I’m writing this from Panera. It’s a Friday. Which means cream of chicken and wild rice, my favorite cheap soup, is on the menu. This Panera sits in Bakery Square, a multi-million dollar redevelopment project that transformed what used to be a Nabisco plant into a sprawling campus of businesses and condominiums. It's also a mile from the street I grew up on. Two blocks from where Aaron Ray almost shot me when I was 15 because I had on a red sweatshirt and he thought I might have been a Blood. (His words: “My bad D. Didn’t know that was you. But you can’t be wearing that red shit, man. There’s a war going on out here.”) Across the street from the Reizenstein basketball courts where I caught my first alley-oop.
Those courts are gone now, luxury condos stand in their place. The project high rise that sat on the corner where Aaron approached me is also long gone, replaced by a two-story Target. My old neighborhood is now the trendiest place in Pittsburgh. And I don’t know how this makes me feel.
I’m not angry about it. The neighborhood is a better and safer place now. Restaurants stay open until one instead of closing at “dark.” There are no more Aaron Rays stalking the streets for red sweatshirts. The shifting cosmetic has even affected its name. What used to just be "East Liberty" is now "Eastside"----a euphemistic hybrid of East Liberty and the neighboring (and more traditionally trendy) Shadyside.
But, I just...I still feel “a certain way” about it all. I feel a certain way that the neighborhood’s demographics had to change before it improved. I feel a certain way that “others” were able to recognize and take financial advantage of the resources sitting right under my nose. I feel a certain way about the irony of me feeling this certain way…but writing this while sitting at Panera.
I guess ambivalent would be the word to describe this feeling. But, as many of those who wrestle with the same thoughts about their “new” old neighborhoods will likely tell you, it feels more awkward and amorphous than that. It’s a state of reactive cognitive dissonance you can’t quite articulate that happens when others use the resources long had---in theory, because could we have done this?----to create something you’d appreciate in any other context.
There's a natural parallel between the thoughts often expressed about gentrification and the thoughts about the type of appropriation many White artists have been accused of profiting from. But what makes this feeling different is that I enjoy this version of the neighborhood more. This isn't just feeling a certain way about Robin Thicke "borrowing" Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up." It's feeling that certain way, but believing "Blurred Lines" to be the superior song.
And, to be clear, “better” doesn’t mean the new Target is better than the old Giant Eagle or that the new Pizza Sola is better than Vento's. That’s a matter of taste.
The preference I’m speaking of is less about policy and development and more about memory. East Liberty was my home. It’s where my dad taught me to shoot a jumpshot. Where I got my first job. Where I met the kid who’d end up being my oldest and closest friend. Where I first learned not to trust a big butt and a smile. And where I also learned not to listen to everything Bell Biv Devoe said. But, it’s also where Peabody High School was shut down for an entire week because a star football player was murdered in a Wendy’s parking lot. And where, since the Bloods (red), Crips (blue), and L.A.W. (black and gray) were at war with each other, there was a span of five or so years where the wrong color could get you killed. And where our front window was blown out and our house was shot into because we lived three doors down from the Mellon Street Stringer Bell and a rival crew mistook our house for his.
So even as I lament the injection of and appropriation by others----and even as terms such as displacement and pricing out enter my consciousness----I value the neighborhood’s current decrease of familiar and conspicuous danger more than I’m put off by the means taken to get it there.
I still haven’t fully processed this perpetual juxtaposition of old East Liberty and the new Eastside. And I still don’t know what any of this means. But, I do know one thing. The cream of chicken and wild rice is really good today, and I’m going to get another bowl before I leave.
Damon Young is a Contributing Editor for EBONY.com.
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