses to an artists’ haven for cheap rent to a sea of new condos and hip restaurants. The average home price boomed from $71,000 to $219,000 in ten years, according to Zillow. Now century-old houses are being demolished for new builds advertised for as much as $740,000. Longtime homeowners report getting pelted with cash offers.

A “We Buy Houses” sign sits in the window of a renovated house in Lawrenceville. (Michael Swenson/Bloomberg)

Breingan has also noticed an uptick in residents coming to Lawrenceville United holding code violation letters. (The nonprofit provides resources for fixes.) “We know there are predatory cash offers on people’s homes,” he said. “It’s taking advantage of the system.”

Violations from tipsters are baffling and enraging to residents. Hazel Store, for example, received a violation notice last year about chipped paint and a twisted piece of wood in a door frame in the Lawrenceville home she inherited from her mother. Store’s sister, 73 and affected by cataracts and arthritis, lives there. She doesn’t think a neighbor was behind the complaint; several of them collaborated to remove a sloping tree affecting the block last year.

Jim O’Brien replaced his doors and window frames and fixed chipped paint in response to a violation notice for his home, which he purchased in 1976. “It was someone who wanted to do some buying, so they called the city,” O’Brien said.

Kyle Webster, an attorney who works as a general counsel for an affordable housing developer, also does pro bono work for his neighbors in Lawrenceville, helping them deal with renovation issues and navigate home sales. One elderly resident came to him with a code violation notice of small infractions. Webster got enough paperwork to trace it to a developer implementing construction on his block. The developer asked to survey the man’s property for building purposes, made an offer on the home, and then lodged an anonymous complaint through the city’s 311 line, said Webster. The attorney said he found the contractor’s phone number on paperwork relating to the complaint.

“For other ones, I have suspicions,” said Webster. “I get cash offers weekly. It’s part of living in Lawrenceville, and so is bullying through [D]PLI.”

Maura Kennedy, director of the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections, said that about 99 percent of residential inspections originate through the 311 line. Inspectors don’t know, in most cases, who originated the call, or why—nor should that matter. “The inspector should not be making a value judgment on the caller,” Kennedy said. “[O]ur situation is balls and strikes. We apply one standard consistently and the code is for everyone.”

A “bandit sign” advertising cash payment for houses sits on a pole on the corner of Yetta Avenue and Rhine Street on the North Side in Pittsburgh. (Michael Swenson/Bloomberg)

For flippers on the prowl for deals, seeking an edge via 311 complaints is just a part of the game. These investors are hunting for homeowners incentivized to sell quickly, and they want to find them before they’ve listed their homes. Public information can provide a bevy of clues. Some flippers scour code violations, liens, divorces, evictions, and foreclosures for properties that seem to be a pain to their owners. Permits for additions and renovations can also be a sign a homeowner is getting ready to sell. The forums on the investor website Bigger Pockets are full of tips for getting this information. Some posters even sell citywide data.

“These can be a good source of locating potentially motivated sellers,” wrote a poster trying to sell a listing of housing code violations in Philadelphia. “Many are also absentee owners, faced with tenants creating issues with their properties.” In another post, a newbie cash investor asks what to do with the list of code violations he wrangled from the city government of Phoenix. “Keep mailing,” recommends one respondent. “It is more important to keep mailing to the same recipient rather than mail to a lot of prospects.”

Once a cash buyer secures a home, they usually fix it up enough to flip it for a profit—though in truly hot neighborhoods they don’t always need to. Jim Roudeski, owner of the frequent mailer sender IBuyPittsburgh, said if he got a bite in a neighborhood like Lawrenceville, a larger investment firm would buy the contract immediately.

Roudeski does most of his own flipping in a low-rent suburb immediately outside city limits. “Everyone has their niche,” he said. He doesn’t use public data from inspections (or any other sources of sad stories), but targets his efforts more geographically.

The image of house-flippers has been sullied, he says, because people only see the offers made for deteriorated old homes and the prices when they go into the market, but none of the costs of repairing them. “Everyone seems to think we’re getting rich off this,” Roudeski said, “but my margins are pretty thin.”

He is skeptical that investors would call DPLI on a prospective lead. “It sounds like neighbors,” he said.  

Neighborhood advocates aren’t so sure: Some think flippers have gone beyond searching for incentives and instigated a few.

Pittsburgh’s North Side has experienced some of the most dramatic gentrification in the last decade. (Michael Swenson/Bloomberg)

Rick Schwartz is executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Development Corporation, which works to improve the two neighborhoods that abut Lawrenceville. Bloomfield and Garfield went through a redevelopment and home price spike similar to Lawrenceville’s. He calls the surge in violation notices an “unanticipated downside” of improved public access to information like building permit applications, code violations, and court proceedings involving housing.

