Writing Pittsburgh: Neighborhoods

We received 120 pitches for the first project in the Writing Pittsburgh series, and selected twenty-one finalists who represent a range of backgrounds and experiences. On September 19, 2015, all of our finalists participated in a day-long event where they defined their focus, shared stories about their individual experiences of Pittsburgh, collaborated, and planned out the next steps for their writing.

The essays explore the character and meaning of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods for both a local and national readership. Five works have been placed in various outlets.

From "79" by Brian Broome 

The last bus to the East Hills leaves Wilkinsburg Station at exactly 12:28 a.m. on weeknights, and I am always the last one on it by the time it reaches Park Hill Drive, where I live. The street is midnight dark apart from the headlights of the bus. The ramshackle homes are set a bit back from the road, behind overhanging trees. Anywhere else, this street would be charming. But poor makes everything ugly.
       The irritated bus driver and I sit in silence under the flickering fluorescent lights, which blanch everything an odd shade of greenish blue. I am coming off a late shift at work and the both of us, the driver and I, are impatient to be back in our normally lit homes. We can just about taste the freedom. But tonight, our quiet time together is interrupted by a rumbling in the distance. A shouting that grows progressively louder as the bus shuffles slowly up narrow Park Hill Drive. And when the rumbling reaches its peak, we are set upon by a horde of drunken children, unruly and shrieking, who have come out of seemingly nowhere. They shout and bang at the sides of the bus with open hands, fists, bottles, and all their energy. They are trying to rock my coach off its wheels and overturn it with me and my terrified white coachman inside. He leans on the horn and, as is frequently the case with such miscreants, this show of weakness serves only to incite them further, fueling their attack. Bottles are thrown. Some shatter against the windows.
       I hold fast to the seat in front of me and wonder where their parents are, as if they could do anything to stop the onslaught. Their failure to properly raise their children is the reason I’m caught in the tide of this ocean of bloodthirsty, cackling hooligans bent on the wreaking of havoc. I can only assume my death is imminent. We are at their mercy. The driver, frantic, fumbles with the radio, which crackles and sputters with truncated, static-ridden words as he tries to explain what’s happening to some incredulous and disembodied voice at the other end. And then, as quickly as it began, it is over. The banging subsides, and the melee disappears into the darkness. The excitement can’t have lasted for more than a minute or so, but it felt like an eternity, and the bus quietly ambles up the road to the stop outside my home, where it heaves a sigh of relief and spits me out under a flickering streetlamp. It speeds away noisily, and I stand there until its engine fades, leaving me to the sound of crickets.
       The 79. Your tour bus for the East Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s a bus that exists only to ferry people to the busway that links our little village to the rest of the city. A loop bus that encircles the projects like a noose.
       If you look at the area on a map, the loop resembles the Eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol I once saw in a book about witchcraft. It symbolizes protection, royal power, and good health, and in the East Hills, this is the cruelest of all ironies. I live at the corner of the eye, the very caruncle of the Eye of Horus, but protection and good health are in rare supply here.
       Sin, however, is abundant. You can walk around this neighborhood and pick mortal sins off every branch of the overhanging trees. The 79 makes seven stops. I’ve counted them.


To continue reading, please visit True Story


From “The Hidden History of Gas Station Bathrooms, By a Man Who Cleans Them” by Gavin Jenkins 

A bald man rounded the corner by the ATM machine. He was coming back from the bathroom with the look. I’d been at the gas station a couple months, so I knew the look. It’s a grimace with pursed lips that says: I feel dirty. We locked eyes long enough for him to shake his head. That little swivel filled me with anxiety. Our bathrooms weren’t filthy. For one of the busiest gas stations in Pittsburgh, they were OK. And no, that’s not good enough, but does an OK inner-city public restroom deserve a public shaming? Because that’s usually what accompanies the look, a cry of: That bathroom is disgusting! Then people within earshot make the look, too.

Expecting a scene, my muscles tightened as I rang up a customer. But the guy with the look didn’t embarrass me. He stood aside and waited. His blue, checkered dress shirt was tucked into khakis, and he sported a thin, whitish-blonde mustache that matched the ring of hair around his head. When the customer left, he leaned in.

