Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Confessions of a Reactionary Yunzer

Let’s all hope this is my last post-election rant, but is there something to say beyond the numbers that came out of the election? Everyone wants to attribute everything in the election returns to the good and the bad of each candidate or their campaigns. I am clearly guilty of that as well. When all the parsing is over with, isn't there a bigger picture to how the election worked out?

The divisions have always been there. Yet you like to think things are getting better. Last week’s election does not give any evidence that we are even moving away from our uber-divisiveness. In some ways the results last week were as polarized as any election in the past. For all the talk and analysis, you could have predicted nearly every vote in the city (young or old, Black or White, partisan or moderate) based on nothing other than income level. And because we divide where we live along the same lines, the political machinations follow suit. The minor punditry is already sizing up the next election and measuring how candidates X or Y could do in one part of the city and how it will balance candidates Z or ZZ who will do better in other areas. The cycle looks to repeat itself again pretty quickly.

I am not so much surprised by the divisions as the complete refusal to acknowledge there were people our there who do not think like they do. Read the commentary all around, you get a sense of complete disbelief among group X and there exist people who voted for candidate Y. I understand people will disagree with the votes of others, but the complete inability to comprehend that the other side exists is what I am talking about. One side of that may be more prevalent online, but when you take into account what is actually being said on the street, the disbelief works both ways, and in many other ways beyond those that manifest themselves in election returns.

How polarized is the city? You don’t need to look at a map of how we live in separate communities to know how divided we are. It is quite common for there to be residential segregation by race and income in cities. That is true here just as it is true elsewhere. What is extreme here is how sharp the lines are between those communities. In most parts of the city you can draw a very precise line that will perfectly predict perfectly whether you expect a particular household to be a Black or White. I know I can walk out my door and walk a half block one direction and hit 95%+ black households and if I go a half block in another direction you hit 95%+ white households. I will be the first to propound a lot of the positive change going on in the city and region, but one thing that shows virtually no sign of change are these patterns of residential segregation. Where there is some nominal diversity it is actually the mass gentrification that displaces one group for another. The diversity that results is just a short-term transition effect, not a sustainable long-term trend.

I have an odd story that highlights how badly we are divided and how much denial goes along with that. I hate to ping on my good friends in the media, they are pressed to produce new content at a rate I could not replicate. But when the last census numbers came out few years ago, I literally got a bunch of calls from a couple different places asking this question: Can I explain why there are some local communities showing big changes in Black population? That was followed up by something like: What is making certain suburban and rural communities more attractive to Black families all of a sudden? My literal reaction was ‘huh?’ and it took some questioning on my part to even get to how they came to their implied premise. It turns out that there were indeed a few nearby communities in Pennsylvania that had shown some remarkable increases in minority populations in 2000 compared to just minimal numbers a decade earlier. Why? It turns out that the commonwealth of Pennsylvania had opened a new prison, and moved another, and all the demographics some journalists (or their editors I figure) saw were the numbers in those communities with the new prisons. Not exactly what I call organic change. They really wanted to see a trend that just didn't exist. That we at least want so much to see change like this, even when it isn’t there, may be a good thing. The fact that there is so little actual change is the reality.

But this all goes way beyond race. A personal confession might explain that best. For the most part I was born and raised in Bloomfield. When people from elsewhere ask me where in Pittsburgh I am from and I like to say that if you threw a dart and hit the center of the region, you could easily land on my house. To be more specific I grew up a few houses away from where these pictures were taken for a DNJ story in the PG earlier in the year. Like many others I was away for years for school, work and other things. One time when I moved back I rented an apartment in Shadyside. I recall running into someone I grew up with, but had not seen in years. Upon explaining where I had rented a place, which was literally a quarter mile from a place I lived in as a child, the verbatim and quite visceral reaction was “Why would you live with those people?”. And here is the bigger point: I wasn’t surprised in the least. I understood the reaction. For a brief moment I actually felt a need to explain myself. If nothing else it highlights a misconception that a lot of the divisions we see are something about ‘new’ Pittsbughers vs ‘old’ Pittsburghers. That is just a bogeyman. The divisions amongst multi-generational Pittsburghers are worse than anything between new residents and long time denizens. As a commenter reminded me recently ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, and contempt we have in abundance all around.

I started out by pointing out that the pattern of election returns within the city couldn’t have been more polarized. In elections past there were at least some success at coalition building. Even if attempted, there was little sign of that this time. Do the results reflect a more polarizing set of candidates? Certainly not in the election we just endured. If only measured in sheer flamboyancy, neither candidate compared to the colorful figures of the past. Purely speculation of course, but I really think because the election was so bland, the messages so generic, and the deliveries so dull that most voters people reverted to a more innate set of beliefs in deciding how to cast their vote.

