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Pittsburgh’s Fred Rogers practically invented neighborly behavior. But racist actions in neighborhoods across the city make that world seem like a land of Make-Believe

By July 21, 2020 3 Comments

Thomas Drake in his front yard (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
info@pittsburghcurrent.com

 

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor.

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

 

Fred Rogers’ statue leans forward in unconditional positive regard, gazing at his city from the North Shore. He was a white man who invited a Black police officer, François Clemmons, to soak his feet in a paddling pool on national television in 1969. Mr. Rogers dried off Clemmons’ feet and then his own with a towel, an act of intimacy and sharing that reverberated across American living rooms. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. Five years prior, Black protesters had jumped into the whites-only pool at Monson Motor Lodge and the owner of the hotel poured acid into the water. Mr. Rogers’ act of brotherhood and friendship wasn’t just political, but radical for it’s time. 

WQED aired Mr. Rogers’ warm and gentle voice for 33 years. He was a man who believed in friendship, a man who asked Pittsburghers and the world, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Mr. Rogers’ real neighborhood is the Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hil neighborhood, where in 2018 a white supremacist murdered 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagoguge. 

After the Tree of Life massacre, neighbors came together. Signs popped up in yards across the city with the words “Stronger Than Hate” and one of the stars of the U.S. Steel Symbol replaced by the Star of David. The country mourned with Pittsburgh. The country evoked the man who tried to make the world a better place through neighborly love and understanding. It was not lost on the world that a hate crime had taken place in the quiet, tree-lined streets of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. 

 

It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood,

A neighborly day for a beauty.

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?…

 

Liana Maneese, a clinical therapist and interracial relationship specialist grew up a transracial adoptee. Born in Brazil and raised in Pittsburgh by white parents, Maneese watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “What I learned on the television from Fred was reinforced in my home. I knew I mattered and I knew I was worthy of love just the way I was. At least until I left my house.” 

It was outside of her home, away from her parents and Mr. Rogers, that Maneese learned the harsh reality of navigating Pittsburgh while Black. 

“I was met, in 1st grade, with racial slurs and a violent episode that ended with a brick thrown at my head. Traumatizing to say the absolute minimum. By the time I went to high school, I had experienced so much racialized and sexual violence that even now as a practicing therapist, I still struggle to process my own early life experience,” she wrote. 

The ‘Stronger than Hate’ signs, Maneese said, are a mirage. She said hate is not the issue in Pittsburgh, but rather self-interest and denial. 

“In other words, we put our personal needs in front of the needs of the greater good, which benefits those from a culture of whiteness, which is by definition, white supremacy … for white people to sit with this truth, that maybe, just maybe, there are in fact pieces of themselves that lack humanity. This is scary because they have been told that whiteness is everything. It’s confusing.”

Maneese loved Mr. Rogers as a child — she still does and says it borders on obsession — but she wants Pittsburghers to realize that his teachings aren’t a crutch, especially when it comes to racism. 

“We all have work to do and we can no longer hide behind the good deeds of one man. We must face the scariest depths of ourselves, of our past, and we must consider what we are willing to sacrifice for a healthy community, for all of our neighbors.” 

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Churchill

 

I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.

I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

 

Two years after the Tree of Life shooting, George Floyd’s murder echoed throughout the nation. For Pittsburgh, it resurrected the pain and mourning of Antwon Rose, a 17-year-old who was shot in the back in East Pittsburgh by police officer Michael Rosfeld. Signs cropped up across the city again as Pittsburghers of every race, age, and gender took to the streets. 

This time, the signs and placards read “Black Lives Matter.” This time, neighbors wrote letters condemning the signs. This time, neighbors called Black protestors racial slurs. This time, neighbors called the police on the Black man next door.

Thomas Drake, a retired Marine who fought for his country during the Vietnam war, returned home to Pittsburgh where he raised his children and grandchildren. Today, he’s 69 and lives with the complications of herbicide, or Agent Orange poisoning, which includes and is not limited to arthritis, high blood pressure, and congestive heart failure. 

Drake’s white neighbor told him, “I wish you would die.” 

They live directly across the street from one another in a quiet and lush deadend street in Churchill. The neighbor moved in three years ago and Drake says he’s had the police called on him more than 100 times in that duration. The reasons for the calls vary, he says. Sometimes it is because Drake has a boat in his yard. Sometimes it is because his dog wandered into the neighbor’s yard. Sometimes it is because he’s playing music too loud while he and his grandchildren plant tomatoes. When Drake first called the Pittsburgh Current to tell his story he cried.

“I am overwhelmed. I am an old man. I don’t want to bother anybody. I just want to live in peace,” he said. “Ain’t that a shame? I got a right to live. I fought for this country. Why won’t he let me be?”

Drake’s 12-year-old granddaughter, Lovey, asked her grandfather permission to repeat the words she heard their neighbor call her while she was playing basketball. She looked at her feet and mumbled, “You ignorant black assholes. You n—-s need to learn your place.”

