I grew up on the Southside Slopes, where skinny houses stack upon steep and narrow roads overlooking the Monongahela river. The slopes have their own driving etiquette: only one car can fit on the streets at a time, and parking-chairs are a popular negotiation of territory. As a child too young to drive, I found myself scaling the same concrete stairs as steelworkers had a century before, the steps crumbling under my sneakers, the railings re-painted an aquamarine that chipped away to reveal rust underneath. If I climbed for long enough, pushing past sticky mulberry bushes and knotweed threatening to take over the stairs, eventually I would reach the top, and out of breath I could turn around and see Pittsburgh stretched out in the distance.
When I looked out at Downtown back then, I did not know the whole story.
The Ohio headwaters have been rich hunting and trading grounds for thousands of years prior to European colonization in the 1700s. This land has been long inhabited by the Shawnee people. Fort Pitt was constructed in 1758 after the British defeated the French during what is known as the French and Indian War. In 1763, a confederacy of indigenous warriors sieged Fort Pitt, as the promise that the British had made–that they would leave the area after they defeated the French–had not been kept. The British used tactics of biological warfare to drive the warriors off of their homeland. In 1794, Pittsburgh officially became a city in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
There are many origin stories in every place. Pittsburgh was born from a space of contention, of shifting power, of bloodshed, of resistance to domination. These struggles are reflected in its geography, if you know where to look. As scholars of place, we are also storytellers, and the stories we make accessible to the public can affect how people interact with the world around them.
Today, Pittsburgh is quickly gentrifying. I no longer live in the neighborhood where I grew up, but am still struggling to know with more intimacy this place I call home, this place that is not mine and yet has given me the gift of life and growth, as it rapidly changes into an unrecognizable version of itself.
In her essay “Who is Your Mother,” Native American writer and activist Paula Gunn Allen sites memory-loss as the root of oppression.
What stories, whose stories, do we know, do we remember? How do those stories narrate our experience of freedom? How will we keep these stories alive even as their locations are destroyed and replaced, their carriers displaced and assimilated?
Changes produced by social, political and cultural processes are reflected in the landscape, and to be oblivious to the past is to render meaningless the physical world through which we move. My project, The Geography of Freedom, will use map-making to breathe life into histories of freedom and freedom-seeking articulations of community agency.
My research mentor, Dr. Jess Fitzpatrick, works in the public humanities and teaches a class called Secret Pittsburgh, where she teaches her students to tap into the ways that place can tell a story, and sometimes, create counternarratives. As I work with her to build my repertoire of historical and cartographical tools, I will be preparing myself for a longer journey of study. I hope that opportunities such as the Brackenridge will lead me towards further education wherein I can better learn how to research and teach, because learning and teaching are processes through which we can begin to heal trauma, shift power, and continue moving towards liberation.
My name is Philippa Zang and I am an Africana Studies and Creative Nonfiction Writing Major. I love singing and laughing with my friends, making music playlists, going on long walks through the Allegheny Cemetery, problem-solving towards ideals, and learning from my many teachers.
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