I was fortunate to interview a gentleman the other day that has spent his professional life serving the public by working with young people. We talked about racism, the income gap between the poor and middle class, and other societal problems.
Early in our conversation we found we had common ground on some of these issues. He leaned toward me with his hands held together by the fingertips, almost prayer-like. The first thing they need to do is to get rid of these places where they congregate the poor together, he said.
Of course, he was talking about housing projects. As an “outsider” to housing projects (I grew up in Bellevue), I’ve only been to a couple of them a few times. I’ve been to St. Clair Village, where I once received a hostile reaction by some I passed (but no violence, I was with a guy from there); and I’ve also been to bad old Northview Heights.
I call it “bad old” because of its history. Perched on an isolated patch of land on the hillside behind Troy Hill, Northview Heights has been the scene of numerous shootings over the years. About a decade back, five or six guys formed a firing line with their guns and murdered several men in front of a crowd of people who were waiting for a baseball game to start. That was a short time before I went there to cover a speaker for a feature story for the Tribune-Review.
Those few visits to housing projects made a bad impression on me. For years I have viewed the projects as death camps. Some of the people who live in them also feel this way. The Post-Gazette recently had a story on it: City plans to demolish most of St. Clair Village.
This whole issue, and especially the comment my friend recently made, reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my neighbors a while back. Karen lives a few doors up from me. She’s a light-skinned black lady, with pretty blue eyes. She’s also a retired schoolteacher who can’t resist teaching me a thing or two from time to time. Several weeks back she came over and leaned on the fence and chatted with me as I worked in the back yard.
We got deep into the conversation, as we do sometimes, and somehow the subject of housing projects came up. I mentioned how I found it troubling that housing projects seem to always be located on the least desirable land, in out-of-the-way places.
“I’m glad you said that, because I’ve always thought that, too. They give you the view, but you’re out of view,” she said, shaking her head.
I wonder what percentage of people in the suburbs of Pittsburgh have ever stepped foot in a housing project. Probably fewer than we’d all care to consider. Most of us probably would rather not consider this issue of American apatheid. I touched on it in Don’t say the C-word.
St. Clair, Northview and most of the rest of these inner-city camps for the poor have long been dysfunctional places, rife with too much violence. As I have said for years, I believe that all of the housing projects in Pittsburgh should be torn down, and new dwellings should be built throughout the city for the displaced residents of those projects. After minority contractors tear down the projects, the land where the razed projects once stood should be turned into parks, and memorials to those who died in the projects should be erected in those parks.
The new public housing units should be placed all over the city and suburbs, in dribs and drabs, distributed everywhere from Squirrel Hill to Upper St. Clair. Poorer communities should have fewer of the dwellings built in them, and wealthier neighborhoods should have more of them built there. That way, we will all have some understanding of how the other half lives. And more importantly, the urban poor will have the chance to raise their families in neighborhoods that provide a culture of hope, rather than a cycle of despair.