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Nihilism and White Bliss in America’s Most Livable City

On Pittsburgh, the canonization of Mario Lemieux, and stories white progressives like to tell

Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire/Getty

From a distance, Le Magnifique looks almost like a scene from a cartoon. The hero of the statue, former Penguins center and captain Mario Lemieux, is skating one way with the puck dangling on the blade of his stick, every bit the menace in the open ice who earned the right to be called the best hockey player who ever lived. (In this town, Gretzky is always second. And after a few beers, an argument about what kind of numbers Sidney Crosby would put up during the stand-up goaltending era may also come up.) On the other side of Lemieux are two defenders skating completely the opposite way, colliding, dumbfounded by this marvel of a human being who skates past with a Looney Tunes smirk on his face. The statue is beautiful, save for the hair. The hair on bronze statues always looks a little weird texturally, like uncooked ramen noodles.

The statue captures a moment from a December 1988 game against the New York Islanders, played in the Civic Arena, when Lemieux split two defenders and displayed the violent power he could turn on and off. Like many of the city’s white residents, fans of this very white game, I felt proud when the statue went up. Our hero, the city’s icon, finally immortalized. And like many of the city’s white residents, I didn’t know what stood at the spot where he skated roughly 30 years earlier, in the 1950s, when the city razed over a thousand structures and displaced 8,000 residents, the vast majority of them black, to begin the arena’s construction. 

Last weekend, during Pittsburgh’s uprising in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, protesters spray-painted a hammer and sickle above Mario’s powerful wagon, and the phrase “IT IS RIGHT TO REBEL.” Unlike the poverty, mass surveillance, and routine state violence that black residents of the city are subjected to, and which the protesters made their target, the spray paint splatter on the city’s idol was enough to get white Pittsburghers to finally pay attention. Sports radio personalities sprang into action to defend the poor statue, unable to defend itself, and fans rallied behind them, decrying the likelihood that any real Pittsburgher would ever deface Lemieux. 

The implied neutrality of the statue—a belief that some symbols can exist outside politics or geographies of race—attempts to bypass more urgent questions about where we are right now and why. Like why a statue of a white sports icon and the arena it guards may actively represent something quite different for generations of residents displaced by the franchise that has functioned as a selective engine for prosperity in a heavily segregated city. 

For white people in Pittsburgh, there’s a form of deluded self-preservation in sanctifying something like Le Magnifique. It’s a story we can tell ourselves about uninterrupted prosperity and civic pride. Forget the tanked economy, the neighborhood segregation, and an unrealized dream of a better life for generations of black people in Pittsburgh. Lemieux is one of us—Le Magnifique—and he’s never done us wrong.

I’ve never seen Mario Lemieux around my neighborhood, or out in our community when something goes wrong for our people,” said Jasiri X, the founder and CEO of 1Hood Media in Pittsburgh. It’s unclear who defaced the statue, but Jasiri said he remains focused on what actually matters in the equation: It’s paint on a statue. “They can get another one,” he said. 

Pittsburgh is an annual recipient of the “most livable city” designations that float around, praised for its economy, safety, and beauty. After the death of the steel industry, the city reinvented itself through higher education (the University of Pittsburgh and the internationally renowned Carnegie Mellon University), health care (the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, or UPMC, is a national leader in the medical community), and in an eventual mini-boom for tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple—raiding the local computer science program at Carnegie Mellon for the best developer talent in the world. 

But black residents have been largely locked out of the attendant prosperity: Researchers conducting the first study for the city to assess equality across race and gender found that black people in Pittsburgh could pick up and move to nearly any other city in America and immediately see an increased lifespan, higher income, and better education for their children. According to the report’s findings, it is one of the worst cities in which to be black in America. When the study was released, Pittsburgh’s Democratic Mayor Bill Peduto said the right things about the conditions for black residents, in which women and children, in particular, were significantly more likely to live in poverty than in comparable cities across the country. But discussion like this tends to beget more discussion, while the systems-level change necessary to address the racism built into the city’s bones is always the thing that will come tomorrow—or the day after, or perhaps another budget year.

What does Mario Lemieux have to do with this? Besides the Penguins’ association with the Civic Arena and its legacy of racist displacement, the franchise acquired the rights to redevelop the land of the demolished arena for the Lower Hill District as part of its deal to build a new arena and stay in the city in 2007. (This is a familiar style of franchise extortion.) In May 2020, eight years after its demolition was completed, the Penguins once again walked away from a commitment to develop the land for commercial use for the neighborhood. The Hill District remains as economically devastated and gutted as it’s been for decades. 

As for Lemieux’s philanthropy (his career was famously interrupted by Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the Mario Lemieux Foundation raises millions for cancer research), which is certainly beneficial to the medical community, it is largely done in conjunction with UPMC—the same organization that shut down the Braddock Hospital, which served a predominantly black community, while funding a $100 million-plus construction of an East campus in a more affluent white exurban area. More than just being in the city, the franchise creates the city in its own image.

