Dec 3, 2023 46 min read

Why Neighborhoods Matter

Why Neighborhoods Matter

Episode 59, 69 min listen.

Our guest, Nick Cotter, has dedicated his life to educating others on the causes and reality of persistent racial and economic segregation and working to address its consequences in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While Nick's work is clearly focused on Pittsburgh, the insights and lessons reach much farther. In our discussion with Nick, we'll come to understand that many of the keys to building a more inclusive and equitable community can be found in our neighborhoods.


Listen on Apple Podcasts or Listen on Spotify


Learn more about The Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project.

If you'd like to read more about Nick and his view on poverty and class, you might enjoy this recent article.

If you're interested in learning more about the intentional segregation of our neighborhoods, you might enjoy reading The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein.

If Nick's story inspired and intrigued you, you may also enjoy listening to my discussion with Joel Dock, Confronting Community History to Inspire Equity Action.


Nick is the creator of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project and a lifelong Pittsburgher. Born and raised in a low-income home in South Pittsburgh, Nick has dedicated his life to educating Pittsburghers on the causes and reality of persistent racial and economic segregation and on working to address its consequences. He is an analyst with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, where he does “research to practice” as it relates to community violence, affordable housing policy, and neighborhoods. Nick is also a freelance writer and writes on neighborhoods and community violence.



Ame Sanders  00:11

This is the State of Inclusion Podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better. And we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I’m Ame Sanders. Welcome. 

 If you've ever wondered why your community’s neighborhoods look like they do and the impacts that are created, both positive and negative from that, you're going to love this episode. Through our discussion, we will affirm that neighborhoods matter for all of us. We'll also understand how a community's history casts a long shadow on its future. We'll explore this through a deep dive into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But while Pittsburgh’s story is unique, it's parallel with and rhymes with stories in communities and neighborhoods all across our country. Also, be prepared to be inspired by our guest's love for his hometown and for the neighborhoods and the people who live there as he shares about his passion to help educate, inform, and realize progress.

So, today we're happy to welcome Nick Cotter. Nick started the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project to examine community inequities. 

Welcome, Nick. Thanks for joining us today.

Nick Cotter  01:38

Yeah. Thanks for having me.

 -About the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project (PNP)

Ame Sanders  01:40

So, Nick, tell us: what is the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project? Tell us a little bit about it.

Nick Cotter  01:46

Yes. So, the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project is a blog. And it's a blog where the main goal is to educate Pittsburghers on the causes and consequences of persistent racial and economic segregation, which is a mouthful and contains a lot. In addition to that, it helps highlight a lot of the beauty that exists in our highest-need neighborhoods that may be forgotten about when we only focus on that context.  

So, it sort of has those dual purposes--understanding the context of why our neighborhoods look the way they do and have the conditions that they presently have and also, again, trying to expose people to some cool things they may not know if they've never really visited these neighborhoods or spoken to the people that live there. To go a little more detailed of like, what is it it's broken up into a couple of different things when you actually go to the site. I would say those are primarily residential interviews, sort of data summaries, and neighborhood profiles. Then lastly, interactive maps that I build to help people understand different breakdowns of interests across our neighborhoods in the city of Pittsburgh. 

So, if I had to go through those, just briefly, the residential interviews are exactly what they sound like. I walk around the neighborhood and I literally just talk to people that are willing to talk. For folks that are willing to share that perspective, I ask them just a couple of days of questions like, what are some of the things you like most about your neighborhood? What are some of the things you like least about your neighborhood? And if there was anything that you would want somebody to know about your neighborhood they may not know, what is it? So, I keep it pretty basic and conversational. 

We talked about the data briefs. I try to do briefs on, let's say, the history of concentrated poverty in Pittsburgh neighborhoods. How persistent it is, and again, what are some of the consequences? I try to make that as plain language as possible and just make it short and easy to understand. So, like a little data brief to help give people some context behind some of the core themes we're exploring with the blog. 

Then when it comes to the neighborhood profiles, those are kind of the, particularly when I started, like the meat and butter of the site where literally I go out to these neighborhoods, most of which I've been to a bunch of times in my life, but with the explicit intention of writing a profile on it. So, I walk around. I take photos of the neighborhood. Again, much like the residential interviews, I talk to people, so try to incorporate that in the profile as well. I also try to utilize data from the census and some other sources to help illustrate the demographics of the community, some of the needs of the community, things like that. So, the neighborhood profiles are a really comprehensive combination of some of these pieces I'm talking about. 

Then lastly is the interactive map stuff. So, I use a lot of GIS, both for the blog and also for my day job. So, I put together maps on a variety of topics that just help people quickly and easily visually understand different things about the 90 neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. So that's generally what the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project is. 

Ame Sanders  05:03

So, there's a lot to unpack in what you just told us. I found it really interesting. So, the first thing that stuck in my mind is that you built this for other Pittsburghers. So, the fact that I stumbled on it is kind of an accident, I guess, not as much an intention because you built it for the people who live in and love your city. I like the way that you broke it down. This idea of this conversational exchange with people in the neighborhoods, the deep dive on the neighborhoods that provides more information and more context. And then, of course, many of us--myself included--are visual creatures. So, having the maps really helps people to understand. 

 -Understanding Persistent Segregation

So, you just talked about persistent segregation and some of the challenges. Maybe you can unpack that a little bit for us and tell us what you mean by that. What are some of the things that we need to be thinking about if we don't all have the same knowledge that you have? 

Nick Cotter  06:00

Sure. So, I'll tease that apart in a few ways. So one is, somebody may ask a certain question, why do our neighborhoods currently look the way that they do? What I mean by that is like the racial demographics, the economic characteristics, the assets, and the resources in the community or the absence of, right? That's a long, complicated answer, but the short version is that our communities were segregated by design. There are other historical events that had disparate impacts on certain kinds of communities because of that segregation by design. So, that's the really short version. 

