The Prompt – Tell us about your geographic relationship to this region. Were you born here? Where did you grow up? Where do you live now? Do you feel a strong tie to any particular neighborhood? What about living in the urban neighborhoods versus the suburbs and rural regions?
I was born in a Pittsburgh suburb, Upper St. Clair and spent my early years in Mt. Lebanon and Baldwin, two other South Hills suburbs.
My parents bought a house in West Mifflin around 1974 and there I grew up.
I grew up in a blue collar, working class neighborhood in West Mifflin, a strange 13 mile suburb of Pittsburgh that was literally sewn out of the remnants of other municipalities. West Mifflin was filled with neighborhoods, seemingly hundreds of neighborhoods. Our community was ordered by our elementary schools, churches, and volunteer fire hall regions.
West Mifflin began as an agricultural region with very early ties to the Colony of Virginia. We grew up in a suburb surrounded by woods and traveled many roads named “Hollow” or “Run” with working farms abutting the region’s largest mall.
Our neighborhood was established in the 1940s to house the blue collar workers in two bedroom homes with flat roofs. By the 50’s when my home was built, the template grew to a modest ranch style with a large, medium, and small bedroom. Our backyards bordered on woods that ran thick and deep.
My family arrived in 1973. In those days, kids roamed and were often visiting neighbors to use a bathroom, get a drink, or sometimes just visit the nicer of our older neighbors. Their homes were styled much the same as the 40s and 50s, especially the kitchens and finished basements decorated with old wi-fi systems and worn couches.
Bedrooms were often crammed with multiple kids until they aged up to relocate to a finished basement bedroom. People had old things because those things were still useful and very few of my neighbors had the luxury of waste. It was a strange sensation watching shows like MASH and Happy Days that were set in the 50’s with a distinctly 70’s aesthetique that reinforced the confusion of generational clashes in my neighborhood.
I lived there until college and returned briefly in the late 90’s while I attended graduate school.
Since 2005, I have lived in an urban neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s Northside. Manchester has a rich and luminous history, particularly the vibrant Black culture. Manchester’s residents are about 70% Black and less than 30% white. It is the first time I have ever lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood and I’m acutely conscious that we are gentrifiers no matter how gently we put it.
I’m also aware thanks to my genealogical research that both of our families have historically lived in or near Manchester since the turn of the 19th century and in some cases, earlier. That was surprising information. I learned that the house where my maternal grandmother was born in 1916 is an almost exact replica of our own current rowhouse and just three miles away. It adds so much richness to my daily life to think occasionally about how my great-grandmother made do in this same type house without electricity, central heat, or perhaps bathrooms.
We are very lucky that my partner acquired 3 additional City lots when she bought our home so we have a very large backyard. It is nice to sit out and enjoy the bit of green. Our yard attracts all sorts of urban wildlife.
Our neighborhood block is an interesting mix of people. Our immediate neighbors shovel our walk in the winter, we weedwack the other neighbor’s front walk. Her nephew also shovels our walk in return. I took care of Halloween candy distribution for a neighbor traveling, she holds an extra key to our house for our pet sitter to access. Another neighbor has his young adult son shovel snow and not accept pay to learn how to be a good neighbor. Our nextdoor neighbor takes in our packages or knocks on the door to make sure I know that they are there. There’s a foundation of goodwill, but also underlying current of the impacts of gentrification, especially the racial justice impacts. We also struggle moving beyond simple kindnesses to active engagement and perhaps that’s something we’ll never achieve.
I struggle with living in a historic district. The rules are somewhat ridiculous and occasionally harmful. The history of buildings is important, but so is housing people in decent homes with affordable payments. I can look back over 15 years and see the spread of gentrification or at least the spread of warning signs and red flags. I try to offset my footprint by doing good work in the neighborhood and being a decent human being to my neighbors.
Overall, I do not feel strong ties to any particular neighborhood. I’m curious about the parts of the City where my ancestors lived. When I visit one of their former residences, I feel a sense of connection and wonder, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to live there or feel a direct tie.
I don’t know where I’d choose to live if I ever had that choice. As I age, I’m less enamored of historical staircases, but don’t want to live next to a shopping center either.
My personal dream is to build a small modern bungalow on the property that Laura’s grandparents lived on for retirement. Maybe raise goats and llamas. Have a wraparound porch and skylights. But that’s in Northwestern Pa where there are no protections for us. Or our llamas. So that’s probably not a good idea.
So I’ve lived in the suburbs, a small rural town, an even smaller rural community, a college town, and in an urban neighborhood, but not all in Pittsburgh.
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