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Blacks increase numbers in Western Pennsylvania

| Saturday, March 26, 2011

Melanie Harrington recalls her surprise when she visited Pittsburgh for a job interview.

"I had a very dated notion of Pittsburgh in mind," she said. "I didn't appreciate all the development going on and how scenic it was."

Harrington, 46, landed the job as executive director of Vibrant Pittsburgh, an organization that helps companies develop diverse work forces, and moved from Atlanta to her Downtown home in July.

She is among blacks who contributed to an increase in the region's black population upon discovering Western Pennsylvania as a desirable place to live and work.

"You've seen diversity dwindle over the years, but there's an opportunity to build that back up and do it in a way that will have greater inclusion among the communities," said Harrington, who cited jobs and the region's rich history among its attractions. "We have to make sure we're welcoming to all people, no matter where they come from. That's really what attracted me to the region — the possibility of that outcome."

Despite Allegheny County's total population drop of 4.6 percent over the past decade, the 2010 census shows the county's black population increased 1.8 percent over the past 10 years. The county's total minority population grew 12.5 percent.

The black segment of the overall population in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, composed of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, grew 0.8 percent.

Western Pennsylvania's highest increase was in Indiana County, where the black population jumped 73 percent, followed by Butler County's 47.8 percent increase. In Westmoreland County, the number rose 15 percent.

Pittsburgh's black population dropped by 11,040 people; blacks make up 26.1 percent of the city's population. Overall, the city lost 8.6 percent of its residents.

Joe Trotter, head of Carnegie Mellon University's history department and co-author of "Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh Since World War II," said a rising black population in suburban communities could be the result of "a two-pronged economy among blacks."

"There are black people who are coming into the city with skills and training for jobs in medicine, universities, education, corporate structure. These blacks are making substantial livings and seeking housing in communities that are better in some ways," he said. "You can also attribute it to the movement of poverty to Allegheny County ... with Section 8 housing."

Esther Bush, president of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, said the city "really does not have a history of treating black people equally."

"This region still has a high number of working-age African Americans living in poverty, and when you look at the number of folks incarcerated, you always hear that Pittsburgh is the most livable city, but for whom?" she said.

Last year, Forbes named Pittsburgh the nation's most livable city based on an analysis of unemployment, crime, income growth, the cost of living and artistic and cultural opportunities. On The Economist's 2011 list of the world's most livable cities, Pittsburgh was the top U.S. city at No. 29; Los Angeles was No. 44, and New York was 56.

According to Census Bureau estimates, 40.3 percent of all black Pittsburghers live in poverty, compared to 15.4 percent of whites. In Allegheny County, 37.9 percent of blacks and 9.2 percent of whites live in poverty.

M. Gayle Moss, president of the Pittsburgh NAACP, attributes some of the census increase to more blacks filling out census forms. They might have responded to an educational push reminding people that census results factor into the distribution of federal money for social service programs, she said.

"There's always that myth that we did not fill out the census," Moss said. "We've been teaching that it's very important. We're always last on the list for anything in the neighborhoods — money, housing. It's all according to population."

Compared with last decade's 1.8 percent growth, Allegheny County's black population jumped more significantly in the 2000 census, when it rose 6.3 percent from 1990.

Cory McGhee is living in a Monroeville apartment while starting his Plum business, McGhee Moving and Logistics. He hopes to move his wife and two children here from Cleveland when he's sure his company will make it.

"The cost of living is about the same; it's maybe a little cheaper here than in Cleveland," said McGhee, 37. "Downtown Pittsburgh has more good things to do."

Doris Carson Williams, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania, said the region's endurance through the nation's economic downfall could be attracting black residents. Williams thinks more black people also are returning to their hometowns in the region.

"It's somewhat of a safe haven," she said. "The cost of living is lower, and companies are making offers to individuals."

Melanie Hildebrandt, sociology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, attributes some of Indiana County's black population increase to college students who are counted when living on campus. Total fall 2010 enrollment at IUP showed 13 percent of students were minorities, compared to 7.7 percent in 2000.

The black population in Indiana County rose from 1,407 in 2000 to 2,434 in 2010.

"It's only about 1,000 people, so there could be a couple things going on here," she said. "... Sometimes minority students bring family members, children, partners and caregivers."

In Westmoreland County, St. Vincent College's undergraduate enrollment of minorities more than doubled during the past five years, from 71 students in 2005 to 150 students this fall, said Don Orlando, director of public relations. Overall, the county's black population went up by 1,116 since the last census.

"Through the big crunch in the stock market and the housing market and the downturn in the economy, it's been pretty stable in Westmoreland County and the Greensburg area," said James Paharik, associate professor of sociology at Seton Hill University in Greensburg.

Percy Simpson moved to Pittsburgh from Charlotte two months ago when PNC hired him as a senior marketing executive. He calls this city "one of the nation's best-kept secrets."

"It's a very strong cultural hub," he said. "I love jazz, and there's a great jazz history here. There's the August Wilson Center, which is world-class. You have things like this in Chicago or New York as well, but it's almost surprising to find it in Pittsburgh."

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