“It invites unscrupulous folks, like home wholesalers, to use the information to apply the screws to unsuspecting property owners,” Schwartz said. “The 311 system, unfortunately, isn’t able to detect when the motivation of the caller isn’t completely above board. Maybe it’s time that DPLI inspectors are told who authored the complaint in the first place.”

Karen Thompson, a retiree, has lived most of her life in a five-bedroom home on a hillside in Garfield. Her parents bought it in 1964. “When my mom passed, I bought [shares of] it from my brothers and sisters,” Thompson said, sitting in one of the typically chic coffee shops that have sprouted in Garfield. “It became where you stayed when you were passing through.”

In 2016, Thompson hired a contractor to install a parking pad and ramp. “I was trying to make my house more senior citizen-ready,” she said, “because I’m getting to be a senior citizen.”

Last April, she received a notice from DPLI about a lack of an occupancy permit for the renovation. She thought the contractor filed the proper paperwork with the city, but he had not.

The inspector said a complainant “went through 311 and that’s how they tracked it,” said Thompson. “It felt suspicious.”

The ramp and pad had sat unnoticed for three years; she’s convinced that her neighbors would not narc on each other over building codes—but if even one would, how would they have known that she lacked a permit? She didn’t even know.

However, a cash investor with sophisticated knowledge of public information, searching for building permits, might notice that a new-looking addition in their target area lacked one.

It’s not a coincidence, she said, that Garfield is in the midst of a mailer onslaught from house flippers: “They’re everywhere,” said Thompson. “That’s when these letters amount to harassment.”

Thompson said she hears frequently about code enforcement activity. “I’m hearing of citations being issued. ‘Your trees are overgrown; your trees are too high.’ Someone is getting to them.”

During an interview in a neighborhood coffee shop, Thompson spread out a file of paperwork from the city on the table: violation notices and follow-ups from the inspector. Punk rock played as 20- and 30-somethings stared into laptops. She reached for a private criminal complaint the inspector had lodged against her, with a court date she avoided, by paying about $700 in fees to the city and lawyer costs.

“A lot of folks want to move into this area because it is a nice place to live,” Thompson said. “To force someone out is, for no better word, mean.”

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Turning a Vast, Post-Industrial Wilderness Into a Park in Pittsburgh

“At what point did we step back and start to think of ourselves as something outside of nature?” asked artist Natalie Settles from atop a wooded hillside.

One overcast Sunday this past May, Settles and ecologist Charles Bier introduced about 25 people to Hays Woods, an overgrown 626 acres of ravines and slopes in southeastern Pittsburgh. On a walk sponsored by the nonprofit City as Living Laboratory, the pair pointed out coal debris and bricks littering the ground, a sinkhole, and discolored mine-water drainage, amid mugwort, Japanese knotweed, and other invasive plants. They guided the group down steep, unkempt trails past old-growth trees and native flora.

Natalie Settles (far left) and Bier address the group of walkers in May. (Post Script Productions)

Settles asked the group to imagine what a “responsible relationship” with this “compromised space” might look like: “Knowing that we are nature, how can we act a little more like it?”

The City of Pittsburgh acquired this land from a developer in 2016 for $5 million. Pittsburgh is now poised to spend the next decade transforming an untended industrial and mining site into recreational green space. Few American cities have been able to acquire undeveloped land at such a scale within city limits.

Hays Woods, indicated here by a hiker icon, is in southwestern Pittsburgh, across the Monongahela River from Hazelwood. (Google Maps)

Councilman Corey O’Connor, who represents the district containing most of this land, said Hays Woods is like “being in the middle of Pennsylvania wilderness right in the heart of the city.” Along with former Mayor Tom Murphy, O’Connor co-chaired a task force this year that formulated recommendations for the future of this land.

They include preserving forested ridge lines and certain archeological features; adhering to sustainable practices in the development and use of infrastructure; restoring the ecology; and offering inclusive programming for a variety of users.

The anticipated benefits of the park are many. In addition to providing hiking and biking trails, accessible paths, and other amenities (though likely not ballfields), planners foresee Hays Woods serving as a “living laboratory” where local university faculty and students can research everything from climate change to the psychological effects of spending time in a park.

“Given the sense of wilderness in close proximity to the city, there may be some unique opportunities for activities you might not find in a typical city park,” said Kara Smith, principal environmental planner with the City of Pittsburgh. Smith said people have suggested that the park host such programs as low-impact camping and green-job workforce training, and emphasized that community input will drive a master-planning process.

