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This is the latest chapter of Year of Fear, a series from The Delacorte Review and CJR. Each week until Election Day, we'll bring you another chapter from one of our towns. To subscribe, click the button below.
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McKeesport, Pennsylvania


In towns like McKeesport, the future was already precarious. Then came coronavirus.


By Jason Togyer

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.

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.

The COVID-19 crisis is making the contrast between haves and have-nots more apparent than ever. After Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all K-12 schools to suspend in-person classes to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, one of our freelance writers, Richard Finch Jr., contacted several area schools to find out how students were making the transition to online instruction. 

He produced an informative—if discouraging—four-part series. A few schools, Rich wrote, were coping well. For instance, my alma mater, Serra Catholic High School, a private institution in a well-off neighborhood of McKeesport, had a Google Chromebook available for each of its approximately 300 students in grades nine through twelve, whose families each pay about $10,000 a year in tuition. Their switch to online learning happened with only a few minor stumbles. 

Less than a mile away, however, McKeesport Area School District not only didn’t have enough laptops or tablets for all of its 3,400 students, but a quick survey by administrators determined that about 1,000 of them either didn’t have an up-to-date computer at home, or lacked the high-speed Internet connection necessary to support online learning. The nearby South Allegheny and Clairton City school districts—serving 1,500 and 800 students, respectively—faced similar challenges. Rich reported teachers in those districts were photocopying paper packets so their pupils could continue their schoolwork.

While our students are struggling because of COVID-19 shutdowns, so are recent graduates. Until the 1980s, the main path out of poverty for people in the Mon Valley was a job in a steel mill or other factory. When those giants downsized, moved off-shore or closed altogether, the children of laid-off factory workers were urged to get a college education.

That road to a middle-class life has become narrower and more treacherous. As four-year college degrees become commonplace, some pundits are calling them the “new high-school diploma,” meaning the minimum education level a young adult is expected to complete. Because of the rising cost of tuition, a bachelor’s degree is now more expensive and yet less valuable (in terms of landing a desirable job) than it used to be.

In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration promised us that service industries—retail, entertainment and hospitality—would help replace industrial manufacturing as an economic driver. Those industries have provided a route out of poverty for some young adults here. In fact, as Pittsburgh developed a reputation among “foodies,” brewpubs, craft distilleries and high-end restaurants have been among the bright spots in the Mon Valley—or at least until COVID-19. 

The pandemic has decimated hospitality and dining jobs; restaurants are limping along, offering take-out orders and employing only a fraction of their usual staff, while Pittsburgh’s NPR station, WESA, reported in April that local hotel occupancy rates dropped from 65 percent to seven percent.

Knowing all of that, what kind of career advice can we honestly offer young people here? And should we be surprised when any of them end up using drugs to escape or turning to crime to earn money?

I’m actually heartened by the fact that the vast majority of them are great kids, many of whom are doing incredible things. McKeesport Area High School, for instance, has a thriving robotics club, top-notch graphic arts and music students (I’ve seen and heard their work) and a technology program that’s preparing young people for a variety of careers, including a building-trades program that has constructed entire homes for local veterans. Their achievement in spite of adversity is a testament to their families, their teachers and the fabled Pittsburgh work ethic.

But why should it be so hard for them? Any teacher will tell you it’s hard to get a kid to focus on geometry or conjugating verbs when he or she is hungry and tired. As a result, too many students here score near the bottom on the state’s standardized math, reading and science tests. Of 671 Pennsylvania public high schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report on the basis of test scores, only one of the eight nearest to McKeesport placed above 400—and the township where it’s located, North Huntingdon in Westmoreland County, is among the wealthiest local communities (median household income of $73,878, versus the Pittsburgh metropolitan area median of $59,710), as well as one of the whitest (about 97 percent).

Many students who were unable to easily switch to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic have effectively lost one-third of their education for the school year. How much further behind other Pennsylvania students will they be next year? And the year after? And do we just accept that as the price they have to pay for not being lucky enough to be born into a richer school district a few miles away?

 


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?

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.”)

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.

The Year of Fear tells the story of the lead-up to 2020 presidential election through the lens of four American towns whose newspapers have either closed or shrunk, and is told by four journalists who once worked for those papers. The project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

Catch up with all of our coverage at CJR.org.
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