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Why I’m Leaving: Pittsburgh is a Constant Uphill Battle

Clare Polke, formerly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, articulates why Pittsburgh isn't a very welcoming place for people of color.

I’ve always been struck with a keen sense of wanderlust. My two years in Pittsburgh have been the longest I’ve spent in one place since I left my hometown in rural North Florida at 18 for college.I was a nomad for the next five years, spending more time off-campus than on, and out of the state and country than in.

Yet, of all the places I have called home, whether it was for three weeks, three months, six months or a year, I always felt an attachment to it and the people I met there that would inevitably draw me back one day, either to visit or to stay.

And then there was Pittsburgh.

I’ll never forget the moment when I pulled over after crossing through the Fort Pitt tunnel and saw the city covered in fresh snow and and glistening sunlight for the first time. It took my breath away.

Yet despite its physical beauty, and the tightly knit group of friends and mentors I would develop, I quickly learned Pittsburgh was not a place where I could stay.

Pittsburgh flag football

Clare and the Bougie Black Flag Football All-Stars

I recently read through the journal I kept while in China.

Next to Pittsburgh, the seven months I spent studying abroad in Shantou, Guangdong, China, was the longest period of time I spent away from my home state. In a country packed with almost 1.5 billion people, I could only see what was missing — my family, friends, hometown, church and even the most basic comforts I once took for granted.

I laughed until I cried reading over the first email I sent home to my family. In it, I complained about the rat droppings under my bed, the grimy film surfacing my entire dorm and grudging solace in the fact that my room in the foreign exchange student dorm was palatial compared to the conditions my Chinese classmates were living in.

By the time I left that summer, the dorm I once hated housed some of my best memories. Its yellowed, peeling walls were covered with photos, posters and Post-it notes. That tiny, spartan room became a hub for parties, potlucks, game nights, sleepovers, study halls and all-nighters.

Pittsburgh is my Chinese dorm room.

My connection to the people I had designated “Pittsburgh fam” would far surpass any commitment, or lack thereof, I felt toward a city I lived and worked in for years. The small group of friends and mentors rescued me, and it is because of them that a piece of me will always be here.

Flag football games, house parties, potlucks, spade tournaments, game nights and random outings helped me find a network that formed some of my favorite memories for transplants like me hovering around the outskirts.

But that feeling you get, once you get over the hump of unfamiliarity and homesickness and begin to put down life roots, never came. Pittsburgh was a constant uphill battle, a never ending climb with no promise of home waiting on the other side.

~

Where others saw a city of bridges, I saw a city with minimal tolerance for outsiders.

Where others saw a city of neighborhoods, I saw systemic segregation with isolated pockets of poverty far-flung and deeply rooted.

Where others saw cultural inclusion, I saw occasional tolerance, and sometimes not even that.Where others see a glass ceiling for people of color, I continuously see an infinite concrete wall — unclimbable, impenetrable and so substantial that those on the wrong side can’t even see through it, let alone get around it.

Where others see countless options and opportunities for young people to connect, all I see are the countless nights my friends struggled to create their own fun in a void of nightlife and social options for young people of color.”It’s just the way things have always been,” has been the narrative of my Pittsburgh experience.

Where others saw a city of bridges, I saw a city with minimal tolerance for outsiders.
Tradition and complacency trapped in an incestuous cycle angered and frustrated me. As the weeks and months passed, that anger dissipated into discouragement, then acceptance.

I can’t point to one particular moment of epiphany. Rather, a series of microaggressions, disappointments, inequities and outright denial were more reminiscent of my upbringing in a rural farming town in the Deep South, and not a major metropolitan city north of the Mason-Dixon. However, at home, I found it easier to call a spade by its name.

Here, thinly veiled cultural ignorance, intolerance and privilege combined with a severe lack of self-awareness has left a city disillusioned about its everyday realities and the difficult compromises we must make to stay.

Here, my friend, decked out in his Sunday’s best fresh from a church concert, was “mistaken” for a mugger and had $60 thrown in his face as he tried to stop someone to ask for directions to the trolley station on Allegheny Avenue.

Here, poorly written hate speech is not only well-paid, but given a wide platform under the guise of “opinion” and “free speech.”

Here, the death of a police dog prompts wall-to-wall coverage and citywide mourning, while the murder of Susan Sidney, a young mother of five, quietly fades into the sea of unnamed (human) homicide victims. Pittsburgh is cold.

A thick coat and boots can’t protect you from it. It’s the type of cold that turns a city insular and makes me feel like, regardless of claims that it wants to attract and retain diverse talent, Pittsburgh does not want people like me to call it home.

About the Author

Clare Polke is a Southern transplant and HBCU grad in search of decent sweet tea and cheese grits outside her mama's kitchen. When not mixing DIY beauty products, she's awaiting the resurgence of R&B groups.

Comments

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  • Chazhboyd

    Like Clare, I also moved to Pittsburgh after growing up in Florida and did not have any family or friends in Pittsburgh when I moved there in 1969. I know any others who moved to Pittsburgh for jobs but who left after a few years; some for the reasons cited by Clare. However some of us stayed , got married, raised our children and only left after 40+ years because we wanted to be close to our children and their kids we got older. I think having a family was key to my happiness in Pittsburgh and I really enjoyed my time there. In fact we miss the friends that we developed there and long for the easy commutes and sane drivers there! I do find it interesting that our children left Pittsburgh for Dc because of the same reasons cited by Clare and because of the dearth of employment opportunities for them in their chosen fields.