“People want to see Hays Woods remain largely natural,” Smith added, “recognizing it is one of the largest contiguous forested areas in the region, which improves air quality, soaks up stormwater, reduces the urban heat island effect and provides habitat for flora and fauna that otherwise couldn’t live so close to a city.”

Hays Woods will help advance the ever-greening trajectory of a city originally built on steel production and the resultant pollutants. Pittsburgh has a Climate Action Plan goal to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and increase its tree canopy from the already higher-than-average 42 percent to 60 percent. Retaining 626 acres of undeveloped land and maintaining it as forest will help. According to the Trust for Public Land, only 10 percent of Pittsburgh’s land is park space—about 2,900 acres currently—below the national median of 15 percent.

Two bald eagles have called these woods home since 2013, harbingers of a regional repopulation of eagles. Their nest will remain protected within the boundaries of Hays Woods (watch them live on this cam).

In other words, Hays Woods is enabling the city to make choices now about a large, contiguous tract of forested land encircled by developed urban space that will provide long-term benefits for many generations to come.

These benefits won’t come without their challenges, though.

In a July 2017 ecological and conservation assessment, Bier, writing for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, noted the “ecologically degraded” character of the land, “forested with patches of grassland, sparse-canopy reverting woodlands, along with roads, clearings, pipeline and power line right-of-ways, and other scattered disturbances.” He noted poor water and soil conditions, some habitat fragmentation, and an abundance of invasive species.

That said, steep slopes have actually maintained pockets of the ecological character, he wrote, as has the fact that the land had remained under single ownership over the years, which prevented further fragmentation.

Hays Woods has been disturbed by roads, pipelines, power lines, and invasive species, but the tract retains its ecological character in some places, according to an assessment. (Post Script Productions)

Until about the mid-1700s, the Shawnee and Lenape native tribes occupied this land; then came the Iroquois Nation, and then colonial settlers, including Samuel Hays, a farmer, and eventually the H.B. Hays and Brothers Coal Railroad. In 1929, the city officially designated the area as the neighborhood of Hays. It was home to a U.S. Army ammunition plant and owned and mined by various companies, including the LTV Steel Company.

In 2003, a developer with an ownership stake in the land, Charles Betters, proposed flattening the hilltops for a mix of uses that would have been known collectively as the Pittsburgh Palisades Park—a horse track and casino, single-family houses, and a commercial “town center.”

Many environmentalists and activists opposed Betters’s plans, including Tom and Connie Merriman. According to the couple, locals referred to the forest as “the old LTV site” or “the old brownfield.” The Merrimans helped lead a community process that renamed the land Hays Woods—an important step, they said, in opposing development.

“We were trying to create an identity for it that was more Pittsburgh and more accessible,” said Connie, an adjunct faculty member in studio arts at Carnegie Mellon University.

They spoke against the plan at public hearings, held a conference on how natural ecosystems intersect with surrounding communities, and ran educational programs for youth. They also reached out to city officials. “At the end of the conversation [with political leaders and others],” Connie said, “we would give them a bottle, and it’d say ‘Breathe air cleaned by Hays Woods.’ So it was a little present for them.”

Their efforts were successful. Betters’s plan ultimately didn’t receive city approval, and neither did his subsequent plan to strip mine. For several years, the woods saw little activity, except for unauthorized use by hikers, hunters, and all-terrain-vehicle riders.

The eastern edge of Hays Woods offers views across and down the Monongahela River. (Post Script Productions)

Then in 2016 the Betters family sold the land to the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority at the reduced price of $5 million, well below the market value. Maintaining the land as a park quickly became a priority for the city. In 2018, Mayor Bill Peduto established the Hays Woods Task Force, led by O’Connor and Murphy. There was some public debate about a proposal to withhold 75 acres for residential development, but the task force quickly recommended—and the city determined—that the city should maintain all of the land for park use.

The neighboring borough of Baldwin contains several acres of land under consideration for inclusion in the park. There and in other adjacent neighborhoods, residents have raised questions about where park users will access the woods and local impacts that construction or any further water runoff might have.

Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning recently received a $100,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, funds that the city will match to take the next steps in the planning process. The city also received a grant from the nonprofit Trout Unlimited to assess abandoned mines and drainage and consider means of remediation. Instead of removing remaining coal and regrading the land, city staff will focus on preserving the current tree canopy while still remediating the worst impacts of mining. An ecological master plan will guide stormwater management and improvements to forest health and water quality.

The city anticipates needing at least a decade to develop Hays Woods into a fully operational park, though Smith noted that the woods may be open to the public sooner than that.