“You need to clean that bathroom.” He raised his eyebrows and his forehead wrinkled. “It’s a mess. Big-time.”

I thanked the man and he left. The assistant manager was depositing money into the safe a few feet away. “Better go now,” he said, standing. He readjusted his glasses and checked traffic in the parking lot. “Go on, hurry up.”

Cleaning the bathroom quickly was imperative, but it was more complicated than the importance of sanitation. The gas station is located along Baum Boulevard, one of the East End’s main thoroughfares, and it’s one of those Exxon-McDonald’s-7-Eleven hybrids – café seating, sixteen fuel pumps, and 23 parking spaces. The kind of mega-station where you stop for gas and end up buying a Philly cheesesteak, chips and a large Pepsi because a sign on the pump reminded you: the more you spend on food, the more points you get on your fuel rewards card.

It was almost three on a hot summer afternoon. All sixteen pumps were being used, Baum had traffic, and we were understaffed. I was one of two cashiers standing inside an octagon-shaped counter with four registers. The assistant manager said he’d watch my line while I cleaned, but that was wishful thinking. The gas station was too busy for managers to stand still. My mission was clear: clean the men’s room and return before the other cashier was overwhelmed by customers.

This was frustrating because I wanted to do a thorough job. I hated having an OK bathroom. People informing me of messes was embarrassing. Most were trying to help. I know this because the gas station chain where I worked asked customers to speak up when the restrooms were disgusting. There were three signs inside each one proclaiming our dedication to cleanliness and encouraging customers to inform us when the facilities were not up to par. The signs, the look, my interpretations, it’s all connected to the strange relationship society has with gas station bathrooms, the most common public restrooms. Just say the words to someone, “gas station bathroom,” and they’ll conjure up a grotesque image and make the look. It’s a stereotype linked to a phobia about public toilets, but even if you encounter one with slick, urine-coated floors and poop-stained toilet seats, it is highly unlikely that it will get you sick.

Gas station companies used to take advantage of this fear by promoting clean bathrooms. Gulf started the trend in 1933, and the advertisements were so effective that Texaco, which was the first gas station to build public restrooms, launched its Registered Rest Rooms campaign two years later. Texaco pledged to send bathroom inspectors to each location, and women were the target audience (executives believed that, though men drove, women determined when and where they stopped). Full-page ads showed smiling mothers and children heading into “Registered” rest rooms, with the tagline: Something we ladies appreciate!

Gas station bathrooms aided mobility. Americans didn’t have to worry about where to relieve themselves while driving coast-to-coast for the first time. The stations promote cleanliness, and say, to men: Don’t pee in the alley! In some cases, the state of a gas station’s bathroom can speak volumes about the state of the neighborhood. If I worked at the gas station in the East End, then those bathrooms were the public restrooms for the fifteen diverse neighborhoods crammed into that corner of Pittsburgh. And they were just OK, which meant sometimes they were, in the words of the man with the whitish-blonde mustache who complained that summer day, “A mess. Big-time.”


To continue reading, please visit Narratively.


From “Squash on the Hill” by Caitlin Dwyer

Marlon is hurt. Or so he says, limping into the squash court, an exaggerated look of pain contorting his face. Coach Samantha Rosado takes one look at him and says, “Hustle up, Marlon. Okay, everybody, what’s next?”

A chorus of voices echoes around the enclosed court: “High skips!”

It’s warm-up time at Steel City Squash.  Sixth-graders are lined up against the wall, fidgeting. When Rosado calls, “Go!” the students bolt forward, their kneecaps lifting high. There’s a lot of groaning. One girl waits until Rosado isn’t looking and then walks. Marlon refuses to skip, his toes dragging along the wood, grimacing. The other students are already back to the wall by the time Marlon is halfway done.

From the wall, a short kid with an oversized yellow t-shirt tucked into his athletic pants starts yelling. “Hurry up, hurry up! Quit draggin’!”

Marlon winces and limps toward the wall.

“You’re wasting squash time!” the short kid yells. His name is Tai’Mere Thompson; at 11, he’s a veteran of the squash team here and clearly feels some authority on the court.

“Shut up!” Marlon shoots back.

