Welcome back to the Year of Fear. Each week until Election Day, CJR and the Delacorte Review will bring you another chapter from one of our four towns. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
I brace myself when I get an alert that the Allegheny County Police homicide unit is on its way to a crime scene.
The communities we cover at Tube City Online may be small, but they pull their weight in the county’s homicide numbers. In 2019, eleven of the county’s ninety-five homicides were in three of the five communities we serve. Those municipalities have a combined population of about 34,600 people.
So each time I’m alerted to a possible homicide, I silently pray: Please don’t be us.
PREVIOUSLY: A good idea at the time
Pittsburgh’s TV news viewers are used to seeing the names of communities such as McKeesport, Duquesne, Clairton and Wilkinsburg mostly in the context of crime reports. Rarely do those TV stations cover any good—or even neutral—news from those areas. Naturally, when Pittsburghers find out I live near McKeesport, they ask me if I feel unsafe. “If I did, I wouldn’t live there,” I reply.
Yet the negative perception is a constant obstacle to efforts to bring back the Mon Valley from the economic damage it suffered during the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s.
It defines every aspect of life here, from attracting commercial development to encouraging potential residents to buy homes. A few years ago, the Internet radio station we operate had a lively big-band music program hosted by an eighty-something gentleman from Pittsburgh. He gave it up in part because his wife was afraid of him traveling to McKeesport on Sunday mornings. “She sees it on the news all the time,” he said, “and she worries about me.”
The reality is that he wasn’t likely to be a victim of a homicide in McKeesport or anywhere else in Allegheny County, and as a middle-aged white person, neither am I.
Of last year’s homicides across Allegheny County, almost half—forty-four—of the victims were under age thirty. While 83 percent of the county’s population identifies as white, 82 percent of the homicide victims were Black. It’s young Black men, not middle-aged and older white people, who are dying at an appalling rate. Too many parents in the Mon Valley have buried their children. Too many teachers at local schools have become accustomed to counseling their grieving pupils, and too many of our pastors have conducted funerals for teen-agers they baptized years before.
It’s not a new trend. Twenty-plus years ago, when I worked at the now-defunct McKeesport Daily News, our crime reporter, Bill Kaempffer, was hired away by Connecticut’s New Haven Register. “They almost didn’t call me,” he told us as he cleaned out his desk. They’d looked at his resume and thought Kaempffer must be exaggerating the number of murders he’d covered for a paper the size of the Daily News, which then had a circulation of about 30,000.
The number of homicides has mercifully dropped since those bad old days, through a combination of aggressive police work and community-based after-school anti-violence programs. Technology is helping, too, including cameras at major intersections that can track license-plate numbers of suspects’ vehicles. This month, McKeesport City Council voted to apply for a federal grant to purchase “ShotSpotter,” a computer-controlled network of sensors that can pinpoint the location of a gunshot in less than sixty seconds.
But policing and anti-violence programs don’t address the root cause of crime in the Mon Valley or elsewhere, which remains serious poverty and a lack of upward mobility for young people. A child born poor here is likely to stay poor here unless they have a lot of lucky breaks. The very racially segregated nature of Pennsylvania communities means that Black and Latino children are about three times as likely as white children to live in impoverished neighborhoods.
Covering any of these things is a challenge, especially for a tiny, part-time digital news operation such as ours. When I worked for the Daily News in the late 1990s, we sent a reporter and often a photographer to every homicide scene to interview family members and witnesses. (During a few particularly bad years, some residents sarcastically called the paper “the Daily Shooting.”)
THE MEDIA TODAY: When a billionaire owner isn’t enough
These days, I’m lucky if I can make one or two phone calls to follow up a murder, and most of my information comes from official sources such as police or the medical examiner’s office. It feels awful to write about a young person only in the context of the incident that ended their life prematurely, but it seems worse not to report it—in my opinion, murder should never become unremarkable.
Ditto for covering our schools. Our freelance writers do their best, but how many good news stories in these school districts go unreported simply because we don’t have the time or resources to dig for them? How much of what residents know of their local schools is only in the context of official sources telling us about lower test scores and higher property-tax rates?
Four years ago, Donald Trump ran for president on a platform of “Making America Great Again.” This November, he’ll seek re-election on a slogan of “Keeping America Great.” In our region, I’m not sure how to quantify greatness in the context of serious, widespread poverty that has now spanned two generations and part of a third.
It escapes me, too, how any of the solutions being proposed on the national level—things such as tax credits and college loan forgiveness—will make a difference in the lives of low-income families who aren’t paying much in federal taxes and can’t afford to send their kids to college.
Everyone who’s currently on Twitter or Facebook passionately arguing the policies of Biden versus Bernie, or Trump versus a third-party candidate, or unfettered free markets versus democratic socialism, would do well to remember that those debates are a luxury that many young people in places such as McKeesport, Duquesne or Clairton aren’t able to indulge.
They’re too busy focusing on their day-to-day survival.
Next week, Chapter Sixteen: In South Texas, the distraction of coronavirus has meant the quickening pace of border wall construction. Environmentalists are among those increasingly concerned.
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.