The Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition has informed the New Pittsburgh Courier that they will call for the resignation of East Liberty Development Inc. executive director Maelene Myers and its board of directors during a rally at the corner of N. Highland Ave. and Baum Blvd., Friday, April 13 at 5:30 p.m.
Randall Taylor with Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition told the Courier exclusively that “even though they (ELDI) claim to speak for the community, I disagree with where ELDI is at, I disagree with thousands of people being displaced.”
Taylor believes ELDI hasn’t done enough to keep Black residents in East Liberty, but the larger issue at hand surrounds the myriad of events surrounding a sign in East Liberty that reads, “There are Black People in the Future.”
The billboard is part of “The Last Billboard” project, which was created by Jon Rubin, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. For nearly a decade, the space above a building at Highland and Baum in East Liberty sports a message from a different artist. “There are Black People in the Future” was posted high atop the building in early March, featuring the work of artist Alisha Wormsley.
The sign was taken down over a week ago, after property manager Eve Picker released a statement saying in part: “We were contacted by a number of people in the local community who said that they found the message offensive and divisive. We asked the tenant to remove the message because they didn’t follow the lease agreement that states the billboard cannot be used for items ‘that are distasteful, offensive, erotic, political…’”
Who were the “number of people in the local community” that found the message offensive and divisive? A backlash of sorts became on social media, as people on both sides of the fence verbally sparred over Picker’s decision.
Then late last week, it was announced the message would return atop the building.
East Liberty Development Inc. released a statement on April 6 alerting the public that they did initially come to Picker with questions about the sign, because people were erroneously coming to ELDI with concerns, and not to those responsible for the sign. ELDI’s statement read, in part: “It is also frustrating that this firestorm started when we sent an email to both Mr. Rubin and Ms. Picker asking about the meaning of the message in question and suggesting that the message was ambiguous and could be considered tone deaf given the gentrification debate underway in the neighborhood and the need to bring back the displaced Penn Plaza residents. We never demanded that the message be taken down, but simply asked how long it would remain.”
ELDI’s initial questions to Picker were enough for Taylor and his group to take action. “The issue around the sign was offensive and hurtful to individuals and to the reputation of the community, and when you couple that with the historic role that ELDI has played in the displacement of thousands of African Americans, the destruction of thousands of affordable housing units, it’s time for them to step aside,” Taylor told the Courier exclusively.
Taylor’s group continues to fight LG Realty over how to deal with the space that formerly occupied Penn Plaza Apartments, which have since been demolished.
Taylor, also a former member of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board, said that at the upcoming April 13 rally, “we’re going to make the full case as to why this organization (ELDI) should cease and desist operations in East Liberty.”
Dan Yablonsky, another representative of Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition, said that while groups like the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation can be easily joined by members of the public, ELDI doesn’t work that way. “There’s no membership to ELDI, there’s no Democratic process in ELDI, there’s no space for community members to step up and say they want to be involved in this organization,” he told the Courier.
For that reason, “(ELDI) is not a true community organization,” Yablonsky said. “A true community organization in my eyes is something where a community can come in and create a vision for their neighborhood.”
Taylor told the Courier, April 10, that “the actions of East Liberty Development are what I’m concerned about—their priorities have been problematic for many African American residents in our community. We’re calling for a completely new ELDI with completely new priorities,” one that will work in the best interest “for every person in East Liberty and not a few.”
Reached by telephone on April 10, ELDI executive director Maelene Myers told the Courier that, among other issues, she rejects all claims that her organization forced Picker to take the “There are Black People in the Future” sign down.
“What’s really painful is that (people) feel that we’re not working on behalf of the neighborhood, and we are as it pertains to African American families,” Myers told the Courier exclusively. “We’re the most devoted organization in the East End working on their behalf.”
Myers said that for outside entities “to continue to spin the story that ELDI is pushing out African Americans is inaccurate. We’re a small organization trying to do something right…We will stand by that.”
Myers, who has been affiliated with ELDI for over two decades, told the Courier: “Had we not come together as a community and done this work we’ve done over the last 20 years, what would East Liberty look like then?”
Myers said that because the sign didn’t have any true attribution for concerned citizens to call, people contacted her organization. She felt it was her organization’s responsibility to contact Picker and ask certain questions, such as the meaning of the sign, and how long it would be up.
The initial decision to remove the sign was entirely Picker’s call, Myers said.
Myers called the sign’s message “wonderful,” and said that the sign “never bothered ELDI once…I think it’s a great place to talk messages in East Liberty as it relates to artwork.”
Myers also said she doesn’t think the sign “should come down at all.”
In a blog post dated April 6, Wormsley said her message “started out as a Black nerd sci-fi joke. A response to the absence of non-White faces in science fiction films and TV… Afrofuturism dates to suggest that not only will Black people exist in the future, but that we will be makers and shapers of it, too.”
Wormsley continued: “I am deeply saddened by (the sign’s initial) removal. And yet I am comforted by how my Pittsburgh has stood up! I think we all know what it is to have discomfort. Let’s begin to work on methods to constructively investigate that discomfort without using power over anyone or anything else.”
Wormsley did not respond to a request for comment from the New Pittsburgh Courier.
Among Wormsley’s many supporters on social media is LaTasha D. Mayes with New Voices Pittsburgh, an organization which advocates for the betterment of women. “Alisha Wormsley makes a profound statement with the simple phrase, ‘There are Black people in the future.’ It is a reflection of her art and it is a reflection of the times we are experiencing today. East Liberty has been gentrified,” Mayes told the Courier exclusively in a statement, April 10. “The intention, byproduct or unintended consequence of gentrification is the erasure of what peoples, places and cultures were there before what has been created in the present. For East Liberty, it is Black people being erased. Alisha inspires our work to serve Black women, femmes and girls because in spite of how anti-Black racism and White supremacy tries to erase us, there are Black people in the future.”
The Kelly Strayhorn Theater will host an open conversation about art, public space, and how people talk about art as a community on April 18 at 4 p.m. at the Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. Wormsley is scheduled to attend.
“These moments give us an opportunity to consider our values,” said Kelly-Strayhorn Executive Director Janera Solomon in a statement, “both as individuals and as a community.”
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