It was 1994. I was standing in front of the Kingsley Center in East Liberty—a neighborhood in Pittsburgh—"working" a "job" that paid me and a couple of my friends $200 a month to just hang out at the Kingsley a few hours a day and do whatever odd jobs needed done. Since there weren't many odd jobs to do, we were basically paid to just stay out of trouble.
Anyway, as a friend and I were standing there, l noticed a couple guys in all black staring in our direction from a couple blocks or so away. Their dress let us know that they were members of the L.A.W. (Larimar Avenue and Wilkinsburg) gang, and we deduced that they were about to confront us because of what I happened to be wearing that day: a bright red Nike sweatshirt.
As they inched closer, I recognized one of them. And, if the scowl that was disappearing from his face was any indication, he recognized me at the same time.
"Dame, man," he exclaimed when he finally made his way over to me, "I didn't know that was you. You know you can't be rocking red sh*t like that in East Lib. Almost got yourself stole" He shook his head at me the same way an uncle would shake his head at a nephew, and walked away with his friend, who was clearly disappointed they wouldn't be jumping me.
This is just one story. I have many others. Some too surreal to fully articulate (ie: The time the guy pulled a shotgun on my friends and I when we were playing football in the street. We, for whatever reason, thought it was hilarious.) and others too painful to completely retell (ie: The time our house was bombed and shot into because it was mistaken for a house belonging to a drug dealer living three doors down). None, though, would be believable for those seeing East Liberty for the first time today.
The Kingsley moved a decade ago. The projects directly across the street from the Kingsley—buildings that could be seen 10 miles away—are also gone. Standing there now is a three story Target that also houses a Starbucks. If Target isn't your cup of tea, you can go shopping at either Whole Foods or Trader Joes—both of which are a two minute drive away—or just eat at one of the area's trendy restaurants. The block I grew up on—a stretch so crime-infested it made regular appearances on "Cops" (seriously)—is now lined with six figure townhouses.
East Liberty, the neighborhood where I grew up, met a kid who'd end up being my best friend, fed my burgeoning addiction to basketball, and fell for (and got dropped by) my first crush, has been gentrified. I know what this means. I know it's led to people (mainly poor Black people) being displaced, and businesses that were long-standing community pillars being priced out. I personally know members of some of those displaced families, and I'm friends with some of those business owners.
Yet, as a person who currently lives a mile away from the block he grew up on and a half mile away from the scene of the red sweatshirt (non)confrontation, I can't deny that I appreciate some of these changes. I enjoy the fact that there are now multiple stores in East Lib that stay open past 6pm. I like not worrying when a friend says she's going to catch a bus to meet me on my side of town. I, gasp, like shopping at Trader Joe's.
Most importantly, I'm not a kid anymore. Although my neighborhood was unsafe, I never actually felt unsafe, and I enjoyed the activity. Not the violence, but the spontaneity of living in an area where there were never dull moments. I even enjoyed the instant cred I'd receive when people learned where I was from. Now, those feelings are long gone. And, as much as I'm sad to see people not welcome in a place they've known as home because they don't "fit" the new spirit and the culture of the community, that sadness is superseded by my want for my friends and family to be (relatively) safe when they come to East Lib. For all its negatives, gentrification has helped to provide that.
I'm not quite sure what that says about me, and I'm not quite sure I'd like to hear it. I am sure, though, that a 15 year old me would be able to walk through East Lib. today with a red sweatshirt and not worry about being bothered about it, and for me that's all that matters.
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