Black Homes Matter in East of Liberty

By Natalie Adams, Outreach Intern

In May 2005, a small group of East Liberty residents watched as then-Mayor Tom Murphy and other city officials flung paintballs at the soon-to-be-demolished East Mall using a catapult so large that it required multiple people to operate for maximum impact. Alethea Sims, a former tenant of the towering structure, spoke at the so-called Get Down! “celebration.” But when she looked out to the crowd, she saw few of her neighbors and many outsiders. Most East Liberty residents had no interest in watching members of the local government smash the windows of their former home with paint-balloons. “If I had done that, it would have been vandalism,” Sims told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the fact. “That was my home.”

Pittsburgh filmmaker Chris Ivey opens his documentary series East of Liberty with a shot of East Mall crumbling to the ground. The scene then settles on footage of Get Down!, where Sims is speaking to a crowd of unfamiliar faces and Murphy and co. are cheering as the first paintball penetrates glass. Here, the double standard Sims alluded to is not spoken. It doesn’t need to be. Ivey juxtaposes the irreverence of suits aiming a childish weapon towards a dilapidated high rise with the candor of East Liberty residents speaking about being evicted from their homes before construction on replacement housing even began—and that gets the message across more effectively than words. Ivey was on hand to discuss the latest version of East of Liberty at a screening that capped off the People’s Speak-Out for Equitable Development, a day-long event on Thursday that enabled displaced residents to tell their stories and uplifted more inclusive development models for East Liberty and all of Pittsburgh. The organizers treated the audience to a viewing of the film, an outstanding collection of voices representing a long and varied spectrum of perspectives on the gentrification of East Liberty and surrounding areas. Afterward, Ivey was joined by Sims, Bob Damewood, Michael Jackson, and Ronnell Guy, community members of different ages and backgrounds who imparted their insight on equitable development in Pittsburgh.

Perhaps the strongest facet of East of Liberty is the way its story is told: through personal interviews and raw footage of a neighborhood in transformation. The film does not tell a singular narrative, but weaves contradicting and complementary opinions on the changes in East Liberty—informed by personal experience, psychology, statistics, economics, history—into a nuanced portrait of a community in flux. Among the many voices are residents evicted from foreclosed buildings like East Mall, business owners struggling to pay the increasingly high Penn Avenue rent, a Whole Foods employee who has watched the company she works for alter the dynamic of a community, academics speaking on the psyche of American apartheid, residents committed to youth engagement in spite of (and because of) a changing neighborhood, outsiders passing through, government officials, and representatives from the organizations facilitating gentrification, such as East Liberty Development, Inc. and Mosites Construction. The perspective that surprised me most was that of residents who felt no sympathy for their evicted neighbors but rather, suggested that anyone who didn’t take action before the bulldozers were set into motion doesn’t have the right to complain. While ostensibly harsh, the criticism is a wake-up call to those who wish to protect their community. Black Homes Matter should be common sense, but like Black Lives Matter, it must be hashtagged and written on poster board and yelled through a megaphone to get the masses in this capitalist, white supremacist society to pay attention.

The participants of the post-screening panel emphasized that investment is not inherently negative. On the contrary, it can stimulate the local economy. But this only occurs to the benefit of residents when it is targeted toward the needs of that population. Whole Foods, Pure Barre, and pricy eateries on Centre Avenue draw in customers from wealthier neighborhoods who spend their money on businesses with owners from wealthier neighborhoods. Low-income and middle class East Liberty residents are priced out of their own community. Now residents are confronted with growing their community’s capacity to deal with market change just to stay in their homes. A neighborhood’s most vulnerable residents must be stabilized before such a place can begin to consider itself a “model of equitable development,” a title the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland bestowed on East Liberty in its Pittsburgh-hosted Policy Summit. Anyone spewing that rhetoric would benefit from viewing Ivey’s film and witnessing its hard truths.

Natalie Adams

Natalie is a rising junior at Hamilton College majoring in Comparative Literature. As the Outreach, Partnerships, & Liaison Intern, she looks forward to helping further TRCF’s goal of affecting social change in her hometown.