If I gave a slightly longer answer--and what I'm about to say, is not just true of Pittsburgh and the broader County, but of literally the entire United States. You cannot escape this stuff and this history. So, when we look at just the history of why our neighborhoods look the way they do, you have to understand that there were decades of explicitly racist and often classist, discriminatory housing lending and land use policy, which really came about through most of the country's history, but was particularly pronounced in the late 1800s and up through the 1900s, and was legal until the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. So, that's one piece that quite literally segregated where people could live based on your race and, at times your ethnicity and your class. 

Second, in the 50s and the 60s in particular, particularly in the Northeast and the Rust Belt in the Midwest, we saw a huge out-migration and white flight from our central cities. This was enabled by suburbanization, highway construction, and federally insured loans to create mass suburbs. All these factors led to a great exodus from our cities and left a lot of our central cities really railing with really high need populations. It was the people that couldn't move or didn't move. Just low tax bases to do anything about it. 

And then in the 60s and 70s, as a response to the huge loss in our central cities, a lot of those cities, including Pittsburgh, often partake in what we now refer to as urban renewal. So, a series of policies (often land use policies) to try to capture back some of the people that had fled into the suburbs. So, what you saw in places like Pittsburgh, for example, and around the country was, essentially, entire neighborhoods demolished, which were often poor Black neighborhoods or poor immigrant neighborhoods, to make way for suburban-facing amenities like stadiums, for example. 

Usually, if your city has a stadium or a highway, there's a history of a neighborhood that it went through, and that was probably a Black neighborhood or probably an immigrant neighborhood. In our context, this was, again, not just a response to the white flight and out-migration, which has its impetuses for racism and policy. Often, the communities they were razing had been built up to be slums because of that earlier discriminatory housing lending and land use policies. So, you see how these dominoes just keep going forward. 

Then some of the last things I'll mention in this kind of very brief history that you could talk a much longer time about is that, particularly in the Rust Belt, in the Northeast, in the 70s and 80s, you saw the total collapse of specialized industries. In our case, it was the steel industry. So, you saw just mass effects from deindustrialization and economic restructuring, which hurt our low to moderate-income neighborhoods the most, which often, because of our history, were in metro areas or Black neighborhoods. Again, to us, to a lesser but real extent, some of our low-income white neighborhoods and low-income immigrant neighborhoods. So, this just further concentrated poverty in these areas that had already been segregated because of all the other things I talked about. 

Then you get into things like the crack epidemic that happened in the 80s, which spurred even additional challenges. The advent of mass incarceration, which decimated particularly Black communities, poor black communities especially. Quite literally removed fathers from their homes. Then you get into things in the 90s, like the Hope VI program from HUD, which tried to address the failing public housing that had been intentionally segregated. It failed because it was a policy decision to make it fail. They stopped investing in it. Public housing, from the get-go, was intentionally segregated based on race and quite isolated, often in neighborhoods where there weren't a lot of amenities and resources. So, what HUD did to deal with this failing infrastructure was just tear a lot of it down, and it just reshuffled people into other poor segregated neighborhoods. I could keep going.  

The point here is that if you look at a neighborhood that's white and wealthy, and you look at a neighborhood that's Black and poor or, say white and poor, there's a reason why that is. It has way less to do with some idea of self-selection that people often argue. This is not de facto segregation. It is de jure segregation. It's because of a set of policies that were quite intentional to separate people in space. These are the consequences. 

So, when you talk about the consequences of that. So, we know from a ton of literature that neighborhoods matter, meaning the neighborhoods you grow up in strongly predict your outcomes. We know that your race and class strongly predict what kind of neighborhoods you're going to grow up in in the first place. So, all this stuff ties together. We know that, for example, growing up poor in a poor neighborhood comes with challenges that growing up poor in a middle- or upper-income neighborhood, those just don't have the same challenges. 

So, for example, to kind of sum this all out, we have a lot of research that when kids who were low-income move to low-poverty, well-resourced neighborhoods, they do significantly better in almost every outcome you can name compared to their peers who remain. Often people ask, well, why is that? Why do neighborhoods matter? If I had to say it really briefly, it's because of (A) some of the positive things they may be exposed to in that neighborhood that weren't present in their existing neighborhoods. So, for example, something like social capital, which we know is really important for social mobility. So, if you're a poor kid in a poor neighborhood, you may not have the kinds of connections to college or employment networks that come with living in a neighborhood with middle-income people who may have those connections. Or maybe you go to a school that's much more resourced, right? So, these positive things you can be exposed to.  

But I actually argue that it is equally the reason (if not more the reason) that why these kids do better in these low-poverty neighborhoods is probably because of the things they're not exposed to anymore. When you don't have to grow up in a neighborhood where gun violence concentrates because the new neighborhood you moved to didn't have the history that produced the risk factors that tend to concentrate gun violence, your outcomes can change dramatically because you're not scared anymore in the same way. It doesn't mean that your challenges are completely gone. In fact, you may get new challenges as a low-income kid in a predominantly middle-income neighborhood, particularly if you're Black and particularly if that neighbor is white. But the fact of the matter is that not being exposed to gun violence, not being exposed to the overreach of the carceral system, not being exposed to point pollutants, which were intentionally put in poor neighborhoods because they couldn't fight back. These things can dramatically change your life.  

So, when I have to tie this whole long answer together to understand why our neighborhoods look the way they do, the kind of impacts they have, and why it ties back to the mission here, which is what is the purpose of the Pittsburgh neighborhood practice is to help people understand that history. And understand it not just through data that can be overwhelming to people or just totally non-personal to them but through stories. And use data as an addition to those stories to help them understand the facts but tie it to these personal lenses and say these neighborhood tours that I do that help people literally see the history that I just described. And maybe help them understand that we need to address these problems. And to the point earlier, it helps them understand the context around the problems, and if you understand the context, then hopefully, you can develop effective prescriptions.

 -Why the PNP

Ame Sanders  14:44

The other thing that you mentioned in there, which I thought--a couple of things that I thought were interesting. One is I don't want to talk about your day job, but the fact that this is in addition to your day job, that is an important element for me in this work, is that this is, kind of as my work is, a passion project for you and something that you do because you love your community. It's one of the things I find most striking in this work and perhaps the biggest message for our listeners, which is any of us can choose to make a difference in the communities that we love. 

