When Allison Guess reached out to me about guest posting, I noticed she was from Pittsburgh and I asked her to tell me about what’s really going on in East Liberty, an area lauded for its new development lifeblood. However, as I expected and even more, she has taken us back to the roots of gentrification (colonialization) and illustrated how the current changes are right in line with previous patterns. Her post raises questions and intensifies my hope that one day, we as Americans can come to terms with land ownership, cultivation, and value in an ethical and honorable manner.
A few years ago, I began doing some preliminary research on land based historical trauma. I was specifically interested in land theft and the effects gentrification on Black communities. In a 21st century effort to expand my bibliography, I did a basic Google search of “land theft.” Although not specific enough, my search request did birth a critical evaluation of the stories of land theft that our country has told.
As grade school children, we as United States citizens learn about how the Pilgrims came to the “New World” on the Mayflower and later had a blissful Thanksgiving meal with the Natives. Educators are not honest when describing this situation of overt land theft, the rapping of communities and extreme injustice those Native American communities experienced and continue to face. History books ignore the past and presently lingering notion of Manifest Destiny that lead to the colonization of the African continent (before and after the Pilgrims came to the “New World”) and the seizure of off-continental U.S. territories. Only as adults and when entering college do a few of us hear or care to learn of this bitter truth.
Ironically, past and present conversations about land theft, more often than none seem to tell a drastically biased tale. In the post-slavery Jim Crow Era, one can clearly evaluate the thoughts and fears of urbanization that took place during in Industrial Revolution. Many whites during the time made their concern of the African American Great Migration, also described as the “Negro invasion” known in large public spheres. In that era it was Blacks that were being accused of taking all the jobs and displacing white Americans, sound familiar? On the other hand, major history sources fail to mention that Blacks participating in this massive move, were responding to the terrorism of the south by fleeing for their lives in hopes of salvaging their communities and living out the promised American Dream.
To speak to today’s biased tale of land theft, we can simply encounter present day conversations about immigration and “Mexicans” “stealing” land, resources and jobs from “Americans.” Paradoxically, most of the inhabited lands that some U.S. citizens see as the biggest “threat” of immigrant occupancy (southern and southwestern states such as Texas, Arizona, California, Alabama etc.) are the lands that were not only once occupied by Native Americans but more resounding the country of Mexico, alike. It is interesting to me that advocates of border control and harsh immigration policies, continue to seek ways to police and keep out the descendants of the original inhabitants of these lands.
My point in creating this past and present parallel is to highlight the deeply imbedded fears, bias, and racism in the white psyche. Understanding (not judging) these feelings while having an open and honest “immigration” conversation can help many of us to understand the “memories” that Black Americans have of land theft and land based historical trauma. They can help community organizers, community planners, and investors understand that all people, regardless of skin color, develop relationships, memories, and some level of fondness to their communities regardless of how blighted these spaces may be or have become. We should be reminded that a simple change in community design that ultimately leads to the attraction of a different demographic group other than the already present residents is in and of itself a model of invasion as well as a type of land theft.
An example of not taking the above into consideration and the possible damaging ramifications of community development includes that of East Liberty. East Liberty was once a predominately African American occupied neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a child, I grew up just minutes away from East Liberty. Like many urban Black neighborhoods in the U.S., there was certainly violence, drugs and crime; I will not negate that. However, there was also a strong community that sought to overcome the effects of systematic poverty and disenfranchisement and thus give back to the community.
East Liberty seemed to change overnight. I went away to college and then returned to a new neighborhood. There were fancy restaurants, Target, $400,000+ homes being built and parking meters lined major streets. Soon these streets would become a nightlife and fine dinning Mecca. Commercial for sale signs were everywhere and one could see the future plans of those particular spaces in their windows and on their lots. A majority Black middle school ended this past school year early so it could be demolished and turned into costly lofts.
One of the more sincere objectives of investors is to create incentive for those dwelling in certain areas coined slums to stay. Adversely, in East Liberty (and some other gentrified neighborhoods in United States) the incentive that was created was one that encouraged former residents to leave. Although beneficial to get the “blight” out of neighborhoods, it is very clear that the “original” residents of East Liberty had no or a very small voice in the changes. The documentary East of Liberty highlights this struggle between original residents, new residents, and developers.
Now I know many on the defense will say that supportive, mixed-income housing was built. One could argue that this was established with the community impute. However, I believe this housing is a monument of negativity: a symbol of the undermining of a people due to an enduring history of racism, disenfranchisement, and historical trauma. While support is needed for the abused and addicted, the best support comes from true policy change, the critique and modification of systems, and the desire to see competitive groups excel and take pride in recreating their own community. This support does not include takeover, theft, capture, poverty, forced socialization, or community defeat.
Thus in in moving forward, I have some normative suggestions to community planners and investors. We should seek to make sure all residents are included when making decisions about neighborhood change and development. We ought to be critical of who is or who is not at the conversation table. This means we do not just include the more vocal or affluent voices in the community that are still deemed different in some ways to us, but we should also seek representation of those community members who barely have a whisper. It is not anybody’s responsibility to make decisions or decide the fates of others. When creating incentive to stay, we should make sure it is just that. The primary intention in development should always be to have people stay and the secondary focus should be to attract others into the community and thus naturally foster a more diverse community over time. In doing all of this, the memories and experiences of land theft, invasion, and immigration should inform our discussion as all racial and regional groups have experienced their own story of settling and seizure from an “outsider” group.
Allison Guess is a resident of Pittsburgh, PA. Allison graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with two Bachelors degrees in Political Science and Hispanic Languages and Literature (Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese). Currently, Allison is a consultant and the Academic Liaison for the Black/Land Project. Allison is interested in land based historical trauma, gentrification, redlining, gerrymandering, policy histories, displacement, ethnography and storytelling, just to name a few. Allison hopes to pursue a PhD in African American/Africana Studies in order to further research Black peoples’ relationships to land and place.