Cynthia Dallas, who grew up in Highland Park and Morningside, holds a newspaper clipping of a photo of her as a 15-month-old in Highland Park. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
The move from Morningside to Highland Park was geographically right next door, but it gave Dallas a big advantage. Black females who grew up in Highland Park earned $10,000 more per year than their counterparts in Morningside did in 2015.
She started attending Reizenstein Middle School where, she said, there were metal detectors and a lot of fights. But in this school and neighborhood, she felt like she and her family makeup — a Black father and a white mother — fit in better.
In high school, her parents’ lives stabilized and they cheered her on during basketball games at Schenley High School. Dallas led her high school team to the city championship.
She was eventually drafted into the WNBA and later moved to Hollywood to act in TV shows and films. She recently moved back into her old home in Highland Park with her mother after finishing a two-year acting residency in Ireland.
She still remembers her time in Highland Park and her high school basketball championship as the pinnacle. “My grandmother was there, Dad was there, Mom was there and we won,” she said. "I was so happy. I don’t think I have ever been as happy as I was in that moment.”
Amanda Suto’s childhood in the Perry South neighborhood was turbulent. Her father spent time in jail, and her mom had a series of rocky relationships. She caught rides to school because her mom couldn’t afford a car.
According to the Opportunity Atlas, Perry South residents were predominantly Black and mostly earning low incomes. She recalls being one of the few white girls in her elementary school.
She also recalls violence, including a drive-by-shooting at the middle school and the death of a friend who was strangled.
Everything changed when Suto was 14, and they moved to the affluent, majority-white Richland Township when Suto’s mom moved them in with her new partner.
Suto described it as “hell.” There were almost no Black children, and, though she was white like the majority of the school, the students called her racial epithets for dressing and talking differently.
She recalls showing her mom a failing grade from gym class. "This is what you got?” her mom said. "So you are going to be a shit your whole life?”
It took the wind out of her. But she said her mom motivated her and her older brother to attend college. "I watched her shed tears and worry about how she was going to get to work and put milk in the refrigerator,” Suto said.
The new neighborhood dramatically improved her chances of economic success. The average low-income white girl in Perry South went on to earn about $20,000 in 2015, while the average low-income white girl in her part of Richland Township earned $51,000.
Suto earns an even higher salary as a clinical trial manager for pharmaceuticals. When her children start acting ungrateful, she’ll sometimes drive them through her old neighborhood. “This is where I came from,” she’ll tell them, and the car gets quiet.
Scott Moffat grew up in Lower Lawrenceville, which was one of the worst neighborhoods in Pittsburgh for a white kid to grow up in back in the early 1980s.
The Opportunity Atlas shows that white children there went on to earn about $34,000 per year by 2015; there was only one neighborhood between the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in the city where white children earned less — East Liberty.
(Lawrenceville wasn’t a great place for Black kids to grow up either but there were a number of neighborhoods where Black kids struggled more.)
People cross Butler Street in Lawrenceville. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Moffat’s dad was a firefighter who worked down the street. He was proud of his dad’s job and didn’t think of himself as poor, even if his parents had to squeeze three children into a single bedroom. He and his brothers made videos with an over-the-shoulder camera and played across the street at Arsenal Park.
His parents fought frequently, which was a strain on life at home, he said. In high school, Moffat got a job and a girlfriend and made himself too busy to worry about what was happening at home.
Moffat, who has four children, was the only one in his family who attended a Catholic high school. He thinks it may have been critical to finding his way to a steady profession as a police officer with Allegheny County.
"A lot of it has to do with school. I’m not knocking public schools,” he said, but he credits the staff at his high school for helping him get into LaRoche College, where he pursued his career in criminal justice.
Scott’s twin younger brothers, who are in the same age cohort of the study, both got caught up in the criminal justice system. They are nearing the end of prison sentences. His older brother is a delivery truck driver who lives with his girlfriend in Cranberry.
Beau Boughamer remembers the time a chiropractor visited his eighth-grade science class in Cranberry.
He showed X-rays of a woman whose spine was severely bent from cleaning houses and hauling a vacuum. Boughamer quickly realized it was his mom the chiropractor was talking about.
She never got a vacation and returned to work three days after delivering his little sister. Cranberry was farm country then, and they lived in trailer parks. His dad was a night shift janitor for Westinghouse. His parents separated when he was 15.
"We went from poor to poorer,” he said. He once bought a car for $900 that his mom ended up taking for her own use after her car broke down.
Beau Boughamer (right) with his brother Chance and sister Sabrina on her fourth birthday in July 1991. (Photo courtesy of Beau Boughamer)
Where they lived meant Boughamer would attend the Seneca Valley School District. And the district boasted a cutting-edge TV production studio at the time. Boughamer went on to be a journalist in his first career.
Growing up, a new Cranberry emerged across the street with four-bedroom homes that seemed like mansions. According to the Opportunity Atlas, high-income white kids in the neighborhood earned an average of $60,000 in 2015. Kids from low-income families earned an average of $41,000.
Boughamer and his two siblings attended college. “We pretty much beat the odds,” he said. Now living in the suburbs of Baltimore, he makes a six-figure salary, working at a foundation that tries to ensure that a child’s destiny is not determined by his or her ZIP code.
Not far from the tree
Sarah Arnold was a latchkey kid, she said: her dad was a workaholic doctor and her mother worked long hours during a medical residency.
She grew up in Point Breeze, a neighborhood where children her age went on to some of the most high-paying jobs in the entire city.
She attended a private high school. Arnold suffered from depression at an early age, and it hit even harder when she went away to college. "I had to take some time off and get into a more aggressive treatment,” she said. "My early 20s were spent recovering.”
But then she found her stride, went to medical school and now works in a hospital as a doctor, like her parents. She picked a specialty, a hospitalist, that has flexibility so she can spend more time at home with her husband, who is a chef, and their 4-year-old.
Rachel Majcher grew up in Castle Shannon, only one block each way from Baldwin Township and Mt. Lebanon. This existence on the borders shaped her childhood.
Her dad was a union millwright at the local steel mills, and her mom stayed at home. Their parents had a pool in the backyard, and their basement was filled with dolls on one side and chalkboard and musical instruments on the other. “I can’t ever remember a time when we didn’t get the Cabbage Patch [doll] for Christmas,” she said.
But that sense of being provided for dissipated when she and her sister found themselves attending school in Mt. Lebanon after a school merger. Suddenly, she was going to school with kids wearing “very nice sweaters, and ours came from the uniform company.”
Their mom picked them up from school in a Chevy Caprice Classic, not the station wagons with wood paneling that all the other mothers seemed to be driving.
"My parents tried to instill in us that the kids we went to school with were no better than we were.”
"We felt self-conscious that our car didn’t look like everyone else’s cars,” she said. “My parents tried to instill in us that the kids we went to school with were no better than we were.”
According to the Opportunity Atlas, kids her age in Castle Shannon went on to do much better economically than kids from Carrick and Brookline in the city just north of them. But they didn’t do as well as the kids from Mt. Lebanon and Whitehall.
Majcher’s parents let her attend Keystone Oaks High School as a ninth grader. She was finally with kids from her neighborhood again. The teachers were welcoming and she felt like she belonged. She finished 10th in her class of 222, she said.
Majcher is now a nurse at the Young Scholars of Western PA — a public charter school a block away from her parents' old house.
She said she doesn’t make much more money than her parents did, but she feels rewarded by helping middle schoolers who feel like outsiders like she once did.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This project has been made possible with the support of The Grable Foundation.