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P4 Speakers Pull No Punches When Discussing Institutionalized Racism In Pittsburgh

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

The ballroom in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center where the P4 Conference is taking place this week is lit more like nightclub than a conference center. Bright green and blue lights shoot up the walls, a sharp contrast in the dimly lit room. A rapper takes the stage, spitting acapella rhymes that simultaneously praise and critique the city he loves. In the back of the room, an artist turns his words and the rest of the day’s speeches into comic strip-like panels. Outside the room, where moments earlier 600 people chatted over pastries and cups of coffee, a screen runs a slideshow of photos including those from a local Black Lives Matter protest.

This is the new look of urban development and innovation in Pittsburgh.

The second P4 Conference, like the first in April 2015, is billed as part of an “effort to forge a new model of urban growth and development that is innovative, inclusive and sustainable.” The four Ps stand for people, place, planet and performance, and this year’s conference is focused on people.

In Pittsburgh, that means a hard look at how the past development projects have displaced and disadvantaged poor and working class people of color, and how future efforts can right some of those wrongs.

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Artist Emily Marko creates a comic-strip like representation of speeches given at the P4 Conference in downtown Pittsburgh on October 18, 2016.

The conference kicked off with a speech from André Heinz, chair of the Heinz Endowments, whose great-great-grandfather founded the company that still bears his name.

The Heinz family was also involved in efforts in the 1940s to make downtown Pittsburgh more accessible to automobile-driving suburbanites, a legacy André Heinz lamented.

“It’s a healthy reminder not to be bedazzled by the latest, greatest whizzding,” he said. “It’s particularly egregious when you think about what happened to the Hill District … In their wisdom, whoever made those decisions bulldozed half the neighborhood and put about a hundred foot drop for a sunken highway to go out to the new suburbs. We’re feeling the reverberations from that ever since.”

The policies that guide today’s redevelopment efforts might not be as blatantly racist, but many people in Pittsburgh still worry about the effects of rapid gentrification. In East Liberty, for example, a Whole Foods is moving into one of the last sites of low-income housing in the neighborhood. While the city stepped in to smooth the transition soon after eviction notices were served, affordable housing advocates still worry that equity is not yet at the forefront of Pittsburgh’s redevelopment efforts.

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PolicyLinks president & CEO Angela Glover Blackwell addresses the crowd at the P4 Conference in downtown Pittsburgh on October 18, 2016.

“It’s so predictable that as soon as a city that has languished for so long – with people being forgotten, with neighborhoods being neglected – that when the city begins to come back the first people to get pushed out are the ones who’ve needed what’s coming the most,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, president and CEO of PolicyLink.

The “People” section of the day, during which Blackwell spoke, was populated entirely by African Americans, and also included Tony Norman, columnist with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Majestic Lane from the Mayor’s Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment and John Wallace, professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh.

Wallace’s presentation included sobering statistics about the disparities between Pittsburgh’s white and black residents. The mortality rate for African American infants is three times the rate for white babies and black children are four times more likely to live in poverty than white children. Black people are more likely to say they are unhappy with life in Pittsburgh and to make plans to leave. In fact, Wallace cited a brain drain among college-educated African Americans. And the more low-income students a school serves, the fewer Pittsburgh Promise-eligible students it produces.

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Jasiri X speaks at the P4 Conference in downtown Pittsburgh on October 18, 2016.

“The correlation is -0.87. You had enough statistics to know that’s high and it’s bad,” Wallace told the audience. “If I know the school you attend, I can almost predict perfectly the likelihood that you’ll receive $30,000 to attend any school in this state.”

While Wallace brought the statistics, Jasiri X brought the poetry.

“Is the policy inequality?” Jasiri asked the rapt crowd. “Where successes like John Edgar Wideman a novelty? Where immaculate receptions turn into mythology, because if you ain’t catching footballs you’re living in poverty? Probably.”

The conference continues through Wednesday afternoon and includes speeches from academics, urban planners, policy makers and activists from all over the country.

Peduto said Pittsburgh is now faced with the rare opportunity to define how the city will serve all its residents in the future, taking into account the social, environmental and economic impacts of development, transportation investments and economic growth.

“We’re small enough we can do it,” he said. “We’re large enough that the world will take notice.”

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.