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Real-life drama surrounds Wilson's childhood home

Sunday, January 26, 2003

By Ervin Dyer and Monica Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

There is no sign on the corner market at Bedford Avenue and Roberts Street.

For passers-by, the place looks like one of many abandoned brick row houses that dot the Hill District landscape.

Playwright August Wilson, visiting his old neighborhood in 1999, started life as Freddy Kittel, residing in the now-decaying building at 1727 Bedford Ave. Rear in the Hill District. His award-winning plays were written while living in Seattle, but the subjects always take him back to his youth in Pittsburgh. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

But just follow the children; they know better.

They congregate here after school on their bikes or just to rest.

For them, "the store," in a crumbling edifice at 1727 Bedford Ave., is where they get their 25-cent juices and bags of chips.

How could they know that, decades ago, a little boy just about their age, and destined to do great things, would cross the same threshold at 1727 Bedford Ave.? It was Bella's Market then, and the little boy needed only to walk from his home at the back of the building to get to the store.

Freddy Kittel was young, but he was observant, and there was so much to observe.

The Hill was a vibrant community that buzzed with commerce. Black residents owned the hotels, the bars, the beauty shops. There were food markets and clothiers and jitney parlors. Crowds were attracted to its titillating night life.

It all began to crumble in the mid-'50s, when integration gave middle-class black families the opportunity to move away from the Hill. Many fled, and little was left except hope and a fragile sense of community.

A decade later, scores of homes were demolished to make way for the Civic Arena. The redevelopment displaced 8,000 Hill residents and broke the spirits of many who remained. Avenues such as Crawford and Wylie, once nicknamed "the crossroads of the world" and brimming with jazz and black professionals, were laid waste by drugs and despair.

A three-block stretch of Bedford Avenue remained largely unscathed. For many who lived there, it was like a village, where everybody looked out for each other.

It was and is a place where the Clancy sisters live seven doors from each other. It's a place where, when the kids grow up and move away, they move across the street.

It's the place where a little boy born Frederick August Kittel found the stories that helped him grow into Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.

Hill on the stage

August Wilson's birthplace is now unlivable and unmarked. Yet his plays about 20th-century black American life all carry traces of his life on the Hill to Broadway and beyond.

Darnell Harper, who owns the Bedford Avenue property where August Wilson spent his early years, says he would work with preservationists. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

The set of "Seven Guitars" was so similar to the family's mostly all-dirt back yard on Bedford that when Wilson's sister Linda Jean Kittel first saw the set in Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 1995, she burst into tears.

"I was home when I saw it," said Kittel. "I was among all those people, but I was home." She's seen the play 13 times.

Floyd Barton, a character in "Seven Guitars," recalls a woman who sat in a kitchen window and sang "Old Ship of Zion" and "The Lord's Prayer." The window-sitting and hymn-singing were inspired by her mother, Daisy Wilson-Kittel.

In another nod to Wilson's old neighborhood, Sarah Degree, a Catholic woman known as a Hill District saint because she evangelized and cared for neighborhood kids, is mentioned in the play. Doc Goldblum lived across the street from the Wilson-Kittels. His practice shows up in a piece of dialogue in "Seven Guitars."

Historical significance

A mom-and-pop market fronts the first level in the three-story brick building. The market doesn't even have a name. The back part of the house, where Wilson was born, is rotting and covered with weeds.

What happens to it now?

No one's sure, but the property's owner, Darnell Harper, wants to keep the building.

The property at 1727 Bedford Ave. is valued at $49,100, according to the Allegheny County Assessment Web site. Harper purchased it from an uncle in 1997 for $3,000.

While serving time in jail for drug possession, Harper had a dream that told him to buy the Bedford Avenue house, which was across the street from where he grew up.

He knew the home's value would increase because he noticed the community's older structures standing in the shadow of upscale changes. He didn't know it was Wilson's home and that the house, which was once a jitney station, hid a larger cultural significance.

