Developers sell out East Liberty

The latest version of this story is now on the Huffington Post.

The only universal truth that I know is that nobody knows what is best for anybody, and this sentence kept turning over and over in my head like a short prayer at the meeting about the Penn Avenue development project tonight.

A little context:

In 1999 the plan for East Liberty was to have a mixed income neighborhood with housing for everyone, where low-income homes would be indistinguishable from market rates homes. 17 years later and this is what we get: a flagship Whole Foods that East Liberty residents cannot afford to shop at, built less than a mile from another Whole Foods store on Centre Avenue. Apartments will be built above the grocery store that will go for an unrestricted market rate. This is taking place on land that housed over 300 people in low income/subsidized housing that has since been demolished. None of the units that are being put in place will replace the affordable housing. The people who lived there, predominantly Black, have been relocated, either elsewhere in East Liberty, elsewhere in Pittsburgh, or outside of the city.

Note that these homes have already been demolished.

The meeting wasn’t intended to be about the affordable housing issue, though. It was intended for the developers from LG Realty Advisors to answer questions from the community about Enright Park, which is going to be partially demolished to make way for the Whole Foods.

It took me a minute, as I sat in the front row at the community meeting crinkling my bag of Doritos, for me to recognize how angry I was, this simmering distress that was making my heartbeat faster. It took me a sec to see just what was up with the suits who came in with their five-figure watches and told the members of the public at the meeting that they had 18 hours to give “input” about what they wanted to see in terms of park plans. The developers from LG Realty Advisers talked about the removal of trees necessary to make way for the grocery store, trees they were responsible for replanting — that would take fifty or sixty years to return to their beauty. They talked about about the width of sidewalks. They talked about how the park would be 2.2 acres counting the sidewalk and this was more than they had to allocate so we should be happy about it. They talked about bike lanes. They threw up some pictures from what looked like a Google image search about some different features the park could have, where they said, “Your children can come and play.” Never mind that some of us are too poor to envision being in a financially secure position to have and raise kids the way we want to have and raise them, but that’s fine; never mind that a playground isn’t the same as the affordable daycare center originally planned for Penn Plaza. A playground does not resolve the economic inequalities that result in families being relocated. It does not offer the promise of a sustainable future. The equipment is being constructed for children who will be living in the market rate homes or children whose parents can afford to shop at Whole Foods. The developers continued to show the people attending the meeting their blind spots as they said that all of these plans had been on the mayor’s website all along, never once considering the fact that some of the people most affected by the changes might be so busy trying to survive they don’t have time to log onto the mayor’s website or might not have Internet access at the first place. (Please note that this is a supposition on my part — I personally did not hear anybody at the meeting voice this specifically an issue. However, have you ever walked past the East Liberty library and seen how many people are using the computers to get online?)

And that’s when I started to realize that the narrative LG Realty Advisers was putting forth at this meeting in the basement of the East Liberty church was exactly the same colonial narrative that has been put forth since white men put up flags in America in the first place. The developers kept insisting, time and time again, that they could do whatever they wanted with this land — they owned it — reasserting their dominance and power over the members of the public present at the meeting.

And they kept urging those in attendance to stop talking about Whole Foods or houses and refocus public attention on the park, these little peanuts they threw out to the community for 18 hours of input into the design. As the developers from LG Realty kept directing the public to the “boxes” they could design, I kept thinking about prisons, all these little boxes that people are shuttled through, all these places to check on a form, these false illusions of autonomy that are put forth so that we believe we have a say in people who profit off of stripping our lives away from us. The park — the amount of park that the developers are so graciously are leaving for public input — is a numbing agent to keep the East Liberty community from feeling a systematic disease and nobody believes it, and nobody is accepting it as enough, because it just isn’t.

