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Neighborhoods: Most livable city for whom?

Panel discusses how to make Pittsburgh livable for all residents



Much has been made of Pittsburgh's recent designation as a "Most Livable City," but, some say, it's unclear for whom it's so great.

On Mon., Jan. 7, at the Union Project in Highland Park, the Coro Center hosted a panel to get to the root of that question. Panelists dissected the notion of "most livable" and how to make that term apply to everyone, crossing boundaries of race, age, gender, ability and more.

The panelists all agreed that different Pittsburghers experience different levels of livability. However, they didn't manage to entirely solve the knotty problem of discrimination in the two-hour discussions, offering more views of the dilemma than solutions to it.

Moderator La'Tasha Mayes asked everyone to keep in mind what she calls the table exercise: At work, look around the table. "Who's at the table and who's not? It can be very sobering. It's in the forefront of your consciousness."

Democrat state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who represents the Hill District, said that it's crucial to define the "all" in the question "How do we make Pittsburgh the most livable city for all?"

"I look out, there's a glaring absence of people who need to be here," Wheatley said. "How many black men are here?" Of the hundred or so people in the auditorium, fewer than a dozen were black men. "We're losing them, we lose them in the schools, we lose them to the streets, they start to become part of the problem," he added. "This region, this city has a long way to go to livable. Fifty percent of black males don't make it out of high school. This should be turning our stomachs, but we just take it."

Panelist Ken Spruill, vice president and manager of diversity strategies for the PNC financial services group, pointed out that poverty and unemployment strike black Pittsburghers twice as often as white ones.

According to a 2004 study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research, 34.1 percent of African Americans in Pittsburgh live in poverty, while 14.3 percent of whites do. Among African Americans ages 16-19, 18.3 percent are neither in school nor working, whereas only 5.3 percent of white youth are in similar circumstances.

"We have to create a Pittsburgh that, not regardless of who you are but because of who you are, is a better place to be," said Spruill. He added that part of his job is to get people at PNC to ask the right questions of potential hires in order to see the unique strengths they could bring to the job.

As the executive director of Strong Women, Strong Girls in Pittsburgh, panelist Lynne Garfinkel says she encounters resistance from parents of girls she's trying to reach, as "haves" coming into "have-not" areas. The program pairs college women acting as after-school study- and life-skills mentors with girls in grades 3-5. "We've run into issues of parents not really trusting the program. We try to engage them in the planning of the programming so we're asking the right questions."

Chaz Kellem, group sales associate for the Pirates, stressed societal responsibility to equip kids with a solid educational foundation.

Kicking open doors is one thing, said Erin Molchany, executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Program, but "you have to hold the door open for other people, you have to help cultivate and encourage." Ways to do that, she said, can range from running for office or encouraging others to do so, to mentoring and always carrying voter registration paperwork around.

Panelist Nimo Tirimanne works at the Welcome Center for Immigrants and Internationals, and wonders if Pittsburgh even wants to extend the "most livable" designation to immigrants. "We should come to terms with if we want immigrants," he said. "I don't think that's a given. Are we going to create barriers? Once we answer that question, the answers will spread like wildfire."

The Sri Lanka native said that when he moved to Pittsburgh nine years ago from Los Angeles, people assured him he was making a huge mistake. He says that immigrant communities tend to build themselves up, with word of mouth encouraging new immigrants to move to an area where people they know have found success.

So what's the answer?

"The youth have to get empowered," said Wheatley. "We're at a critical time in this region. A lot of retirement is happening; there's a changing of the guard. We have to be courageous."

He said that it's incumbent upon young people to change Pittsburgh's hidebound ways, by forcing the old guard to see them as equals instead of subservient.

"This is an old, white male city. You have to keep bangin' away."

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