“It took 15 years to get this far,” said Tom Merriman. “It will probably take another 15 years to bring things to realization.”

O’Connor is also taking the long view. “In 50 years, when people are using trails up [there] and seeing the beautiful views, you can look back and say, ‘Look, this is what Pittsburgh accomplished. When they had the ability to build new houses, and they chose as a city, as a community, to preserve its natural habitat.’ I think that’s something that’s unique.”

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The Map That Unlocked the Mysteries of Pittsburgh

It may be hyperbole to say that I got lost every day for the first six months I lived in Pittsburgh, but not by much.

I grew up just across the state line in Youngstown, Ohio, but we rarely even made day trips to Pittsburgh, probably because my father hated driving there; he said it was the only place where he could see where he was going, but between the one-way streets, bridges, and rivers, couldn’t get there. Driving back from a Pirates game once, he announced, “Well, we’re lost, but we’re making really good time.”

Thanks to its rugged topography and irregular pattern of development, the city and its environs are notoriously difficult to navigate. Downtown’s “Golden Triangle” is a mishmash of streets, as industrial developments on the banks of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers were eventually connected with roads, albeit haphazardly. The region’s major arterials are designed in a hub-and-spoke system, with all traffic seemingly routed through downtown. Pittsburgh, as the local map designer Bob Firth once declared, is “ungriddable

But Pittsburgh, or at least its suburbs, is where I ended up working as a young journalist, hired by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 1999, during a phase where they were just looking for warm bodies that could form a cogent sentence. My first apartment was in Carnegie, a borough where the football stadium is named for Baseball Hall of Famer Honus Wagner and the baseball fields are named for Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka. It’s like Pittsburgh goes out of its way to confuse you.

The bare walls of my first apartment needed some adornment, so I used maps: one of the nation, one of the state of Pennsylvania, and one of Allegheny County. That’s the one I needed.

The county map was ancient, a Rand McNally map that was likely my grandfather’s; its age could be determined by what it listed, and what it did not. An inset of downtown Pittsburgh listed Horne’s Department Store and the Pittsburgh Press building, though both tenants had long vanished. There was no Interstate 279 North, which Pittsburghers call the Parkway North. Another layer of the area’s labyrinthine nature was the marked inability of residents to use formal designations for anything. There were no signs anywhere for the Parkway, but that’s what everyone, even TV newscasters, called it. (Similarly: Ask for directions in Pittsburgh and you’ll inevitably get useful phrases like, “Turn left where the Gulf station used to be.”)

But there was one feature of this map that proved critical—routes that looked like they’d been highlighted in a rainbow of different colors. Gradually, I realized they were part of a countywide system of colored belts. That explained the road sign with the yellow circle not far from my apartment, the one that said “Yellow Belt.” And it was the key to understanding the whole region.

There was a point when Pittsburgh was on the cutting edge in American transportation. The city was a major stop on the Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast road for autos. Briefly, the Liberty Tunnels were the longest in the country; the Pennsylvania Turnpike still bills itself as America’s First Superhighway, even as it shows its age today.

The Allegheny County belt system was part of this innovative tradition. In the late 1940s, an engineer with the Allegheny County Department of Public Works named Joseph White devised this color-coded series of five routes that traversed, or, in some instances, made a complete circle throughout the county. The routes used existing two-lane roads, not limited-access highways, and their concentric patterns offered drivers various means of getting around the area without having to go downtown. (A pedestrian-friendly sixth route—the two-mile Purple Belt in downtown Pittsburgh—was added in the mid-1990s.)

Later, as high-speed expressways arrived and siphoned off some suburban traffic, the belt system became less important; it was largely unneeded and unnoticed by the kind of locals who said “Turn left where the Gulf Station used to be.” But the route signs were a godsend for newcomers like me, who was expected to know and find my way around all 90 city neighborhoods.

Armed with my belt knowledge, travel suddenly became easier. For a day trip to Kennywood, the city’s beloved amusement park, I just had to turn out of my parking lot onto the Yellow Belt and it would guide me right there, past the beautiful Art Deco Allegheny County Airport. The Blue Belt would take me through the west end, down narrow streets barely wide enough for my car. I’d follow the Orange Belt to the Air Reserve Station, where I was often dispatched to watch President George W. Bush get on and off Air Force One, in case something newsworthy happened during one of his what seemed to be frequent visits to the Pittsburgh area. (Nothing ever did.)

