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Andre Perry grew up in Wilkinsburg and would run along Penn Avenue while training for the high school cross-country team.
The street that the journalist, activist and former founding dean of Davenport University’s College of Urban Education followed from then-bustling Wilkinsburg, running past businesses such as G.C Murphy and Isaly’s into then-quiet East Liberty, looks a lot different now. East Liberty is vibrant, while Wilkinsburg is desolate.
But the economic development that has turned East Liberty into one of Pittsburgh’s hottest (and most gentrified) neighborhoods has not spilled over into Wilkinsburg. And Perry says there’s no good reason why that should be.
“No one invests in deficits,” he said. “No one invests in problems. Certainly, there are problems and concerns in majority black cities, but if you perceive them as filled with problems, generally, you’ll invest in other people to fix them. My goal is to highlight, map, illuminate assets — that happen to be black — in these communities that we could build upon for economic growth and shared prosperity.”
In his role as the David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, Perry is collecting data on majority-black cities like Wilkinsburg to highlight the differences in public fiscal commitments from majority-white cities.
Perry's goal is to help residents of cities like Wilkinsburg get the information they need to then get the investment they deserve.
According to his research, based on census figures, there are more than 1,200 majority-black places in the continental U.S., most of which are rural towns with populations under 2,500. As of the 2010 census, Wilkinsburg (officially a borough) had a population about 15,500 people, and its population was 62 percent black. Pittsburgh has a black population of 24 percent.
But while East Liberty has received nearly $1 billion in investment over the past 20+ years, Wilkinsburg has languished, losing most of the prominent businesses that once populated Penn Avenue. And although there has been a resurgence of late, with efforts underway to revitalize parts of Wilkinsburg, it’s got a long way to go to reach its closest neighbor.
Perry said the ultimate goal for him is to help residents of cities like Wilkinsburg identify their assets so that when the time comes to negotiate with — as he calls them— “muckety-mucks” in economic development and local government, residents of majority-black cities have the information they need to get the investment they deserve. It involves being able to demonstrate worth, he said.
“I often refer to the August Wilson play ‘Two Trains Running,'” Perry said. “Memphis, whose business is going to be purchased by the city through eminent domain says, throughout the play, ‘I know my price.’ If the city was offering $15,000 he wanted $25,000.”
"It's never been about can you, it's about how do you use data?"
The play is a commentary on displacement — which Perry acknowledged is relevant in the present moment as well— but also is about knowing your worth. “My goal is to let people know they have value and they can negotiate and enter the economic development space with information, with confidence and with a sense of the collective, so they know their price, so to speak.”
Perry said at the p4 conference in April that he doesn’t like the phrase “data-driven,” because he said there are too many nefarious ways to get to a data point. Closing the black-white achievement gap in education would be easy to do, he reasoned, tongue-in-cheek, if you stopped educating the white students. But rather than address the root of the problem, he said, districts do things like fire teachers and expel students to create a rosier picture. “It’s never been about ‘can you,’ it’s about ‘how’ do you use data?”
Perry is at the beginning of his research project, which started informally at p4, and included a community meeting at Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg in June.
“I thought it didn’t go well,” he admitted with a chuckle. He said it took a long time for the audience members to be able to identify the community’s assets, rather than its problems.
"I just fundamentally believe there are enough people who want change that if you give those folks the information and the encouragement that they’ll inspire change."
“I had to ask them ‘what keeps you here?’ ‘What would you put your own money into?’” Perry said. “I was chastising people a little. But I wanted them to see that they have things that are valuable. I want to make sure people see themselves as assets. The problem with many community development efforts is that they emphasize property, and when you invest in property and not people you get gentrification.”
Perry said he plans to use the wealth of data resources from the Brookings Institution as well as interviews with people in the community in his research. What the final result will look like he’s not sure yet, but he knows he wants to do more than write a report.
“If I’m talking to people, I’d better have products built for their use,” he said. “That way we avoid the common problem of data being essentially written apart from the reality. I’m not hiding the fact that some of these data are detached, to examine where businesses site themselves, where they land, that’s work that will be done from an office in D.C.”
And he’s under no illusion that there’s one single factor that will turn things around, and that he’s not trying to make the case to business leaders.
“I just fundamentally believe there are enough people who want change that if you give those folks the information and the encouragement that they’ll inspire change,” he said. “They may change a few minds.”-30-
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