President Joe Biden is stopping twice in my home state over the next week, and I’d have a few suggestions of places he should visit.
The White House announced on Monday that Biden will speak in prime time at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on Thursday to address “the continued battle for the soul of the nation.” He’ll be back on the western end of the Turnpike in my hometown of Pittsburgh on Labor Day, where it’s not clear where he’ll appear. But I have a question: exactly which part of the nation’s soul will Biden address in Pennsylvania? It’s true that the Trump campaign and its acolytes are still trying to hijack democracy here after their loss in the 2020 election cycle, but it’s equally true that that the government for decades hasn’t delivered much in the way of positive outcomes for the Black folks in urban areas. It’s hard to argue that there are two better cities for a sitting president to address those issues than Philly and Pittsburgh.
Hear me out. With PA a crucial swing state, it was Black voters, specifically in Philadelphia and its suburbs, that helped push Joe Biden end the national nightmare known as President Trump. It wasn’t exclusively Black voters of course, but Black folks are Democrats’ most reliable voting block and Philly has a trove of them who turned out for the Biden/Harris ticket.
But Philly is the kind of city rarely discussed when the issue of gun control comes up—we reserve that discussion generally for when mass shooters grab assault rifles and shoot up suburban schools, not for urban gun violence. So far this year, Philly, a city of 1.5 million, where Black folks are a plurality, has seen more than 2,820 “shooting incidents”, with 361 homicides as of August 29, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. The New York Times wrote this about the crisis on Aug. 11:
So far this year, more than 1,400 people in the city have been shot, hundreds of them fatally, a higher toll than in the much larger cities of New York or Los Angeles. Alarms have sounded about gun violence across the country over the past two years, but Philadelphia is one of the few major American cities where it truly is as bad as it has ever been.
The crisis is all the more harrowing for having been so concentrated in certain neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia, places that were left behind decades ago by redlining and other forms of discrimination and are now among the poorest parts of what is often called the country’s poorest big city.
Small-d democracy is important and the president should address it. But Biden shouldn’t roll out of Philly without stopping by some of those blighted neighborhoods to talk to the Black mothers and grandmothers who showed up to put him in office as well as the young, Black men who don’t vote in as high a number—maybe because they’re more concerned with finding work at a decent wage and staying alive until the next day.
Pittsburgh is the smaller and the least Black of Pennsylvania’s two major cities—a fact that speaks not only to the city’s population—which is about a quarter Black out of about 300,000 total residents—but also its culture. Sure, we’ve got a Black mayor for the first time, it’s just that it took the entire 200-plus year history for him to be elected. Pittsburgh is White America’s Atlanta, a city for average white folks can visit and enjoy, or relocate to and thrive without much effort, because everything from the city’s politics to its nightlife, medical establishments and restaurants reflect the fact that although Black folks have been a significant part of the population here for 150 years, our concerns and culture have never been centered in a real way by city government, institutions or power brokers.
The result of that was a now-famed 2017 study that identified Pittsburgh’s quality of living for Black residents as the worst in the country—which is amazing considering what I just said about how likely you are to die of a gunshot if you live in our larger neighbor city four hours east. Pittsburgh has a toxic combination of a sky-high Black infant and maternal mortality rates, low levels of Black homeownership, wages and educational attainment, high Black unemployment and so forth. One of the study’s authors posited that just by relocating away from Pittsburgh—which I did from 1995 until 2017—Black folks could safely assume they’d live longer, healthier lives while working more productive careers at higher wages. Literally, just by moving.
So when Biden comes here, I can imagine that the backdrop will be somewhere that invokes the city’s history as a center of white, blue-collar union town, or near one of the city’s gazillion bridges to highlight the impact of the infrastructure bill he finally got through Congress. Neither, though, is where he should go.
If Biden wants to make a difference here, he should check in on the city’s Black neighborhoods, like the Hill District, which is where I spent my early childhood and parts of which I’m convinced are cancer clusters, given the eventual deaths of my grandmother, mother and first cousin and diagnosis of the mother of one of my uncles by marriage, all of whom lived in the same now-torn-down project complex in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Those projects are gone now, given way in part to the new Burrows Street Townhomes, “a modernist enclave” where three bedrooms will run you $630,000 to start. He should visit Lincoln-Lemington, Larimer and Homewood, a cluster of mostly-Black and poor neighborhoods in on the city’s east side where even the rampant gentrification in that of town has yet to take hold.
Biden should also stop by UPMC Magee Women’s Hospital, which sits at the edge of the University of Pittsburgh and its renowned medical complex. I was born there; so were my sons and just about every other person I know. If you’re Black and from Pittsburgh, there’s a better than 50 percent chance this is where you entered the world. But recall that astounding Black infant mortality rate of 14.9 per 100,000, and then note that for white Pittsburgh babies, the number is 3.3 per 100,000. There are a number of structural reasons for this, and all of them can’t be fixed by throwing federal money at the problem. Still, Biden would do a lot more good visiting the moms and babies in Magee’s NICU—where my cousin’s baby survived being born premature and weighing less than a pound just four years ago—than rehashing old steelworker mythology.
Remembering that the Black folks in Philly, and yes, across Allegheny County, helped put him in office is something Biden shouldn’t forget, and should think about repaying, before his stop through the the Keystone State.