Though integrated, the Hill District of the '30s and '40s was highly stratified, and it was not uncommon to find that wealthier white families were in living quarters that faced the streets and black families were in the rear or on alleyways, said Larry Glasco, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.

At 1727 Bedford Ave. Rear, where all seven of the Wilson-Kittel siblings were born and raised in the 1940s, five families were boarders at the property, said Kittel. Bella's Market, which was owned by a Jewish family, faced the street. The Wilson-Kittel family rented two rooms in the back of the house, which had no hot water. They used an outhouse.

The family bathed in the kitchen, using a large galvanized aluminum tub with water heated on the kitchen stove. A commode was installed in the basement in the mid-1940s, to be followed by a bathtub and hot water heater in 1953. The family lived in the property for 18 years.

In 1952, when an upstairs neighbor moved, a friend of Wilson's dad cut a hole in the wall and built stairs to the apartment's two rooms, doubling the family's living space. In 1958, the Wilson-Kittel family moved to Hazelwood.

By the mid-1970s, Daisy Wilson-Kittel had returned to Bedford Avenue, living in a home a few addresses away from where she raised her children.

Today, that home and a nearby plot of land are owned by her daughter, Freda Ellis, who said she wants to see her mother's home used to honor the family's history.

Harper said he has spoken with the family and understands the cultural value of the home at 1727 Bedford Ave. Rear. He is slowly shaping up the former condemned residence to keep it from further deterioration.

"I want to keep it," said Harper. "I'm not interested in selling."

Harper would like to honor Wilson's achievements and what they represent by breathing new life into 1727 Bedford. He has no specific plans but is open to working with foundations, nonprofits or other community people to pull tourists and conventioneers to the home.

Losses pile up

Many Hill residents and historians feel that the rush to redevelop the community means more buildings that connect the Hill to its storied past are endangered.

The nonprofit Hill District Community Development Corp. has hopes for the tattered New Granada Theatre, which it owns. The 1927 art deco building once held a movie theater and a stage where racially mixed crowds enjoyed Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway and big bands under a revolving crystal ball on the second floor. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

The buildings are threatened by neglect, ignorance or lack of investment. They are threatened because they tie into a history that is painful. And they are threatened because communities, interested in renewal and desperate for development dollars, rev up the bulldozers when private investors wave funding.

That's too bad, said Pitt professor Glasco, who occasionally conducts walking tours of the Hill.

He believes the lower section of Bedford Avenue is the one street in the Hill with the best-preserved set of houses. "And Wilson's home is the last best hope of showing what the Hill represented. It needs to be saved."

Sure, it would be costly to rehab the Wilson home, but it would cost more to lose it, say local residents.

Too many times, when the buildings go, their stories go, too, said Marimba Milliones, a member of the board of the Hill District Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization dedicated to reviving the community.

"We think the social significance of some places merits keeping them around. I'm sure there's some way to develop them."

Time is running out. A decade ago, Holland identified 300 black American sites deemed worthy of historic designation. Today, half of those properties are gone.

Most that remain are not even identified with public markers, which could focus attention on their historic significance.

When completed 10 years ago, the list drew little interest, and efforts to save the properties "died on the vine," said Holland. "I'd hate to see that happen to Wilson's home."

The fabric of the Hill really is in its homes and buildings, said Andrea Wright-Banks, executive director of the Hill Community Development Corp., but cultural and social hallmarks, such as the Ellis Hotel, are already falling to the wrecking ball.

Once a centerpiece of pride and a former hangout for jazz musicians in the Hill, the long-abandoned hotel was torn down in late September. Against the wishes of much of the community, the Urban Redevelopment Authority razed it, saying the structure was too unsound and the demolition process, already contracted out, was too far under way. The grass-roots Hill Consensus Group, made up of 35 community organizations, was formed when ground was broken on the first phase of the then newly developed Crawford Square in the early '90s.

