CMU map reinforces prejudice

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Last Monday night, a post on the Facebook group Overlooked At Carnegie Mellon drew attention to something most students probably don’t think about after orientation: the guides to Pittsburgh distributed by our school. Although they might look perfectly innocent, they are actually far from it, perfectly highlighting the power of maps and of institutions like Carnegie Mellon in determining the destiny of communities. And they should alert us all to the way this power has been used historically to place communities of color in disadvantageous positions in cities across America.

Up until this week, there was a similarly problematic map in the basement of the Cohon University Center, right outside the game room. While the map colorfully highlighted neighborhoods that are familiar to Carnegie Mellon students — Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, the North Side — they very obviously omitted information about some neighborhoods which are just as close to campus, like the Hill District and Garfield, which have been centers of Black culture and multicultural history in Pittsburgh for decades.

The problems here are much deeper than just pamphlets at the admissions desk and a mural in the basement of the Cohon Center. These maps reinforce a legacy of racial and economic discrimination in the city of Pittsburgh that goes back almost a century. In the 1930s, the federal government created “Residential Security Maps” of America’s cities, which dictated to banks which neighborhoods were “secure” for them to make real estate investments and issue loans to potential homeowners. Those which were deemed “not secure” were outlined in red — this practice became known as “redlining” — and the neighborhoods deemed “not secure” were almost always predominantly Black ones.

Pittsburgh’s Hill District was entirely redlined, as was much of Garfield and East Liberty. Because it was near-impossible to get a mortgage on a home in a redlined neighborhood, few people moved to or invested in those areas. This led to their further decline, triggering a negative feedback loop of decline, disinvestment, and discrimination. Neighborhoods which became victims of this cycle were then easily dismissed as being “blighted,” “undesirable,” and “high-crime,” which allows individuals and institutions like Carnegie Mellon to justify the erasure of these communities’ histories.

The Hill District, located between Downtown and Oakland, was once known as the “crossroads of the world.” It was a center of Black culture, not just in Pittsburgh but also in the country. Its clubs, like the Crawford Grill, whose building still stands today, hosted some of the era’s greatest musicians. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, and Louis Armstrong all made stops in the Hill District as they toured America; its main streets along Centre and Wylie Avenues were home to dozens of thriving Black-owned businesses. The Pittsburgh Crawfords, a Negro League baseball team started in the Hill District, became one of the best Black baseball teams in the country (future MLB great Satchel Paige got his start on the Crawfords). Their Greenlee Field was the first Black-built-and-owned baseball stadium in the United States.

As with many Black neighborhoods across the country, the Hill District was selected as a site for “urban renewal” in the 1950s. To facilitate planners’ vision of a “renewed” neighborhood, 8,000 residents — the vast majority of whom were Black — were displaced from 1,500 buildings to make space for a hockey arena and parking lots for people visiting Downtown. This was done with little regard for the existing community. One Pittsburgh City Council member, George E. Evans, wrote in support of the renewal plan in a July 1943 issue of Greater Pittsburgh magazine, saying “there would be no social loss if [buildings] were all destroyed.” As this “renewal” disconnected the residents of the Hill District from Downtown Pittsburgh, the vicious cycle brought about by disinvestment began. Since the 1950s, the Hill District has lost the vast majority of its peak population and many of its businesses. But history shows us that further neglect of communities only makes the situation worse by perpetuating the cycle of disinvestment. That’s why it was so disappointing to see our school, which has the power to be a force for positive change, instead elect to buy into the narrative of “undesirable” neighborhoods and encourage patterns of racial discrimination.

Some responses to this might point to the same conclusion as Wikipedia’s article about the Hill District: the area has “struggled with varying levels of dilapidation and crime,” therefore suggesting that Carnegie Mellon is right not to recommend students to visit the area. But according to real estate website NeighborhoodScout, which publishes maps of crime rates by neighborhood, the Hill and Garfield have crime rates comparable to East Liberty, as well as parts of Shadyside, both of which are featured on Carnegie Mellon's guides.

These exclusionary maps have several effects on student life as well. First of all, students are missing out on things to do beyond the walls of our campus. Garfield, for example, is home to numerous art and creative spaces, such as Assemble, The Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, and the Pittsburgh Glass Center (where students are already able to register for classes!). The Hill District contains the August Wilson House, the birth home of the award-winning Black playwright August Wilson; the Ujamaa Collective, a space dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship among Black women; and numerous community gardens and urban farms. Both of these neighborhoods are easy to access on buses that stop near campus. Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, we are failing to show students of color, many of whom already feel underrepresented on our campus, that our connection to the history of the city of Pittsburgh is important to our university.

Carnegie Mellon must take action to rectify this. There is tremendous value in producing guides to the city of Pittsburgh; as students, we tend to forget that the world does actually continue on the other side of Forbes Avenue. Although our time for non-academic activities can be limited, we should take those opportunities to get out and get to know the city. But these guides must be written and produced in a way that centers around not just the student experience, but the experience of the communities in our city. We should reach out directly to residents and institutions across Pittsburgh — particularly in those communities which weren’t featured in our previous guides. Our goal should be not only to create better maps but to actually be an ally, as a university, to communities which we have neglected. This week’s activity on social media shed light on the apprehension towards Carnegie Mellon that exists in many Pittsburgh communities, who fear that interventions from institutions like ours will fuel displacement and gentrification. We can start to turn this around by reaching out to communities in a way that is focused on the work that they have done to restore their neighborhoods in the face of systemic discrimination.

We have the power right now to address this in a way that uplifts Pittsburgh’s communities — to reverse decades of inequality, not to advancing our school’s interests — as well as students of color on campus who feel their history has been erased and ignored. As students, we can take action by spending our weekends getting to know the world that exists beyond our campus. And we can all learn a lesson about how powerful a map, something we often take for granted, can be at perpetuating narratives. It is up to us now to decide what narrative about Pittsburgh’s communities we want to convey to students and our city.