In the days before GPS units and smartphones, the belt system converted me into an accomplished yinzer. A trip to Pittsburgh became a breeze for my father, who could follow the Yellow Belt to my apartment, and then let me do the driving. (He was particularly proud that I could get to Three Rivers Stadium without getting onto the traffic-clogged Parkway.) I’d often field urgent phone calls from out-of-town friends asking for directions. In time, I could even get around town better than my wife. She’d spent her first 30 years there, but like lots of Pittsburgh-area natives, didn’t venture too far past her home. Pittsburghers tend to judge how far something is not by miles or minutes, but by how many bridges and tunnels it takes to get there. (One river is slightly inconvenient; more than one is a serious effort. And if you have to take more than two tunnels, forget it.)

In 2005, I left Pittsburgh and returned to Ohio, where navigation is easier: The streets meet at right angles; Lake Erie is always north. Back in Pittsburgh, the colored belt routes remain, joined by the many signs associated with the Wayfinder System, an ingenious regime of colored zones implemented in the late 1990s in an effort to assist the cartographically challenged. To those who’ve lived there all their lives, they’re just a local curiosity, but they’re still helping people like me find my way around with ease.

At least, I’ve convinced enough people that I can. I haven’t called Pittsburgh home for nearly 15 years. But I still get calls for directions.

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A Micromobility Experiment in Pittsburgh Aims to Get People Out of Their Cars

Last October, a few weeks before thousands of white-collar urban transit professionals descended for a convention of their own, Pittsburgh hosted a different type of transportation summit. Dubbed MobiliT, it convened city officials, transit technologists, and civil society-types with everyday Pittsburgh residents.

Each person in the last group brought some type of mobility challenge unmet by Pittsburgh’s current bus, light rail, and bikeshare offerings. Some were single mothers traveling with multiple kids. Others were service workers with shifts in the wee hours of the morning. A few were ex-offenders who’d lost their driver’s licenses, working construction jobs in different parts of town. (All received a living wage in compensation for attending.)

At the time, Pittsburgh was on the cusp of launching its first dockless electric bikes, recalls Karina Ricks, the city’s director of transportation, as well as thinking about how to bring dockless electric scooters to its hilly and narrow streets. But hearing from those residents was an affirmation for Ricks that the introduction of a few hundred so-called micromobility devices was not going to make the answer for everyone. “We know that Razors on steroids are not a safe way for a mom to take her kids to school,“ she said. “So while we still wanted them, we also wanted to be able to provide something else to improve that situation.”

Ricks also wanted to do far more to shrink her city’s carbon footprint. Vehicles have overtaken other sectors of the economy as the top source of greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists say that the timeline for averting catastrophic global warming is short.

That knowledge, and the stories at MobiliT, helped seed Ricks’ idea for what is now the Pittsburgh Micromobility Collective, a self-organized, private consortium that aims to bring a range of “new mobility” services across the city. Led by the dockless bike and scooter startup Spin, the group also includes Zipcar, Ford Mobility, Waze, the scooter parking solution Swiftmile, and the Transit app. Earlier this year, the companies collaborated in response to a request for proposals from Ricks’ department, which called for a complement of car-free transportation options that customers can access and book through a single platform.

Their winning plan, which was one of five submissions, envisions “mobility hubs” clustered near transit stops throughout Pittsburgh. There, travelers would find some combination of bike-share stations, Zipcar vehicles, Waze carpool pickup spots, and parked and charged e-bikes and scooters from Spin to rent. The Transit app would handle route planning and ticketing services to customers, and Ford Mobility would feed data analytics back to the city.

In other cities and other contexts, these companies might be competitors—Zipcar vying for the same trips as Spin; Ford vying for the same trip data as Waze. But each player also recognizes that not all customers are a fit for every mode, said Ben Bear, the chief business officer at Spin. And in this case, they’re aligned around at least one common goal: reducing the 56 percent of commuters in Pittsburgh who drive alone. “This is definitely an experiment to see how we all coalesce, and we don’t know all the answers yet,” Bear said. “But we’re all trying to get people out of single-occupancy cars and personal vehicles.” (In Ford’s case, the company sees an urban market opportunity.)

In return for their cooperation toward this goal, Pittsburgh also is creating certain incentives to encourage these companies to join forces. For one, the city is keeping other mobility competitors out of play for the time being, according to Ricks. And two, her department will work closely with the collective to remove obstacles to their success on the street. “It’s often not a money issue,” she said. “More often, it’s access to parking spaces or operating rights issue that’s the barrier.” That’s the sort of stuff that the city can help negotiate or arrange in order to bring more options to a wider cut of the population.

In late September, the Mobility Collective held its first meeting with the city, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (the mass transit operator in Pittsburgh), and other stakeholder groups to discuss which neighborhoods would make choice destinations for early pilot projects, which could roll out as soon as 2020.

