Monday, May 18, 2020

What Happens to a Neighborhood When a School Closes? – Next City

What Happens to a Neighborhood When a School Closes? – Next City

Neighborhood When a School Closes?
Author and scholar Andre Perry digs into how one shuttered elementary school in a majority-Black neighborhood has maintained its community connections.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,” by Andre Perry, published by Brookings Institution Press. In it, the author takes readers on a tour of six Black-majority cities whose assets and strengths are radically undervalued — a legacy of the structural racism that has characterized American capitalism. Here, he revisits his former primary school in Wilkinsburg, outside of Pittsburgh, which closed in 2012 and has found new life as a business and community incubator.

Mom’s husband possessed a car, a luxury for families on my block. My brothers, friends, and I bobbed joyously on the sidewalk next to his tan sedan, ecstatic about the first day of school at Johnston Elementary in Wilkinsburg in 1975. That tan car and that first day are some of my earliest memories growing up in Wilkinsburg. Usually, Teddy left for work before the break of dawn. But that day, he must have wanted to extend to us that luxury and celebrate our first day of school. After a three-month summer break, the day after Labor Day represented an un-calendared holiday in the ’hood. In Black America, an education represents freedom in a literal and metaphorical way—a real opportunity to escape the hardships of life.
Abolitionist, statesman, and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass once said that denying a person an education means adding another link in the chain of their servitude. Quoting his owner in his book Life of an American Slave, Douglass wrote, “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Mom would always tell us to get as much education as we could. She didn’t necessarily show us how in deed; she only had an eighth-grade education. But she always encouraged the kids toward academic achievement.
It was the month before I turned five. Knowing me, I probably clung to my brother Kevin’s side. I remember the sense of security he provided. And Kevin already had two years of school under his belt, so he was accustomed to school; that day meant something different for him. My lifelong friend Dave Brown, who was also starting kindergarten with me, joined us beside the car, along with a few other children on the block. I remember piling inside Teddy’s car, sans seatbelt, with our parents in the front.
I have a vivid memory of passing the school as we found a place to park. We all moved to the driver’s side window. Jaws dropped as we slowly passed the sturdy, three-storied, concrete facility, which sat along one of the busiest intersections in town just off the highway. I remember thinking the school was enormous. In reality, it was fairly large. The entire facility takes up 45,000 square feet and housed twenty 900-square-foot classrooms, a playground, and ample parking space.
Whereas the trip to the school was rowdy, we held silence on our walk up the steps, in awe of the school. I recall my anxiety and how I looked for Kevin; when he was nowhere to be found, I clutched Mom’s hand for support. The concrete steps leading up to the entrance seemed so big at the time, and they probably were for a five-year-old. But Mom was there for me. Looking back, schools represented some of the most loving and violent places in my life. In high school, the regular fights in Wilkinsburg reflected a divestment of the civic and social infrastructure of Wilkinsburg. However, I deeply treasure the memories of parents rallying for their children throughout my time in Wilkinsburg schools.


Schools are linchpins of a community’s overall physical landscape and what researcher Eric Klinenberg defines as social infrastructure: the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact. Schools in cities are located mostly for convenience. People can walk or drive to them fairly easily. It’s why we use them as polling stations and for neighborhood association meetings. Many students have fun on the playgrounds when the school is closed. In addition, a school’s vitality helps support the economy; they employ numerous workers, many of whom are middle-class professionals. And they help hold the history and culture of a place through yearbooks, trophy cases, and photo archives. School traditions often connect one generation to the next, providing a sense of CONTINUE READING: What Happens to a Neighborhood When a School Closes? – Next City