Black Americans And Our Attachment To Sh-tty Cities

April 23, 2018  |  

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I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The Skid Mark of America. That’s not an official title, just the most accurate way to describe the city without going into painful detail.

Unquestionably one of the worst cities in America, and, of course, I’m speaking specifically in terms of Black living because I can’t attest to how it is for white folks  — but when has the quality of their lives ever been a direct reflection of ours? Anyway, I’ve been trying to get my parents to leave Hades Pittsburgh and retire here in Houston for some time. Houston isn’t perfect but let’s not act like some cities aren’t worse than others.

Every year we see the articles listing the “Worst Cities for Black Americans”, we flip through the slideshows and gripe in the comments, carrying on with our miserable lives in these sh-tty cities. My Dad is all for it, much of that has to do with him already being more than 6,000 miles from home. My mom, on the other hand, an American-born Black Woman, has been caught up in this cycle for more than 60 years. I’ve accepted her love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh, lending an ear to her repetitive grievances, but now we’re at a place where she’s run out of excuses, run out of years until retirement, and run out of kids to raise which means we’re stuck dealing with the underlying issues surrounding her attachment. The opportunity for my parents to make a move that would change the lives of their children has come and gone, whether or not they remain in Pittsburgh is of more symbolic importance to me than anything else. But unlike my parents, many of us are still in the earlier stages of our adulthood where personal changes can have impact for generations to come. If it’s true that we want better for ourselves and for our communities, part of that journey includes ridding our lives of the people, things, and places that mean us no good.

First, let’s address the notion that moving is simply out of the question because Black people can’t “afford” it. Correction:

  • We can’t afford to live in cities like Erie, PA, where 47% of the Black population lives at or below the poverty line.
  • We can’t afford to live in cities like Peoria, IL, where Black unemployment is hovering around 20%.
  • We can’t afford to live in cities like Minneapolis, MN, where the white median household income is nearly twice as high as it is for Black households.
  • We can’t afford to live in cities like Milwaukee, WI, where only 14% of the Black population holds a four-year degree.

But we can undoubtedly afford purposeful relocation if we so choose. Our community has a habit of measuring the affordability of our decisions based on their immediate pay out. It’s no surprise that Beyoncé tickets, red bottoms, Brazilian butt lifts, and those vacations we experience from behind phone screens all somehow make it into the budget. The payout is immediate, the likes and comments are memorialized in our digital autobiographies, but the actual reward is fleeting and short-lived.

When an ethnic group experiences the sort of ongoing abuse that Black Americans have, they subconsciously begin to identify with the trauma, taking pride in their ability to survive it. And when survival becomes the primary focus of a people, the collective goals become much more short term. Who can focus on planning for the future when the now feels so uncertain? But if we’re conscious enough to identify this “weekend culture” that says barely surviving through the week is fine as long as the weekend includes self-medication and trap music, we must be conscious enough to change it, whether that means repurposing our tax refunds, picking up a side gig, budgeting and saving, pooling resources with friends or family who are also looking to relocate, speaking with your employer about a job transfer or remote opportunities, or skipping that annual girlfriend’s trip to Dubai.

Now the reports have been consistent throughout the years and they provide evidence that the majority of the cities with the worst racial inequalities are spread across the Midwest and Northeast. Yet in 2018 Black people are still regurgitating the misconception that racism is somehow worse in the South, as if racism isn’t everywhere.

If we’re under the impression that we can avoid the long-lasting effects of racism anywhere in this country, or the globe for that matter, we haven’t been paying attention. Let’s be clear, this country was founded on our oppression and every inch of its foundation is drenched in our blood. It’s unavoidable, it’s sewn into the fabric of this country’s flag, and no matter how small you make your world, it’ll still be the foremost obstacle in your life as a Black person in America. None of that should stop us from pursuing progress, none of that should halt our personal growth, and none of that should hinder us from governing the various aspects of life that we can control.

