In September 2019, City Lab published an article stating that Pittsburgh “was the worst place for Black women to live for just about every indicator of livability.” As a Black woman from Pittsburgh who also happens to be the mother of a Black girl, my first inclination was to throw all of our belongings into a moving truck and drive to D.C. where my husband’s family lives.
The article, titled “Pittsburgh: A ‘Most Livable’ City, but Not for Black Women” couldn’t have prompted a more alarming call to action. The study it cited, “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race,” validated my knee-jerk reaction with a simple summary: “[I]f Black residents got up today and left and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S. ... their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up, as well as their employment.” I opened another window on my browser and started looking at homes on Zillow close to my husband’s grandmother.
From an anecdotal perspective, this article didn’t come as a shock. But as a former clinical research coordinator, real numbers with comparison statistics trump anecdata every time. It’s one thing to hear people complain about Pittsburgh, it’s another to have a respected research university confirm your worst fears ― that Pittsburgh is not for you. The details of the study, conducted by the University of Pittsburgh, paint a picture of Pittsburgh that stands in stark contrast to Pittsburgh being recently ranked as one of the most livable cities in the United States.
Of the six areas of livability that are ranked worst for Black women, there’s not one that doesn’t speak volumes to my identity as a Black woman. The high fetal mortality rate calls to mind my five miscarriages; as the mother of a 5-month old, the rate of infant mortality cautions me to hang on to every word of my daughter’s pediatrician; and the college completion and student police referral rate all spell out concerns as my child ages through the educational system. The numbers all point to one thing: racism. I’d never seen that proved in any of the studies I helped to conduct.
When I moved to Pittsburgh in 2009, a decision made after seven years of living in Los Angeles, many of my Black friends who were also Pittsburgh natives asked why. ”There’s nothing to do there,” they said. Unlike LA, where the diversity landscape ranged from the Black and Latino diaspora to Asian and European immigrants, Pittsburgh is largely homogenous. Two years after my trek from the west coast, a close friend came to visit from California. A few days into her stay, she said, “I know what’s missing!” “What?” I asked. “Latinos. I haven’t seen a single Latino since I arrived.” She was right.
“It’s one thing to hear people complain about Pittsburgh, it’s another to have a respected research university confirm your worst fears -- that Pittsburgh is not for you.”
Soon after I was settled in, I met a group of women and men who were all members of a Black graduate student organization from local universities. A majority of them were pursuing doctoral degrees at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Among this cohort was a constant refrain: I can’t wait to leave Pittsburgh. In spite of the affinity space they created that included weekly game nights, comedy shows, bar hopping, lounges, dance clubs and sporting events, Pittsburgh was never enough. They wanted more. They wanted Black infrastructure. They wanted to see themselves beyond their makeshift social outings. They wanted to see themselves in every walk of life.
After defending their dissertations, one by one, they moved to D.C., Baltimore, Cincinnati, New York City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Charlotte. They turned down Pittsburgh’s low-cost of living in favor of some of the most expensive U.S. cities and were rewarded with competitive salaries and options to further increase their livability. Many of them were recruited by highly selective companies, postdoc programs and firms. These opportunities simply did not exist here. The Pittsburgh Gender Equity Commission study proves this. The difference between me and the Black women who already left is they didn’t wait for this article to come out. They had a visceral reaction to the lack of livability and left.
I wonder if I’m living in the dark. I’m surely not ignorant to the fact that most of my friends and colleagues are white. Or that finding a Black hair salon sometimes feels like going on a scavenger hunt, or that the Shadow Lounge ― a Black-owned lounge I once frequented monthly ― closed after gentrification shuttered its doors, or that my favorite jazz lounge closed for the same reason. It’s not lost on me that when an independent film like Toni Morrison’s biopic “The Pieces I Am” comes to town, it plays in one theater in the entire city. I’m aware and I grumble about my observations every day. And yet, I’m still here.
While I am not struggling financially, battling health professionals to take me seriously, or limited by my education story, I didn’t need to experience any of those challenges to relate to the City Lab article. Pittsburgh’s race problem has created a singular experience for Black people. In Pittsburgh, I feel like a minority within a minority. In other words, if you’re looking for a Black, female, middle-class, book nerd who hates hip-hop after 1999, loves Van Gogh but not Monet, thinks TJs trumps Whole Paycheck and is troubled by the lack of house music and curry chicken patties in her life, I’m it. Occupying space ― and not just one space, but multiple spaces ― is where livability begins. And in Pittsburgh, I’m still struggling to find those spaces where I belong.
I do question if my staying power has to do with my high tolerance for being underrepresented or that I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I might be one of those pioneers who will turn things around. I went to three predominately white schools growing up, so I’m used to straddling these two cultures.
Codeswitching, both linguistically and culturally, is my super power. And while I have inserted myself in spaces without explicit invitations, the safe spaces of Blackness have always existed in the confines of church, school, and in my mother’s heyday, Jack and Jill.
“I do question if my staying power has to do with my high tolerance for being underrepresented or that I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I might be one of those pioneers who will turn things around.”
I might be able to operate in this sort of segregated atmosphere, but can my daughter? Will there be educational options in Pittsburgh that are both diverse and receive the same level of resources I had access to in my predominately white private schools?
From what I can tell from the city’s own data, the schools with the largest diversity gap in which Black students are performing worse than white students are often in Black neighborhoods or where the capture rate is low. And yet the highest performing public schools, where the diversity gap is narrower, have very few underrepresented groups and are in predominately white neighborhoods. My worst fear ― more than joblessness or underemployment ― is that my daughter will feel she doesn’t belong. That people will see her coming down the hall and decide how far she can go academically, socially and professionally.
In other U.S. cities, being a Black woman will always present its own set of challenges in a country where women’s rights are still being challenged and racism is alive and well. I spoke to four women in Baltimore, Maryland; Cary, North Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Washington, D.C., all of whom lived in Pittsburgh at one time. In their new homes, they found Black communities that were established and visible; their social outlets were abundant; and the landscape of Black professionals acting as peers and mentors improved their professional outlook. In each case, their salaries increased significantly ― for two, it doubled. Are they happier now? Yes. And I believe it is because they feel more connected.
Throughout my life, connectedness has always had a profound effect on my mental health. I find it interesting that the stressors that once caused these women to feel isolated, stuck and invisible were all but completely eliminated. The hard question for me is will my daughter struggle with connectedness the way I once did, and will a move to a city with a more robust Black middle class lessen her struggle? Is this a game-time decision, or must I act now? Will I stay and be a pioneer for change, or will I leave to occupy spaces where I know, without question, my family will feel like they belong?
Sakena Jwan Washington is a writer from Pittsburgh. Her writing has appeared in Brevity, In the Fray Magazine and ReWire News. She received her MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She works in academia as a digital content manager.