  • KobeTheCat

    Many of the “issues” the author cites are nationwide issues and not specific to Pittsburgh. As a matter of fact, in many Southern cities where Black people are fully in charge of government resources and over 50% of the population, there is the same if not more poverty, segregation, and racism. If the author is looking for a place to live where there are a few more Black radio stations and nightclubs, that’s her prerogative. I’d say that is silly and immature for anyone over 21. Pittsburgh is not perfect. It does have a smaller Black population than say Baltimore or Cleveland, cities of comparable size. That’s always been a plus in my opinion, forcing people outside their comfort zone. If the author moves to Atlanta or DC, maybe she will find the utopia she seeks. But most other places it may take some diversity on her part to make a home.

    • http://starshine13.tumblr.com/ DStrong

      I don’t think she’s complaining of lack of other Black people. Sounds more like she’s frustrated by how she was treated there. Even if she moves to a place with a larger Black population, once she does anything where she encounters a person who is either a.) not used to or ignorant of Black people or b.) is openly hostile towards Black people or c.) Is just biased against Blacks she’ll encounter the same treatment. Perhaps she’ll encounter it less, but nonetheless it will still occur.

      • Heath Bailey

        Thanks for reading it thoroughly and understanding the writer’s lens. So many of us have bought-in to apathy, as she stated.

    • http://sarahhunyyoung.com/ sarah huny young

      it’s “silly and immature” to seek out a diverse social life? I couldn’t disagree more. people use all kinds of criteria when choosing a place to live — school districts, the job market, the commute — why does prioritizing cultural richness and diversity lack merit with folks like you? it’s entirely possible you’re part of the problem if that’s hard to comprehend.

      and wait–you consider a smaller Black population a plus? that sounds…….racist.

      • Heath Bailey

        Wow! The American Idea smh

  • Mary Crow

    Thank you for writing this, Clare. I’m white, and I’ve lived here since ’91 with a 5-year gap in NM. I’ve lived in other cities but Pittsburgh has a special kind of racism because it’s so obvious and people are so myopic and defensive about it. It’s the way it’s always been so it’s okay, right? No. No, it’s not actually. We can do better. I’m sorry to see you go.

    • Mary Crow

      I just wanted to say I’m white, I live in the city by choice, and my eyes are open. And I’ll do what I can to speak up about it.

  • Martinzehr

    Housing segregation, segregated malls, police abuse, gentrification, public school failures, lack of representation, one party rule, low wages, you name it.

  • Heath Bailey

    I did 42 years there! You won’t catch me back there unless I totally F up. Pittsburgh is the last place on the planet to be a progressive human being. Exclude race and gender.

  • Nick

    Clare, I’m sorry to read about your experience living in the city I am proud to call home. I hope some Pittsburghers can see this article and try and improve themselves from reading your perspective and not automatically become defensive and dismissive towards it. The culture of Western PA, even outside that of race and prejudice, is a very stubborn one. Things like where to set the thermostat become top bill issues in households across Western PA if they deviate from “the way it always was” and therefore “the way ot should be”. I know that stubbornness bleeds into many persons’ perceptions of their own privilege or percieved lack thereof, and many microagressions slip through the cracks without a second tjought and that culture of stubbornness prevents them from really hearing what someone else is saying when confronted about it. I hope that my fellow Yinzers can someday begin the process of opening their minds to other cultures (that don’t oroginate from middle or eastern Europe).
    That said, I also hope you do give Pittsburgh a second chance some day, whenever that may be. When that day comes, I hope you do not dread your arrival and that you are met with more welcoming arms.

  • Sean Thomas

    I really appreciate you sharing your observations and experience, Clare. I grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb (Tarentum), where I was raised to be an intolerant bigot through the 1970’s and into the 1980’s. Eventually I learned how to escape that mindset and ran from that little town for the “big city.” I went to college in Pittsburgh and ultimately have spent the majority of my life to date living in Pittsburgh; but I quickly found that the “big city” attitudes really weren’t much different than those in the ‘burbs. These attitudes run deep, yet more silent and sneaky than ever. Despite the best of friends, a great network of acquaintances and a job that I truly love, I would leave in a heartbeat if I could (I only came back for family). I can’t imagine a foreseeable break in the local pride to allow for progress and so it is certainly a reasonable decision to leave rather than engage in a futile struggle to make the city a better place, especially as another massive wave of “improvements” plows through. No city is perfect, but the years that I was able to enjoy life in other cities really put Pittsburgh into solid perspective for me; there are major problems with a large number of impossibly closed pride-filled minds and very little influence or wake-up calls from the outside world. As you have probably learned since releasing this, many Pittsburgh locals are ready to light the angry mob torches when someone criticizes their beloved city. That is part of the problem.

  • http://starshine13.tumblr.com/ DStrong

    I think she was upset about how she was treated. Not by the number of POCs she encountered.

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