“Against the wall,” Rosado orders. She has already told Marlon that he can sit out if he feels hurt, but that he can’t play a game without warming up.

“Quit wasting time!” Tai’Mere repeats, and despite an admonition to keep quiet he yells on, and Marlon yells back, and pretty soon the two of them are screaming at each other. Rosado orders Marlon off the court to cool down, and he stomps off, fuming, while Tai’Mere begins his next set of drills.

Tai’Mere and his teammates come from the Hill District, a primarily African-American neighborhood in the heart of Pittsburgh. The area has some of the city’s prime real estate: rising out of downtown with views north and south. It also has some of the worst poverty and violence in the city. Three times a week, a small group of kids from the Hill District are shuttled to the University of Pittsburgh, where they are taught the basics of squash, a racquetball-like game popular in prep schools, and mentored in skills for academic success.

Steel City Squash (SCS) arrived in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 2014, when Tai’Mere and Marlon were in fifth grade. Modeled after similar after-school enrichment programs in Boston, New York, Baltimore and Chicago, the nonprofit deliberately targeted the Hill, trying to find a place where squash would stand out.

“It is totally unknown. Squash is a white male elite culture, says SCS Squash Director Samantha Rosado.  “A lot of the top colleges have squash programs, and a lot of them recruit from urban squash teams. There are a lot of scholarships… It’s essentially a way to get them to college.”

Squash may seem like a strange sport for the Hill, but that’s the point, says Jeremy Feinstein, Secretary of the Board at SCS. “It’s harnessing the traditional elitism of the sport itself,” he told me. “If you’re a college admissions officer and you find a kid from the Hill District, and not only have they done pretty well in school but they’re a squash player? That’s not what you’re expecting to see.”

The program is held at the old Fitzgerald Field House, tucked behind an indoor track and the well-lit, broad expanse of the volleyball courts. The staircase is dark and narrow. After practice, I find 11-year-old Marlon, evicted from practice for yelling, sitting on the steps with his head in his hands, crying softly.


To continue reading, please visit Sport Literate.


From “Larimer and Orphan” by Joy Katz

At the corner of Larimer Avenue and Orphan Street is a meadow turning to forest, where the foundations of demolished homes are softened by ivy and moss. This spot is only twenty years into a quiet ruination, but it feels ancient. Wherever I step, in the low grass, dozens of tiny crickets spring out, noiselessly, pale-gray. I can’t find them when I bend over to look. It’s as if I am splashing through an invisible, mysteriously dry puddle.

I visit this corner for its particular emptiness. In steeply hilly Pittsburgh, nowhere else feels like this — it’s flat, and I can see. I lived in flat cities most of my life and didn’t realize, till I found this corner, how much I miss the sensation of being able to look far off and see a street narrow in the distance.

A purple bicycle rusts between a walnut and a Japanese honeysuckle. A beer can, How to use a condom, Parliament, Spree, details that alter context. But Larimer at Orphan is not a postindustrial catastrophe. It is just a corner that people have left alone for a long time.

You can’t plan a space like this. It happens outside the bounds of intent, at the edges of function and inhabitation. There are corners like this in every city — on a pause between stories. No connection to the past. No plans for the future. No one wakes up here and makes breakfast, or pumps gas, or meets for lunch. The definitionlessness helps me think.

Sitting at Larimer and Orphan on a summer day, I can believe that I am in the middle of the continent. Birds land in a yew tree. A mom and her teen daughter cross the high Larimer bridge. The mom in jeans, laughing. She pushes her girl into the street — a gentle shove, a joke, no anger in the gesture. The boundary between sidewalk and street has a different meaning here, or less meaning, or no meaning. The quiet between cars passing is so deep, it feels like no one will come by again. We could be in a movie about an empty America set in 1933 or 2093.

A red SUV with a bumping stereo slows to see who is sitting on the ground, writing all this, where there is no bench, no coffee shop, no reason to be. I love all waste and solitary places, wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.

What do you think when I say Larimer? I randomly poll people. “A place you don’t go for anything,” says a co-worker. A neighborhood to be avoided. The news has given us such a limited vocabulary. Neglected, forgotten, abandoned. Along the alleys, trash dribbles out of metal cans.