The other thing is that you mentioned these neighborhoods you've been to 1000 times before. Maybe you could tell a little bit about how you decided to do this, how you view the neighborhoods, and how you came to know so many different neighborhoods. 

Nick Cotter  15:33

Yeah. So, I think there's a couple of different reasons, but I think some of the ones that stick highest in my mind are--I can sort of section this out on just my personal experiences and then almost the experiences that have come out in the work I've done professionally over the years. So, to start with the former. So, I grew up in a low-income, what I like to say to not overshare too much, I'll say a complicated household in South Pittsburg. Particularly, I lived in Carrick and Brookline with most of my mom's family up in a neighborhood called Knoxville. All of these neighborhoods are in what we would call South Pittsburgh.  

When I was a little kid, we moved around quite a bit through rentals in different areas of south Pittsburgh. When I was eight or nine, if I'm remembering correctly, my parents were able to purchase a house in Brookline. One of the reasons they wanted to move us and keep us in Brookline (which is not an affluent neighborhood by any means, but a working-class neighborhood) is the neighborhood I was originally living in, and where a lot of my mom's family was connected to up in Knoxville. I was in Carrick, and Carrick and Knoxville are right next to each other. Around that time, because of a lot of the risk factors that those neighborhoods face for a variety of reasons we might get into through this conversation, gun violence was a huge concern for my parents at the time. So, moving us to Brookline was genuinely there to make sure that we were safe. When I was a little kid, you know, you don't think much of these decisions, right? It's like, alright, well you know, moved to Brookline. Here's Brookline. Right? 

But as I got older, the outcomes that eventually--it was a long, complicated road to those outcomes--the outcomes that me and my siblings had, compared to a number of my cousins that remained in Carrick and Knoxville, could not be more different. I am not any smarter than my cousins. I would argue that a number of them are a lot smarter than me, actually. I'm not a better person in any way than a lot of my cousins. It's that we moved, and they didn't. It gets behind this idea that I also wanted to have speak through a lot of the stuff in the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project, which is that it's hard to grow up poor, no matter who you are or where you live. I know that pretty deeply. 

However, it's different to grow up poor in a low poverty working class neighborhood and especially if it's a middle- or upper-income neighborhood, versus growing up poor in a poor neighborhood. That circumstance of what's around you and what's not in a poor neighborhood is so different than growing up in a low-poverty, working-class, or middle-class neighborhood. It's hard to compare poverty across those two different things: growing up poor in a low-poverty neighborhood versus growing up poor in a poor one. So, that's one big reason that I wanted to do this work.

When I talk about this blog being about educating Pittsburghers on the causes and consequences of again, persistent segregation, the context in there is really understanding why do our neighborhoods currently look the way they do. And on the consequence side, what impact do they have on our long-term outcomes, particularly our high-poverty neighborhoods? So, that's a big personal reason I'm involved in this work is that that move to a low-poverty neighborhood changed my life. 

On the professional side of things, over the years, I've been in AmeriCorps here in Pittsburgh. I've been a caseworker for a few years, where I did refugee resettlement and I worked with workforce development initiatives. I did a lot of trauma care. For the past number of years, I've been a policy and data analyst for my current job, especially. In each of those different domains of my professional life, the importance of neighborhoods in shaping life outcomes and the importance of knowing why those neighborhoods look what as they currently do, has come up in virtually everything that I do. 

So, wanting to make sure that in addition to my work from my day job, I was tying a lot of that stuff into my personal life to be a little more explicit about us getting change around the challenges that currently exist. Making sure that they actually get addressed. I guess the last thing is my dad was and is still an electrician. All growing up, he worked all across the city. He was in poor neighborhoods. He was in rich neighborhoods. He was in middle-class neighborhoods, Black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, racially mixed neighborhoods. Essentially, he dragged me on a lot of jobs. I had to hold a lot of toolboxes for him. I wasn't very good at it, but I had to come with them on a lot of jobs. That was sort of like the third thing here. I just got exposed to a lot of different neighborhoods. 

So again, it took me a while to put the pieces together, but I got to see how different things were, and after a while, you start to ask why. That's when you start to dig into, you know, understanding this idea of segregation and, again, its consequences. So, I would say, generally, those are the things that got me here. 

Ame Sanders  21:07

Thank you for sharing those perspectives and that insight into the "why" of the work that you do because that's really, really helpful. Maybe the other thing I'd like to do for a minute to anchor ourselves is tell us something that you really love about your city or about one of the neighborhoods. It may be your neighborhood or another but tell us something that we should know about your city.

 -A Little About Pittsburgh 

Nick Cotter  21:33

Sure. Now, there's a lot. You want me to say just a couple of things that come to mind? 

Ame Sanders 

A couple of things. Pick a couple. 

Nick Cotter 

Yeah. So, I think one of the things this is about Pittsburgh, more generally, that people may not know, but the City of Pittsburgh is one of, if not the most topographically, unique place in the United States within city limits. So, for folks that aren't familiar, we have the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers that flow through city limits and then forge into one river to become the Ohio. Because of that setup, and the initial plateaus that those rivers actually eroded, Pittsburgh has these giant hills and deep valleys all throughout city limits. So, there are these ridges that you just don't see in most US cities. And so, it makes for a really topographically unique setting where you almost always have a view. 

So, we have a lot of hilltop neighborhoods, for example, scattered throughout the city. I grew up in hilltop neighborhoods. So, flat cities freak me out. Not that I don't like flat cities too, but I'm just used to having a view. 

I think connected to that, some other things people may not know is Pittsburgh has more city steps than any other city in the entire United States because of how hilly the terrain is here. It was sort of one of the initial modes of transportation to get you from point A to point B. We also have the steepest street in the continental US in Pittsburgh. We actually have several of the steepest streets in the entire country and in North America. So, if you don't like hills, you probably shouldn't come here. But if you do like hills and you want to get a workout, it's a good place. 

