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The 'other' Pittsburgh, where crime is common and life is fragile
Sunday, March 20, 2005

There are two Pittsburghs.

There's the one I love, where my wife and I walk to work and our daughters to school, to the Children's Museum and the Y, the land of a thousand laughs at neighborhood parties, in coffee shops and at the ballpark.

Then there's the drug dealer's Pittsburgh. I don't think much about it because it almost never gets up in my face. Suburbanites who drive in for cheap thrills would know more about this world than I, making their buys within a mile of our house. I spend more time worrying about property assessments than I do about thugs with guns.

It is a fact, not an opinion, that a person is far more likely to be killed in a highway accident or in a fall than by a stranger's bullet. We in the media spend a lot of our time teaching you to fear all the wrong things. When our daughters come of age, getting on the highway with their peers is the most dangerous situation they'll likely face. Living where we do, that can be kept to a minimum.

Yet the killing of Keith Watts has an undeniable horror. A 16-year-old boy was shot and killed outside Carrick High School in broad daylight last week. Watts was a child of Pittsburgh as surely as our daughters are, though he was born to that other Pittsburgh, the one drug dealers and thugs think they rule.

The killers shot him as he sat in the driver's seat of his grandmother's car. Two other students with him were wounded, one critically. I know no more about Watts than what I read in my newspaper, but he fits the profile of this city's homicide victims. He must have seen his death coming with the clarity that most teenagers see graduation.

His father, Keith Watts Sr., was killed in 1999, and his mother, Paula Poellnitz, two years later. Both were shot dead in parked cars. Police described his father as a mid- to high-level drug dealer. That is how most of this city's killings go. Victims typically live the same life as the shooters.

The exceptions are the people we all remember, martyrs to a world they never made. Among them are Frank Christopher, the pizza deliveryman who was shot and killed last summer, and Taylor Coles, the 8-year-old girl who was killed in a drug-related ambush in a restaurant in 2002.

But there were 46 killings in the city last year. Seven of every 10 killers had a prior arrest record, as did seven in 10 victims. The average killer with a record had more than five arrests. Ditto for their victims. A third of the killers' arrests were for drugs, a percentage actually topped by their victims'.

Drugs, an altercation, a domestic encounter, a retaliation, these were the motives for six in 10 Pittsburgh slayings last year. Two in 10 were killed during robberies.

That is the alternate universe in which Watts lived and died. Shooters had come to his front door a month ago and unleashed a hail of bullets. They missed. Watts, with a juvenile record himself, wore an ankle monitor and left home only for school. His killers had no reason to kill him beyond the twisted logic of a neighborhood feud.

When a 44-year-old Bellevue man was found dead in an SUV in Manchester last month, the city's seventh homicide of the year, I could more easily box that out. The dead man was found in a stretch known for drug traffic, had a long arrest record and had pleaded guilty over the years to driving under the influence, forgery, receiving stolen property, criminal conspiracy and drug possession. He wasn't a ninth-grader. Carrick is way across town, yet this one hits closer to home.

This weekend, the girls and I will hit our first-grader's "spring fling" dance, go for swimming lessons at the North Side Y, grab some books at our local Carnegie branch and maybe even hit the dinosaur museum before those big bones start coming apart. That's our Pittsburgh. That won't change.

The other one has to. The "code of the streets" kills those who live by it. No Pittsburgh kid deserves to grow up in that city.

First published on March 20, 2005 at 12:00 am
Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.