As Pittsburgh is officially anointed a cool place, new residents, new construction, and new revitalization projects begin to dot the landscape. Many of these changes are thrilling for Pittsburghers and citizens across the region. However, not all of these changes are positive and the negative impacts are shouldered by specific neighborhoods with large populations of people of color. When reading and thinking about these changes in the city, I have turned to August Wilson’s texts which can help us understand the consequences of disenfranchising neighborhoods by showing the impacts marginalization has on individuals in specific communities.
Much of the current discussion about changes in the city centers on East Liberty. As the Post-Gazette has reported for a few years, the real estate costs in East Liberty and surrounding areas are increasing. These higher costs are associated with the movement of tech companies, like Google, into the area. In 2015, the Black Homes Matter booklet documented the effects this has had on residents pushed out of East Liberty. Former resident Aaron Vire says that his family moved to Millville for affordable housing. Now, he laments, “I had to buy a car to commute back here to my job, and then I had to take another job to pay for the car. I work 48 hours at one job, 32 at the other. I get very little sleep. And I miss my neighborhood.” Other residents being forced out of the area include those living in Penn Plaza Apartments. Like Vire, many of the residents are finding it difficult to move and stay in the same neighborhood because of the rising costs in the community.
There is growing concern that such developments will exacerbate not only income inequality but also racial segregation in the city. As Damon Young points out in a recent piece—told through his relationship with his barber—the growth in East Liberty “coincid[ed] with a radical racial demographic shift.” When discussing the architecture of the Penn Plaza Apartments, John Conti notes that the new residents will be “almost surely be white, younger and wealthier” than the current residents.
The worries about the changing demographics of specific neighborhoods is tied to the lack of diversity in the city itself. The 2016 “Pittsburgh Regional Diversity Survey” provides a glimpse of the situation facing people of color. The survey found that “79 percent of whites feel the region embraces racial and ethnic minorities.” Unfortunately, only “41 percent of minorities” answered in a similar way (5). The African-Americans surveyed were the “least likely to feel the region and their workplace are very diverse and to feel welcome in the community” (11). The survey results showcase issues that will be exacerbated if the city continues encouraging heedless development.
Following this news in Pittsburgh, I found myself wondering about how August Wilson would represent this time in the city’s history. Wilson so astutely noted the forces of change in the city and how those changes affected African American communities. Just as East Liberty becomes a microcosm for the current state of the city, Wilson writes about change by focusing on the small—small neighborhoods and small community networks. The larger historical forces changing the city and impacting the character’s lives are in the background of his tight focus, which is largely on areas in the Hill District.
Wilson cannot write us a new play to comment on this time in Pittsburgh’s history, but his past work can serve as a reminder of what transformation without progress looks like.
Wilson’s plays demonstrate the consequences of thoughtless change and illustrate how Pittsburgh has a history of pushing vulnerable citizens to the margins. In the stage directions for Fences, Wilson writes about the African Americans moving north during the Great Migration. He says of the reception that they found in Pittsburgh, “the city rejected them and they fled and settled along the riverbanks and under bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses.” Right before this passage, Wilson describes how the city embraced the immigrants of Europe and allowed them to capitalize on the dreams that they “dared.” For African Americans in Fences, their dreams are harder to see and achieve because of the spaces the city has allowed them to exist in. The characters in Fences struggle to assert themselves in a place where they are constantly reminded of boundaries and limitations.
The idea of “fences”—what fences keep in and what they keep out—is the central throughline of the play. The main characters are building a fence to encompass their yard, but in most instances throughout the play, they are subject to fences that are not of their own making. Troy, the protagonist, started his baseball career at a late age because he spent time in prison. Troy’s wife, Rose, cannot keep him from cheating on her and cannot mend his relationship with his children no matter how hard she tries to get a fence built to box them all in. Cory, Rose and Troy’s son, is forced out of his parents’ house, and Troy makes it clear that Cory is not welcome back by placing his belongings on the other side of the fence.
Everyone in the play is trying to negotiate what occurs in their space. Space becomes a marker for what is happening in their lives. If you cannot control your own space—if you cannot take literal or figurative ownership of the space you are afforded—then you face a more precarious future.
In Two Trains Running, set in the decade after Fences, the focus is on a small restaurant run by the character Memphis. The restaurant is the center of the action in the play. All of the characters are shaped by their interactions with each other in that small space. It is in the restaurant, for example, that Sterling, recently released from prison, reconnects with his childhood playmate, Risa. He is scarred from his time in prison, and she has scarred her legs to keep men away from her. But regardless of these scars, they share a moment of passion and connection while dancing to Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look.” This moment perfectly encapsulates Wilson’s ability to focus on the small moments while connecting them to much larger cultural currents.
Memphis’ restaurant is soon to close because of larger forces. The city plans to take over the block the restaurant is on. As the city begins buying up property on the block, West, a neighboring businessman, tries to purchase the restaurant from Memphis, but Memphis is determined to hold out and get a fair price for his restaurant. Memphis’ plans for what he will do with the money involve going back to the south from which he was forced to leave. Memphis is determined that he will go back and reclaim the land he was run off of. He says, “I’m going back to Jackson and see Stovall. If he ain’t there, then I’m gonna see his son…I’m going on back up to Jackson and pick up the ball.” After his trip to Jackson, Memphis plans to come back to Pittsburgh where he is “gonna open me up a big restaurant right down there on Centre Avenue.” Memphis’ words are hopeful, yet he also repeats “if I get back” every time he says what he is going to do “when I come back.” Memphis has a plan, knows the perilous nature of that plan, and is proceeding because he believes in what is owed him. Here, Wilson shows us resilience in the face of circumstances that give the characters few choices.
Wilson writes about African Americans who have made space for themselves as they are continually pushed into corners of the city. He wrote from personal experience of the city, and the current experiences of many in Pittsburgh echo Wilson’s sentiments. Connecting Wilson’s texts to the present conversations about gentrification illustrates how long and deep these discussions go in Pittsburgh and gives us a jumping off point to ask if we can do better. Does the city have, as Nick Coles asks, “the courage to implement equitable development”?
While Mayor Bill Peduto gets so-so reviews on affordable housing, there has been a lot of activism and attention around these housing issues in recent months and some positive news is slowly trickling out. For instance, Diana Nelson Jones reported on nonprofit and corporate work to protect fair housing prices in Lawrenceville, Oakland, and East Liberty. If Pittsburgh is going to be a #livablecity that thrives, access to affordable housing needs to be an issue addressed now and going forward. To continue in this manner regard should be given to voices like Wilson’s. While he is writing about fictional characters, he is also writing the history of his city, and he encapsulates how devastating destruction of communities through discrimination and development can be. If we listen to Wilson, sustainable development in the city will be more of the norm and less of the exception.