“They are damn well not going to scare me,” Myrtle Stern said to me on January 27th.
“At 8am this morning they woke me up, making all this ruckus, tearing all the trees down over here. I wish you could see it – it is a mess. They filled up all the dumpsters with tree limbs. They have those trees blocking up the side door where most of us go in and out, blocking up the parking lot so nobody can drive in or out. They are acting like we don’t even live here any more. Well we do. There is no good reason to be tearing up those trees right now.”
No reason, she felt, but to keep up the pressure to get out, to communicate that the Penn Plaza residents do not have any power over their own homes, that they can be woken up by chainsaws and dump trucks as early as the owners like – and that they too can be forcefully removed when eviction day rolls around.
The next day I took the 64 bus and walked up from the Market District to the bus stop at Penn and Negley. The big old tree at the bus stop had been cut down. Generations of East Liberty neighbors had waited for the bus stop under its wide branches, thick leaves, and cool shade during the summers, had walked down the sidewalk lugging heavy groceries toward their homes along those old sidewalks, shaded by trees now gone. I walked along the line of stumps. Snow was now falling on the many years of history torn open by the chainsaws, many tree rings disappearing under the fast-falling flakes.
Myrtle, bundled up in her coat, welcomed me with her careful records of the temperatures in her apartment. With her thermostat turned up as high as it could go, on any day close to freezing the temps had generally fluctuated between 63-64 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes going as high as 66 degrees in the kitchen when she was cooking with the stove. She said that several of the older people in the building were using their stoves to heat their homes, turning on the oven and cracking the door. She herself favored bundling under the bed covers as a safer solution, but to each their own.
Myrtle and I stopped by Mabel’s apartment – she had also been keeping careful records, but her apartment was warmer, mostly staying right at the legal limit the 68 degrees that any landlord is supposed to guarantee according to the Allegheny code, with occasional jogs down to 67 and little bumps up to 70 degrees. I speculated that the placement of her apartment near the juncture of three wings of the building might provide her more protection. She was still bundling up in layers under her thick robe and felt grumpy that the thermometer I had left her did not accord with what her 79-year old bones told her was way too chilly. “Are you sure those batteries are working okay?”
No, her daughter was not doing well, she said when I asked. They wanted to take her off life support but she just couldn’t do it, couldn’t give them the go-ahead for them to pull the plug. She went and spent hours by her bedside at the rest home nearby, praying, hoping for miracle. She wanted to make sure that the nurses kept doing a good job, felt that they often got sloppy when there wasn’t family to look in on them.
Myrtle and Mable had gone together to look at a senior high rise that they liked on Frankstown Ave, not too far away. They had gotten on the waiting list, but didn’t know if a place would come open in time. They wanted to stay neighbors. If no place came open somewhere near? “Well, we will both just pitch a tent in that parking lot out there,” said Myrtle. “Damn right,” said Mabel.
I thought of Mabel and Myrtle the next day at the Emergency Rally in Solidarity with Immigrants, Muslims, and Refugees. Nearly a thousand people had flocked to Schenley Plaza in Oakland with a day’s notice, responding to the call from Jewish Voices for Peace, the Answer Coalition, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a day after President Trump had signed the Executive Order that had resulted in the detention of any citizen of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen trying to enter the country – or re-enter, including many legal residents that had lived in the United States for years, who had put down roots, who had worked, paid taxes, and contributed to their communities in countless ways and were yet treated as aliens without the barest right to return to their jobs, homes, friends, families.
I listened to a young Muslim woman at the microphone, facing down the fact that our President had made it clear that she was not welcome in her own home, the man that had promised that he would build a wall and put her and others like her outside – a promise that had been part of why many millions across the country had voted for him.
I heard the same stubbornness in her voice that I heard in Mabel and Myrtle’s voice when they refused to be bullied by the rhetoric of “market forces,” the rhetoric used to excuse the series of political choices that had created many thousands of economic refugees here in Pittsburgh, many thousands expelled from their own lifelong neighborhoods because our elected officials had paid only lip service to the Civil Rights laws that had been fought for, died for, lived for, the laws that obligated them to affirmatively further fair housing by meaningful action in this City and across the nation.
Against all odds, against all advice, against even my own declarations of concern for their safety and well-being, against all evidence that they were not welcome in their own homes, Mabel and Myrtle declared they would stick together and refuse to move, even if they had to pitch a tent in a parking lot.
“We are family! Muslim, black, Latino, LGBTQIA!” the young Muslim woman declared. “And we are going to fight like hell for our family!”