A Tale of Two Pittsburghs

Thatcher Montgomery, Editor-in-Chief

It’s a well-known fact that Carnegie Mellon University is located in Pittsburgh. Nestled at the corner of Oakland, Squirrel Hill, and Shadyside, our campus is a bus ride away from many of the city’s other neighborhoods. How often do students really go out, though? And even when we do leave campus, are we seeing ourselves as part of the Pittsburgh community, or are we just seeing Pittsburgh as a platter to pluck from?

One Carnegie Mellon student and community activist sees other students treating Pittsburgh as the latter. “CMU is entrapped in a bubble of privilege,” he said, choosing to remain anonymous for legal reasons. “The only interactions with the pre-existing community are through Culinart or FMS, and they’re not even supposed to talk to us.”

Nina Barbuto, a Pittsburgh native who ventured out but returned in 2010 as an adjunct professor in the School of Architecture and founder of Assemble, a non-profit in Garfield, has similar views. “CMU students tend to live in a bubble. From a design point of view, students use Pittsburgh as a laboratory but then fail to build lasting relationships because their project or reason to leave the bubble is only one semester long.”

“Not all students are like this,” Barbuto said, “but ask the next person you see where Garfield or Friendship or Bloomfield is.”

It’s hard to integrate into a community in the four short years that most of us have here. But that doesn’t mean that students should ignore the people who live outside of the yellow brick walls of campus, and it doesn’t give us the right as visitors, as passers-through, as guests in Pittsburgh, to treat the city as our personal playground.

The University’s presence offers a lot to Pittsburgh, from being a major factor in the city’s tech boom to charitable donations and community service. Members of the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education (which includes Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as others like Duquesne and Chatham) contributed $9 billion to the Pittsburgh economy in 2014. There are certainly benefits that Carnegie Mellon (and other institutions) provides for the city.

But it’s important to look at where those benefits are going. Startups and larger tech companies provide jobs, but most of those go to transplanted college students. “It’s like tech is king, and everything else is seen as being in service to that,” the anonymous student said.

One example of the selective prosperity brought, at least partially, by Carnegie Mellon is Bakery Square—primarily used by Google. Twelve years ago, that land was an industrial bakery, pumping out goods for Bake-Line Group, and before that, for Nabisco. A public school stood where Bakery Square 2.0 is being planned.

While the factory went bankrupt and the Reizenstein School was closed for low enrollment and low performance, they were long-standing members of the community. Even though the Nabisco factory operated far under capacity, it provided 350 jobs for locals, jobs that didn’t require an (expensive) education from CMU.

In their place, luxury shops and upscale housing have popped up like mushrooms after a (Google-sponsored) rain. Stores like Anthropologie and LA Fitness appeal to the young and flush tech workers. A 510 square foot studio apartment in Walnut Capital’s new Bakery Living Orange complex comes in at $1,360, and the prices only go up from there.

“All this housing they’re building in East Liberty [adjacent to Bakery Square] is very unaffordable for most lower to mid-range middle class folks,” Barbuto said. “Who are they building it for? People who get 60k plus right out school? Maybe more?”

It’s not just tech, either. Even the many restaurants that are popping up and making Pittsburgh visible on a national level are often located in gentrified or revitalized areas, like Lawrenceville. A decade ago in the neighborhood, it would have been unusual to see menu items like cashew cheese and nitro coffee, which are offered in the newly-opened (and very tasty) vegan middle-eastern restaurant B52.

These improvements in themselves are not bad. High-paying jobs and fancy fares are wonderful, and hardly anyone would deny that they want them. There is a reason why the city has made it on so many “top-ten” lists nationally. Like many college students, I’ve enjoyed many of the nicer restaurants Pittsburgh has to offer. I also know many alumni who took advantage of the local jobs and now work in Pittsburgh, both for bigger companies like Google and smaller startups like Duolingo.

These benefits are one reason why it’s easy for CMU students to ignore, willfully or not, the changes that we indirectly bring to Pittsburgh. “Most majors benefit off of gentrification, like business or computer science,” the anonymous student said.

