Just over the border from the city of Pittsburgh, the Wilkinsburg mayor is pushing for a comeback, factoring in the environment and improving health while trying to change the negative perception people may have of her community.
Marita Garrett, 32, a relative newcomer to Wilkinsburg, fell in love with the town after buying a home there eight years ago. Today, she says she feels a strong sense of community pride.
“It’s my home,” she says. “I mean, I know, I know, but that’s what it is. When you make some place your home, your home is your home and you will almost do anything to protect that.”
LISTEN: “The Mayor of Wilkingsburg is Connecting the Dots Between Pollution, Equity and Health”
Garrett, who is African American, has become a rising star. This year, she traveled to Australia and Malaysia to talk about Wilkinsburg. She also co-hosts a podcast about women shattering the glass ceiling. The pride she carries for Wilkinsburg is what led Garrett into local politics, first becoming a member of the Wilkinsburg borough council.
“I really believe that you shouldn’t ask something of someone else to do if you’re not willing to do,” she says. “And that’s how I ended up being on council — seeing a void of a mayor’s role being used to its fullest capacity, led me to run for mayor.”
In her first year as mayor Garrett says she is working on changing some of the negative perceptions of her community – perceptions like blight and crime that have plagued the area for decades.
“There were many neighboring communities, including Wilkinsburg in the late 80’s, who suffered in the hands of the crack epidemic and associated violence at the time. But, you know, we’re 20 plus years removed from that,” Garrett says.
Within the last year and a half, Wilkinsburg received more than $1.6 million dollars in funding to help demolish a hundred blighted properties.
The mayor says her focus on Wilkinsburg reaches the entire region, especially when it comes to environmental issues, like air quality.
For economically disadvantaged communities like Wilkinsburg, studies have shown that residents are more likely to be exposed to pollutants. And with nearly a quarter of Wilkinsburg’s 16,000 residents living below the poverty line, Garrett says those statistics are critical to her people.
“In a lot of the lower income, underserved communities, you’ll see the higher increase indexes of worse air quality, under-performing education, food deserts, lack of access, which further broadens the disparity that we have here,” she says.
Your zip code shouldn’t be a predictor of what type of services or what type of health conditions or hazards that you are exposed to.
She says she has seen health issues resulting from poor air-quality like asthma hit hard for Wilkinsburg residents.
“That’s a part of equity. We all deserve quality of life,” she says. “So, whether that’s quality of air, or water, education — anything that affects our daily life, there should be equitable access to that. Your zip code shouldn’t be a predictor of what type of services or what type of health conditions or hazards that you are exposed to.” :\
So, Garrett is taking a holistic approach: bringing in fresh produce to her community; creating a more vibrate business district; and even addressing energy issues.
“We did ban fracking,” she says. “And we really came out when it was a hot issue in Churchill. to advocate for Churchill not to have fracking. And thankfully, they successfully were able to ban fracking as well.”
But for Garrett, environmental, and economic improvement begins with changing the way outsiders view her community.
“A lot of people when they actually come to Wilkinsburg to visit, they meet some of the residents, support the businesses, and realize the perception is wrong.”
And for Garrett, perception is everything, especially when it comes to building up the neighborhoods and people of Wilkinsburg.