Saturday, May 26, 2012

August Wilson's Hill

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, THE HILL DISTRICT, PITTSBURGH, PA -- Residents simply call it "The Hill". But this one-and-a-half square mile quilt work of neighborhoods is more than just that -- it's both famous (once called the crossroads to the world), infamous (for its poverty and blight), and a classic example of how the federal bulldozers of the 1960s ruined once vibrant urban African American enclaves. At that time 8000 residents and 400 businesses in the District were displaced by the building of a new civic arena. Yet this place has such an important history. It was home to the Pittsburgh Courier -- the Black newspaper once boasting the largest circulation of any such publication in the country. The Hill was also the home to famed jazz drummer Art Blakey, Saxophone great Stanley Turrentine, as well as Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright August Wilson, whose writings centered around the District.

August Wilson passed away in 2005 at the relatively young age of 60. To commemorate his life and work the City erected an official sign outside his Hill birthplace. Unfortunately, since the actual building is privately-owned various city and non-profit agencies have been unable to fix it up. Thus, his home remains dilapidated just like so many other properties on The Hill. Yet there are murals on the front of the building giving a nod to August Wilson, representing his continued presence and indelible print on The Hill. Still, the condition of the building is not a pretty sight and in my mind symbolizes The Hill's victimization -- one of a long and tortured story of malign urban disinvestment despite its importance. The entire Hill is without a supermarket and has been for over 30 years. Fortunately just under a year ago, ground was finally broken on The Hill's first large supermarket. Now if only his house could be fixed up the way August Wilson and his family deserve.

Editor's Note:  Ironically, according to the Poverty&Race Research Action Council (PRRAC), the supermarket is the hard-earned product of neighborhood outrage over $295 million in state and local subsidies for a new Pittsburgh Penguins hockey arena in the Lower Hill. Residents formed a community coalition to demand concrete benefits for The Hill, and one of the results was $2 million for a new multiservice grocery store. August Wilson's sister has been a very active member of the coalition.  

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be reached at

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Where are Atlanta's Ethnic Enclaves?

Posted by Elizabeth Avent, LAWRENCEVILLE, GA -- Ethnic enclaves like the Chinatowns of New York City and San Francisco are well known, attracting tourists from all over the world. After living in Atlanta for almost four years, I began to wonder why Atlanta didn't seem to have anything like those places. Atlanta is known as the Black Mecca, and Georgia State University has consistently been ranked one of the most ethnically diverse higher education institutions in the country , boasting a student population of African Americans, Africans, North and Southeast Asians, ethnic whites, and a growing number of Latinos. But once you leave GSUs campus, the urban core of Atlanta doesn't seem very diverse at all. Sure, there are plenty of Black and White communities but nothing like a Chinatown, Little India, or Koreatown. In fact, besides some really great soul food restaurants there's really no place you can go in the city to get inexpensive, 'real' ethnic eats. To find such places you have to leave the city and head for the suburbs.

Take Lawrenceville, a northeastern suburb, for example. A friend of mine and I happened upon an ethnic enclave of sorts up there. It was a plaza with Asian businesses, and Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese restaurants, Korean BBQs as well as a large Asian supermarket. The names of the businesses were in both English and various Asian characters. The supermarket sold only authentic Asian foods and fresh vegetables, fruits, and seafood, and most of the fish and shellfish were still alive. There were aisles full of huge bags of rice and noodles. Many tables were set up inside with people offering samples of the Asian cuisine they had just prepared. There were also smaller shops inside that sold floral arrangements, small housewares, and other things besides food. The supermarket even offered Asian newspapers.

The atmosphere of the plaza was not an exclusive one. I was one of very few people who weren’t Asian, and my friend and I were the only African Americans. But everybody was courteous and didn't make us feel out of place.  This was the closest thing to an ethnic enclave that I have found in the Atlanta area. It may not have the vastness of other cities' Chinatowns, but it does share the characteristic of being marked by cultural distinctiveness.