Outside of downtown and university campuses—coveted markets for mobility companies—Ricks pointed to a few communities of potential interest, including Larimer, a historically African American area that is unique in Pittsburgh for its relatively flat topography, and Hazelwood, which is close to employment centers but has poor pedestrian connections to public transit. Each neighborhood has its unique profile and set of challenges; the collective-based approach is supposed to allow the city to experiment.

“It lets us see what people are choosing once they’re given these different offerings,” Ricks said. “They might commute to their day jobs using a micromobility option or Waze carpool, but for weekend grocery shopping, they might use car share.” In neighborhoods where single parents proliferate, the city may also consider bringing a jitney-like service into the fold, she added.

A chart from the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective’s winning bid illustrates the relationship between various transportation modes and the types and lengths of trips their customers might be making. (Spin)

The idea behind the bundled service model is known in industry jargon as “mobility as a service.” Born in Helsinki and gaining popularity in the U.S. and Europe, the MaaS concept is that a single, digital platform that offered seamless, universal access to car-free transportation could become a viable substitute to personal vehicles. In separate bids to become that one-stop mobility shop, ride-hailing bigwigs Uber and Lyft have both recently acquired or experimented with bike, scooter, and car rental services, and redesigned their apps to supply such multi-modal trips. (Some observers worry that they’re becoming “walled gardens” in the process, a concern that came to the fore in a recent dispute between Lyft and the Transit app.) Los Angeles is busy developing an open-source software platform designed to host an ecosystem of mobility companies.  

But Pittsburgh’s invitation for multiple companies to develop an integrated system seems to be unique in the landscape. “It’s a first-of-its-kind consortium—the first big group to service the micromobility needs of a big city together,” said Colin Roche, the co-founder and CEO of Swiftmile. On the plus side for the city, it may avoid getting stuck with a single provider. On the down side, there may be risk of competitive interests preventing the players from cooperating down the road.

In Ricks’ mind, the moment has arrived for a bold move on the city’s part. Pittsburgh has learned the hard way that being the first city to welcome emerging mobility companies isn’t always best for residents. A few years ago, it made national headlines for a clash with Uber over whether the company was living up to certain civic promises as it tested autonomous vehicles in town. With dockless scooters and bikes, the city waited a little longer than others to fold them in. This way, Pittsburgh has a clearer idea of what it wants to accomplish, said Ricks.

New and untested as her collective approach may be, Ricks believes that when it comes to shrinking carbon footprints, big ideas will win the day. The time has passed for incrementalism, even if there are bumps in the road. “We’re all a little scared,” she said. “But we’re in it together.”

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Pittsburgh’s Black Renaissance Started in Its Schools

When historians analyze the causes of the Great Migration, the exodus of millions of African Americans from the rural South in the early 20th century, they stress the urgency of escaping the vicious Jim Crow backlash against Reconstruction and the dream of finding factory jobs in Northern cities. Yet a less studied factor—worth noting in this era of crude stereotypes about black attitudes toward education—was the lure of better schools in the North. And surprisingly, nowhere was that attraction greater than in the gritty steel town of Pittsburgh.

In Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 1940s, Herron Avenue marked the boundary between the elite Sugartop neighborhood and the working-class Middle Hill. (Courtesy of Getty Images/Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art)

In the 19th century, what is now the University of Pittsburgh was called the Western University of Pennsylvania and considered a sister school to Penn in Philadelphia. Before his death in 1858, Charles Avery, a white Pittsburgh cotton trader whose travels through the South had awoken him to the horrors of slavery and turned him into an ardent abolitionist, endowed a fund for 12 scholarships a year at Western University for “males of the colored people in the United States of America or the British Province of Canada.”

Forty years later, Robert Lee Vann, the teenage son of a former slave cook from North Carolina, traveled by himself to Pittsburgh to claim one of those scholarships. It was the start of a remarkable success story. In 1910, after earning undergraduate and law degrees from Western University, Vann accepted a job as the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a four-page chronicle of local events. Eventually becoming publisher and owner as well, Vann transformed the Courier into America’s best-selling black newspaper, with 14 regional editions and an avid readership in black homes, barber shops, and beauty salons across the nation.

Ever since the Civil War, blacks had voted overwhelmingly Republican out of loyalty to the Great Emancipator. But in 1932, Vann used the Courier as a soapbox to urge blacks to turn “the picture of Abraham Lincoln to the wall” and vote for FDR, beginning a migration to the Democratic Party that transformed American politics. As World War II loomed, Vann pressed for a greater role for black soldiers. After his death in 1940, his successors led a “Double Victory” campaign to rally black support at home while demanding an end to racial injustice once the war was over. (Sadly, that second victory never materialized—a betrayal that the Courier exposed as dashed hopes helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement.)