The only other last thing I'd mentioned is there's a lot of cities that say (and I'm not arguing that they aren't) that they're a city built on neighborhoods. But I think in Pittsburgh, because of the topography, I've never been in a city where the neighborhood lines, for better and for worse, are this apparent. Because no matter what city you're in, if you walk far enough, you're going to notice shifts, ethnic and racial shifts, income characteristics shifts, architectural shifts. Shifts in just the total amount of investment or opportunities that you can see walking through these neighborhoods. Often, because of our history, those things are based on race and class lines as you walk through neighborhoods. So, Pittsburgh's no different, and that we have those apparent differences as well, but when you add on the fact that we have neighborhoods built into mountains, built at the bottom of mountains, built on river beds, it's so apparent when you go into a new neighborhood, because you have to go down a valley or up one to get there. So, it also deeply reinforces the segregation that we have and can make it more challenging. But on the positive side, it's just an absolutely beautiful city to go through because of that. So that's what I would say. 

-How is the PNP Used?

Ame Sanders  24:40

You know, we talked a little bit earlier about what you intended for this work is to help Pittsburghers understand their neighborhoods and their cities more. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about how your work has ended up being used? Who uses it? What effect does it have?

Nick Cotter  25:00

So, I think the primary way that I see it being used is for education. So, for example, I've had students reach out to me. I've had just random neighborhood residents reach out to me. I've had nonprofits reach out to me. A lot of them have really appreciated the neighborhood profiles and the interactive maps, which are, I think, the things that people tend to be drawn to. I think it's helped enhance their current understanding of the context and why our neighborhoods look the way they do, and the consequences, both positive and negative of that. So, it seems like from conversations with these folks, it has helped them to be able to do their job in a more informed way. 

I think another way that it's come out is that I've noticed even some departments within Pittsburgh have used these resources. So, the city government itself. 

I think another thing that was like totally unintended, there's nowhere on this blog that advertises that I do tours or something like that, right? I don't have that posted, but I think people put two and two together where they're like, well, this guy is walking around all these neighborhoods talking to all these people, does all these data analyses on these neighborhoods, he probably knows how to get around. So, I've had people over the years reach out about tours. They've been everyone--students to professionals to just random neighborhood people. People will reach out, and then I just take them on driving and walking tours, or I just ask them, "Where do you want to go? Is there any neighborhood you're less familiar with?" 

A lot of these tours tend to focus on our higher-need neighborhoods because of, again, the intent of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project. It's been a blast. It's interesting because it's not anything directly posted on the blog itself, but those experiences, I think, have been the most lasting for me and for them, because it's entirely personal. I just get a couple of people or a person in my car, or probably my dad's car that I borrow for these, and we just ride around for a couple of hours, get out, and walk around. They get to see the things I'm talking about on the blog. I think that personal, intimate, conversational interaction and exposure are way deeper than anything I can write about or show in a PowerPoint. So, the blog got them there. But then I think these personal experiences where people are meaningfully exposed to something that may not otherwise have known growing up are the things that actually help change minds.

Then on the work side. So, for my day job, and I'll just throw it out there like I always do: the opinions expressed here are the opinions of myself alone and may not represent my employer. But I do work for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. I've been there about five and a half years now, and I am a policy and data analyst there, where most of what I do is what we would call research to practice. So, what do I mean by that? We identify or minimally scope out a given problem. Then we talk to people impacted by the problem--practitioners currently working to solve the problem and other subject matter experts. We basically figure out given this problem, what intervention or set of interventions should we do to address it? We also look into things like literature reviews to understand promising practices and address that problem.  

Based on those conversations, that lit review, we then pick an intervention or set of interventions, and then we stand them up. So if we don't already, as a human services agency, have funding to do these things, we get funding for it. Then we often work with community-based providers to do the intervention or set of interventions that we pick together. Then we evaluate those things to see if they work or not. To tie a lot of this stuff together and to your former question, what is the goal of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project? Or, like, what is the goal of the work I do? That's actually really similar, as you can hear from my day job, and obviously, the goal is that education. But with the education it's supposed to spur policy, law, and program change to address these persistent challenges that are there because of our discriminatory history. That is the goal, right? Just the education is getting us towards that goal. 

Two major initiatives that have come out of that research-to-practice model over the past five and a half years I've been at DHS have been (1) our involvement in HUD's Community Choice demonstration. The very short version there is that I did some work a few years back on looking at moving patterns for individuals and families and the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which is a rental subsidy program for low-income eligible individuals and families.  

Basically, over a number of years, through administrative data, we have looked at what sort of neighborhoods they were moving to. One of the promises of the voucher program is not just helping stabilize low-income renters but allowing them to exercise their geographic choice and actually address the segregation in our neighborhoods by income and by race. The question is, is it doing that? The brief answer is no. There are a bunch of barriers that voucher holders face, particularly our Black voucher holders, in moving to low-poverty, historically well-resourced neighborhoods that, because of our history, tend to be middle- and upper-income white neighborhoods.  

Long story short, we worked with a bunch of stakeholders, our local public housing authorities, and some other community-based organizations, and talked to a lot of voucher holders themselves to stand up a mobility services program, which tries to address all the barriers that voucher holder face so that they can actually exercise that choice. Now we are part of doing that with eight other sites across the country through a HUD-funded program and study called the Community Choice Demonstration. You can definitely check it out if you're interested. What we're trying to see is if that program works in a bunch of different markets.  

Then the second thing is the Community Violence Reduction Initiative. The Community Violence Reduction Initiative is something that myself and my coworker Reggie Smith (with support from some other coworkers), we have rolled out over these past three years. It is that we looked at and scoped out this very real, very challenging, very complicated problem of the concentration of gun violence, which mostly concentrates in our most segregated poorest neighborhoods and, to a lesser extent, our racially-mixed poor neighborhoods. Again, this concentration occurs because of a series of risk factors that are also concentrated in place that are tied to our pretty explicitly discriminatory history and the after-effects of de-industrialization which hit our region pretty hard after the collapse of steel. 

So, with all that in mind, we know that this gun violence problem is concentrated geographically in our poorest neighborhoods. We know that it largely affects young Black men. In fact, it overwhelmingly affects young Black men, typically ages 18 to 34. So, the question then becomes, what do we do to address this very persistent problem? Now, obviously, we're by no means the first people that have asked that question. But we worked with, again, people impacted, practitioners doing the work, and some subject area experts, and essentially put together what is now known as the Community Violence Reduction Initiative, which is the largest funding commitment to public health approaches to gun violence reduction in our county's history. So, it's at least $50 million in public health approaches to violence reduction over at least the next five years. 

