Bridging the Gap: In the News

Who Gets Left Out of the Urban Tech Boom?

View of Pittsburgh in the Evening
View of Pittsburgh in the Evening

In the mid-1980s, when I was on my high school’s cross-country team, I used to run along Penn Avenue from my hometown, Wilkinsburg, into the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I never knew exactly during those days where I entered or exited either city.

Buttressed by the nearby Westinghouse Electric complex, Wilkinsburg’s downtown flowed into East Liberty. Wilkinsburg was mixed, about 53 percent black, and the black residents of Wilkinsburg, including my adoptive parents, worked and went to school in both places. You could easily miss the changing color of the street signs from green (Wilkinsburg) to blue (Pittsburgh). The smell from the Nabisco factory, just across the border on the Pittsburgh side, was a better signal. The buttery smell of Ritz crackers welcomed me into the bigger city.

The 1990s were especially hard on both Wilkinsburg and East Liberty. Westinghouse laid off thousands of workers. The Nabisco factory closed in 1998. With fewer jobs available, dozens of my classmates sold drugs, ending up addicted, in jail or dead from related violence. I was lucky; I left for college and made a career for myself in other cities.

Over the past decade or so, things started to change in Pittsburgh, but only one of those areas benefited. By 2010, Pittsburgh had reinvented itself as a tech hub — it is one of 20 finalists to land Amazon’s second headquarters — and that new identity is anchored by Google’s engineering office in East Liberty. What used to be the site of the Nabisco factory is now called Bakery Square, a mixed-use development with apartments, fancy retail shops, a gym, chic restaurants and bars, and bike trails to Mellon Park, where Google engineers and others who have flocked to the neighborhood enjoy walking paths, and basketball and tennis courts. Until recentlydriverless cars roamed the streets.

East Liberty represents the kind of transformation old industrial cities lust after. According to the Urban Land Institute, East Liberty has received $900 million in investment since the late 1990s, heavily subsidized by tax credits and other public funding, adding over 2,400 new jobs. Duolingo, a language education company also based in East Liberty, raised $25 million last year from the venture capital firm Drive Capital. East Liberty even has its own incubator for tech start-ups — AlphaLab, which gives companies $25,000 in funding for a 5 percent equity stake.

Black residents of Wilkinsburg, as in most of the 1,200 majority-black cities in the United States, have not participated in any of this growth. There are about 600 vacant and tax-delinquent residential properties in Wilkinsburg, and Penn Avenue has lost most of its businesses except for cellphone dealers, dollar stores and check-cashing operations.

More important, Wilkinsburg is losing people, mostly white. From 1990 to 2010, its population fell to 15,930, from 21,080, and the population changed to more than two-thirds black. Those who remain are more likely to be poor: The poverty rate among Wilkinsburg families rose to 20.9 percent in 2016, from 14.3 percent in 1990. In Wilkinsburg, the largest employer, as it has been for years, is New LifeCare Hospitals, with 260 employees.

What makes these two places so different? In Pittsburgh, as in any other city, economic growth is a direct result of strategic investments in leadership, talent and infrastructure. These resources have helped places like East Liberty attract new companies and new jobs. What’s missing in Wilkinsburg is investments in people with real links to black-owned businesses, entrepreneurs and historically black institutions, which cultivate conditions for economic and social growth. Many of the academic institutions and businesses that regularly receive investments in the metro area have no deep ties to black communities. Consequently, those dollars don’t go beyond those social networks.

Whether it’s Amazon, Google or their future competitors, as the tech industry pours money into Pittsburgh, it needs to look more closely at where exactly that money is going.

It could be going to Wilkinsburg. The town has great infrastructure. It has its own exit off Interstate 376 and great access to public transportation. The University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Carlow University are a bus ride away. But it has gotten little investment other than a small nonprofit business incubator and a project by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation to raise $6 million for a train station restoration project.

Real estate developers have shown some interest in Wilkinsburg, and many residents welcome that interest if it will bring people — black or white — back to the town. But if that investment is narrowly focused, there is a danger: It may bring only gentrification and displacement, rather than aiding local businesses.

Derrick Tillman, a local developer, is trying to build affordable housing and market-rate housing, but he says he has not been able to break into the funding networks that are helping parts of Pittsburgh. “We’ve struggled to attract the funds that could catalyze Wilkinsburg because we’re not part of investment capital circles for large-scale projects,” he told me.

Wilkinsburg is a proud black city. And I believe it has real potential. For the first time, the mayor is black, the police chief is black and the head of the school district is black. And small businesses are returning to Penn Avenue. This could be the time for Wilkinsburg’s great comeback.

Investors and technology companies looking to expand in Pittsburgh and other cities have to do more to make sure that the benefits of their growth are not limited to their own social networks. And legislators must do more to hold tech companies accountable to a social contract built to enhance the quality of life for all of a city’s residents — not just a tech company’s well-paid employees.

Amazon, for example, has just instituted its version of the Rooney rule, with a pledge to interview women and minorities for all board openings. Why not expand that to include all the decisions it makes about investments in the city that hosts its second headquarters? Tech companies should also establish partnerships, including start-up incubators, with colleges that produce large numbers of black and brown STEM graduates.

Ten years ago, Pittsburgh was no different from the many other industrial cities badly in need of a new identity. At some point, someone made a strong case to investors that certain people and institutions in Pittsburgh should be trusted — researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and other anchors of the revival. Those individuals and organizations were able to convert that trust into growth. Investors, civic leaders and philanthropists need to extend that trust to everyone.