By Avigail Oren
On November 16, Pittsburgh NPR affiliate WESA dropped a five-part podcast called Land and Power, about a fight for housing in the city’s historically Black neighborhood of East Liberty. In 2015, residents of the Penn Plaza apartment buildings found out they’d have to leave their homes to make way for new development. Suddenly, they were searching for places to live in an area that had gentrified around them. Tenants organized and took action, touching off a robust debate in a city that could hardly fathom housing scarcity—after all, Pittsburgh has been shrinking for decades and there is no shortage of homes. But as affected communities know, it’s more complicated than supply and demand.
WESA reporter Margaret J. Krauss wrote and produced Land and Power, and I’m fortunate enough to call her a friend. I was familiar with the Penn Plaza story, but Margaret uncovered twists that made me gasp and nuances that got me rethinking long-harbored assumptions. I finished the podcasts and immediately emailed her to request an interview. Although the Penn Plaza story at the heart of Land and Power is specific to Pittsburgh, the federal policies and market forces at its foundation are familiar to cities across the United States.
Avigail Oren (AO): The events you report in Land and Power may be familiar to Pittsburghers, but for non-Pittsburghers, how would you orient them to this story? It’s definitely about the gentrification of a historically Black neighborhood, but it’s much more than that.
Margaret J. Krauss (MK): I would say it is probably a familiar story to anyone who lives in a city, because most American cities experienced the same—to use a geological metaphor—buildup of federal policies. So, beginning with post-Civil War migration and then, in the 1930s, redlining, when the federal government’s trying to prop up the housing market and they’re trying to decide where to invest so they send out these agents to rate every neighborhood. And when they did that, they of course brought their biases with them. So Black neighborhoods, neighborhoods with Jewish residents, neighborhoods with immigrants were all deemed less valuable, which then made it harder to get money, to do anything, including keep up one’s home or one’s apartment building. That starts to look bad, run down. And then World War II comes along and people are so tired of wars, and they’re so tired of cities that have just been used and abused as industrial centers. And so they move out and they’re just looking for the new, but those who don’t have the means—whose means were proscribed by policy—are still in cities. And so people look around, city leaders look around, and think, “man, things are looking really rough.” And of course it’s not by accident. And then the federal government passes the American Housing Act of 1949, and as a result cities bulldozed neighborhoods that were largely Black, or had Jewish residents or immigrant residents or generations of immigrant residents. And then there’s all this empty land! And they can do with it, largely what they want. They play with a bunch of rules. It made it easier if you were a private company to buy this new land. American society shifts and it doesn’t really want to live in the city. And then we have manufacturing collapse in the United States, so then you have cities who are largely devoid of human-friendly places. They have decreased population, fewer work opportunities.
When people finally start to look at cities again, there’s all this cheap land, none of which is cheap by accident. This feels like such a simplification, but literally every city knows the story, because the federal policies that were passed created this landscape. There’s, of course, tons of different twists and turns depending on where you live, but it’s all about how there are consequences to policies that have very, very long arms.
AO: How did you come to the story of the Penn Plaza apartment buildings and how their destruction, the evictions of residents who really depended on the affordable housing they provided, touched off a movement to fight for more affordable housing in the city?
MK: I am a beat reporter and I cover development and transportation. So what was going on at Penn Plaza, and the city’s response to it, and various people’s responses to it, fell under my beat. I would go to city council meetings, Urban Redevelopment Authority meetings, Housing Opportunity Fund meetings, Port Authority meetings, and people would say, “well, we don’t want to be the next Penn Plaza,” or, “well, because of Penn Plaza….” It was this origin story for so many of the changes that I was seeing across governmental entities and, again, neighborhood or resident responses to changes in Pittsburgh. And I just thought, there’s so much more here than I’ve ever reported. You know, most of my stories are a minute and a half long and the web story slightly longer. But none of these things happened by accident, none of this is chance, and because it’s the result of decisions that, again, geologically built up upon one another and we’re only seeing the very tip of it. Well, what if I looked at more of it? How the heck did we get here? So that’s how I came to it.
AO: You produced Land and Power as part of NPR’s Story Lab. What is Story Lab and how did it support your reporting?
MK: Story Lab is a workshop for NPR member stations. So there’s, you know, the NPR mothership, and then there’s all the satellite stations like WESA. The process is: you pitch Story Lab with an idea that you would like to make into a podcast, and it’s an application process, and from that you’re selected. It used to be a three- or four-day workshop in DC where you sat down with people from across the organization and they talked with you about storyboarding and how you create narrative tension and what to do when you’re ready for broadcast. But luckily when we applied, they had switched to this model of providing remote support for eight or nine months. I had two mentors who came from different parts of the organization who talked with me about my outline and prepping for these long interviews. So the support was like, how do you actually go about reporting this story? It was amazing because, like I said, most of our stories are usually a minute long.
AO: And in total Land and Power is what, closer to three hours of content? That’s a lot different I imagine. Now I’m curious how much of the reporting for the podcast was drawn from earlier coverage you’d done and how much was entirely new reporting for this?
MK: I want to say that something like 98% of it was all new, but at different points in the podcast you’ll hear ambient sound of a 2018 meeting, because I was there covering it.
AO: And almost all of the interviewing was done during the pandemic?
MK: Almost all. I started interviewing in December of 2019. I had been doing a bunch of background interviews by phone in October and November. So yeah, I guess it was December, 2019 that I started interviewing in person.
AO: So you had three months before social distancing began.
M: It was wild. Rightfully, people were so concerned about being in the same room. When people got pandemic fatigue, I started meeting for interviews outside with a mask and a boom mic.