Can this change? Not easily I am sure. I lived in New York City for several years. It would be naïve to think these divisions did not exist there just as they do here. The divisions there are probably 5 fold worse than ours, yet at the same time the scale of diversity within NYC and the problems they face everyday just to keep the city functioning starts out 10 times worse than here. Given how 'tight knit' we claim to be as a community, I am not sure we have an excuse to be such strangers from each other.

Even though I was pretty busy when living in NYC, I did my best to try and see some new part of the city every week, or at worst every month. You could live in New York a lifetime and never see every ‘neighborhood’. Maybe we could do that here. A lot of people work Downtown? It’s not that far a walk to get into the heart of the Hill District. I wonder what percentage of the 100K or so people who work Downtown have ever ventured a single yard past the Melody Tent site (that would be the parking lot above the Civic Arena). I’d suggest lunch at the Crawford Grill, but because visitors to the Hill have dwindled so much in recent decades, that isn’t an option any more. As you walk past the Civic Arena itself, imagine if it had replaced your childhood home. Imagine if your whole neighborhood had been eliminated and you yourself were forced to move away from friends and family as a child to make way for it. Does that memory stick with you for a lifetime and even get passed on to your children? Then think about the distrust, cynicism and angst that exists today as we fight over the impact of things like the casino or the arena. So many people looking at today's issues ignore almost all the relevant history. In many cases the factions fighting today's battles are being lead by the children, and in some cases the grandchildren, of those who were fighting similar battles decades ago.

That is just one neighborhood. There happen to be a few others in the city, each with a unique history that its residents remember to their core. I honestly wished I could have done one of those quizzes reporters sometimes spring on candidates without warning. I would have asked if any of the candidates could tell where Westwood or Chicken Hill is located without the help of a map (or Google). I don’t want to give away the specific place, but a friend from one of the smaller neighborhoods in the city was explaining to me how even within that one neighborhood there were clear zones of disparate groups, and even a ‘border’ zone between then. That is probably true in each and every other neighborhood in the city.

So forget the mythical 88 or so neighborhoods ‘officially’ named, there are several hundred actual neighborhoods that define us. If you try you might find a few of them. It may take going across a river, or (egads) over two rivers. Or how about a trip on one those buses you see Downtown, but secretly have to admit not knowing where they really go. That or go beyond talking about the famous Pittsburgh steps, and actually walk some of the steps. Just think, the next time you brag about the quaint Pittsburgh neighborhoods to someone out in the netherworld, you can speak from experience and not just live vicariously via some quirky travel guide.

Sophie Masloff once said “Pittsburgh works because we cooperate”. Is that true today?

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks Chris. Just one thing-- I believe it's spelled-- "Yinzer".

Wednesday, November 21, 2007 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

Would you be comfortable saying Pittsburgh harbors its own unique, idiosyncratic form of apartheid?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007 9:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if Pittsburgh cooperates, but I know it doesn't work. I certainly doubt that there is anyone who can make the city less polarized. For myself, I still swear every time somebody says the name "Murphy" and I haven't voted for a Democrat for local or state office since.

All I want is to get plausible services for taxes that aren't completely ridiculous. Yet, after obscene taxes, not only do they fail to pave the streets, they can't even notify parents when the playgrounds are toxic.

I wasn't born or raised here, and I doubt I will be encouraging my child to stay.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007 11:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where did you live in NYC, and for how long exactly? I lived there for 9 years--Morningside Heights, Upper East Side, and Inwood. Nothing like spending a day deep in one of the boroughs with the AIA guide.

Thursday, November 22, 2007 1:52:00 AM  
Blogger EdHeath said...

A very good post, Chris. I have to agree the election was quite dull, both in delivery and message. I think people in both camps were aware how important the election was, how important the issues were. But clearly a huge majority of the citizenry were not aware of the issues in any immediate sense and thus did not care. And the blame for that rests squarely with both candidates. Both candidates were running for city-wide office for the first time, and it really showed. As you say, both these guys were a far cry from the legendary figures of the past.

Thursday, November 22, 2007 3:55:00 PM  
Blogger Ms. Monongahela, Ms. Chief Editor said...

I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside
I want to reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

(Groovy video, too, by the way.)

Great post. You want to know how it works with a mom?

"What school do you children go to?"

Friday, November 23, 2007 10:25:00 AM  
Blogger Ms. Monongahela, Ms. Chief Editor said...

P.S. The best part is when I tell some of them that after my kids are grown my dream is to own a drafty old house on the South Side and have the NICEST parking chair in town.

Friday, November 23, 2007 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I get around.
I've been to places with bullet holes,
been half-a-block from shootings
spent months walking past bloodstains
saw the driveby shootings
and the bulletholes no one repaired

Wait, you want me to see more of this?

Boys. You go have your fun. Remember to run when the nice man says 'move along now' with his gun in his hand.

Monday, December 03, 2007 5:28:00 PM  
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