Pittsburgh – The land of opportunity for Blerds, Blipsters and other Bougie Black People.
Once you’re done giving your laptop the side eye, continue reading. Feel free to take a few seconds more.
I get it. On the surface, Pittsburgh does not seem like a city for Black and brown people. Relative to other cities, it has a very small Black population and almost nonexistent Latino community. The Black population in the city ranks among the poorest in the nation. Workers of color are virtually nonexistent, and those that are here often cite great frustration with their work conditions. Add that to the lack of opportunities for socializing, I fully understand why you rolled your eyes at the lede.
You can do it again. No judgment here.
All of those issues frustrate me too. But at this point in my life and career, what I seek as much as anything is to work in a place where I am given ample opportunity to thrive in my line of work. I seek opportunities to collaborate with others who will value me more for what I bring to the table, as opposed to who I know or how I dress. I also want to be in a place where, as an activist academic, my contributions to the community are not only in need, those who seek my help actually appreciate what I contribute. I also want to live somewhere that I don’t have to spend half of my paycheck for housing, and another third of it for a night on the town. I’ve only been in the city for a year. But I can honestly say that Pittsburgh checks the box in each of these areas when it comes to quality of life.
For starters, Pittsburgh isn’t that bad. Really, it isn’t. My fiancée and I love concerts. Since I’ve been here, I have seen Stevie Wonder, Cedric the Entertainer, Talib Kweli, and Patti LaBelle. I met ultimate Blerd comedian W. Kamau Bell at a poorly attended show in Garfield, and got to speak with him for a good five minutes after the show. And because he was in town that night, we got to see another Blerd, Wyatt Cenac, for no additional cost. Sure, there are more acts in other cities more often. But realistically, I don’t have the time or money to go to all of those concerts.
I have also met lots of great people through my connections with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation and by looking up old friends from Penn State. I have a pretty good life here, and am surrounded by some pretty good people. No, there aren’t 300,000 African Americans in Pittsburgh. But there are more than enough people here to develop a healthy friend and support network related to your interests.
I know bad. I grew up in South Central…PA. Straight outta Pennsyltucky. If you want to live in a social wasteland for African Americans, try living in a place where the best comedy acts to come to town in the past 20 years were Jimmie Walker and Screech from Saved By The Bell. And yes, I went to Jimmie Walker, because there wasn’t anything else to do. It was not Dy-no-mite.
Another place that is worse than Pittsburgh? A traditional college town. Some academics like myself aspire to land at places like a Big Ten school, or a place in the Ivy League. I’m not one of those academics, because life for African American professionals in most of those places stinks. You think Pittsburgh is bad? Try having a social life above the age of 25 in Champaign, Illinois; College Station, Texas; or Stillwater, Oklahoma.
I want to be in a place where, as an activist academic, my contributions are not only in need, but appreciated.
Prior to my arrival in Pittsburgh, I spent four years in the Philadelphia area. Socially, the city was great. It was not so great, however, professionally. In a city like Philadelphia, or in places like Chicago, Washington D.C. or Atlanta, getting an opportunity to thrive as a professional can be very difficult as an African American. That’s especially true for someone who, admittedly, isn’t the most charismatic individual. I’m friendly. I’ll talk to you. But no one is confusing me for Idris Elba.
Networking is key to developing professionally. It is even more important to make connections as an African American. But in cities with large numbers of African Americans, navigating the networking circuit can be difficult, especially if you are not well known, and have no roots in the city. While I made some solid connections in Philadelphia, I realized pretty quickly that my pathway to success in that city would be very difficult, given the amount of competition for attention. You can have the best ideas, and be exceptionally talented. But unless you can get the attention of the city’s Negroratti, your attempts to advance are going to very difficult.
I have had no such problems getting stuff did in Pittsburgh. Why? Because, fortunately for me, but unfortunately in the grand scheme of the community, this city is starving for talented individuals of color dedicated to impacting social change.
Once again, I am not the most charismatic individual. But because I joined organizations in the city, and reached out to old friends, I was quickly able to develop opportunities to do community work in Pittsburgh. Within a month’s time, I had already appeared on a television talk show, got a chance to interview George Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, and made connections that would lead to a summer youth media project in the Hazelwood community. In a place like Pittsburgh, if you have talent, you are more likely to get an opportunity as a person of color, without having to kiss someone’s behind.
Moreover, as a professional of color in the city, it’s not like its very difficult to network. If you show up to Savoy a few times, attend one or two conventions, and make sure to go to the social events held by local Black organizations, you will have pretty much met every connected African American in the city, probably at least twice. And you will not have just met them. You will likely have had a meaningful conversation with them, the type that leads to future opportunities.
Let me be clear. Pittsburgh is not a livable city for many people of color. Not even close. But for someone like me, a settled, thirty-something who has the skills and opportunity to thrive within its middle-class, the Steel City has more than met my expectations.