The short version here is that we went to those small set of communities that most experienced this problem. We literally ask them, "Hey, can you guys put together a violence reduction plan?" The only caveat is that the programs in it should be related to violence reduction, and we hope that you consider some of these promising programs based on the evidence. We hope you pick all of them if you want to, but also pick some other things that may not be listed here because you guys know best. Then second, pick a lead agency to oversee that. That plan you created with your stakeholder partners that actually moves forward. That's essentially what we're funding. In addition to some centralized programs that operate all around the county, we're funding these localized violence reduction plans that are headed by these agencies that are doing work in their communities. I can talk a lot more about that. 

But with both the Community Choice Demonstration and the Community Violence Reduction Initiatives, all of that work came out of the same ethos that I do for the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project only in this context, I do it for my day job, which is again, understanding and defining a problem, which includes understanding the risk factors that drive it, and the protective factors that inhibit it. Because to end on that note, is when again, we keep going back to this idea of what's the purpose of this? What's the purpose of education? The purpose of it is to spur change. Real effective, meaningful change that's community driven. If we don't understand what's driving a problem, or the scope of it, we can never create an effective solution. 

Think about like a prescription that you may take when you're sick that didn't just come out of nowhere, right? That came from sometimes years, if not decades, of research and testing to understand this is the specific disease. These are the components that make people at risk for having that disease, and these are the kinds of things that tend to prevent that disease or mitigate it. Right. We have to do the same thing with the social problems. So, if you don't understand a problem, which includes the context (and this context of our history) and the risk factors that make problems like gun violence or not being able to move to certain neighborhoods so prevalent still, then we're never going to address these problems in a meaningful way.

Ame Sanders  35:10

Wow, that is a lot to unpack. I think it's really important to just take a minute to go back over a little bit of that because there were a lot of things in there for me that I just want to either check with you or I just want to bring out. So, first, I'm sort of struck by how your passion project and your day job are intertwined. How the examples you chose to share with us are also very concrete, solutions-oriented examples of things that you personally experienced as a child as well. When we work at the local level and at the community level, that is what happens, right? We're living in a community. We've grown up in a community. And we are trying to help make that community better. So, we have a wealth of experiences, both from ourselves and from the other folks who live in the neighborhood, that we can draw on. So, that's really an interesting factor in the work that you do and the particular lens that you take to the work that you do. 

The other thing that you mentioned--I love the analogy about medical illness, and then people who have an illness and then how they can either treat that or get a cure for it. That it's built on, often years of research and study to even understand the illness, and then to develop treatments or cures that can help you deal with that illness. Those are things that the individuals themselves don't necessarily have the capacity or the ability to do, especially if they're compromised by their illness. So, I think that's a really good analogy for us to think about because one of the things I wanted to talk about what you answered really is how important this research and context setting and analysis of risk factors in a very methodical and smart and data-centric way is. 

Then the other thing that I really liked, especially about your last example with the Community Violence Reduction Initiative, is this idea that you went to the neighborhoods themselves. You had a broad approach, but more importantly, you also had a very specific approach to the communities that were most harmed by this violence. Then you engage them to help you come up with the actions. The action plans that you came up with were based on the neighborhoods and the input from the people who are in the neighborhoods. Then guiding that work, what I heard you say is that you guys ask them to pick a lead agency within their community to guide and oversee the work that would be done within their community, which is also so important. So, those were just super rich examples of both how your work and your context and your personal history get translated into positive and impactful changes for your community. And not just your community, because you also talked about the fact that you guys are now, in the first example you gave us, working beyond Pittsburgh.

Nick Cotter  38:26

To that point, the only other two things I would add to that--and I appreciate that summary– is just on one end, to the first point you just raised, is now that I work for a county agency...because Allegheny County, we have 130 self-governing municipalities, it's a mess. We're the most complicated local governance structure in the entire United States. I think the second is Cook County. In that Pittsburgh is just one of 130 municipalities. Pittsburgh is our central city. It's our biggest city. It's where I grew up. But we have, to the point you made, we have a number of outlying municipalities that, like Pittsburgh, have neighborhoods in them that are most impacted by this. So, working at the county, while the blog is just focused on the city of Pittsburgh, my day job focuses on all of our communities that are in Allegheny County, which is a lot more than just Pittsburgh. 

Particularly in the violence reduction space, because of the fact that violence can be transient. We may have really high-risk young men that are, again, high-risk because of our history and other factors that they're dealing with. Let's say there is a shooting that occurs in a neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh. Traditionally, how this has been handled programmatically is the job of some of these programs stop when they get to their border. But what if there was something connected with that shooting that could lead to further retaliation that occurred outside of your border? You shouldn't stop there. But that's historically how we've done it just because of the way funding works traditionally and the way that people typically define their coverage. That's not good enough for reducing violence. 

So, a lot of the work we've done is to try to coordinate these efforts because like, it's not just about having the right people in the jobs are the right programming. It's about doing this together. There's a line that I heard a year or so ago from some other folks in another city doing good violence reduction. They said the phrase, "When we talk about solving any kind of problem, particularly something like gun violence, which is so complex, everybody should have a lane, everybody should stay in their lane, and everybody should work together." I really liked that summary.  

So, a lot of our investments are trying to do just that, and they're trying to do it not just in the city of Pittsburgh, but across our other municipalities outside of Pittsburgh, particularly in our Monongahela River Valley, where we have a lot of former poor steel towns. Essentially, we want to make sure that we're doing this work together because the silos allow this problem to persist. 

 -How Has This Work Surprised You

Ame Sanders  41:06

Tell me something in this work that you've done that surprised you, that caught you off guard, something that you learned you didn't expect.

