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To Be Black In This Country Is To Live A Life Of Trespass

Wandering around the abandoned Pittsburgh of my youth instilled a desire to go wherever I wanted — even as a Black man living in America.

Posted on August 18, 2020, at 3:04 p.m. ET

A desolate and abandoned industrial building under cloudy skies
Ross Mantle

The Carrie Furnace in Rankin, Pennsylvania

Every other day, I go running. It helps me stay active while the gyms are closed, and gets me out of the house and away from doomscrolling despair. Go one direction out my front door and the terrain descends into the predominantly Latinx section of East Oakland. In the opposite direction, the land inclines. And inclines. And inclines. Before long, I am in the Oakland Hills with its socially distanced outdoor cafe seating. Here you can walk into a grocery store without waiting in line, though you’ll be paying more. The million-dollar houses are mission-style, Bavarian-style, Japanese-style, pretty much any style the owners wish. I see white people, mostly older women, standing at an intersection with BLM signs. People honk support. Too little, too late. But it’s nice.

Further up, the houses grow even larger. The air is sweeter. The land is greener. The only people of color here are myself and landscapers. I see the faces of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on signs. A perverse happiness buzzes inside me to see Black life acknowledged in the Hills, where any manner of atrocities could have been committed in pursuit of these Parasite homes. I see a sign for Ahmaud Arbery, who was gunned down by white vigilantes while jogging. Even prior to his killing, committed in daylight and videotaped like the lynching photos of old, I knew to stay careful jogging in a ritzy area. All it takes is one call to the cops. No doubt Ahmaud Arbery knew that too. Still he put his Black body into a world that wished him dead; he saw the invisible “DO NOT ENTER” signs and entered, rather than live in fear.


In Pittsburgh, I learned to love trespass. My earliest memory of going where I wasn’t allowed happened when I was in Catholic school in the suburbs. It was a miserable experience of racist bullying from students and teachers alike. From third grade on, teachers called me lazy in front of the class, and miniature white supremacists physically assaulted me daily while spewing racial slurs.

When I was 11, I joined the speech club. One day, I arrived at a meeting and realized I’d forgotten my speech at home. I shamefacedly informed the adviser.

She looked repulsed. “Then leave.”

Having been a teacher for over a decade, I can’t fathom casting an elementary student out like that — even nowadays with cameras everywhere, and certainly not in the “stranger danger”–obsessed 1990s. But for the first time in life, I found myself unsupervised. I had the school’s campus to myself, and it was gloriously empty.

I walked to the pond and watched the geese drift over water gilded in afternoon sunlight. I crossed to the other side of campus and explored the woods as far as I dared until fairy-tale nightmares started playing on my psyche. But most transgressive of all, I returned to the school building and climbed the steps past the second-floor classrooms to the off-limits third floor. As I’d suspected, all I found were boring, utilitarian dorms for the nuns. The excitement came from trespassing on my own terms.


I grew up in Pittsburgh. I was born in West Penn Hospital. I’ve visited WQED Studios and seen the inside of Allegheny County Jail. When I was 12 years old, I won first and second place in a poetry contest. The judge was August Wilson. The living embodiment of Pittsburgh liked my stuff; that’s how Pittsburgh I am.

Up until the city’s rapid gentrification in the 2010s, Pittsburgh looked postapocalyptic in many places. After the steel left, many residents departed as well, but the buildings remained. Mercifully we weren’t subjected to the doomsday rhetoric that Detroit had to deal with, mainly because Pittsburgh isn’t considered a “Black” town; Pittsburghers got to be “blue-collar” instead of “ghetto,” so the mass media didn’t shame us and bemoan empty houses as some catastrophe.

As an adolescent, I accompanied my dad to the flea market outside Eastland Mall, a dead mall even then. I perused vendors for comic books until, growing bored, I’d venture inside the mall itself, a rectangular cave, dimly lit, with one or two stores still open. Seeing retractable barriers in front of a nonworking escalator, I would step around the stanchions and descend like Link from Zelda to dungeonlike office spaces, a dusty landscape of hanging tarps and sunlight through mildew-worn holes. An abandoned world, freer and more open than the claustrophobic one I’d left behind.

Finding forbidden places was my version of the wardrobe, the rabbit hole, the golden ticket. In college, I discovered urban exploring. I would search for wild and bucolic spots within the corpses of former industrial sites. I felt daring, knowing any journey could end with my death— killed for stepping an inch out of line. The Wilkinsburg neighborhood had many abandoned Victorians, with wood nailed over the doors. I scaled awnings to enter through upper story windows. Often the houses were fully furnished. I would find beds in bedrooms and sofas in living rooms, a vision of domesticity among shards of glass and plaster.

Finding forbidden places was my version of the wardrobe, the rabbit hole, the golden ticket. 

By my senior year of college, I decided my skills honed enough to tackle the abandoned hotel downtown on Mount Washington. I mostly traveled alone because companions felt like burdens; I was an introvert, fine with my own thoughts for company. Finding the front door padlocked, I trekked the woods to the wall overlooking the Monongahela River. From there, using every ounce of upper body strength I’d built in my dorm’s weight room, I scaled the wall 15 feet and made it onto a patio. After some exploring the hotel rooms, I scaled the outer wall again and entered a space I could only assume had been a ballroom. From the patio, I had a view of downtown Pittsburgh grander than any I’d seen before — a view the hotel’s owner decided to keep to themselves long after the building itself lost value.

The Carrie Furnace in Rankin is the Sistine Chapel of abandoned Pittsburgh, a sprawling, decaying steel mill on the Monongahela. You needed to devote a whole day because getting there took time, and once you got there, you had to stay awhile. I always went in a group, as getting lost was a possibility, and the expansiveness of the mill called for collective awe. One time I fell in love with someone, so I took her to this place.