A vast cathedral, punctuated with pink graffiti, has holes in its tallest windows, as if mature trees have been hurled through them. Our Lady Help of Christians. The building will be demolished any day now; a developer just bought it. In a year, maybe less, the idea of Larimer being “a place you don’t go for anything” will be outmoded.

A short drive away, at the edge of East Liberty, a new apartment complex is going up. The shiny, boxy rentals look exactly like the images on the developer’s website, the rendering made real, as if you could point your finger at one of the doors and a hologram interior would pop up: an empty living room with an empty square-edged sofa. There are no people in the pictures. Who will move here?


To continue reading, please visit Places Journal.


From "Measuring the Decline of America’s First Company Town, One Crack at a Time" by Lawrence Lenhart

In Pennsylvania’s Lower Turtle Creek Valley—where there are no longer turtles in the crick (for decades, I’ve checked), no turtle soup on its cafés’ menus either—a borough surrenders its castle. On a Saturday morning, the last contents of the turreted sandstone castle are dragged onto the lawn: three chairs from the old high-school auditorium, a big drum that belonged to the Polish Falcons, and an antique Westinghouse roaster stand (“calibrated to match the temperatures in your cookbook with super-super exactness”). I drive around the Castle once, twice, a few times more. The tally ticks upward. I’m in indefinite orbit.

For years, there has been a protracted campaign to resuscitate the glory of the old castle on the hillock, which for 95 years served as the Westinghouse Air Brake Company General Office Building. Now, just weeks after a rash of vandalism and weeks before the public option, the vacancy seems to dignify the Castle. That’s what I’m circling, witnessing, authenticating—its reset dignity. The Castle’s clock tower, which once signaled work shifts at the nearby Air Brake factory, has become a vestigial architecture. I discontinue my circuit of bygone industry, trying not to read the “Commerce Street” signage as ironic, and drive toward the decrepit downtown, where I park outside the Dollar General.

In Species of Spaces (1974), Georges Perec calls the neighborhood “a familiar space [which] gives rise to an itinerary . . . a pretext for a few limp handshakes.” Wilmerding, PA’s grip has often been firmer than my own. Occasionally crushing, white-knuckled. How many times I’ve been introduced to a “machine hand” who once worked with my grandfather at the Air Brake.

Two young girls enter the Dollar General, singles fanned out. I notice they’re barefooted. Their toes flex against the tile as they do candybar arithmetic. “I think we can get five of this size,” one says. I buy a package of pens and leave.


I begin at a four-way intersection on the other side of the creek, the westernmost point of Airbrake Avenue (just outside of Wilmerding in Turtle Creek)—a pen clipped to my notepad and tape measure clipped to the waistband of my Levi’s. I’ve decided to measure the avenue’s sidewalk cracks, the ones my father once leapt to spare his mother’s back. Even though she’s gone, her back now parallel and subterranean with her husband’s at St. Michael’s Cemetery, I keep my ear to the ground and listen for her sound as I crouch, measure, and record every breakage in the cement. This is borough forensics. I am closest to the surface across which Wilmerding’s feet glide, and I am picking through all the let-go litter. By the time I arrive at Valley Laundromat (and Donut Shop), a few scant paces from my point of embarkation, I’ve already genuflected six times to measure the sidewalk cracks (SC).
        SC #1: 8¼ʺ
        SC  #2: ¾ʺ
        SC  #3: 1ʺ
        SC #4: 3½ʺ
        SC  #5: 1ʺ
        SC  #6: 1ʺ
My methodology is wack. I ignore cracks smaller than 3/8ʺ, am prone to approximation, am not yet sure what to do about the crocodile cracking. Am I to measure each fracture of its concrete webbing? The first step in calculating pavement condition, according to Mahmood et al., is to “determine severity, and the extent of each distress type for a pavement section.” I see the houses to my left shoulder, their paint cracking too, and remember blight can be vertical. Blight is the pall that mistakes our cities for tombs, begging us to look away.


To continue reading, please visit Literary Hub.


Thank you to everyone who submitted a pitch—we look forward to working with more of you as the Writing Pittsburgh series continues!



                                                           More information:
                          Book Prize  | Writing Pittsburgh Fellowship  | The Advisory Board