By: Denise Woods
1. At ten years old, I just got used to the world I lived in. I’m not ready to see everything change before my eyes. I was born in the midst of the Civic Arena’s popularity. After seeing it everyday, someone finally decided it was time for it to go. No one told me why; no one could tell me why. I only ever heard that it was for the best, that this is what Uncle Sam wanted to do. Uncle Sam was a tall, white man with grey hair. He had a long grey beard that he often put into a ponytail. He had this silly white hat with a singular blue strip running across the bottom, accompanied by white stars. His skin was pale with hints of red in various places. His face was very defined and sculpted. His lips were a rose pink color that hid teeth that were partially stained a yellow color, and his eyes were an ocean blue. Uncle Sam loved his blue suits, white blouses, and red bowties that fitted snug around his collar.
“We’re planning on putting houses there and making spaces for offices. It’ll be pkay, just go with the flow of things. Everything I do, I do for the American People,” he said to me.
That was a lie. Everything he did, he did for the white American people. I couldn’t help but look at him in disgust. We were standing on the corner of Centre Ave and Crawford St. He had his arm wrapped around me, rubbing my shoulder in comfort. He had this smirk on his face as we watched them tear down the Civic Arena. People were now out of jobs. His actions would have been justified if he did what he promised to do. All that stands there now is a parking lot, not offices or housing units. What he did wasn’t okay, and it took me awhile to realize just the amount of damage he had done to not only those who worked there, but to the community around it.
2. “Denise, you can be whatever you want if you put your mind to it,” my teachers would always tell me. The streets whispered another destiny into my ear, a destiny that was specifically designed so that my fellow African-Americans and I wouldn’t make it out. I was walking down the street when this veteran stopped to talk to me. He was a tall black man with his army uniform on. He had a scruffy looking beard, and his eyes were partially crossed. His hair looked untamed, but his smiled looked genuine. My heart started racing. I was afraid. I didn’t know this man, but in the black community, everyone acted like they knew everyone. I had no idea where this conversation would end up.
“How old are you?” He asked, looking me up and down.
“Well, I’m 13.”
“When I was your age, I thought I knew what I wanted. I wanted to save lives. Be crowned a hero when I came back. Look at me now,” he said.
I took a good look at him. His uniform was clean but it was wrinkled in certain spots. There was a hole in the bottom of his pants and his shoes had some dust on them.
“This country doesn’t support people like us. Your melanin defines you more than you may think. Life isn’t how school makes it seem. Bills aren’t going to be your only problem,” he said.
I looked around me. The street was littered with trash even though there was a garbage can on almost every corner. The old YMCA sign was swinging in the wind, dusty and painted in rust. The building around me were older building. It was clear to tell that no one really cared for this neighborhood like they cared for Squirrel Hill, and I knew that for sure.
There were run down houses and cars with missing tires. I looked at him and shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t have a response to him. I was still young, I didn’t understand the world like I understand it today. My mom always told me that Uncle Sam was the reason my dad didn’t have a decent job, why he didn’t make that much an hour. He was the reason my dad dropped out after only 3 years of college. Uncle Sam had no faith in us, in me. Uncle Sam controlled the world around me. He blinded me to the fact that there are black lawyers and black people who work in the government. He blinded me to the world so that when I finally realized what was wrong with the world, it’d be too late to fight back.
“Why do you think on TV we’re seen as hoodlums? That all of us are supposed to be street affiliated,” he said. I didn’t know.
3. I was at the library on the Hill with my friend Carlos. He’s a 6’6 dark African-American, 16 years old and knew how Uncle Sam worked like the back of his hand. We sat in the back by the window and the heater, just talking about life when this book caught my eye, Pittsburgh Then and Now by Arthur G. Smith. I grabbed it off the shelf and held it in the palm of my hand. The book was full of photos from different parts of Pittsburgh, comparing from way back to the 1800s to now. We flipped through the pages, admiring yet despising the differences we seen.
“Why did they force so many people to move for a building that was only going to be here for a couple years?” I asked, looking at picture of the Civic Arena. Next to it was a picture of the same space but filled with houses. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Everything they do is for money. It’s gentrification at its finest,” he replied.
I got quiet. I understand things change over time; that things have to be modernized, but everything I knew was getting ripped from under my fingertips. I loved when my mom would drive down Centre Ave, and I’d get to admire the large silver dome from afar.
I held the book tightly in my hand, really looking closely at the photo.
“Those houses were beautiful,” I said.
Carlos looked at me and nodded in agreement. We both mourned for something we never got to see. We mourned for something that only rumors and pictures gave us. Uncle Sam loved the money he made and the power he possessed. He did was he did because he could. Who was going to rise up and stop him?
4. I’ve noticed Uncle Sam always picked up white people from the ground. He’d offer is hand and dust them off but overtime I fell he looked at me and told me to be more careful. If it wasn’t for my community, my body would be weak. I couldn’t help but fall. My streets and sidewalks were filled with cracks big enough to hide in. People would hit pot holes every 5 seconds when they drove down the road. The air was mixed with oxygen, carbon dioxide, police sirens, and ambulances telling people to get out the way. Uncle Sam gave everyone rights, but only let the people that looked like him use them. Uncle Sam gave my people everything we needed to survive, but we had to fend for ourselves like life was supposed to be a huge purge.
He gave my people drugs, and they’d drop like flies. At that time, it was only a black problem, simply a hazard to the community. It was normal for us to die everyday. It only became an American issue when Uncle Sam’s people started dropping too. Now, he finally decides to step in.
“Stay away from drugs kids,” he told us.
He eventually took them away, but replaced it with something else. He held his second amendment high up in the air like it was his most prized possession, and put all types of guns into the streets. I couldn’t tell the difference between fireworks and gun shots. The 4th of July had become the most confusing day to my friends and I.
I was over my friend’s house on the 4th of July. It was all fun and games until the sunset and the sky became of musaic of different colors. I walked over to where our fireworks laid on the ground, and we began to light them. One after the other, small sparks would hit the ground, then they’d be off. They flew up into the sky and put on a show for us. I looked at it in amazement. On the hill, we typically start fireworks at the same time, but we never came up with an ending time.
That night, I heard something ringing in the night air while I was trying to sleep. I thought they were fireworks, until I woke up the next day. I was heading to my bus stop when I seen yellow tape around tree trunks and strings of it laying on the ground, on the same corner as my stop. On the news that night, they were only identified as a black male. No age, name, nothing. Uncle Sam never acknowledged us, not even on our death beds. Not even when our blood was soaked up into “his” land.