Drake and his 12-year-old granddaughter (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

Drake said that he has a lot of family members who are police officers. In the years prior, he felt the weight of centuries of suspicion  when the Churchill Police showed up everytime his neighbor called. Recently, however, a new, younger officer has treated Drake with respect and has worked to de-escalate the situation. 

“The other day he came down here and I thought he’d [the neighbor] called again, but the young man said to me, ‘I just wanted to come down and check on you,’” Drake said.

Drake is the only Black man in his neighborhood. His ample yard includes a swingset and playhouse that all the neighborhood kids use. He’s friends with everybody. “Everybody speaks to me. Everybody is nice to me,” he says.  

At the same time, no one has spoken up or come to his defense when the cops are called. 

Drake complained directly to the Churchill Borough about the harassment. He left voicemails and even drove to the office, but everything was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Churchill Borough and its police department were not immediately available for comment. 

“This house, this garden, this family is a blessing from God,” Drake said. “Every day is a good day when I wake up. I am so proud of my tomatoes, come look.” 

 

 Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Mt. Washington

 

So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day.

Since we’re together we might as well say:

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Won’t you be my neighbor?

 

On June 7, Pittsburgh Current editor-in-chief Charlie Deitch reported, “a white man who identified himself as a ‘police officer’ used racial epithets against a Black woman as she left Sunday’s Peaceful Protest For Racial Justice on Mount Washington.” Another woman, named Rachel, who witnessed the confrontation told the Current: “My husband and I were heading to our car when we saw this woman visibly upset, saying that this man walking by just called her a racist slur. She was just standing there near the overlooks, like anyone else was. A few others came over to see what was going on as well.”

J — who requested to remain anonymous for her own safety — contacted the Pittsburgh Current with a similar story. J is a new mother — her daughter is just eight months old. She’s spent a lot of time in quarantine talking with her best friend who lives out of state. Her friend is expecting and, after months of isolation, J convinced her to come visit. The two had been completely alone for their respective stay at home orders and couldn’t wait to see each other. 

J had a plan:  convince her friend to move to Pittsburgh.

Two weeks ago, J did what every seasoned Pittsburgher does. She drove her friend through all the boroughs and neighborhoods, saving the best view for last:  Mt. Washington. The two women took pictures at the overlook, laughing, posing and carrying on. “Black mother joy,” she said. As J’s baby waddled with her back to the car, a large black pickup truck screeched by. The driver screamed, “F–ck you, N—ers!” 

The women ran to their car and pulled out. The truck had seemingly disappeared. Three minutes later, as they were driving down the hill, the black truck appeared again behind them. The driver tailgated them, J.’s heart beat in her best. 

“We’re two girls. One is pregnant. I have an infant. We were just minding our own business,” J said. 

When J arrived home, her friend said she cannot move to Pittsburgh. It isn’t safe for Black mothers and children. 

And as for Pittsburgh’s most scenic view? The crown jewel of the tour?

“This person claimed that space and now I don’t ever want to go there. It would put my life and my daughter’s life at risk.”

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Edgewood/Swissvale

 

Won’t you please,

Won’t you please?

Please won’t you be my neighbor?

Excerpts from letters sent to neighbors with Black Lives Matter signs in their yards in Edgewood/Swissvale.

The Boroughs of Edgewood and Swissvale are mixed communities that border Regent Square and Wilkinsburg. On the neighborhood’s NextDoor forum, residents have raised concerns about some of their white neighbors. 

NextDoor, a social media app for neighborhoods, is unique in that one cannot really build an echo chamber. Members are lumped together solely based on where they live. To join NextDoor, a user must prove their address. The social feed in the app is part yard sale, part bulletin board and part townhall. 

In June, a man in the “Edgewood-Swissvale Slopes” forum posted to NextDoor that he had received an anonymous letter condemning his Black Lives Matter sign. Several other nearby residents posted that they, too, had received the same anonymous letter. Within 24-hours,  NextDoor removed the post. The letter and the man’s testimony were erased from the feed. 

Postings ensued. Residents wondered why the original post was removed. Some questioned the veracity of the post while others maintained that they had received white unaddressed envelopes in their mailboxes, as well. The letter scared them. It was a matter of public safety. Who did this? Why? And why would NextDoor take down the original post? One NextDoor user wrote, “Is anyone else tired of being reprimanded and censored because their opinions apparently don’t concur with those of the monitors of this website?”

Emily Mercurio is one of two ‘leads,’ or moderators, of the neighborhood’s NextDoor group said that she did not vote to have the post removed. She is not sure why or how the post was taken down. The second lead in the group did not respond to request for comment. NextDoor also did not return a request for comment. 

“If a post from Edgewood-Swissvale Slopes was removed, it could be due to one of 3 actions: 

1) The person who created the original post took it down on their own,  2) An Edgewood-Swissvale Slopes lead reported it (and it was blocked in that neighborhood only), 

or; 3) A non-lead reported it, and the neighborhood and surrounding neighborhood leads voted on it. After voting, if Nextdoor deemed that it violated the Guidelines, then it will be removed by Nextdoor (not by a lead)” Mercurio wrote. 

