Wilkinsburg voters should insist on a better argument than ‘trickle-down’ for a merger into Pittsburgh

See updates through October 31, 2022, at end of post.



Fig. 1. Photograph by author, November 25, 2020.

I wind up in Wilkinsburg a fair amount, in significant part because poor people in Pittsburgh rely heavily on Uber and Lyft to get around. That probably biases my view of the borough. My last ride of the day yesterday, however, was from one of the more gentrified areas, a white couple going to a bar on the Edgewood side of Regent Square along South Braddock Avenue.

None of my passengers mentions the proposed merger into Pittsburgh.[1] I have not seen how much this is a move of relatively well-heeled property owners seeking to reduce their property taxes at the expense of generally poor renters whose local income tax would increase.[2] From that perspective, it looks ugly, albeit probably not as ugly as the last municipal merger in which Allegheny (now Pittsburgh’s North Shore and Mexican War Streets neighborhoods) was annexed over the electoral objections of its residents.[3]

But I’m not hearing from the poor how they feel about it. They can’t be fond of the blight either. And I really don’t know who, really, these people are, who claim that Wilkinsburg can solve its own problems:

We have solved a lot of problems. We are no longer a distressed community. We’ve come out of that.[4]

Renee Hayes-Johnson’s claim that Wilkinsburg is “no longer a distressed community” leads me to wonder what drugs she is on. Perhaps she is among the people who put up those ludicrous banners that say “Good All Over” (figure 2) even in front of blighted properties on Penn Avenue. I mean, come on, this is simply not real.

Fig. 2. Penn Avenue, Wilkinsburg. The banners say “Good All Over.” Photograph by author, December 31, 2020.

But also, I’m still not seeing specifically how the merger solves Wilkinsburg’s problems when Pittsburgh also suffers from blight in areas that now former mayor Bill Peduto and his predecessors neglected. What I do see is classic neoliberal thinking:

The homeowners and the property owners and the business owners of Wilkinsburg will benefit from this. They will see their millage go down and they will start to see private investment along the business corridor and in the neighborhoods.[5]

In other words, trickle-down.


Update, January 18, 2022: When the court ordered the Pittsburgh City Council to make a decision within 30 days on whether to submit the Wilkinsburg annexation proposal to Wilkinsburg voters,[6] it left council members feeling the process was rushed.[7]

This isn’t necessarily a permanent ‘no,’ though the group who wants Pittsburgh to annex Wilkinsburg and whose pursuit of that court order now seems to have backfired, would probably have to submit another request to the court for a new order. It’s also going to need to look like Black people are on board with the idea, not just white people, and some folks need to get their numbers—numbers they apparently already should have—in order.[8]

While it’s not an explicit rejection of Rich Fitzgerald’s “trickle-down” argument for a merger,[9] it does sorta kinda sound like the council wants to see some details. Neoliberal bromides clearly ain’t doing it for them.


Update, April 1, 2022: The argumentation I’m seeing for Pittsburgh to annex Wilkinsburg remains incredibly sloppy.

There still doesn’t seem to be an argument for the annexation beyond neoliberal platitudes.[10] History informs us not to underestimate the impulse toward Pittsburgh municipal empire building[11]—indeed, to drive around Pittsburgh is to see one sign after another indicating dates when former municipalities were annexed—but from the sound of this first serious hearing on the idea, this one just doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen: One question was why Pittsburgh, which already has (many) blighted neighborhoods, would want another one.[12]

One answer to that is population. Pittsburgh’s is declining,[13] at least partly due to gentrification and notably among Black people,[14] but I’m not clear on why, in itself, beyond bragging rights, that’s really an issue, and to the extent it is an issue, we should be seeing why, again, very specifically, an annexation might not have a similar impact on Wilkinsburg.

It isn’t, I will generously assume, that these arguments can’t be made. I can see ways that they might be made. But it’s very striking to me that they aren’t being made, that we are just presumptively taking some things—mergers, for example—to be good things and some things—population declines, for example—to be bad things without any kind of rich exploration of community impacts. And aren’t those impacts what really matter?


Update, September 30, 2022: I still want to see a real plan, not mere neoliberal bullshit, for how a merger with Pittsburgh helps Wilkinsburg.[15] In February, the Pittsburgh City Council balked at a tight court-imposed deadline for moving forward on the earlier merger petition, wanting more time to study the idea.[16] So now, advocates are trying again.[17] But I’m still not seeing a real plan for how this would help Wilkinsburg.


Update, October 31, 2022:

The ruling by Common Pleas Judge Joseph James suggests that the 1903 law on which those in favor of annexation to the city of Pittsburgh have hung their argument was essentially repealed decades ago.

That means the only path forward would be through a ballot initiative in both Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh.[18]

The sense I’m getting here is that a ballot initiative would likely fail in both municipalities.

Judge James wrote Friday in his ruling that that law was basically repealed by a constitutional amendment passed in 1968. The amendment, which went into effect in 1970, directed the state legislature to come up with a uniform procedure for municipality mergers and consolidation.

