Perspectives: The Big Pittsburgh Lie

Writer Damon Young says the Steel City is masquerading as a paragon of inclusion.

graphic by chuck Beard

When I was 11, I knew so little about sex that when 14-year-old Bobby Henderson pulled a Trojan from his pocket while we were playing “Double Dribble” and bragged that he was “going through five a week,” I laughed.

“So … sex makes you eat Oodles of Noodles?”

If you’d never seen a condom before (which I hadn’t), you could mistake it for the pack of ramen noodles seasoning (which I did).

But a curriculum from my parents (who told me not to have sex), MTV (who told me if I did, I’d get AIDS) and the boys on my block (who told me I needed to do it because that’s what everyone who wasn’t lame was doing) educated me. To catch up with the sex I believed I was supposed to be having, I used Cinemax After Dark as my cheat sheet to craft falsehoods that transformed my virgin ass into Caligula. 

I knew it was wrong to lie. And I also was aware that my Jenga tower of fibs would eventually fall. But I had a solution: Instead of inserting girls who actually existed into my web, I’d just invent them, to give myself an alibi. When talking to my homies from school, my exploits would be with some girl named “Kiesha” from my block. When rapping with my boys from my block, my partners would be girls from school. 

As I got older, my lies got more subtle. I’d just allow people to assume I was in relationships with the girls I might have been seen walking to class with or sitting next to in the cafeteria. I wouldn’t outright lie, but I would allow untruths to fester. (“Yo Dame, I saw you at the bus stop with Kim Jenkins yesterday. Is that you? You on that?” “Haha. Stop playing.”) These lies became so essential that when I finally got around to having sex, it still felt like I was lying when I’d talk about it. I was so thoroughly fraudulent that even the truth felt fake.

That experience left me equipped to spot a bullshitter. I know the tendencies, and I know the forces that compel people to alter their realities.

And I know that Pittsburgh is a bullshitter, too. 

Barely a month passes without the ’Burgh finding itself on some list of the country’s most attractive cities. We’ve transformed ourselves from a urban anachronism — a center of dead or soon-to-be dying industries — to a hub of technology and health care. Many of the world’s biggest and coolest businesses and brands have bases here. Our theaters are top notch. Our universities are globally renowned. Our restaurant culture is booming. Our star athletes ride helicopters to training camp. 

With this success, Pittsburgh has begun to tout itself as a paragon of inclusion. “WE ARE PROGRESSIVE!” Pittsburgh screams, with a billboard. “WE WANT ALL THE DIVERSITY!” Pittsburgh types, in all caps. “WE EVEN MAYBE WANT TO BE A SANCTUARY CITY!” Pittsburgh shouts, with a bullhorn.

And then, black Pittsburgh responds back: “Really?”

This skepticism exists because Pittsburgh — still — is a city that, despite being 26 percent black, has never come close to having a black mayor. Pittsburgh — still — is a city where the median income gap between white and black households is greater than the national disparity. Pittsburgh — still — is a city where, for native black Pittsburghers, it’s easier to name the predominantly black schools that have closed in the past two decades than the ones still operating. Pittsburgh — still — is a city where gentrification has transformed some black neighborhoods so dramatically that it’s as if an entire new neighborhood was picked up and placed on top of the old one. Pittsburgh — still — is a city where, when a black teenager was gunned down by a police officer in a Pittsburgh-area municipality, the first public response by the mayor was to make it clear that Pittsburgh-area and Pittsburgh ain’t the same.

The contrast between how the ’Burgh says it is and how it actually is exists because, well, it’s not who it says it is. Pittsburgh knows that associating itself with certain buzzwords like diversity and inclusion makes it sound attractive, but it’s more concerned with the performance of those words than an embrace of them. Blacks leave and other minority populations don’t even bother coming because the city isn’t welcoming. The city tolerates us fine if we’re pushed into Homewood or the Hill, or if light sprinkles of us occasionally find ourselves in Shadyside or at the Byham. But anything more than that, well, maybe it’s time to plow through another protestor. 

Thing is, as a person who lived a lie and dealt with the pressure and stress of keeping up with the cascading lies to support the original, I think Pittsburgh should take a look in the mirror and be honest. Pittsburgh, if you’re reading this, forget about pretending to be something you have no real interest in being.

Why embrace “Pittsburgh: America’s Most Livable City” when “Pittsburgh: Wakanda For White People” fits much better?  

Damon Young is the founder of, a senior editor at The Root, and a columnist at GQ. His debut memoir, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” (Ecco/HarperCollins) is available for preorder.

Categories: From the Magazine, Hot Reads, Perspectives