Park near the postwar bungalows that cling to the hillside, take a pebble-strewn trail through woods full of litter until you reach a fence. Crawl through the hole in the fence. Walk down a gravel road next to an elevated train track and then through a field of overgrown grass to the chain-link gates, broken and twisted. Nature has taken over; trees grow up through the grates and butterflies rest on moss-grown chains. The titanic chimneys are coated in graffiti. The air teems with history and quietude. I remember my friends and I climbing ladders to the catwalks so we could stare over the valley. We walked back at night and hid under cover of trees until the police helicopters were gone. Nowadays, it’s a tourist attraction.

We were Black anarchists, and my friends took the notion of trespass further than I did. They squatted abandoned buildings. They hopped trains and saw parts of North America inaccessible by car. Lacking the courage to endanger myself like they did, I kept my trespasses local. I would drive to areas marked off-limits in Western Pennsylvania’s unofficial Green Book. If I wanted to see a punk show in Latrobe or visit an anime store in Greensburg, I went. As I saw it, the Klan could try and lynch me, but they’d have to catch me first.


George Jackson, political prisoner and author of The Prison Letters of George Jackson, warned against “protesting with the mouth,” in other words, lamenting the crimes of white people against Black bodies, in the misplaced belief there is justice to be found from airing your grievances. All white institutions are inherently racist and should be opposed, not appealed to.

When I started at Mills College in Oakland to get my MFA in creative writing, I expected some level of discrimination. But I wanted to live in the Bay and continue my studies, so I applied and got in. Attending Mills taught me that you could trespass in plain sight.

Being Black in the academy, I was treated like I was invisible, or worse, like a threat. My accomplishments existed outside of this white privilege space. I published articles and went on multistate book tours; I got yelled at by a computer professor for being in the lab prior to her starting her class. I wrote my second short story collection and a thesis; at the same time, I was eating ramen while watching caterers set up cakes on the lawn for donor parties. At a reading, a year into my studies, a poetry professor told me she’d just figured out I was a student and not somebody’s boyfriend.

Before the pandemic hit, I often returned to campus. The grounds are pretty, and I get to use the gym. During one visit, while checking out fliers in the English Department, one of my old professors approached me with a look of concern.

“May I help you?” she asked.

Metaphorical and literal trespass combined when I went to the University of Louisiana for my PhD. At first, I lived on a horse farm but it was too far from campus, so I moved in with an adjunct but that fell through. I became functionally homeless, moving between couches, guest rooms, hostels, and sleeping in my office for the next two years. Was sleeping in my office even trespassing if the administration admins and several colleagues knew about it?

A week into my predicament, I asked the head of the creative writing department if there was any emergency housing. “Let me look into it,” she said. The next day she gave me a yoga mat and sleeping bag.

Was sleeping in my office even trespassing if the administration admins and several colleagues knew about it?

Every time I looked for housing, the rent far exceeded what I earned, so I continued saving and paying off my loans and making stopgap arrangements. The discrepancy between my professional life and living arrangements grew absurd. Get flown to Omaha for a lit fest. Shower in the gym. Do a reading with Nalo Hopkinson. Stash my luggage above the particleboard ceiling. Teach three classes. Dodge late-night custodians to go to the bathroom. AWP in Boston. Vending machine Pop-Tarts.

Eventually a custodian told the department head where I was living. This upset me deeply; I saw it as working-class betrayal. I remember walking into the office to get my mail and getting told point-blank by the Head of the English Department, “I heard you’re living in your office,” in front of adjuncts, secretaries, and undergrads. I’ll never forget his look of triumph. That he could publicly shame me in this space he thought I was unworthy of.

“No,” I said, which was true. I crashed all over town. Then I picked up the student papers I would spend the next few hours grading.

I used my skill at trespass to enter an ugly place. I felt alone and depressed. Within a year, I was back in Oakland.

It’s easy to look back at my time in the academy with shame. I learned to diminish myself. Stay quiet for fear of being ousted. Speak the language people wanted to hear.

My experiences with the academy were reminders that all Black people in this country are considered trespassers, born enemies of the state. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was famously arrested for entering his own home. Our ethnic enclaves, where we should feel safe, are under perpetual siege by killers in uniform. And there was no level of accomplishment or respectability I could attain that would make me welcome in those spaces.

If property is violence, then the flouting of property is an act of rebellion that should be celebrated. The kids I knew who hopped trains were the same ones setting cop cars on fire, and our anger went deeper than politics. That is why, when we took highways in protest of Mike Brown’s murder, it was a show of strength. Deemed criminals from birth, we embraced that vulnerability and trespassed for a greater cause.

The ruined, abandoned Pittsburgh of my youth instilled in me a desire to go wherever I wanted. And seeing my people in the streets, I know trespass itself as a valiant act. White people deemed us trespassers, so let us do so.


The sun sets. I have gotten in my exercise and so I head downhill from the mansions to the less impressive — but still costly — townhouses, coated in sweat, ready to veg out to Netflix like every interminable night. From the house I am passing, I hear someone make gunshot noises. “Pew pew pew!”

I turn in time to see a chubby white child run inside. Surprised at first, then very much unsurprised, I stand for a moment and listen. I can hear him laugh maniacally.

I continue through the land of the wealthy, vigilant. ●

  • Picture of Elwin Cotman

    Elwin Cotman is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Dance on Saturday and two previous collections of short stories, The Jack Daniels Sessions EP and Hard Times Blues. In 2011 he was nominated for a Carl Brandon Society Award. He has toured extensively across North America and Europe. He is at work on his first novel.

    Contact Elwin Cotman at elwin.cotman@gmail.com.

    Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

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