The problems arise when the city and neighborhood improvements come at the cost of the people who used to live in those areas and call them home. Rent in Pittsburgh has doubled or tripled in recent years, and property prices jumped from $40,000 to $120,000 in Lawrenceville, $68,000 to $140,000 in the South Side—one house in East Allegheny was sold for $38,000 before being flipped and back on the market a year later, listed at $396,000. These rising housing prices, and their associated property taxes, are making it untenable for many long-term residents to remain in their communities.

And improvements for some don’t mean that everyone benefits. While the amount of high-priced housing keeps going up, there’s been fewer housing options for lower-income residents. Private schools and suburban school districts are doing well, or at least better than the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), whose high schools rank 382nd, 492nd, 521st, and 557th out of 592 public high schools in Pennsylvania (the remaining two PPS high schools have no test results listed). While Bakery Square is a bustling center of enterprise, Wilkinsburg, one neighborhood over, experienced a shooting just a few weeks ago.

“There is a huge contention currently about the tale of two cities,” Barbuto said. “Pittsburgh is the ‘most livable city’ for some but not for all, especially not for the people who have been disenfranchised since the 1980s. I would like to see how the digital tech boom is creating jobs for the people who have lived in the neighborhood all their lives. People want Pittsburgh to be cool, but for who?”

Disenfranchisement, not from voting but from having a say in decisions about their homes, is a real concern to many poorer communities, which are overwhelmingly made up of minorities. Most neighborhoods in Pittsburgh are heavily segregated, made up of mainly whites or mainly non-whites, but without a mix. The areas that see their communities changing in ways outside of their control are often mostly non-white, although not always. The racial factor isn’t lost on the anonymous student, who is mixed-race but passes as white.

“People look at me and say I’m not a bad [minority], I’m not a real [minority]. This gives me the benefits of white privilege, and I use that to enter into conversations. CMU students don’t want to think about racism or gentrification.”

The student lives near Braddock, and has worked in the black community for his entire time at CMU, and the difference is jarring. “It’s like two worlds: I live and work in a majority- black neighborhood, and then I come back to CMU.” He tries to make sure that the venues he visits are integrated into the community, and avoids establishments run by white transplants in (formerly) majority-black neighborhoods without input from the established community.

So how can this divide be bridged? By ensuring that a rising tide lifts all boats. Barbuto hopes to see a more reciprocal relationship between the universities and people in Pittsburgh, one that helps bring in underrepresented and minority communities and includes them in Pittsburgh’s incoming tide.

“We try to connect [the universities] with the future generation,” Barbuto says. Her work at Assemble focuses on giving kids access to a makerspace and the ability to take. “This way kids can be a part of the conversation, especially kids who are not traditionally connected to middle to upper class forms of entrepreneurship.”

“We also hope to help shift what it means to be a maker, or at least what a maker looks like (insert white guy with glasses).”

The anonymous student has similar ideas, especially in regards to opening up educational opportunities. “I was lucky, I got into a lottery school in [my hometown] and even then it took extra initiative.” Busing across town to go to a school filled with people who come from a very different background is a challenge, but it can be made easier by institutions helping out by providing transportation, meals, or taking schooling to the students.

“My mom cared enough, and said ‘let’s take this extra push.’ Not everyone has that.”

Pittsburgh needs to include all of its long-term population in its future plans, and not just focus on industries propelled by out-of-town college students. Universities, and their students, need to acknowledge that they’re living in a larger community, and put some effort into making sure that the work they do is beneficial to everyone.

As short-term residents of this city, we have a responsibility to recognize that our presence isn’t solely a boon. We have a hand in raising housing prices, pushing out established communities, and silencing opposition in exchange for the newest trendy restaurant or tech hub.

But we can make ourselves welcome guests. We can talk with the people who live around us, learn about the place we call home for four years and the place they’ve called home for decades. Interact with the people cleaning your dorm and serving your food. Go out and volunteer, and not just once a year. Really get to know this place, and its people. See not just what you can get out of CMU, but out of Pittsburgh as a whole, while giving back at the same time.

1 Comment

  1. Great article. It’s a problem well worth our concern as CMU students. Thanks for writing about this important issue!

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