“You can’t look at overpolicing without looking at and considering gentrification, and broken promises, and a lack of resources, and our school-to-prison pipeline,” said Summer Lee, a state representative for the 34th District in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. Lee is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and upset a 20-year incumbent during the 2018 Democratic primary. In one of the more telling signs of racist marginalization in the city, Lee is the first black woman to represent Southwestern Pennsylvania in the state legislature. The Democratic establishment of the city endorsed her primary challenger in a near-unprecedented move, and her vocal calls for police reform have made her unpopular with the centrist liberals who currently hold the power in the city. Votes are still being tallied from the Democratic Primary on June 2, but it appears that Lee won by a significant margin, despite the establishment challenge.

Lee’s argument is quite simple: To effectively fight against systemic racism, one must completely disrupt the system that was created to benefit the white, powerful, and affluent. “That’s not something that can be solved at the local level. We need state and federal working in tandem,” she said. “The divestment of black and brown communities, the underfunding of our schools, the underfunding of our transportation system: All these things were intentionally done. You can’t eradicate them unintentionally.” Band-Aid solutions, like those offered by overwhelmed mayors seeking to calm a distressed populace, can’t create effective long-term change. Economic development can only go as far as the developers who are willing to come to the table and guarantee beneficial arrangements for the communities that have never had a seat at the table.

The Reverend Dr. John Welch, who leads an organization of interfaith activist chapters throughout the country and helped coordinate and organize demonstrations during the Ferguson, Missouri, rebellion of 2014, ran for mayor in 2017 on a platform of police reform and equitable investment in schools and housing. Welch said he felt called to run after watching what happened to the previous police chief, Cameron McLay. McLay was an outsider who was brought in by then-incumbent and current Mayor Bill Peduto to bring police reform but clashed with the union, being seen as someone who did not have the officers’ best interest at heart. McLay first came under fire for holding a sign pledging to end white silence. He resigned in November 2016, a couple of months after the Pittsburgh police union voted 91 percent no confidence in his leadership during labor contract negotiations. Welch lost that race, but his analysis of the situation hasn’t changed: “We need to change the culture of policing here,” he told me.

“In Pittsburgh in particular, which is a highly racist city already, police are allowed to do what they do with impunity,” Welch continued. “This is the same police force that was under federal consent decree because of abuse of force. The first one in the country to do so.” Summer Lee described the relationship between the black community and the police in the city as tenuous, at best. Besides the brutality and counterinsurgency tactics, the issue remains the accountability of those responsible. The city and region has had its own national news about police treatment, most tragically the police killing of 17-year-old Antwon Rose in 2018. The city hid behind the fact that it was done by the East Pittsburgh police department, and not the city’s, failing to own any accountability for the racist tone it set in the region

Pittsburgh has been in a state of sustained protest in recent days. There are demonstrations of rage, grief, and solidarity in response to the recent police and white vigilante killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the country’s foundation in routine, systemic violence against black people. 

But the protests are one arm of a movement that predates them and will need to continue to build strength in the weeks, months, and years to come. “You need to be out in the streets, you need that for visibility, but that’s only going to take you so far,” said Welch. “You want to be out there to show your strength. But if that’s all you’re doing, then you’re just going to be out there again when the next one happens. And it will happen.” 

At the demonstration on June 1 that ended with police firing tear gas at protesters,  Mayor Peduto held a press conference promising to review the transcript of the police orders prior to the decision to use chemical weapons on its own residents but made clear that these transcripts would not be released to the public. Once again, the city and its communities were being asked to trust the police, who have acted with impunity. 

The protests consuming the city right now are—or should be—the end of such false comforts and the broader idea of Pittsburgh as a progressive bastion. “In liberalism there’s anti-blackness, too. It’s so much easier to focus on that conservative brand of racism,” Lee said about the fact that liberal leaders are still willing to kneel before their blue gods of policing.

Alona Williams, an organizer and activist in Pittsburgh who helped put together the intersectional Women’s March in the city, in 2017, after the original planning was dominated by white women, told me: “I don’t expect [white people] to do shit, really. I just wish more were willing to make a commitment to making this an everyday thing and understanding that their own liberation is tied up in the liberation of black people.” 

A half-mile from the PPG Paints Arena is the site of the second location of Crawford’s Grill, which opened in 1943 and survived the destruction of the Hill District. It closed in 2003 officially but has stayed vacant, preserved as a historical landmark. On quiet nights, if you listen really hard, you can still hear the echoes of Mingus bouncing from inside the decaying cushions of the vinyl booths. On other nights, the sounds of the city are the screams and cheers of tailgaters and hockey fans walking to and from the arena—winding their way around Le Magnifique—where this generation’s stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin likely put on a good show. 

When I asked Lee about the statue getting tagged, she paused to consider my question. “Quite frankly, I don’t have any opinion on the vandalism of a statue when black and brown people who are protesting police violence are being met with police violence,” she said. “You cannot be violent against an inanimate object.”  The protests weren’t some dividing point between order and disorder. That was just a refusal by white residents of the city to see the daily violence enacted against their black neighbors. A myth, like the statue itself. “What we’re calling for is an indictment of this very system and this treatment at the hands of the police who continue to escalate this,” she said. “Black people are not met systemically with peace. There is no peace in this country.”