The developers immediately followed up their assertions of power over the community — the reiteration that they owned the land, they could do what they wanted — with the reasons why they thought the community should be grateful. For example, LG Realty Advisers were sure to point out that they were the only development company earmarking $12 million for affordable housing. (As a community member in attendance pointed out, they’re also the only ones redeveloping Penn Plaza. Your American exceptionalism isn’t that impressive.) In any case, the earmarked money does sound nice and generous, except for when you consider the fact that a lot of that money comes from tax breaks — so it’s actually our money in the first place. The developers insisted that they are allowed to do that, they are allowed their tax breaks, its up to them to decide what they do with it which, yes, it is true, because everything in this country favors the rich — that doesn’t mean that the rest of the public has to be grateful, or to settle for the scraps they hand out.

LG Realty Advisers also made it a point to list all the things they had done to relocate the Black people who lived in the subsidized housing units that had been destroyed, different levels of support they provided to be sure Black people had a “choice” about where they ended up. In all of the praise they heaped upon themselves they failed to imagine that people didn’t want to be living in subsidized housing in the first place, that, as men with enormous amounts of wealth and power, they are in the unique position to do something radical — provide people with a means to get themselves out of poverty. Rather than shuttling them from place to place, provide the space to build their own businesses maybe. Or a grocery store where the community can afford to buy the produce. You don’t know what is best for anybody.

Thank god for Jacquea Mae from 1Hood.org, though, who took the floor like a true poet, giving voice to a collective, righteous anger and making these men sweat in their suits. She was in the first video and here she is again:

One of the lawyers from the development company did get it right, though, when he told Jacquea Mae, “You don’t want to listen.” You’re right. It’s your turn to shut up and listen when men like you have had the entire course of human history to speak. Wouldn’t that be a radical act?

There is an expectation at these kinds of meetings, I think, for community to arrive complete informed about what is happening — to have been following the progress of change through the mayor’s website, through news reports — despite the fact that nothing is done to empower people to feel as though they have any say in the change that is inevitably going to happen. Big box stores come in, Black people are relocated, men in expensive suits and enormous, costly watches stand at the front of a room and lecture the public about how gentrification is “good for some people” (them). And they will tell us their names but they won’t tell us their annual salaries but it’s okay, many of us already know you make way more than we will ever know.

It’s important to show up to meetings like this if you can, it’s important to be ugly and unapologetic, it’s important to speak and keep speaking, and be angry, because if we are not angry then, to paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, people will take everything away and say that you agreed.

These men are ultimately going to be responsible for turning East Liberty into a place where only rich white people can afford to live, and all the while they are going to be telling the community members they are displacing that what they are doing is healthy, and right, because it makes money.

They’re going to keep talking about their grocery store and their parking lot, and say nothing about people, because they have never had to consider anybody mattering outside of their own scope of reality.

Concerns about the Penn Plaza redevelopment can be directed to the city at dolores.hanna@pittsburghpa.gov, where they will be a matter of public record.

I want to know who this Whole Foods is going to employ. And I’m not talking about “employ” as in, work chopping fruit in the freezer in the back. I mean who is going to be managing the store, and where will they be coming in from?

How are you going to subsidize the cost of food for people who can’t afford your artisanal meats?

I also want to know what the government is going to do to get material offline and into the hands of the people who it is going to affect the most. When are you going to stop publishing everything in 150 page reports that people have to go and sift through on their own time? When are you going to stop telling people that “everything is on the Mayor’s website” and use some of public’s tax dollars to get the literature into the peoples’ hands? When are you going to start remembering that the people are the ones you work for — all of the people — not the developers to whom you are selling the land right out from beneath our feet?

P.S. I want to ask the developers whether they have ever lain awake at night wondering whether they will be able to afford to have a child in the way they want to have and raise them; wondering whether they are going to survive to old age; or whether they are going to be able to afford groceries this month. I want to know whether they have ever stayed awake because they felt like their bodies were literally disappearing as capitalism stripped everything away from them. I want to know whether they have ever questioned their own sanity or the validity of their existence. How do I direct my comments to LG Realty Advisers? Where’s my direct line?