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Aliquippa's First Black Mayor Determined To Change The City's Stigma

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Aliquippa Mayor Dwan Walker sits at the council table in City Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. Walker calls Aliquippa a "work in progress," and says he wants to make government more transparent.

Like any former steel town in western Pennsylvania, Aliquippa has struggled since the industry collapsed in the 1980s. But in a town known for its football superstars, Mayor Dwan Walker, now in his second term, wants to prove that his city is ready and eager for revitalization. 

90.5 WESA’s Katie Blackley sat down with Mayor Walker in December 2016 to ask about changes he's made to the city during his tenure.

On why he was motivated to run for office:

I was born and raised here. I'm 41 years old and my life has been spent here in Aliquippa. I graduated from Robert Morris University, my degree is in communications. I always believed that I just wanted to fix my city. There was a tragedy that happened that caused me to go down this road. My sister was shot and killed in 2009. Before she died, she told me I was going to be the mayor of the city. When she said that, she said it’s all finite. It convicted me; something in my spirit said that I had to do it.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The Aliquippa flag hangs on the wall of the City Hall at 581 Franklin Ave. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. Mayor Dwan Walker says the city is "a work in progress," but that he's optimistic about its future.

On what he sees as Aliquippa's stigma and how he wants to change its image:

The stigma was that the only thing good to come out of Aliquippa was football players-- that all we breed is first round draft picks and that’s all we have. But you know the stigma is that also we're “more than.” That’s the slogan my brother uses: we're “more than.” We're more than just football.

But that's the stigmatism and also the stigmatism violence drugs the whole…they say, "don’t go to Aliquippa, that’s Damascus. Don’t go to that city at night, don’t go around it."

So, what we've done is make a more transparent government. What we try to do is be more and more available to our customers, our citizens, because we have to be.

On specific city improvements:

We’ve established a redevelopment authority as well as a Port Authority, as well as a blighted program. We have 800 dilapidated properties so we had to develop an organizations that would go out and take pictures and cordon off the city into sections so we could attack these sections as we need to. We want to go after some of those grant monies, the CHOICE grant money that we see in East Liberty, that’s rebuilding East Liberty. Those were some of the pieces we had to develop. Those were foundational changes, not cosmetic. 

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Aliquippa was incorporated as a borough in 1928. Throughout the region's industrial boom, it was home to more than 30,000 people, mostly manufacturers. In this Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016 picture of the wall of Aliquippa City Hall, the city's logo reads "Founded by Steel, Formed by its People."

On the challenges he faces presiding over Aliquippa, which has been under financial distressed status for nearly 30 years:

Well, distressed status is a hindrance because, in a way, it speaks to, OK, what? No money, no resources, no viable economic backdrop for us to make money. Will we make money? There’s the question they ask. How is the school system? ‘Cause you buy three things when you buy a city: you buy the school, you buy the police force and you buy the city, as a whole. But the first two things are-- police: can they save me, can they protect me? School: can they educate, can they put productive citizens into the city? To do right, to be right, to act right. So with that being said, my school system is a work in progress ... Police force has been upgraded now. We used to have an older police force, now we have one of the youngest. And you have your issues like any other city, Aliquippa’s no different than anyone else.

But again, I want to make sure that we come out of distressed status on solid foundation, not in one year come right back in it because of financial issues because that’s what got us in the predicament in the first place. 

On the message he's sharing with his constituents regarding the incoming administration:

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Aliquippa Mayor Dwan Walker says in order for the city to receive development grants like some neighborhoods in and around Pittsburgh, they had to create a blight program. Walker estimates the city of Aliquippa has over 800 dilapidated or blighted buildings.

No president of the United States is really going to affect Aliquippa. Donald Trump, Barack (Obama), they didn’t know where Aliquippa was. They’ll never know where Aliquppa is. So, in my opinion, it’s up to us. We have to figure this thing out. You know? (They're saying) ‘Aw, he’s going to affect us with HUD and this and that and this and that.’ OK, OK, OK, OK. But you still have local officials that you have to deal with. Those local officials need to be held accountable for what they do.

I call us L.A.. I mean, we’re 'Lovely Aliquippa.’ And I say that because the people do make it lovely. We come together. We don’t do it all the time, but I do think that in some instances, when it comes to city pride, you ain’t gonna find any place better.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm
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