The legislature, though, never did that. A 1994 law further limited options by setting forth three avenues for merger or consolidation — except for Pittsburgh.

That, Judge James wrote, means “the only procedure for annexation is set forth in Article IX Section 8.”

That part of the state constitution dictates that a consolidation or merger must be voted upon by constituents in both municipalities. To move forward, the ballot initiative would have to receive a majority of votes in both communities.[19]

Pittsburgh residents will surely say that Pittsburgh has enough problems already. And I think the only folks in Wilkinsburg who favor it are property owners, whose property taxes would drop;[20] they’ll be outvoted by renters, whose income taxes would go up.[21] And the thing is, there is still no compelling argument, no clear plan, at least that I’ve seen, for how a merger with Pittsburgh would help Wilkinsburg. It’s still just neoliberal bullshit.[22]

  1. [1]Joe Arena, “Wilkinsburg, Pittsburgh consider merger,” WPXI, July 7, 2021, https://www.wpxi.com/news/top-stories/wilkinsburg-pittsburgh-consider-merger/L4V5FRSEMREM5INDCLWYU7A7GE/; Christine D’Antonio, “Hearing to be held on proposed annexation of Wilkinsburg by Pittsburgh,” WPXI, December 4, 2021, https://www.wpxi.com/news/local/hearing-be-held-proposed-annexation-wilkinsburg-by-pittsburgh/LWPJOELLAFCALIFV77GQW5IIUE/; Jon Delano, “Wilkinsburg Moves Closer To A Vote On Merging With The City Of Pittsburgh,” KDKA-TV, June 28, 2021, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2021/06/28/wilkinsburg-potential-merging-with-pittsburgh/; Ryan Deto, “Controller Lamb wants potential Wilkinsburg-Pittsburgh merger to spur more talks about municipal consolidation,” Pittsburgh City Paper, July 8, 2021, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/controller-lamb-wants-potential-wilkinsburg-pittsburgh-merger-to-spur-more-talks-about-municipal-consolidation/Content?oid=19786764; Julia Felton, “Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg leaders split on potential annexation,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 10, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-wilkinsburg-leaders-split-on-potential-annexation/; Julia Felton, “Wilkinsburg community group files annexation petition to court, seeking to be added to Pittsburgh,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 11, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/wilkinsburg-community-group-submits-annexation-petition-to-court-seeking-to-be-added-to-pittsburgh/; Megan Guza, “Pittsburgh council members hear comments on possible Wilkinsburg annexation,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 5, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-council-members-hear-comments-on-possible-wilkinsburg-annexation/; Megan Guza, “Pittsburgh City Council must vote whether Wilkinsburg annexation will appear on borough’s ballot,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 5, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-city-council-must-vote-whether-wilkinsburg-annexation-will-appear-on-boroughs-ballot/; Sheldon Ingram, “A lot needs to happen for Wilkinsburg to merge with Pittsburgh,” WTAE, June 29, 2021, https://www.wtae.com/article/a-lot-needs-to-happen-for-wilkinsburg-to-merge-with-pittsburgh/36880087; Paul Van Osdol, “Wilkinsburg mayor backs merger with Pittsburgh,” WTAE, June 18, 2021, https://www.wtae.com/article/wilkinsburg-merger-with-pittsburgh-proposed/36768006; Charlie Wolfson, “An effort to merge Wilkinsburg with Pittsburgh is brewing,” Public Source, June 25, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/wilkinsburg-annexation-pittsburgh-garrett-kail-smith-property-tax/; Charlie Wolfson, “If Wilkinsburg is annexed into Pittsburgh, what would happen to its residents’ taxes?” Public Source, November 16, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/wilkinsburg-pittsburgh-annexation-merger-property-taxes-school-pennsylvania/; Charlie Wolfson, “Pittsburgh City Council hears public comment on divisive Wilkinsburg annexation issue,” Public Source, December 4, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/civic-briefs-wilkinsburg-pittsburgh-annexation-council-hearing/; WPXI, “Group pushing again for Wilkinsburg to join with City of Pittsburgh,” October 4, 2021, https://www.wpxi.com/news/top-stories/group-pushing-again-wilkinsburg-join-with-city-pittsburgh/IHMGF2AJTJAGHNFOICZZ3UGCLQ/; WTAE, “Wilkinsburg pumps brakes on merger with city of Pittsburgh,” July 12, 2021, https://www.wtae.com/article/wilkinsburg-pumps-brakes-on-merger-with-city-of-pittsburgh/37002738
  2. [2]Charlie Wolfson, “If Wilkinsburg is annexed into Pittsburgh, what would happen to its residents’ taxes?” Public Source, November 16, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/wilkinsburg-pittsburgh-annexation-merger-property-taxes-school-pennsylvania/
  3. [3]Diana Nelson Jones, “The day the City of Allegheny disappeared,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 9, 2007, https://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2007/12/09/The-day-the-City-of-Allegheny-disappeared/stories/200712090229
  4. [4]Renee Hayes-Johnson, quoted in Megan Guza, “Pittsburgh City Council must vote whether Wilkinsburg annexation will appear on borough’s ballot,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 5, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-city-council-must-vote-whether-wilkinsburg-annexation-will-appear-on-boroughs-ballot/
  5. [5]Rich Fitzgerald, quoted in Megan Guza, “Pittsburgh City Council must vote whether Wilkinsburg annexation will appear on borough’s ballot,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 5, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-city-council-must-vote-whether-wilkinsburg-annexation-will-appear-on-boroughs-ballot/
