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With Economic Changes, Pittsburgh Finds Friction Between Progress And History


And finishing out the program today, we wanted to take a closer look at how change is playing out in Pittsburgh's Hill District, where the latest wave of economic development worries residents. NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi visited the neighborhood to learn what Pittsburgh's reinvention looks like from the Hill.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When you bring up the idea of Pittsburgh's current economic renaissance in the Hill District these days, you're often met with skepticism.

SALA UDIN: We are not good at having inclusive renaissances. Our renaissances crush the original inhabitants of the land that they occupy.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's Sala Udin, a 73-year-old former City Council member and lifelong resident of the Hill District. He's looking out over a massive parking lot that used to be the Lower Hill, a patchwork of rowhouses and clubs famous for inspiring the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson and jazz greats like Art Blakey.


HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Udin says that the soundtrack to his childhood was a hodgepodge of trolley cars, music and the thrum of constant conversation. But when Udin was just 10 years old, that music was put on hold.

UDIN: The rumors started going around. The city was going to tear the whole neighborhood down, and everybody was going to have to move. And there were no answers to our questions like move where? Why? Who said we had to go? The thoughtlessness of the city destroyed the community.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The demolition in the mid-1950s was part of the city's urban renewal project to build a new civic arena. And it ended up displacing 8,000 people. Udin says that history makes Hill residents wary of economic redevelopment and gentrification in 2016.

UDIN: A lot of what we are struggling with today is the result of the city's decision to decimate the land base that we lived in.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Today, the Hill has a new YMCA and public library, and committee organizations are working with the city to bring more business here. But it hasn't seen the kind of wholesale transformation of areas connected to Pittsburgh's tech boom, and many in the neighborhood feel that real change hasn't come soon enough.

LAKEISHA WOLF: I wanted to be on the ground and working with the community to make this a livable neighborhood.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: LaKeisha Wolf runs the Ujaama Collective, a nonprofit artisan boutique on Center Avenue. She says that while the threat of displacement is real, new development can be a positive thing.

WOLF: This community deserves good clean, quality businesses that offer them good things for their mind, body and spirits. Gentrification doesn't have to be without the people who've been here and the people who want to be here.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: One of those people is 72-year-old Irma Coy.

IRMA COY: A lot of people seem to talk about the glory days. The people on the Hill don't want glory days. We want a neighborhood again.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: She's seen the community decline from its bustling heyday through the collapse of the steel industry and the exodus of more than half its residents. And she was here when many of her neighbors rioted following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.

COY: And I watched businesses get looted - grocery store, the cleaners. All of those places where we used to go, they just tore that up. That's when the Hill really went down, and it's never recovered from it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The 1980s crack epidemic compounded the problems. And for almost 30 years, residents went without basics, like a grocery store. The construction of a supermarket three years ago was hailed as a step in the right direction. But as new development increases rent and property taxes in other parts of the city, many residents fear that the same thing could happen here. Irma Coy is already seeing troubling signs down the block.

COY: They're flipping houses up there. 'Cause I watch the DIY channel - I know a flipped house when I see it because I like watching them. And it's creeping closer and closer and closer, you know? The renaissance spread creeping up my neck.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: As for Sala Udin, new housing developments are being planned on the site of his childhood home. But the portion that will be dedicated to lower-income tenants is still up in the air. Udin says that vulnerable locals have too often been left behind.

UDIN: And it's not because those who are excluded are not screaming at the top of their lungs. But the financiers of the renaissance have not heard those voices yet. The only thing they hear his ka-ching.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But, Udin says, that's all the more reason to keep fighting.

UDIN: We are not going to lay down and watch another renaissance that does not include us.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Longtime residents of the Hill District can see the change sweeping the neighborhoods all around them. And they want change, but they don't want it to sweep them away. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).