Nick Cotter  41:16

Yeah. I think part of my answer is what I just said, which was growing up in the city, I've had such a city-focused lens almost my entire life. While this is again touching a little bit into my day job but for me, if you're not noticing, they're so similar that the blog and the day job really just coalesce more than they don't. So, at least in the day job, I've learned to think about not just the city that I grew up in but the surrounding municipalities that have very similar problems. They sometimes even have more challenges because they're just further out. They're harder to get to transportation-wise. They're disconnected even more from job markets, etc. So, I've had to think on a regional lens beyond just a Pittsburgh lens. I think that's necessary in doing a lot of this work locally. I think just connected to the blog, I've gotten to learn about some neighborhoods I didn't really spend any time in. 

 So again, I grew up in South Pittsburgh. Because we were super broke, we really didn't get out much. We were pretty confined to the couple neighborhoods where my family lived. And to us in Brookline, that's where we spent most of our time when we had to shop. Because we didn't really have a grocery store close to us, we usually had to go out to the suburbs to get groceries in the south suburbs. Besides occasionally visiting my dad's mom, who lives in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill, we didn't get out a whole lot. That was in our East End. So, while again, I was exposed to a lot of neighborhoods through my dad doing electrical work, he didn't do a lot of work in a part of Pittsburgh called the West End. It's about 12 neighborhoods that are south of Pittsburgh's Ohio River and in city limits. Why I had spent a little bit of time over there, this project, since it's an exploration of all of our neighborhoods, particularly the ones with the highest needs, it made me literally get out and visit those places. 

So, for example, one of the profiles that's currently on the site is for a neighborhood called Sheraden. I had spent probably no more than 10 minutes in Sheraden my whole life because I don't have family in the West End. Because there is a good amount of poverty in some of the West End neighborhoods, they don't really have businesses and attractions that are stood up that people will go to. There's some, but not a lot. Because again, a lot of the people there have needs, and that's what happens when you have concentrations of poverty it's hard to support local businesses. So long story short, there wasn't a lot of reason for me to go over there. This blog was the reason to go over there. 

Sheraden is now one of my favorite neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, but definitely in the West End but even in Pittsburgh. It's just this beautiful neighborhood was originally historically a lot of Irish Catholics lives in Sheraden. Then because of a bunch of factors over the past number of years, much more racially mixed now. When I went through Sheraden, it actually reminded me of a combination of Knoxville, which is where my mom and most of my mom's side of the family has lived for decades, and where my mom grew up because it was really dense housing. Where you have single-family housing, but it almost feels like row housing because of how densely packed the houses are together. I always liked that feeling. There were these pretty like tree-covered streets as well. 

It also reminded me of Brookline where I primarily grew up after my parents moved us, because I just saw kids everywhere playing. Brookline, to me, was like a playground when I was growing up. Because, again, we felt pretty safe, and we generally had these giant games of release or basketball from block to block. There are just kids everywhere, and Sheraden was the same. Also, there were kids of different races playing together, which you don't see a ton of because of how segregated we are in Pittsburgh. But we do have some of these racially mixed neighborhoods that aren't racially mixed by design, unfortunately. They weren't a product of intentional well-thought-out immigration. Usually, the case is you had a lot of poor and Black people. They got pretty hurt by the mill closing down, and when public housing was demolished, you had poor Black people or poor white people pushed into certain neighborhoods. That's what Sheraden is. 

Fact of the matter, whether well-intentioned or not, you don't see a ton of neighborhoods where you've got people of different races and economic backgrounds playing together. Sheraden is one of those places I've seen it. So, long story short, I wouldn't have seen that. I wouldn't have seen the fact that I've Bergman Street, there's are these two trees that some grandson of one of the original founders of the neighborhood in terms of who owns the land, fused together into one tree through horticulture stuff to make this gateway to this beautiful old historic home that's still there. I wouldn't have seen the slopes coming off that give you views of McKees Rocks to the west of the city that are absolutely jaw-dropping. So, I wouldn't have seen any of that had I not gone over to Sheraden. 

So again, long answer to a short question, Ame, but that's the stuff I think I've learned is getting to know the neighborhoods. I had no reason to really know since growing up again, I was so confined to South Pittsburgh and just the areas where my dad worked. I got a bunch of more stories like that, but Sheraden is a good one, I think.

Ame Sanders  46:39

That is such a good example for all of us, which just for a moment, I want to reflect on it. Which is that many of us probably are exactly like what you described. We know certain areas of our city or our community really well. To other areas, we don't know at all and may never go. By not going, we miss some of the true beauty of our community, and we miss seeing and interacting with people in our community who have a lot to offer. So, I think that's a really powerful example to remind us all that we should get out more. 

We should consciously and intentionally understand the breadth of our community, not just the places we frequent and travel. That we should reach beyond that because in doing that, there is a richness and a vibrancy in our communities that we'll be able to see that, otherwise, we could not see it. So, I love that example, actually. Nick, that was really great. Thank you.  

One of the things I like to ask people, and maybe because it's part of my own story, too--so in doing this work, for sure, it has changed me. So, we talked about how you might change your city, but one of the questions I wanted to ask you is how has this work changed you.

 -How Has This Work Changed You? 

Nick Cotter  48:04

So, on one end, from the background I have and just having been exposed to over the years in my adulthood, especially some of the history against segregation in the US like, there was a lot I was bringing into this project that I had personally or otherwise learned through my life. But that said, there's always room for learning more, and I definitely have. So, I think, to almost tie back to that Sheraden example what I think I've learned is two key things. 

One, how pervasive and persistent segregation is across our communities and, in the case of Sheraden, how rare it is that we actually buck the trend. Even in the case of Sheraden, it wasn't intentional why that community was integrated. But I did see a positive benefit of that when I was exploring the neighborhood. These kids playing together who may have otherwise wouldn't be. That's sort of a sobering thing that is going around a lot of these neighborhoods, and intentionally thinking about it through this lens. I've just seen, to this day, just how true and separated we are. And again, the pretty profound consequences of that. On the positive end, it has reinforced this notion of just how much beauty and resilience is in a lot of these neighborhoods. This is stuff I've known personally based on my background, but it's just been reinforced even more, like tenfold. 

