Pittsburgh is full of holes. Big ravines, chopped-up cliffsides, green-grown vacant lots subsuming the corpses of houses that lost their fight against the earth and time. Frick Park is one of those holes, sprawly and feral, especially for an urban park. It’s a wide gap in the middle of the city where forests were allowed to grow through. Some people debate whether Pittsburgh is the Midwest or the Northeast, or somewhere in between, and they’re wasting their time — the Appalachian woods have clearly staked their claim on the city.
But the people who inhabit the city have worked hard to tame the terrain. Point Breeze, the neighborhood where I grew up, is an outgrowth of quiet, porch-lined green streets shooting off the undomesticated park. Behind those porches, we mostly had nice lives with comfortable parents, and safe walks to decent schools. Some of our dads drank too much, some of our moms were mean, some of our brothers were useless, some of our sisters were bad news. But we all shared this peaceful, lush ecosystem, perched on the edge of wilderness.
In 1987, Annie Dillard published An American Childhood, a memoir about our neighborhood, and it won a Pulitzer. Thirty years later, I finally read it, and I couldn’t believe how spot-on every description was. These were my streets, my playgrounds, my chipped staircases. As if Point Breeze hadn’t so much as seen a season change in 50 years.
Dillard’s Point Breeze was an undivided patchwork of backyards, under a canopy of oak and maple — a vast, open space for the neighborhood’s children to roam. Throughout the first half of the 90s, I bounced from Katie’s Homes and Gardens-worthy flower beds, to Justine’s barely-there strawberry patch, to Stephanie’s plastic play set behind wire fence. They were all part of our shared, uneven territory.
Dillard wandered Frick Park, too, the site of so many generations of childhood curiosity. “In summer and fall I imagined the woods extending infinitely,” she wrote. “I was the first human being to see these shadowed trees, this land; I would make my pioneer clearing here, near the water.”
She could have been writing about my fifth summer. After my mom went back to work full time and my dad was in South America for a month, my 11-year-old brother was charged with taking care of me. Jesse decided we were going to do “science camp,” which just meant that every day we walked to Frick Park and clambered over trees and up rocky hillsides, gathering bouquets of sticks and leaves and trying to find animals bigger than a squirrel. Every once in a while, to my delight, we did.
Mac Miller’s 2011 debut album Blue Slide Park was named for a children’s playground on the southern edge of Frick Park. The playground itself is named for a single shallow tube dug into the hillside, painted cerulean, down which we all slid as children. The album turned out to be the first independent release to debut in the top slot on the Billboard 200 since 1995. In the infamous Pitchfork pan of Blue Slide Park (a rare 1.0 rating), Jordan Sargent wrote:
The reason Miller’s mass of fans follow him is not because of his music, at least not completely. It’s because he looks just like them, because they can see themselves up on the stage behind him, if not next to him … Miller’s world is a hermetic one, and unless it’s one you inhabit, the album holds no appeal.
I did inhabit that world, for 18 years. Mac Miller — né Malcolm McCormick — and I grew up within a few blocks of each other. We weren’t close, but our lives were relatively intertwined, which is the way of a town like ours. Malcolm’s brother held my hand at Shady Lane preschool, his first manager and I drank beers together at the bowling greens on Reynolds, his early rap partner drove me home at the end of more than one shitty South Oakland party.
Who could have known that someone would become famous writing songs set against the most mundane backdrops of our little ecosystem? The corner store where we put cherry slushies on our parents’ tabs until they yelled at us? The playground behind our pediatrician’s office, where we’d return a decade later to smoke blunts and make out? The backyards of the rich kids’ houses, where we’d pretend it wasn’t 20 degrees too cold for a pool party?
But it happened, and we all thought: What a little shit, Malcolm, but look at him, building such widespread admiration of the place we’re from. The dead-quiet cul de sac you’d stumble into in the dark, after running through the woods to escape another cop-busted kegger, now has an adoring audience of millions. Who could want more for their hometown?
Because Sargent, as it turned out, was sort of right. Malcolm had managed to capture, with goofy, childlike specificity, an incredibly small habitat, known intimately by a few hundred teenagers. But the incredible commercial success of the album meant that so many other people recognized that same sort of innocence: the sense of believing you cannot be broken. Throughout the album, outsized rap boasts and high school naiveté collide head-on to produce this perfect, foolish feeling of being indestructible.
Which meant that Sargent was also wrong. Like Dillard, Miller brought you into the neighborhood, offered to show you around. With good aim and a strong arm, you could throw a baseball from Malcolm’s backyard through the window of Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer-commemorated house.
When Malcolm died, from what TMZ reported was an “apparent drug overdose,” a wave of anguish rippled through the neighborhood. I would venture to say that every one of us Point Breeze kids knows someone who overdosed, or came close, or will.
Since 2008, the last year I spent much time at home, drug overdoses in our county close to tripled — from a little over 200 to just shy of 600 in 2016. Pretty much all of that growth is due to opioids. One of those 600 was a high school boyfriend who I’d met, naturally, at a keg stationed a few hundred yards downhill from the now-famous slide. I found out via text message, during a Steelers playoff game, and felt sickened by how little it surprised me.
In his last interview, Malcolm told Vulture that he sometimes imagined having the kind of life he once had in Point Breeze, yards and playgrounds and avenues of oaks. “There’s that moment of peacefulness, when you think about it,” he said. “But I would never actually do that. I’m also very attracted to my own demons.”
Blue Slide Park is an uncut dose of invincibility, a 16-track anthem declaring sovereignty over the well-kept streets you walk on, that you and all your young dumb drunk friends are immortal. But “Self-Care,” Miller’s last single, is chilling. It’s an ode to some kind of battle lost, with no energy left to fight it. The music video is literally set in a coffin.
A few days after his death, the city of Pittsburgh held a vigil for Malcolm in the playground he made famous. Over the years, the elements had stripped the color right off the slide, so Public Works gave it a fresh coat of blue paint.
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