Pittsburgh - My Hometahn

June 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
from Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian eastbound, somewhere near Horseshoe Curve.

The cab driver, a Black man in his forties, had a perfect Pittsburgh accent.  On the short drive from the train station to our hotel near Pitt, he talked about the transformation of the “Sahth Side” – the once industrial area just south of the Monongehela. I cannot describe in writing the other linguistic tipoffs – I’m not a linguist, and even if I were, most readers could not decipher those phonetic cryptograms – but I knew I was home.

The man who hooked up the refrigerator in our room and who was as surprised as I was that we couldn’t get the Penguins game (the TV in the bar downstairs had it) – he too was African American and spoke Pittsburghese. 

I take it as a hopeful sign of more general integration – geographic, social, economic. It bothers me when I hear a stereotypically “Black” accent rather than the regional one, not because I don’t like the sound of it, but because it tells me that even after many generations, kids are still growing up in a segregated world.

I know that a handful of brief conversations, and even the several interracial couples we saw at the arts festival in Point Park (or the interracial couple here in the train’s café car) are hardly conclusive evidence.  Still, I was surprised to find that Pittsburgh is among the twenty most segregated metro areas in the country.  On a black-white “dissimilarity” index, the Pittsburgh area scores 63.6.  (A score above 60 is considered “high.”  Chicago, New York, Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit all have scores above 75.)

Eric Fisher has mapped the 2010 census data.  Here, for example, is the New York area.  (Red dots are Whites, blue Black, orange Hispanic, green Asian.  Maps of many other cities are on Fisher’s Flikr page.) 

(Click on a map for a larger view.)

The shadings – more dots indicating more people – show density as well.  The white rectangle of Central Park is bordered by the high-density White areas of the Upper East and Upper West Sides and the high-density Black area, Harlem, to the north.

This is what Pittsburgh looks like.  (For those not familiar with the local geography, the lazy-Y shape in white represents the three rivers.)

African Americans are now 8% of the population, largely clustered in two areas.  Some have moved to the towns just to the east, like Monroeville, where the cab driver hails from.  But the suburbs of the South Hills (where I grew up) and North Hills, are still predominantly white.

The overall density is much lower than that of New York. Like many US cities, Pittsburgh was transformed by the suburbanization that began in the 1950s – transformed from a city into a “metro area.” After 6 p.m., downtown (“dahntahn”) is a ghost town. The outward migration began not as  “White flight” – Whites being driven from the city by fear of Blacks – but as a response to the pull of the suburbs, with government programs for housing and highway sweetening the deal.

But for decades, African Americans were excluded from that process.  In the 1950s and 60s, in the suburb where I grew up, there were no known Negroes (it was said that there were a handful of families that were “passing”).  Nobody would sell or rent to Blacks.  Even after the civil rights laws, change was slow.  Stateways can nudge folkways along, but it takes persistent work. 

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