The Washington edition of the Pittsburgh Courier on April 19, 1947, a few days after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. Courier columnist Wendell Smith had introduced Robinson to the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey. (Library of Congress)

Vann took pride in hiring young college grads, and his recruits played a major part in some of the biggest cultural stories of the age. Chester Washington, a Pittsburgh native whom Vann helped send to Virginia Union University, used his behind-the-scenes access to boxer Joe Louis to turn the “Brown Bomber” into a hero to blacks and a sympathetic champ to whites. Sports columnist Wendell Smith, an alumnus of Wayne State University, crusaded for the integration of pro baseball, then introduced Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey to a promising Negro League rookie named Jackie Robinson.

After hiring Julia Bumry Jones, a West Virginian with a degree from Wilberforce University, as his stenographer, Vann put Jones in charge of a four-page weekly women’s section and gave her a gossip column that she used to encourage black women across America to master political as well as party-giving skills.

History hasn’t always been kind to the rapacious capitalists who turned Pittsburgh into an industrial engine of the Gilded Age, but their philanthropy helped finance some of the best integrated public high schools of the time. In 1912, Mary Schenley, the heir to a railroad fortune, donated land and money for Schenley High School, a three-sided limestone behemoth that was the first high school to cost more than $1 million. A decade later, Westinghouse High School, named after electricity tycoon George Westinghouse, was built for $2.5 million.

Admitting black students from their earliest days, Schenley and Westinghouse attracted many who went on to become giants in their fields. Earl Hines, a piano prodigy from a steel town south of Pittsburgh, was sent by his parents to live with an aunt in the city so he could attend Schenley. Later, Hines moved to Chicago and recorded groundbreaking early jazz with Louis Armstrong.

Although married to an abusive drinker who had trouble holding jobs, Lillian Strayhorn insisted that her family move to a back-alley shanty in the neighborhood of Homewood so her young son Billy could attend Westinghouse High. After becoming the star of the school’s music program, Billy Strayhorn met Duke Ellington at a downtown theater, beginning one of the greatest collaborations in jazz history.

Dancer Charles “Honi” Coles (left), Billy Strayhorn (center), and Duke Ellington (right) at the Stanley Theatre, the show palace where Ellington and Strayhorn first met. (Courtesy of Getty Images/Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art)

In the ’30s, ’40s, and ‘50s, Westinghouse graduated so many black luminaries that a Hall of Fame display of their photographs covered the walls of its front lobby. They included piano virtuosos Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, and Mary Lou Williams, and journalists Bill Nunn Sr. and Jr., the longtime managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier and his son, later a football scout who recruited key members of the 1970s Steelers dynasty.

Meanwhile, Bill Nunn III, the actor who starred in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, graduated from Schenley High, as did guitarist George Benson and Harvard’s first black law professor, Derrick Bell. (Peabody High School, in Pittsburgh’s Hillside neighborhood, educated two other legends, singer Billy Eckstine and artist Romare Bearden.) In the movie version of the play Fences by August Wilson—the Pittsburgh-born playwright who set most of his dramas in the city’s Hill District—director and star Denzel Washington pays homage to Schenley High by having Cory, the son of garbage worker Troy Maxson, wear a red varsity jacket emblazoned with an “S.”

In his unique way, Wilson was also a product of black Pittsburgh’s devotion to education. Although Wilson’s mother was a maid who went on welfare to raise her children after their white German father all but abandoned them, she insisted on sending August to Catholic schools on the Hill. Later, when Wilson dropped out of high school as a rebellious teen, he educated himself by roaming the stacks of Carnegie Library, funded by the most famous Pittsburgh robber baron of them all, Andrew Carnegie.

Yet if these pioneering schools were cornerstones of black Pittsburgh in its heyday, their decline has been part of the sad narrative of that community’s descent over the past 60 years. In the late 1950s, white downtown business and political leaders joined forces to push through an early experiment in urban renewal that resulted in the razing of the Lower Hill, long the center of black business and social life.

Despite big talk, the city never made good on promises of new housing construction. As displaced Hill residents sought refuge in surrounding neighborhoods, white residents of those previously mixed enclaves fled, gradually eroding the tax and political bases that had supported schools like Westinghouse.  

The Bethel AME Church, the last building to be destroyed on the Lower Hill in 1957. (Courtesy of Getty Images/Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Today Westinghouse is a shell of its former self, looming forlornly over an entire block in the now downtrodden neighborhood of Homewood. Metal bars stripe the windows. A magnetometer guards the lobby. The virtually all-black student body numbers a scant 450 over six grades.