  6. [6]Megan Guza, “Pittsburgh City Council must vote whether Wilkinsburg annexation will appear on borough’s ballot,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 5, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-city-council-must-vote-whether-wilkinsburg-annexation-will-appear-on-boroughs-ballot/
  7. [7]Julia Felton, “Pittsburgh City Council poised to dismiss Wilkinsburg annexation proposal,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 18, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-city-council-poised-to-dismiss-wilkinsburg-annexation-proposal/
  8. [8]Julia Felton, “Pittsburgh City Council poised to dismiss Wilkinsburg annexation proposal,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 18, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-city-council-poised-to-dismiss-wilkinsburg-annexation-proposal/
  9. [9]Megan Guza, “Pittsburgh City Council must vote whether Wilkinsburg annexation will appear on borough’s ballot,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 5, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-city-council-must-vote-whether-wilkinsburg-annexation-will-appear-on-boroughs-ballot/
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Wilkinsburg voters should insist on a better argument than ‘trickle-down’ for a merger into Pittsburgh,” Not Housebroken, January 18, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/01/06/wilkinsburg-voters-should-insist-on-a-better-argument-than-trickle-down-for-a-merger-into-pittsburgh/
  11. [11]Diana Nelson Jones, “The day the City of Allegheny disappeared,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 9, 2007, https://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2007/12/09/The-day-the-City-of-Allegheny-disappeared/stories/200712090229
  12. [12]Julian Routh, “Pittsburgh City Council hears from stakeholders at 1st public hearing on Wilkinsburg annexation,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 1, 2022, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/politics-local/2022/03/31/wilkinsburg-annexation-pittsburgh-city-council-public-hearing-west-end-vote-annex/stories/202203310154
  13. [13]Julia Felton, “Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg leaders split on potential annexation,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 10, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-wilkinsburg-leaders-split-on-potential-annexation/
  14. [14]Tom Davidson, “Is there a crisis of ‘forced mass displacement’ of Black Pittsburghers? Residents, council divided on answer,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 6, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/is-there-a-crisis-of-forced-mass-displacement-of-black-pittsburghers-residents-council-divided-on-answer/; Kimberly Rooney, “How rising rents and renovations have displaced Pittsburghers and added to the city’s ongoing issues with gentrification,” Pittsburgh City Paper, April 28, 2021, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/how-rising-rents-and-renovations-have-displaced-pittsburghers-and-added-to-the-citys-ongoing-issues-with-gentrification/Content?oid=19360553
  15. [15]David Benfell, “Wilkinsburg voters should insist on a better argument than ‘trickle-down’ for a merger into Pittsburgh,” Not Housebroken, April 1, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/01/06/wilkinsburg-voters-should-insist-on-a-better-argument-than-trickle-down-for-a-merger-into-pittsburgh/
  16. [16]Julia Felton, “Pittsburgh City Council votes down Wilkinsburg annexation, for now,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 8, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-city-council-votes-down-wilkinsburg-annexation-for-now/
  17. [17]Ryan Deto, “Wilkinsburg group restarts Pittsburgh annexation process,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 30, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/wilkinsburg-group-restarts-pittsburgh-annexation-process/
  18. [18]Megan Guza, “Wilkinsburg annexation process halted after judge rules current avenue invalid,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 31, 2022, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/politics-local/2022/10/31/wilkinsburg-merger-petition-judge-ruling-procedure-annexation-with-pittsburgh-1903-law-ballot-initiative/stories/202210310062
  19. [19]Megan Guza, “Wilkinsburg annexation process halted after judge rules current avenue invalid,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 31, 2022, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/politics-local/2022/10/31/wilkinsburg-merger-petition-judge-ruling-procedure-annexation-with-pittsburgh-1903-law-ballot-initiative/stories/202210310062
  20. [20]Charlie Wolfson, “If Wilkinsburg is annexed into Pittsburgh, what would happen to its residents’ taxes?” Public Source, November 16, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/wilkinsburg-pittsburgh-annexation-merger-property-taxes-school-pennsylvania/
  21. [21]Charlie Wolfson, “Pittsburgh City Council hears public comment on divisive Wilkinsburg annexation issue,” Public Source, December 4, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/civic-briefs-wilkinsburg-pittsburgh-annexation-council-hearing/
  22. [22]David Benfell, “Wilkinsburg voters should insist on a better argument than ‘trickle-down’ for a merger into Pittsburgh,” Not Housebroken, September 30, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/01/06/wilkinsburg-voters-should-insist-on-a-better-argument-than-trickle-down-for-a-merger-into-pittsburgh/

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