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Biden advisor and Gainey highlight investments in Pittsburgh’s marginalized communities

Two men in suit jackets lean over to speak with people on a city street
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Mayor Ed Gainey and Tom Perez, senior advisor to President Joe Biden, speak to residents in the Hill District and tout the millions of dollars the Biden administration has committed to the area.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey gave a tour of the city for senior White House Advisor Tom Perez on Wednesday, one that highlighted how federal infrastructure spending has been impacting the city.

The three stops on the tour — one on the North Side and two in the Hill District — reflected a common theme: This round of infrastructure spending is being allocated differently than it has in previous generations. And in fact some of it will be used to undo the ways that previous spending divided up and tore down Black neighborhoods.

“We will tear down silos. We will tear down the segregation. We will tear down everything to have a city that we say is for one and for all,” Gainey said. “And I couldn't think of a greater partner to have than the president of the United States.”

Perez, a former Secretary of Labor and former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said Pennsylvania is slated to see $16 billion in funding, between the American Recovery Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.

One reason a large chunk of that money hasn’t been spent, Perez said, is that the Biden administration is taking its time to get it right. He noted that on Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order requiring equity to be a “North Star” directing how that money is spent.

“We don't want to repeat the same mistakes that people in the ‘50s and ‘60s made that frankly tore apart the Hill District, tore apart other communities of color,” he said.

On the first stop of the tour, Gainey and Perez walked from Manchester to Chateau on a small underpass beneath Highway 65. Gainey’s staff said the road was built in the 1960s to make it easier for suburban residents to get into and out of the city. But it divided the two predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and President Joe Biden Senior Advisor Tom Perez walk along Highway 65 which divided the Manchester and Chateau neighborhoods in the 1960s.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and President Joe Biden Senior Advisor Tom Perez walk along Highway 65 which divided the Manchester and Chateau neighborhoods in the 1960s.

Bruce Williams, a Democratic ward chair in the area who was one of about 20 people on the tour, said there used to be an elementary school along the highway’s route — the only one in the city with a pool. “So kids in Manchester K-6 were some of the only kids, particularly black kids, to swim,” Williams said.

Gainey administration officials said they have been working on traffic-calming measures to help make the area safer for pedestrians because of speeding. Almost as if on cue, a sports car loudly sped past.

“Did you do that on purpose?” Perez joked.

The Biden administration awarded $1.4 million last year to study how the two neighborhoods might be connected again.

The next stop on the tour was Bedford Dwellings, where the Biden administration has awarded $50 million to help replace the city’s oldest public housing project. And the tour finished on Center Avenue at New Granada Square Apartments, the site of 40 affordable housing units. The Biden administration recently awarded more than $11 million to help fix nearby sidewalks and city steps.

This funding is intended to help undo a history of displacement and destruction, said Marimba Milliones, the president and CEO of the Hill District Development Corporation.

“Eight thousand people were displaced as a result of federally funded development. At that time in history, 400 businesses were removed, 1,200 buildings were demolished,” Milliones said. “Two-thirds of the population of the people on that site were African-American. Many were spread throughout the entire region and are still trying to recover economically.”

Perez said that when Biden signed that executive order in January of 2021, it didn’t receive much attention: People were worried about the pandemic, soaring unemployment and an insurrection at the nation’s Capitol. Even today, people are not fully aware of how money from Biden’s signature legislation is going to work for them, he said.

“I think as people connect the dots," he added, "they’ll see that, ‘Wow, there's some really important examples of how my life has improved.'”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.