Nobody is saying move your family to Piccanicca, Mississippi (I sincerely hope that’s not a real place) but migration is a huge part of the Black experience and should neither be shunned nor discouraged. Where would we be without the Great Migration that saw 6 million African Americans flee the South between 1910 and 1970, relocating almost 40% of the country’s Black population, essentially stripping Southern cities of the labor and contributions they failed to appreciate, forcing them to make the necessary improvements to recover? Sure, racism played a huge part in this migration but so did lack of employment opportunities, inadequate education systems and insufficient housing. And now that we find ourselves facing similar circumstances, we have an obligation to seek out spaces that meet the needs of our communities while providing solace to our already chaotic existence in this country.

I left Pittsburgh in 2009 with a week’s worth of clothes and my laptop. I had come to a point where I physically couldn’t spend another day in that space. Between the never-ending grayness, the recurring bouts of seasonal depression, the ongoing lack of cultural diversity and a dead-end job market for young Black professionals, I had had enough. I wasn’t waiting for the city to improve for me anymore. It hadn’t gotten better for my great grandmother and her generation, my grandmother and her generation, or my mother and hers. What was the likelihood it would change for me, and how many more generations would I be willing to sacrifice to find out?

I took the first job offer I got, an AmeriCorps position in Houston barely paying $500 a month. I rented an apartment online, sight-unseen and I packed my things. Friends and family, who hadn’t taken me seriously up until that point, went into panic mode. I’d never been warned about the random possible dangers of life as much as I was when I decided to move. If it wasn’t the excessive heat, it was the racist cowboy-boot wearing white folks they’d heard about. If it wasn’t the white folks, it was some random stabbing someone saw on the internet. And when all else failed, it was the illogical assertion that I had an obligation to fix my city. 

“I mean I respect your decision but I’m not giving up on Pittsburgh, black people built this city! Think about if (insert popular Black activist) had left Pittsburgh, we wouldn’t have (insert random thing Black folk don’t actually own). Besides, it’s people like you and me that need to be here to fix our city.” 

I disagreed then and I disagree now. It was not my job to salvage the remains of a broken town with no real dedication to my needs or the needs of my community, and it’s not our job as a community to dedicate our lives to repairing cities we didn’t break. I was taking my talents elsewhere and that decision, coupled with the fact that I didn’t die as my family predicted, led to a migration for many other members of my family. All of them finding opportunities they couldn’t have dreamt of had they allowed fear to keep them stagnant, and there is nothing more immobilizing than irrational fear. It’s immune to reason and highly contagious. We pass our fears and doubts onto our friends, family members, and worse, our children, meaning well but leaving seeds of self-doubt and martyrdom in the process. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no award for “Best Struggler,” and while future generations may inherit our resilience and endurance, they also inherit our struggle if we choose to leave that as our legacy.

Over the years, I’ve watched my hometown gentrify entire neighborhoods that had essentially gone abandoned for decades, eliminating affordable housing for tons of residents, shutting down school after school in the inner city, and bragging while doing so. Then making most top 10 lists for “Best Cities for Young Millennials,” boasting about the buzzing tech industry that local schools don’t equip children to compete in and encouraging white people from all across the country to “Move to Pittsburgh”. Talk about two America’s.

Cities like Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Erie, Peoria, Minneapolis, Trenton, Bridgeport, Syracuse, etc., are cities that have made their choice. Every year passing budgets that find funding for new stadiums, correctional facilities, and militarized police vehicles, while telling Black residents that their needs are simply “unaffordable.” I recognized at a young age that Pittsburgh didn’t have me in its plans, so I decided that Pittsburgh was no longer in mine and I implore you to explore the relationship you might have with your sh-tty city too. One thing is for sure, as a people, we have a ton of value to add to the cities we settle in. Too much value to have our contributions muddled by intentional neglect and systematic stagnation. As the old saying goes, “If they don’t appreciate your presence, give them the gift of your absence.” 

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