Going through a lot of these neighborhoods and hearing the stories from the people that I talk to or observing what I see. Whether it's discovering a vista that I didn't know was there or going down an alleyway that leads to a really beautiful house that I had never seen before. Or watching community actually exist, like people talking to each other. One of the things I think I've said my whole life is I think low to moderate income people of all races are the smartest people I've ever met in my entire life. Now I have a bias, right? I got a little bit of a bias coming from that background. But I think it's because we've had to go through so much shit. There's just a resilience there that I don't often see of people that maybe came from more economically advantaged backgrounds. That's not insinuating that those people don't have their own challenges. But as a whole, if you grew up poor, you've had to deal with some shit is the long story short of it. I've just been reminded of that so much through this across neighborhoods, and again, particularly in a lot of our Black neighborhoods that most experienced the issue of not just poverty but a concentration of that poverty because of our history of segregation. There's just so much resilience in those communities. 

 -Taking a Bottoms-Up Approach

So, to tie it back to even a previous thing, when we were talking about the Community Violence Reduction Initiative, you're talking about how you appreciate it wasn't just the programming. It sounds like the way we did it that you appreciated where it was, like, for lack of a better phrase, a bottom-up approach. It was a bottom-up approach. But what I really want to highlight about that is it's not just this thing that we should do because it's probably an ethically sound thing to do to engage with communities most impacted. I think it's necessary. 

 It's necessary for two key reasons. One, let's say we pitch a program that seems like it may work in reducing gun violence or a series of programs. If no one buys into that, it doesn't matter. I could say, "Here's program A. We think you should do it." Even if program A it seems like it works. They've done it in other places. There's a strong evidence base. If the people don't want to do it, Program A is not going to get done. That's just like a simple basic fact that often a lot of I think policymakers just totally forget. If you don't get buy in, even if you got a good program, no one's going to do it. 

Second, a lot of these programs--you know where they come from, and they don't get the credit? They come from these communities. So, they end up being in a literature review or a clearing house. But you know where they came from? Almost always the people that actually most experienced the problem. 

To give you a concrete example, one of the programs that we fund as a part of the Violence Reduction Initiative is a violence intervention program, working with those at the highest risk of involvement, which is a really small percentage of the population even in those neighborhoods most impacted. One of the things that violence interruption programs do, which is what this program is, is they treat violence like the disease that it is. It concentrates in place like a disease. It spreads through different contagious mechanisms, in this case, through social behavior. It affects a small group of people and spreads out. So, what the introduction program does is it treats those at the highest risk of violence, which is a small percentage of young men. It interrupts the violence before it can transmit, and it changes norms and behaviors around violence. That sounds familiar. It's what we did during COVID. But in this case, it's done in the guise of a violence reduction program. Where I'm going with all this is that that program and that idea of community violence interruption came from men and women, particularly low to moderate-income Black men and women living in our highest-poverty neighborhoods. These programs were essentially designed in the 80s and 90s. There are even previous incursions that existed before then. So, that's a program that shows promise in reducing violence that comes from the community. 

Particularly in these programs, where you're working with a very isolated high-risk population, we utilize what's called a credible messenger, which is somebody that has social connections to those at highest risk of involvement--that really small percentage, I keep referencing. Generally, they have the social networks with those people, because not only that they grew up in those neighborhoods, but they themselves tended to be involved in this stuff in the past. They got out through protective factors that impacted them. So, now they're trying to do the same thing. Connect with somebody because they have the respect and the relatability and the credibility to do so. What I'm getting at is, it isn't just anyone that can do that, right? 

So, not only to wrap that all up, is the bottom-up approach things we should just ethically do. I'm arguing mechanistically. Literally, these programs will not work without it. Because if you don't have that trust, it doesn't matter. If you don't have literally the people hired in those particular roles that take a very specific, very hard-to-do skill set, your programs are going to fail. If you send a social worker that has no connection to those high-risk young men, it's not going to work. We've seen it not work. You have to hire from within that community to do these jobs.

Ame Sanders  55:14

One of the things I want to do I mentioned both in your work and in the answer to that question, is that the details you gave, they were very specific. They meant that you slow down enough to really look and to notice and to think about what and reflect on what those things meant. So often, we're tempted because it's easier to stay at 30,000 feet or 60,000 feet when we look at a problem. It's very, very hard to disaggregate data and knowledge and deep knowing to the very, very local level. The examples that you just gave both in terms of describing the things that you saw that affected you, but also in this last story about now engaging the right people in the community is not just ethically the right thing to do. It is the only thing to do.  

I think those examples both point out something that I think is unique in your approach and that I really like, which is not only do you work with data. I'm sure you deal with very large data sets and complex datasets, but you're able to drill that down to very specific and concrete things to disaggregate the data in a meaningful way. Use your maps and tools that you have to pick that, but also down to and I love the example of the trees that are growing in the neighborhood that formed the gateway of the kids playing on the street. That is really an interesting reference for us all to think about. 

How are we viewing our communities? Are we staying at 60,000 feet because we either don't know how, don't have the time, or maybe we're too intellectually lazy? Or we’re afraid to go much deeper. But what I hear from your stories and your work is that the real answer for our communities rests in going deep and specific. In being able to look broadly but also in drilling down with an open mind and an open heart to what we find there. Not just looking for problems, but also looking for the resilience that we'll find there, the talent that we'll find there, the know-how to solve their own problems that we'll find there. And the messengers that can help us make change that is so important for our communities to see and to make. 

So, I do like the fact that you went over those broad things that way because they all connect for me in that way. So, I'm imagining people are listening to this, and they're like me. They're just like, "Okay, our community needs something like this." We need to be able to figure out how to both do the kind of work you do on your passion project and also the kind of work you do on your day job. What advice would you give to listeners out there who are in their own communities and want to see positive change within their own communities?

 -Advice to Others

Nick Cotter  58:33

Yeah. I think there are a couple of things. I think the first thing would be, see what already exists, because often there may be, and there probably is, people doing this work or groups doing this work that you may not know. So, that would be my first thing. Just do a check on what exists already and could you build off of that or even work in conjunction with what's already there? Because I think we have a habit of duplication a lot in policy and programmatic spaces. I think it comes from just disconnection and silos. So that's one thing I would say. 