Pittsburgh Current obtained a copy of the anonymous letter that has been circulating Swissvale. It reads in part:

“The aim of BLM is not about black lives. If it were, they would be protesting the carnage committed against themselves by their own people and the 20 million black abortions since 1973 … The real issue facing the black community is fatherlessness, caused by the welfare state… They are a crazed Marxist mob…They hate our country and they are intimidating us to hate it too and kneel in submission…When you have a BLM sign in your yard, you are saying you support mob rule, not the rule of law.”

On July 1, NextDoor CEO Sarah Friar told NPR that it “was really our fault” that NextDoor moderators across the country were taking down and censoring posts regarding Black Lives Matter. The company has since changed their regulations to state that conversations about racial inequality and Black Lives Matter are allowed.

Michelle McCord, originally from North Braddock, now calls Swissvale home. McCord posted a Black Lives Matter sign in her front yard. She’s the only person on her block with one. McCord pointed out that not only is putting a letter in someone’s mailbox is illegal but, “using the postal service to deliver hate mail that is threatening and intimidating is illegal.” 

The letters deeply troubled McCord, “I was offended that someone would go out and do that. I understand that there’s free speech, but you don’t demoralize or put people down.” She believes the public has a right to know if such letters are being sent directly to houses, and it is dangerous to silence that kind of information. Now, when she’s navigating the streets of Swissvale, “I am more cautious. I am more aware.I pray every day my son has no interaction with law enforcement for any reason.” 

McCord requested that NextDoor add a Black History category to the neighborhood and has yet to receive a response. She and other residents were never given an explanation for why the post about the letters were removed. 

Michelle McCord

Tonya Slaughter, a Swissvale resident and mother of five, echoed McCord’s concerns for her sons. Her fears and prayers have been awakened since the discussions she witnessed on the NextDoor forum. This summer, her son’s best friend’s family went out of town for a weekend. The family is white and treats Slaughter’s son as one of their own. They told her son that he could use their pool while they were away on vacation and instructed him how to find a key and get into the front door of the house. Her son declined. He said, “In this climate, I can’t do that. Someone will think I am breaking in.”

“It made my cry, but it made me proud,” Slaughter said, “I was able to teach him how to be safe.” 

When Slaughter purchased her home in Swissvale as a single mother, she was told to go back where she came from. Around that time, a white neighbor referred to Black people as “pimps and prostitutes.” Today, though, her neighbors are “great” and Slaughter feels hopeful for the future. She senses the tides are turning, partly because younger generations are more liberal and open to social change. 

“I am grateful that a light is being shined — it has been a long time coming,” she said.

3 Comments

  • Sad Yinzer says:

    I am a Pittsburgh expat – grew up in the area and lived in the city for years.

    I am so sad and sorry for the people of color interviewed here, who have been harassed and made to feel unwelcome. No one should ever be made to feel that way.

    Pittsburgh has many positives but it has never been a place that welcomed anyone who was “Other.” I learned that over many years as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Pittsburgh was, and in many ways still is, a town where everyone wants everything to always be the same, where Joe Schmo goes to work wearing his Monday shirt and eating his Monday lunch. And that resistance to difference extends to people. (Even though the very foundation of the city is its melting pot of immigrants.)

    When I left the city 20 years ago, I believed that this kind of racist BS was more likely to be found out in the burbs, in say Fayette or Westmoreland counties, not anywhere in the city. It makes me sad to see it’s actually gotten worse in the last 20 years.

    Part of my heart will always be in Pittsburgh, but any time I think about moving home, I’m reminded how unwelcoming the city was to me and is to many others, and I know I could never make a home here, or invest time and money in a life here. That’s sad.

  • Laura says:

    I am a native of Squirrel Hill, and returned last year after a 20 years sojourn in Northern Virginia. There, in schools I witnessed everyone seeming friendly but in the cafeteria racial groups sat clustered together, still. Feeling comfortable with your own sameness is important, but recognizing others for who they truly are inside is still a difficult task for us all, My experience is that people basically are afraid that the white race will be diluted, and we will all be some intermittent shade of color. Wouldn’t that be nice. And there would be no racial identification questions on any forms…
    While away, I missed Black culture, the Black people of Pittsburgh. I remember seeing one of August Wilson‘s plays with my mom when it was first produced and was proud of this playwright and the energy and his legacy that continue. Yes, referring to Black people as black and myself as white is racist, But we are different colors, different races, have different life paths in this white structured society. To all of you out there that have suffered racial injustice, my heart reaches out to the inequalities you have suffered. Remember that it is not you as a person that is being attacked, it is the fearfulness of people who are afraid. I am glad you are my neighbor.

  • Linda Kunkle says:

    That letter is not “hate”. Every single word in it is true. Only a commie rag like the current would attack that letter.

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