Elizabeth Avent is a Sociology major at Georgia State University with a focus on race and urban issues. She can be reached at

Saturday, May 12, 2012

College Town Poverty

Posted by Debby Yoder, ATHENS, GA -- When most people think of Athens they think of the University of Georgia, REM, the B-52s, and college football. A community bustling with the energy of young people preparing for their future and enjoying college life. But just a short half mile from campus pervasive poverty is evident. In fact, Athens has one of the  highest poverty rates in the country. In 2009, the incomes of 44.9% of its residents were below the federally-established poverty line (compared to a statewide figure of 16.5%). Critics argue that the student population inflates this rate. But even if you omit single individuals, 34% of Athens' families are below the poverty line and three of its elementary schools have 100% of students on the free-and-reduced lunch program.

One of the biggest problems the community faces is a the lack of quality, affordable housing. Student housing is readily available, but families with children struggle to find decent homes. A result is a patchword pattern of housing quality.  You walk down one block lined with well-kept affluent homes and beautiful fraternity houses (although I'm sure there are noise issues on the weekends). You walk down the next and see dilapidated homes and make shift trailers. The more destitute areas are mixed with industry, leaving a foul stench in the air. Still, the people who live in these neighborhoods have a generosity of spirit and humor that you would never find in the more affluent ones. I came across a  group of aging gentlemen sitting on a porch, laughing and spinning tales to outdo each other on a Friday afternoon. Their lively energy cast against the impoverished setting is an image that will likely never be recorded. "Photographers aren’t welcome, they said with a smiling wink." They started laughing and I joined in. I had the feeling I could have talked them into sitting for a photograph but I didn't want to intrude. Still, in the back of my mind I was thinking that this everyday situation I happened upon will probably only be seen by those like themselves-- or the few passersby like me...never in a newspaper nor on TV unless something bad happens..a murder, drug bust, or anything else to further impound on the general public's brain that people who live in poverty are not good. The gentleness and normality of these gentlemen's  friday afternoon story telling remains invisible to the larger world.

Debby Yoder is a Sociology major at Georgia State University. She loves meeting new people and discovering the world around her. Debby can be reached at

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Where Baseball Catches the City

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, PITTSBURGH, PA -- There are two things that have always intrigued me about baseball: how fast the pitchers throw the ball and how, more often than not, the batters actually hit it. While this has never made me an avid baseball fan, when a colleague asked if I wanted to go to a Pirates game while we were at the Urban Affairs Association meeting in Pittsburgh, I was once again intrigued. Mind you, not because of the pitchers and batters, but because of the PNC Park stadium, where the game would be played. Opened in 2001 to replace the aging Three Rivers Stadium, PNC was designed to more fully integrate baseball with the city through spectacular skyline and river views. Interestingly, despite the stadium's proximity to the river, Daryle Ward has been the only player to hit a home run into it.

PNC is also stadium you can easily walk to, from, and around; has a sports bar where you can get a very nice glass of chardonnay; as well as a playground by the river for bored kids. To get to the stadium from downtown you must cross the Sixth Street Bridge. On game night the bridge is closed to traffic, so people typically park downtown and walk over the bridge, avoiding the major traffic jams of so many other stadiums. It also makes for a better game scene. While we were walking to the game I couldn't help but get excited watching the crowds of enthusiastic fans traverse the bridge.


I also wondered what was there before the stadium was built. Was this another massive urban redevelopment project requiring the displacement of current residents? It turns out that there was a high rise for seniors there. But the Sports and Exhibition Authority built replacement housing in the neighborhood, leasing a nearby apartment complex for the residents while this housing was being built.

The game itself was unimpressive except for a homerun by the Pirates during the beginning of the first inning. In the end though, they lost 4 to 1. It didn't seem to matter much -- a stadium like PNC catches the city, making everybody happy.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor in Sociology at Georgia State University. You can reach her at