G20: Pittsburgh Didn’t Invite You to the Party

by Hannah E. Dobbz on June 4, 2009

Ed. note: When Beyond Chron first published this piece, we received many angry letters from Pittsburgh residents and natives — accusing the author of being culturally insensitive. Ms. Dobbz has written a rebuttal, which has been added at the end of the article.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is a post-industrial city that saw the collapse of big steel and the rise of poverty. It is a place where the plural of “you” is “yinz.” And it is only here where my neighbor would have a Steelers helmet tattooed around his entire skull.

But Pittsburgh is also the unlikely winner of the G-20 award; that grand prize to host the Group of Twenty – a body that represents 19 of the world’s largest national economies, plus the European Union. And while some are excited to shine their city’s shoes and put its best foot forward, other disenfranchised locals must endure the event’s unwanted repercussions.

When a city is elected to host an entity such as the G-20, the whole region must stretch and bend with the expectations of out-of-towners. In preparation for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, officials performed clean-up sweeps to disinfect the city of its homeless, drug-users, refugees and other undesirables. In Sept. 2008, police preemptively raided the homes of numerous Minneapolis residents before the Republican National Convention (and its respective protests) across the river in St. Paul. During the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) Summit in Miami in 2003, police chief John Timoney literally transformed the city into a police state war zone with tanks, blockades and “non-lethal” (but severely damaging) artillery.

From those interested in advertising Pittsburgh internationally for the economic boost, to the anti-capitalists heartily opposing the presence of the G-20 on their local turf, to the regular Iron City Beer-drinking, front-porch sitting, eighth-grade educated yinzer, the G-20’s September vacation spot choice will affect them all.

Obama selected Pittsburgh because of its resilience in the face of economic depression after the steel industry skipped town in the early ‘80s. In some ways, he’s right on; that is, while the rest of the country began its recession in late 2007, Pittsburgh tanked almost three decades ago and has had all that time to recover. Because of this, the city hasn’t felt the clench of the economic crisis as much as other, particularly wealthier cities. Property is cheap and jobs are plentiful, albeit low-paying.

So locals have found a happy medium, it seems. Most people are relatively poor, but very few are homeless compared to larger cities like Philadelphia or New York. People appear to be getting by despite the Rust Belt stigma, and for a long time, Pittsburghers have been proud of their economically turbulent roots.

Obama has not been the only one to see potential in this ramshackle city, however. In the past few years, gentrification has become a central issue to activists and impoverished locals. The East Liberty neighborhood has seen a recent glut of historic brick buildings razed to make way for aesthetically void shopping-mall façades. Some have even attempted to rename the district “The East Side,” simultaneously doing away with implications of poverty and crime.

Furthermore, the Garfield neighborhood is being thoroughly bought up by the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation – an entity that doles the properties back to buyers who pass a screening process, ensuring an intentional, “arts focused” neighborhood. Each gentrification process is shrouded in its own code words.

The fear of many Pittsburghers is that the G-20 will bring more than just police repression; it will also bring a heavy-handed brand of gentrification that will siphon in wealthy migrants from all over the country. By hosting his convention in this city, Obama wants to send a message to the rest of the country that Pittsburgh is safe for companies to relocate their workers, and what’s more, that it is a desirable place to live.

For one weekend, Obama will show off Western Pennsylvania to the world. As if not just 20 minutes to the north, in Beaver County, residents refer to Obama as “a colored” (noun). And as if, far from the liberal New England states with their same-sex marriage, Pennsylvania three weeks ago did not just barely pass an anti-discrimination bill preventing gay folks from being harassed at work. (Arguments against this included that it would put bigots “at risk.”)

So Pittsburgh is expected to do what every city does when put in the international spotlight: It will pretend that these problems don’t exist. Pittsburgh in particular, will play the part of Economic Success Story. This will seduce out-of-towners into investing in the city, thus inflaming gentrification, swelling the population, and driving property values from manageable to outrageous. If carpetbaggers find the same charm as locals do in this small, cheap, isolated city, it will soon be lost, and after September, this will be a very different place, indeed.

Obama may put Pittsburgh – not quite East Coast, not quite Mid-West, not quite West Virginia – on the map with his plans for a G-20 meeting, but his selection of place will have a significant impact on the day-to-day lives of locals, culturally as well as economically.

If nothing else, it should at least prove entertaining to see if the latte-drinking, condo-living, upwardly-mobile yuppie will be able to figure out what a Pens-watching dive-bar regular means when he says, “Yinz jag-offs gon’ red up ‘in ‘at?”


HANNAH E. DOBBZ RESPONDS TO FEEDBACK ON THIS ARTICLE:

Since I wrote this article, I have become thoroughly embarrassed about it. I had no idea that the piece was so offensive, because I did not write it with malicious intent. So for that, I am extraordinarily sorry.

If anything, I was hoping to actually DEFEND the city in my writing. There are a few instances of gratuitous name-calling, I will certainly agree (in retrospect, I would rephrase those). But my intent was to illuminate the fact that there is a way that people are used to living here in Pittsburgh, which will undoubtedly be disrupted by the coming of the G20.

My main goal in drawing attention to the region’s problems was to (a) debase assumptions that the city’s got it made simply because it survived the recession, (b) deflect further gentrification, which could be one of the most relevant threats to the city’s poor and working classes, and (c) use evidence from past summits to hypothesize the unlikeliness that these problems will be addressed save just sweeping them under the rug (which will invariably do more damage to Pittsburghers).

Some of the phrasing I used was also intended to be sort of tongue-in-cheek, as in what a gentrifying person from one of the coasts would say (although I suppose that I actually AM that person, when I think about it). I don’t mean for this rebuttal to be a defense — because I understand that what I wrote was classist — but rather an apology. I am currently trying to address my personal class issues, since numerous people have pointed them out to me.

I hope that I was able to clarify my position here, and again, I apologize sincerely for coming across as offensive.

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