A Crisis Of ‘Forced Mass Displacement’ Of Black Pittsburghers

Above photo: Homes in the Hill District seen from Mount Washington. Nate Smallwood/Tribune Review.

Pennsylvania – Why did 7,000 Black Pittsburgh residents leave the city between 2014 and 2018?

The answer depends on who’s talking.

Community activist Randall Taylor, a former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member and city council candidate, calls it a “crisis of forced mass displacement” of Black residents.

City councilmen Ricky Burgess and R. Daniel Lavelle say the issue is more nuanced and that most of the 7% of the Black population that left during that time period did so by choice.

Taylor and 31 other city residents on Tuesday petitioned Pittsburgh City Council for a public hearing on the issue and to begin a discussion about what to do about it.

They also want the city to create a “right of return” for displaced Black residents and for the city to pursue an “aggressive policy campaign” to implement it.

Census data show that 7,000 Black residents moved from the city between 2014 and 2018. “Everybody should be asking why that amount of people left in a short period of time. That’s an astounding number,” Taylor said.

A former East Liberty resident, Taylor said the petition is an offshoot of the Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition, a group that protested the 2016 demolition of an East Liberty apartment complex that displaced about 200 people, many of whom were low-income. The site is now under construction as Liberty East, an office and retail space that will be anchored by a large Whole Foods.

People want answers from council about the exodus of Black residents from the city, Taylor said.

“The question is: ‘Why did the people leave?’ ” he said.

Council members on Tuesday agreed to set up a virtual meeting.

According to the city’s Home Rule charter, residents can seek a public hearing on an issue if they present a petition signed by 25 residents who are registered to vote. Those who sign the petition are required to attend the hearing in order for it to be held.

Council didn’t set a time or date for the hearing, but Councilman Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze and Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District disputed the reasoning behind the hearing.

“The premise of the public hearing is absolutely false,” Burgess said. He and Lavelle are Black.

Burgess, who also serves on the city’s Housing Authority, said he is fully aware of the city’s housing issues.

In recent decades, no one who lives in Homewood, Larimer or other Black neighborhoods has been forced to leave because of gentrification, Burgess said.

“They chose to leave because of crime and blight,” he said.

The city’s Housing Authority has worked to modernize its apartments and move away from “barracks-style” housing to those that are safer and have their own entrances and yards, Burgess said.

In doing so, the number of apartments has been reduced, but so has the city’s population as residents have left for surrounding neighborhoods, Burgess said.

The city has also worked to provide mixed-income housing so poor people aren’t grouped together, both Burgess and Lavelle said.

The demolition of the Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty was “awful” but not an example of gentrification, Burgess said.

The only neighborhood in the city that faces the issue is Lawrenceville, Burgess said, and the reality is that Blacks and others are moving elsewhere “by choice.”

“This myth plays well politically, but it’s not factually true,” Burgess said.

The city has done the best job it can to provide for affordable, mixed-income housing and Burgess said he will talk about what the city is doing during the public hearing.

“I look forward to the debate with Councilman Burgess,” Taylor said. “What is going on here that people feel so unwelcome?

Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, tdavidson@triblive.com or via Twitter .