“The Hill Between Us”
Third Place for College Prose
I don't see your stares. I don’t see your race. I'm running. Why won’t you smile back at me?
Shattered beer bottles and Subway wrappers cover my path. My lungs gasp for breath, but all they find is car exhaust and marijuana. I turn on Kirkpatrick Street, an incline typical of the Pittsburgh topographic. When I get to the top, I stop to catch my breath. Looking around, I feel lost. All I see are empty lots, dilapidated brick homes, and graffitied convenience stores. The majority of the residents are African American—almost all are staring as I run by. Eyes all staring at me. Me? A white boy running through the Middle Hill? Why would anyone stare? Why? I’m making this about myself, aren’t I. Segregation is a thing of the past, isn’t it?
It didn’t take me long to realize running through the Middle Hill wasn’t like running through Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, or other neighborhoods near Oakland. There was tension to the asphalt streets, pain hidden behind the boarded-up sandwich shops and the rust-dusted clothing drives. I recall learning the history of the Hill District my freshman year of college. Seeing vibrant black and white prints of the “Historic Hill District,” a place filled with movie theaters and soda shops, nightlife and music. The Crawford. The Hummingbird. Jitney Stations. Musicians’ Clubs. Now, everything’s gone.
Running down Webster, up Wylie, and across Bedford, I yearn for vibrancy. Instead, I pass metal cages covering stores, “No Trespassing” signs displayed on apartments. Large areas of nothingness permeate under the grey Pittsburgh sky, like someone planned to build something a while ago but forgot. Overlooking the battered brick houses stands an old public housing unit called Skyline Terrace. It reminds me of a 55-plus suburban community: modern, cookie cutter apartments equipped with double glass windowpanes, freshly mowed lawns, golden doorbells. And yet, there is an emptiness to these apartments, and an uneasiness that fills them. An uneasiness that fills me. As a white running through the Middle Hill, I was just beginning to understand my privilege.
I turn on Centre Avenue. Surely, this was not be the same Centre Avenue I jogged on minutes prior, where I gawked at the luxurious Schenley Farms mansions behind the golden oaks. The Hill District’s only a couple blocks north, where are their golden oaks? Segregation could not be this obvious, could it?
As a college student, I live in a constant bubble. I am always surrounded by individuals, like myself, whose biggest fear is failing an organic chemistry exam or getting denied from a summer internship. I am as much in the city of Pittsburgh as I am detached from it. I take classes on diversity, literature, and sociology, all to become a more “worldly” individual. I volunteer at hospitals and tutor in public schools, all while pretending that race is transparent. Pretending the doctors that walk the hospital hallways are not predominantly white and male. Pretending that Housekeeping is not all Hispanic. Pretending that nurses’ aides are not all black women.
Segregation is a thing of the past, they say.
Like many students at Pitt, I come from a white middle class family in suburban Philadelphia. My school district was 85% white—my neighborhood around 95%. In elementary school, we were taught that segregation was a thing of past. Over with. Vamoose. I remember commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the Friday before. We’d get a crosswords with Civil Rights leaders’ names on it. We’d memorize how Rosa Parks sat on the front of the bus and how Martin Luther King had a dream. We’d watch a 90s documentary on Ruby Bridges. My teacher told us Ruby Bridges was the first black student to attend an all-white public school. I remember staring in awe at the fuzzy TV screen and admiring her bravery. I remember feeling the swears and rocks thrown at Ruby Bridges and thinking they could never be thrown today.
Never today. Schools, segregated? No, never. How dare you use that “S” word. How dare you. How dare you.
In college, I came to understand race within a different context. I learned in biology that race is dependent on the amount of eumelanin in the body. I learned in psychology that race unifies social groups and influences attitudes. I learned in sociology that race is discriminated against, selected upon, and deeply ingrained in our country’s culture.
Segregation was a thing of the past, they say. They are wrong.
We often look at the Civil Rights Movement with rose-colored lenses, ignoring the segregation which persists in our country today. How dare you use the “S” word. How dare you. Martin Luther King had a dream, and that dream came true. Didn’t it?
As I turn off Kirkpatrick and make my way towards campus, black bodies quickly turn white. Segregation is as present as the hills of Pittsburgh. Segregation is in the schools, the neighborhoods, the hospitals, the streets.
I’m running downhill now, and my steps become fast and heavy. My sneakers press firm against the beige campus sidewalk. The freshly cut shrubs and flowers become my new backdrop. I am transported to another dimension, a world of stressed college students, rap music, and Starbucks Frappuccinos. I think of where I’ve been, where I want to go, what I want to change. Segregation is everywhere. The uphill battle has just begun.