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Why I’m Leaving: Fighting Just to Exist

1839 staff writer Brandon Small is leaving Pittsburgh when he graduates from Pitt because he doesn't want to have to fight for space to just exist.
Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

I’m looking at the sunset over Pittsburgh. The Monongahela is flowing peacefully off to the right, while in the distance Schenley Park has taken on shades of red, orange, and yellow. Cars drive across bridges toward the South Side, the Waterfront, Greenfield, and beyond. Right in front of me is South Oakland –- the dirty college neighborhood I’ve grown to love.

The more I stare outside, the more I realize that Pittsburgh is beautiful. When I first came here three-and-a-half years ago to attend the University of Pittsburgh, I only saw grey buildings, poor road signage, and too many bridges. Now I can appreciate the unique melting pot that is Pittsburgh, giving us amazing food, art, architecture, and culture.

In Pittsburgh, I learned how to live without my family. Here, I became a leader, a scientist, and a writer. I learned about social justice and became a better person. In Pittsburgh, I learned to love myself.

But Pittsburgh often didn’t love me.

More specifically, Pittsburgh doesn’t love Black people. I learned this fact during #BlackLivesMatter and Fight for $15 protests when there was a significant amount of opposition. I’ve seen the lease signs and apartment buildings popping up in East Liberty and across Pittsburgh –- signs of gentrification. I’ve seen it in the Hill District, destroyed over the years by the construction of parking lots and a hockey arena. I’ve seen it in Westinghouse Academy, a 98%-Black public school in Homewood where only 22% of graduates attend college or trade school. While the predominantly white Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Art School in Downtown –- 20 minutes away –- sends 80% of its students to college or trade school.

I need a place that supports my Blackness, my homosexuality, my vision, goals, and every other facet of my being
The more I live here, the more I realize Pittsburgh does not want to give space to Black people. They’ve been chipping away at the Hill District, East Liberty, and other neighborhoods to build luxury apartments and parking lots. Black people end up having to fight for space. After more than 10 years without a grocery store, the Hill District had to open their own. Even this very magazine was created to give much-needed space to Black Pittsburgh artists.

The concept of owning space is an important one, especially in Black American history (think: Manifest Destiny and the post-slavery era). Owning space is powerful – it is yours to do with what you will. People often equate how much space one owns/is a part of with success. Meanwhile, white, upper-class imperialism is rearing its pasty head across Pittsburgh, stealing space and displacing thousands in the name of comfort.

As space continues to be taken from lower-income (primarily Black) citizens, these citizens will continue to be forced into smaller neighborhoods until there are none left. I believe that Pittsburgh’s Black people and organizations will continue to fight gentrification. But it seems futile. I don’t want to have to fight for my space. My energy would be better spent developing ideas and working on projects, and I need to move to a place that supports me. I need a place that supports my Blackness, my homosexuality, justice, my vision, goals, and every other facet of my being. While I have found some of that support in Pittsburgh, it hasn’t always been enough to combat the opposition. I must still fight to overcome obstacles related to just existing.

The supportive utopia I envision may not even exist. But I do know that it’s not Pittsburgh. I want to live in a place that readily has a space for me, space that isn’t in the most rundown, out-of-the-way part of town. A space with a grocery store and free of newly-built hockey arenas and overpriced apartments – a space that hasn’t been destroyed by white imperialism. Pittsburgh has been an incredible pit stop, but it won’t be my final destination.

About the Author

Brandon Small is currently a senior Microbiology major at the University of Pittsburgh. He is an aspiring doctor and human rights activist.

Comments

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  • Engaged

    Good article describing a real problem. By adding your voice to make the ‘invisible’ VISIBLE; and if you were to stay, it would be an asset to the community. You will be missed.

  • RukiyaMcNair

    Wonderful article Brandon and I agree with you. While Pittsburgh does allow a certain level of personal growth, for some, it is not enough. No one should live in a place where they feel they have to continually fight for their rightful place. There are simply too many options. Best of luck to you in your journey.

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