The Arab in Allegheny Center
Pittsburgh’s bizarre neighborhood through the eyes of a foreigner (Edited version published in Saturday’s Post-Gazette)
On yet another subdued Friday evening in January, I sat cross-legged with Abdulaziz on the floor of his newly rented one-bedroom apartment. The living room area was completely bare save for an overbearing flatscreen precariously atop a glass multi-tiered shelving unit holding a PlayStation 4, a few rented video games and a box of tissues. Its walls and carpeting were a wedding-cake white, its kitchen flooring was a faux laminate hardwood paneling, the kind that rolls out. Its lingering smell was a potent amalgamation of steamed plastic, industrial cleaners and recently smoked cigarettes. The appliances gleamed.
We were exchanging introductory Census-esque inquiries into our respective families, work histories and education. The conversation was more a series of discursions on the meaning of phrases that had no Arabic equivalent and long pauses while Aziz tried in vain to summon an accurate word. In short, I learned he had come to Pittsburgh to study English at La Roche College, though dentistry was his professional dream.
I also learned that although he possessed unbelievable energy, curiosity and drive, he was fragilely shy and a tad self-conscious of his poor English. This had been evident in the very formal note, composed with the help of a professor, he had taped to his door earlier that day, soliciting a tutor for his language classes.
In my choosing to respond, benevolence was only a part; I too was a recent transplant to Pittsburgh and knew no one.
What’s more, I had landed in Allegheny Center.
No longer the name of the apartment complex — that changed last week — but the neighborhood proper, a bizarre concrete plaza of buildings on the North Side that seem to have been creatively repurposed ad infinitum.
Within the rectangle frame of one-way road, there exists a children’s museum, a nursing home, a community theater, a university hospital, four apartment buildings and — hard to miss — an impassable fortress of a building that once held department stores like Sears and Zayre but now is miserably half-empty and serving as cavernous office space. Last month, it was bought by New York City-based Faros Properties, the same company that recently acquired the Allegheny Center apartment complex and christened it Park View.
I thus discovered Allegheny Center is known throughout Pittsburgh for its doomed mall built by developers in the 1950s and 60s after they razed what was an open, walkable, thriving business district. Or perhaps it’s distinguishable by the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, which swells the neighborhood population with screaming children during its hours of operation.
But after everything closes, and especially on nights and weekends, any ostensible character dissolves and its true ethos becomes one of emptiness and vacancy.
After a few hangouts with Aziz, it became clear my duties were less those of a conversation partner but those of a friend. And as his only American friend, I was effectively his linguistic liaison with other Americans. It also emerged that almost everyone in his complex network of friends — all apparently young male Saudis — was engaged or married.
Aziz wanted a girlfriend in the worst way, and he wanted me to find one for him.
One Saturday, Aziz beat on my door around noon, almost in a panic, declaring he wanted to have a party and asking what to do. It certainly could be a subplot of Seth Rogen’s next flick, and perhaps it was my secret amusement — and, you know, some benevolence — that fueled my involvement in planning an apartment-warming party to serve as a pretext for his meeting some girls. By mid-afternoon, we had moved my futon and speaker system to his room and had bought a bulbous bottle of Skyy vodka. We had absolutely no one to invite. (I should note that none of his Saudi friends seeming remotely interested in the party he had recruited me to throw.)
I figured we might be able to meet some people in the neighborhood — er, apartment complex. So over the next three or so hours: Aziz and I navigated the dim, deserted hallways hoping to catch someone outside and even knocked some doors at random.
The apartment complex underwent an enormous renovation since Faros took over, one that involved dissecting entire floors at a time and constructing a new leasing office, fitness center, business lounge and parking lot. Mine happened to be one of the first rooms ready for move-in, and so consequently I was living in a shell of a building for many weeks until my building-mates, reclusive personalities aside, arrived so few and far between that I was more likely to have a personal encounter with a contractor than with a tenant. Aziz’s note, for example, was instantly exceptional because though the vague, far-off clanking noises of occupied rooms had reached me through the walls, there had been zero concrete proof I in fact had human neighbors.
Even for an strategy that seemed so unlikely to work, the results were grim. Most, understandably so, saw our old-fashioned neighborly act as cause for suspicion.
“This is not an us day,” I remember Aziz dejectedly saying. “What now?”
I explained that compatible friends and mates are often found in shared social spaces like coffee shops and book stores and in clubs whose members shared hobbies and interests. Not by going door to door and wandering vacant halls. I remember I was digressing into the meaning of “vacant” when it occurred to me that Allegheny Center today is a defeating place to try to meet people.
I want to clarify my experience in Pittsburgh has been overwhelmingly great, and the quirks of Allegheny Center have netted positive. (The quiet nights are great for sleep, for example, and the location is hard to beat.)
But I am saying that my four months living here have plainly illustrated the mall-sized challenge before the folks at Faros Properties. As their Park View Apartments finally begin to fill up, and now with some square feet of blank canvas, Faros has been effectively vested with the power to drastically reimagine this tiny little neighborhood’s character.
And while my experience with strategic economic development doesn’t extend too far past the Monopoly board game, I say let’s make it a destination beyond a place for Pittsburghers to dump their cars during sporting events. Let’s open back up the commerce that what misguided revitalization efforts
And let’s give foreigners to this city — and this country — an vibrant place to call home.