The group wrote to the URA, not necessarily to preserve the Ellis, but to offer the community a chance to discuss options. They got there too late.

"We don't think all buildings need to stay," said Carl Redwood, a convener of the Hill Consensus Group. "But we are interested in having a broader discussion on what happens here before things are gone forever."

The story of what's happening in the Hill District is the story of every urban area in the country, said Zeph Parmenter, a historic preservation specialist with the state's Bureau of Preservation.

"The perception is that rehabilitating is more costly than building new," Parmenter said. "In most cases, it equals out."

Marking history

To be designated as historic, homes are usually associated with a person's productive life, the place where they crafted the work that made them famous, said Angelique Bamberg, historic preservation planner with the city.

"Typically, birthplaces and childhood homes, unless no other property is considered available, don't make the cut," she said.

But because Wilson's plays, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson," reflect so heavily on experiences in the Hill and because the house is located in that community, it has a strong cultural tie. That possibly qualifies it, she said.

In addition, the city's historic preservation ordinance provides the best chance for keeping the wrecking ball away from Wilson's former home.

While historical markers issued by the state are significant, and while making the national registry as a historic property can bring federal funding for upkeep and development, a local designation provides more protection.

Asked why the Wilson family has never applied for historic designation for the property, Kittel said, they had been misinformed about the process.

"I had received information that the owner of the property had to OK that," she said. "And nobody in the family owns that property."

After learning that anyone could apply, Kittel said she would discuss it with her sister Freda.

If Wilson's home were named a historic site by the city or if that Bedford Avenue neighborhood became one of Pittsburgh's historic districts, the Historic Review Commission would have to review and approve any exterior alterations to the home. Even while the nomination is being debated, it blocks the home from being demolished.

Just submitting an application for local historic designation protects a property. The nomination can be done by any resident or property owner in Pittsburgh who turns in a form with research suggesting why the structure should be designated.

After a public hearing on the issue, City Council votes yea or nay on the designation. The process takes about eight months.

If Wilson's home is saved and used to pay homage to his art, it would be the second such honor for a black American male writer.

The first was Paul Laurence Dunbar, who gained national prominence as a poet. His home, a handsome two-story brick structure in Dayton, Ohio, was bought in 1904 for his mother, Matilda. The Ohio Legislature declared it a state memorial in 1936, and it was opened to the public in 1938.

The community can have a say in saving a historic home, said LaVerne Sci, curator of the Dunbar Home. Without noted sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois and local citizens putting pressure on the Ohio legislature in the 1930s, the state's historical society would never have adopted the Dunbar Home.

Their support was crucial. It kept the property alive for nearly 70 years -- long enough for it to receive funding through the National Parks when the house became part of a national effort to recognize Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were friends of Dunbar's.

"The community needs a board, said Sci, "someone to push for preservation and to go to the politicians to make this happen."

Pittsburgh journalist and historian Frank Bolden agrees that an effort should be made to preserve Wilson's home, and he says African-Americans should be the ones to do it.

"You have to have people who are interested in this kind of thing, and I don't think the white people are interested in our progress and our positive outlook on things," Bolden said.

He recommends that those wishing to keep the playwright's childhood home intact get the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission involved. That way, he said, efforts are not subject to changes in the city's political climate.

Homegrown tribute

Some on the Hill can still recall Wilson, as a young man sporting a beard and olive Army jacket, walking around with a briefcase full of papers.

"I thought he was going to law school," said Jerry Clancy, who grew up across the street from the Wilson family. A decade younger than the playwright, Clancy was closer to Wilson's brother, Richard. But he remembers the pensive young Freddy, now known as August, who, even then, stood out from the crowd.

Clancy, visiting his mother, who still lives in that Bedford Avenue house across from Wilson's childhood home, said he's in favor of preserving the home.

"Sure, Wilson's like an athlete. He's famous," Clancy said. "Anything that would show where he came from would be good."

Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410. Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660.

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