AO: One thing that impressed me about Land and Power is that you learned a lot of urban history to report this story. You dive into several veins, or historiographies as we call them, including deindustrialization, urban renewal, and most especially redlining and those racist housing and mortgage lending practices that you already explained. How did you prepare in advance–or perhaps brush up as you were doing the reporting and these themes emerged?
MK: Well, I did a story in 2018 about the Pittsburgh public school district along with a team of other reporters at WESA. I was looking at how schools pull from where you live. [If the schools are bad] people will say things like, “oh, why don’t you just move?” And of course it’s not that simple. So for that story I read The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, and I was familiar with Mindy Fullilove’s book, Root Shock. I was also aware of redlining as a phenomenon, though I wasn’t so familiar with urban renewal. That was a bit of a shock, though I guess I shouldn’t have been, but yeah I had a more atmospheric understanding that there was a lot of racist policy that underlay the modern city.
As I got into reporting this story, I hoovered up as much as I could. Reading the federal laws was really helpful. I re-read Root Shock. I feel like Rothstein’s book is seared into my brain. I read a lot of newspaper stories about these topics. But I didn’t want to overread. What I ended up doing was absorbing this stuff and then loosely going into interviews with people who’ve lived it. I didn’t want to run over their experiences with my, like, “well, this is how it is, right?” So I interviewed a lot of people and asked them, “what do you remember?” And I thought about what people said and how they presented it. Finally, reading the newspaper record was so helpful. Newspapers.com! I cannot recommend it highly enough. I don’t know if urban historians will be appalled that I only read a few books and then a bunch of laws and newspaper articles.
AO: I mean, to a certain extent that’s how we work. What I take away from your process is that you made a methodological decision to step back and let the contingencies of the local situation—and even within the local situation, each community’s perspective—emerge from their telling, rather than, as you said, leading them to an academic or universal conclusion.
So…on two occasions I was among the activists you cover who protested the demolition of Penn Plaza and stood in support of the people who lived there. And it was humbling to me to listen to your interviews with the developer of the site, who you really successfully humanized. And I use that word very intentionally because, among activists and also in the press, the developers were really demonized. You present their understanding of what they were trying to do, which relied on an older development framework of helping Pittsburgh recover from deindustrialization. Whereas for the community, by that time the city felt quite developed and increasingly unaffordable. You also uncovered how the mayor really sold out the developer, for the mayor’s own political benefit, when the developer had made a good faith effort to do the right thing by the community.
So I found that humbling, and was also humbled to discover that from the outset the Penn Plaza fight was not a winnable one, in the sense that the site was inevitably going to be demolished and redeveloped. It had the support of the city, and there were other contingencies that meant it was unlikely to be rebuilt as affordable housing. All that said, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about what this story you uncovered in your reporting says about the future of Pittsburgh and the affordable housing fight here. When we connect the history to the present of the Penn Plaza fight, where might we be going next?
MK: First off, I would say I’m a lowly reporter offering just one perspective, and there are many, many people thinking about this who are steeped in all sorts of details and ideas. With that disclaimer, I think what surprised me most about this story is that real, tangible change has flowed from what happened at Penn Plaza. I firmly believe that no effort is ever truly wasted, not as a reporter in this story, just as a human. Supporting people who need to say something and need to advocate for themselves is never a lost cause, never lost effort.
I have also been amazed at how unchanged the bedrock of our development systems are. They are largely the same [as they have been since the mid-twentieth century]. I think that without actual changes to the mechanics of those systems, things will continue at this pace, they’ll just keep rolling along the way that they have. And it’s important to note that no city in the United States—and I hesitate to say around the world, because I’m sure there are solutions I’m not aware of—has figured this out. I asked everybody, “is anyone doing it well?” And the answer is no. How is that possible? I think we’re headed to relearn the same lessons over and over again, which is that when there is a gap between an ideal and a reality, just wishing it to be different is not going to change it.
It’s not impossible to change what a place looks like. Obviously, because for decades it was done with impunity. I hope city, county, state, and federal leaders aren’t looking to just pass laws that say, “this is how it’s going to happen now.” Even if they have the right intent, we know right intent doesn’t mean right outcome. So I hope what the US has learned in the intervening 50, 60, 70 years is that you have to listen to people. There’s no substitute for that. And I understand policy changes are generally slow, but not that much is different. I think the easy stuff is different and that’s good. For example, the Housing Opportunity Fund is a huge step forward for Pittsburgh, and that’s awesome. But it’s not capable of dealing with the private market, which moves a lot faster, which is the one moving and shaking. Some people want to create affordable housing or mixed income housing. And that’s, that’s great. But the tools to do so are very limited.
AO: What would you most like to report on next, based on your experience covering this story?
MK: I was interested before and now really interested in the really specific mechanisms that determine what the city looks like. For instance, [Public Source reporter] Rich Lord has a story out today about [Pittsburgh’s] conservatorship law. That’s a perfect example of how a piece of policy can be used in all kinds of ways. And maybe there’s no way to account for all of those possibilities. I’m sure there isn’t, or at least that’s my inkling. There are these surgical precision points that can change so many things. Well, what are they? I want to look at those, that’s my goal.
Avigail S. Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University in 2017, and has been an independent scholar and entrepreneur ever since.
Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s development and transportation reporter. She previously worked for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide reporting initiative that covers problems facing Pennsylvania’s cities and possible solutions. Before joining Keystone Crossroads, Margaret produced a 48-part radio series about Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history, biking 2,000 miles around the region to do so.