The teachers are almost all white, young, inexperienced, and likely to move on after a few years. Although the school has worked its way back from a dismal diploma rate to graduating most of its students, more than a quarter of them will never attend college, and many who do will never finish. As administrators walk the hallways, they greet students who skip classes not with warnings but inquiries about what’s bothering them, a sign of their primary concern that no one leave the building before school is out.

Schenley, meanwhile, has been shuttered and sold to private developers, the victim of a contentious experiment in school reform. In 2005, Pittsburgh turned its school system over to Mark Roosevelt, a former Massachusetts state legislator and great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, who decided in mid-career to become a school superintendent by attending a one-year training course funded by entrepreneur Eli Broad.

Mark Roosevelt delivered innovation, including support for charter schools and Gates Foundation projects, but he lost goodwill in both black and white communities by closing Schenley rather than pay for asbestos removal. The uproar over the loss of the iconic school drained support for Roosevelt’s agenda, and it hamstrung Linda Lane, the black woman who took his place after he quit to take the presidency of Antioch College. “The pain goes on,” Lane admitted as she stepped down after six years.

Witnessing what has become of the Hill and Homewood and so many black city neighborhoods like them across America, it’s hard to believe what thriving hubs they once were, and even harder to fathom what it will take to bring them back. Yet if there is to be progress, virtually every expert agrees, reforms will have to be multi-pronged—encompassing courts, prisons, police, and banks—and will have to start with schools.

A mural in the Hill District honoring playwright August Wilson, who attended Catholic schools in the neighborhood and set Fences and other plays there. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)

While the overall forecast for Pittsburgh’s inner-city schools is far from bright, there are rays of promise. When a city-wide vocational high school was shut down to save money, many of its programs—in carpentry, health services, sports management, cooking, and cosmetology—were moved to Westinghouse. Students in those programs are now the stars of the school, paraded before visitors as musical prodigies once were.

A handsome, gregarious senior boasts of earning his electrician’s license and having a job lined up after graduation. Students in a professional cooking class learn from a former sous chef how to work a restaurant kitchen line and organize a food truck. Although administrators say some parents still look down on vocational training—a stigma in black America that dates back to controversy over Booker T. Washington’s trade schools—they concede that for many students, it offers more realistic hope than taking on student debt to pursue a liberal arts education.

The city of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is enjoying an overall resurgence, propelled once again by its institutions of higher learning. Tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Uber have opened outposts to snap up engineers and computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, and Duquesne. Those companies have started donating computers and other supplies to black neighborhood schools, and they could do more. They could establish or fund after-school programs where African-American kids can learn extra math and computer skills. They could create mentorship and internship programs to give high-school students a taste of the jobs that might await them if they stay in school and get through college.

If nothing else, Pittsburgh’s revival gives motivated black youth an incentive to stay put. For another, more sensitive, factor in the decline of black Pittsburgh was black flight, by middle-class strivers who walked through doors opened in the civil rights and affirmative action era and never came back. (One was my father, C.S. “Syl” Whitaker, Jr., Westinghouse class of 1952, who went to Swarthmore College and then became an Africa scholar at UCLA and Princeton.)

Today, members of that generation who did eventually return express shame over not being there to fight for their neighborhoods. One is Lynell Nunn, the actor’s sister, who returned to Pittsburgh to care for her aging parents after decades working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., only to discover that it was too late to save her beloved high school. “I still haven’t forgiven them,” Lynell says of city and school board leaders. “We had so much pride in Schenley.”

One who did stay was Joe Williams III, the son of a mechanic and grandson of a janitor who grew up in the North Side neighborhood of Manchester. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne’s law school, Williams opened a criminal law practice in his old neighborhood on a block that had grown so decrepit that he was able to buy a boarded-up townhouse from a city slum agency for $4,000. Two decades later, Williams was elected to a judgeship in a downtown courthouse where his grandfather mopped the floors and his father fixed the boilers. After raising their son in the suburbs, he and his wife Darryl have moved into the Manchester house and are working with neighbors to rebuild the neighborhood.

Every Memorial Day, Williams also hosts a family reunion at which he and his relatives visit the burial sites of ancestors who have lived in the Pittsburgh area for four generations. At each grave, they require members of the younger generation to recite the stories of their forebears. Like so many tales of black Pittsburgh, they are stories full of sacrifices made for the sake of education, and a reminder to the youngsters that reverence for learning is a strain as deep and proud as any in the African-American tradition.

Mark Whitaker’s book SMOKETOWN: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance was recently published by Simon & Schuster.

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