The second thing would be, particularly if you're doing this kind of work or probably any kind of work is to the earlier point, you just mentioned Ame around this isn't just the 60,000 foot view. It's like the intimate view. You need to take the intimate view. So, I argue like pretty deeply, and I think it's necessary. Not just like advice that if you are, say, doing some kind of project around identifying your problem in a community or working to solve it, you need to intimately know that community. So, literally, get out and walk around and try to get to know people. Show up to events but beyond that, just take some time yourself and walk around. There is more that you can learn from just walking and listening than I think most people understand. Just do those things, and you'll gain a lot more understanding that you may otherwise not have. 

Then I think the other thing is to try to see where your specialization may add to what's either already happening or existing, even if it's something extra or something new; just look at what specialty skills you have and see what you specifically can bring to the table. Because a lot of this is just something I really like to do on my own. I've actually had people reach out over the years and say, "Hey, I'd love to help." Just like really selfishly, it's kind of nice to like work on a project where I don't have to worry about working with other people. I really think to the earlier points, it's necessary to work with other people, particularly for my day job. But sometimes it's nice to just own something yourself. In this context, the skills I most utilize, besides just honestly getting out, walking around, and listening to people, which I think anybody can do if they have an open heart and mind to. It is just that I use data analysis skills and mapping skills. I like to write and so all those things just kind of came together. 

So, let's say you only have maybe one of those things, and you'd like to do a similar project, maybe that's a clue to either try to tackle and learn some of those skills yourself when you have spare time. Or even better, maybe find some other people that you can work with who are either already doing it or might want to join in if it's something that's totally new. So, maybe you're the writer, and you can find somebody that can do some of the analysis, but I think no matter what, both of you in those circumstances have to be going out and getting to know the communities. So that's what I would say, I guess broadly,

Ame Sanders  1:01:43

One of the things I take away from that, too, is also commitment. So, carving out the time and making yourself available for this work. You know, we all can be over-programmed, and over-busy, but sometimes really understanding a neighborhood or understanding a particular issue, does require some deep reflection and solitary time. Not just in the way of working. I mean, obviously, we need to work together. But, it also requires that you wrestle with it and think about it deeply yourself and give yourself some time to do that and to own what it is that you're working on. So, that's one of the things I take away from your comments as well. 

So Nick, is there anything that we haven't talked about that you'd like to talk about?

 -People Should be Able to Live Where They Want to Live 

Nick Cotter  1:02:32

Yeah, in a lot of the work I do, whether for the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project or for my work is I have one real fundamental belief that has not just impacted me but a lot of the people that I talked to in our highest-need neighborhoods. It's the idea that people should be able to live where they want to live, no matter what. Regardless of their race or class. 

The fact of the matter is, is that not true in the United States. It has never been true, and it's still not true. So, what that means to me is if somebody wants to move, say from Knoxville, to a really wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh called Mount Lebanon, they should be able to do that. So, we should create programs and policy that allows them to do that. On the flip side of the equation--this is an "and" not "or"--if that family doesn't want to move from Knoxville, much like my mom had to make the decision to do when I was younger because she was worried about our safety because of gun violence. If a person doesn't want to leave, because they want to stay close to their family, they want to stay close to their institutions, they shouldn't have to move for their kid to have a better life. 

So, that means we have to address the challenges that exist in place, which comes with understanding the history and addressing that problem directly. So, I think both of those things matter. You're not going to get to that conclusion unless you understand this history. But I think that's at the heart of what we're trying to do here, which is understand the history, understand why neighborhoods matter, and then use that context to design with communities effective prescriptions that address the problem.

 Ame Sanders  1:04:04

So, Nick, I love this visual that you gave us at the end to kind of sum this up, which is that families and individuals and kids should if they want to live somewhere, they should be able to live there and move there. But if they don't want to move because of family or friends or institutions, as you said, they shouldn't have to move in order to have a good life. To me that is a perfect summary of all of the masterclass that you just gave us in terms of the history. 

 The other thing that it reminds me of is, and this whole conversation has reminded me of, is that it is not only working at the neighborhood and the very detailed level. It is also being able to zoom out and look at the larger picture. Because what we just did with your discussion is we zoomed way out and looked at 100 years or 120 years of transformational policies that have brought us to where we are, but then you very easily move down and zoom down to, I'll go back to the image you gave us of the tree arch over the street. So, it is this ability as we work through strengthening our communities, making them more inclusive and equitable, is our ability and our efforts to be able to see the big picture and the macro picture and the trends and the things that have put us here and that are still going on. But also then, to zoom at the very detail level, to understand the very specifics of neighborhoods, of communities, of relationships and interactions.  

So, Nick, I just want to thank you for this lovely conversation and for the insights and experience that you shared with our listeners because I know it has been extremely thought-provoking for me, and I know it will be for the people who listen to this. So thank you so much for this.  

Nick Cotter  1:06:14

Yeah. Thank you for having me.


Ame Sanders  1:06:18

This was a long episode, and I won't attempt to summarize all that Nick shared. There were a few key takeaways for me. 

First, neighborhoods matter, and are at the heart of any change and progress for both individuals and communities. 

  • Zooming at the detailed level of neighborhoods and building hyperlocal relationships is key. But so is understanding the big picture, context and history of a community. We must be able to do both, to understand the communities is true for any program of change that we want to undertake. 
  • Involving individuals from impacted neighborhoods as solution builders, communicators and leaders of that change is not only the moral and ethical way forward, it is the only way. If you're working on a community change initiative, that doesn't work that way. Stop right now and think about how to change what you're doing. You won't be successful if you don't. 
  • Also, my discussion with Nick reminded me so clearly that we can all step up and contribute in some way to making the communities and neighborhoods we love stronger and better. We are the keepers and builders of our neighborhoods, and our communities. 

So I'm going to just close with a question we can all ask ourselves, what talents or gifts do you have, that you will offer your community and your neighborhood. 

This has been the State of Inclusion Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode. The best compliment for our work is your willingness to share the podcast or discuss these ideas with others. If you'd like to hear more about the practice of building an inclusive and equitable community, head over to and sign up for our newsletter. Also, feel free to leave us a review or reach out we'd love to hear from you.

Thanks so much for listening and join us again next time.


Guest: Nick Cotter

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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