At a time when Pittsburgh is reinventing itself, it’s easy to ignore that the renaissance going on in many parts of the city has not had a positive impact on all of its citizens. A series of essays titled “Why Pittsburgh” in the fledgling online magazine 1839 has recast the conversation about whether Pittsburgh is one of the “best places to live” for people of color.
As it winds down its first phase, 1839, a pilot project of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, has built an impressive showcase of work from Pittsburgh’s black community. In addition to a variety of essays on race and politics, current events, and pop culture, the site includes artist portraits, photography, poetry and creative nonfiction.
“We wanted to start a conversation about black cultural perspective,” says 1839 publisher and Kelly Strayhorn director Janera Solomon. That meant highlighting people of color who either weren’t on the radar yet, or giving a different perspective on artists and writers who are already known.
The results of the Pittsburgh Regional Diversity survey released last month showed that 75 percent of white residents said they feel very welcome in the area, but only 36 percent of minorities agreed.
Many of the thoughtful, provocative “Why Pittsburgh” essays describe experiences with racism in the Pittsburgh area, with some writers vowing to stay and others deciding they would never feel welcome here. The varied authors of the essays include former Post-Gazette reporter Clarece Polke (“Pittsburgh is a Constant Uphill Battle”), entrepreneur Raymar Hampshire (“Pittsburgh has an Expiration Date”), artist Tameka Cage Conley (“Sustaining an Artist’s Life in Pittsburgh”) and student and staff writer Brandon Small (“Fighting Just to Exist”).
Funded by the Heinz Endowments, 1839 aims to take a “nuanced look at the intersection of race, politics, the arts, community and culture in the city and beyond,” according to its mission statement. It’s inspired by playwright August Wilson’s work and love of community; its name references 1839 Wylie Avenue, the address of the fictional Aunt Ester character who is central in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays.
The magazine’s staff includes staff writers Conley, Small and Akirah Robinson, creative director sarah huny young (she prefers the lowercase spelling) and editors Deesha Philyaw and Damon Young, founder and editor-in-chief of digital magazine Very Smart Brothas and writer for Ebony magazine.
“I wanted to work with Damon because he’ a great writer; he’s provocative and clever and thoughtful,” Solomon says. She adds that the magazine could not have run as smoothly as it did without Philyaw and huny young handling the day-to-day operations, with both women stepping up into much larger roles than originally envisioned.
Young says 1839 is a kind of extension of forebears like the Pittsburgh Courier, a historic newspaper with a focus on the black community. He’s happy with the first iteration of 1839 and says the “Why Pittsburgh” series has drawn a big response. “It sparked a lot of interest. It’s part of the discussion of what it means to be a Pittsburgher, what our challenges are.”
Keeping the pressure on those conversations is important, Young adds, because the larger questions of why Pittsburgh lacks diversity and what can be done about it are not easily answered.
As creative director, New-York-to-Pittsburgh transplant huny young designed the site’s look and branding and oversees the content schedule and the photography. “I didn’t want it to look like anything else. I wanted it to be big and have great pictures,” she says.
huny young also maintained and monitored 1839’s social media accounts. Ninety-five percent of the response on social media, she says, was positive.
“So many people, especially in those first few weeks, were telling us ‘this is so needed in Pittsburgh,’” huny young says. The honesty of the “Why Pittsburgh” series in particular resonated with a lot of people: “Even the ones who wrote about why they left were saying ‘I wish it could get better.’”
In an odd bit of timing, 1839 launched right around the time Post-Gazette columnist Jack Kelly wrote a highly controversial opinion column titled “Remnants of Slavery: White Guilt is Not Helping Black America.” The Pittsburgh Black Media Federation condemned the column as a “blight on journalism.”
Solomon says she was adamant that work appearing in 1839 be proactive, not reactive, and held to that rule by not responding directly to Kelly’s piece in the magazine.
“We should say what we want to say instead of responding to every racist opinion,” she says. “We need to think authentically about what our position is and write about our experiences.”
Now that the pilot phase is ending, Solomon says the plan is to keep 1839 going. That will mean finding a managing editor who can run the day-to-day operations, and seeking more sources of funding. She says the goal is to have the site going full strength again by June.
huny young says she’d like to stay involved with 1839, and would like to see it build even more momentum toward becoming self-sustaining. She, too, has had thoughts about leaving Pittsburgh, but says 1839 is the first project she’s worked on that made her feel excited about the future here. “I feel like there’s still work for me to do.”
For his part, Young wants to see the project continue and add more pieces to support the writing, such as podcasts, videos and events.
In his “Why Pittsburgh” essay, Young tries to explain why he’s stayed in the city where he was born and raised, despite its imperfections:
“Asking me why I’ve stayed in Pittsburgh is like asking a father why he loves his daughter. Or how a tree feels about the sun. All attempts to articulate it would seem clumsy and maudlin because it is just not something that can be articulated effectively.”