Return to glory
Hill District determined to regain lost greatness
Sunday, April 11, 1999
Daily, the Hill District reinvents itself as a city neighborhood like no other, so bustling are its environs, so stark are its contrasts.
Near the corner of Centre Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street, 40 men are hanging out, most waiting for the dope man.
Down the street, a building is under consideration as the site of a planned liaison center where addicts, the unemployed and the homeless can connect easily with the agencies they need.
In a dilapidated house not far away, a young, single mother struggles to find enough food to feed her hungry children.
Nearby, where vacant lots and boarded houses once stood, construction workers mold the latest in a series of new residential developments of attractive townhouses and single-family homes for people of wide-ranging economic means.
A few blocks away, developers visit a vacant lot to see if it's a good fit for their planned retail/office building.
And later, inside the latest incarnation of the historic Crawford Grill, a couple soaks up cool jazz, hoping for the rebirth of the nightspots and entertainment that once made the neighborhood nationally known.
Indeed, there is poverty, blight, drug addiction and unemployment in the Hill, but they certainly don't define it. Much more is happening in this community of unparalleled activity.
These days in the Hill, the construction of homes and buildings, the rebuilding of lives, the recognition of rich history are taking head-on the blight of decades, the despair of the disenfranchised, the wounds of the past.
Those societal ills were precipitated in the late 1950s by urban renewal, which wiped out much of the once-vibrant Lower Hill. And they were exacerbated by the riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 31 years ago, which wiped out much of what was left.
Plans to address the problems never got past rhetoric because of a disconnect between the powers-that-were and the neighborhood-that-was. But the current development plan, a result of a process begun in the late 1980s, is working because it has grown from the grass roots and not the other way around.
This time, unlike in the past, the community is planning its future instead of having it planned for them.
Granted, this city neighborhood - one that is like no other for reasons both good and bad - has many more miles of uncharted territory to traverse. Drug addiction, education, jobs, image - all must be effectively addressed if long-lasting success is to occur.
Still, the Hill is off to a profoundly good start. The unqualified success of the developments has made laughable the dire predictions of those who mistakenly saw a community crumbling beyond repair instead of a neighborhood ripe for rebuilding. In fact, it is estimated that by next year $300 million will have been invested in the community's revitalization.
Moreover, the Hill's streets are energized by this new tension between hope and despair. There's a palpable feeling that this journey, too long delayed, is finally a trip worth taking.
It is fitting, therefore, that later this month the community will gather at Crawford Street and Centre Avenue, the revered intersection known as Freedom Corner.
There, in the 1960s, a line was defiantly drawn in the ground to block further destruction of the neighborhood.
There, on April 25, the community will break that ground for a memorial to past civil rights efforts, as a gateway to a new and revitalized Hill District and as a staging area for future human rights events.
By memorializing its glorious past, by learning the lessons of its alternately rich and troubled history, by confronting the problems remaining in its promising present, the Hill District is forging a future where hope firmly resides.
History and variety
In the nearly 160 years since Thomas Mellon developed the city's first planned residential community from farmland on the hills to the city's east, the Hill District has had more socio-economic permutations than any other neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
Initially it was the home of the well off who literally wanted to rise above the grit and grime of the urban center.
Toward the end of the 19th century, it became the home of immigrants, mainly Jews from Central and Eastern Europe and Italians, but also Lebanese, Greeks, Syrians, Armenians and Slovaks.
By the 1950s, a large influx of poor, unskilled black people had migrated from Southern states to the Hill District, lured by the hope of jobs in the nearby steel mills and on the railroads. The Hill became a richly diverse enclave primarily populated by blacks, Italians and Jews, with all the wonderful sights, smells, sounds and activities such a melding of cultures can create.
But with so many people moving in, something had to give. The area became crowded; the housing and building stock deteriorated. Many middle-class families - primarily whites but also blacks - who had the means moved farther away from Downtown, to larger, better homes in the less crowded and more attractive neighborhoods in the suburbs.
In addition, bigotry had confined black people to certain parts of the region, including the inner city. That made the Hill District a predominantly black community by the early 1960s, with black people making up 95 percent of its population - a figure that remains constant to this day.
Forty men and women hang out on Centre Avenue near the door of the crowded Hurricane Lounge, eagerly awaiting the music to begin on this night in the early 1950s.
Elsewhere on the street that seems to be floating away from a brooding Downtown, people walk two, three, four abreast. They are smiling, laughing, talking. Some head for the Savoy Ballroom inside the massive New Granada Theatre, others for smaller haunts.
The scenes are similar elsewhere in this neighborhood christened "Little Harlem," a compliment to both nationally known centers of black entertainment, culture and night life.
One street up from Centre, on Wylie, other sharply dressed men and women seem to glide along the sidewalks on their way to the Crawford Grill Concert Hall and Lounge or the Musicians Club or any of a dozen other nightclubs, bars and private clubs.
Tonight, these people - mostly blacks but also many whites, young and old, white collar and blue collar - have come to the hottest spot between New York and Chicago to soak up cool jazz, to enjoy delicious food, to share ideas and laughter.
In sum, they are here to embrace life.
The place to go
The Hill District became a creative hothouse where the fruits of black culture could thrive, particularly from the 1930s through much of the 1950s.
If you weren't in New York or Chicago-and even if you were-the Hill was the place to be.
Want great jazz?
Give a listen to Charlie Mingus, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, Stanley Turrentine. They all played the Hill.
In the '30s, you couldn't do any better than visiting Greenlee Field to see the Pittsburgh Crawfords, which in 1935 won the Negro National League championship with five future Hall of Famers - Josh Gibson, known as "the black Babe Ruth," Satchel Paige, James "Cool Papa" Bell, Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson.
How about neighborhood legends?
Numbers barons Gus Greenlee, founder of the Crawford Grill, and Woogie Harris, owner of the Crystal Barber Shop, became heroes because they were soft touches in lending helping hands - in cash - to their fellow Hill District residents. Further deepening Greenlee's legend is that he built the Pittsburgh Crawfords, named for his bar/restaurant, and Greenlee Field, where they played.
Want to be informed from a black perspective?
With 14 regional editions and a national circulation of 400,000, the Pittsburgh Courier was the country's most influential black weekly newspaper. Moreover, one of its photographers, Teenie Harris, earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the country's most entrancing chroniclers of black life, snapping more than 80,000 photos of people and places in the Hill.
Want great food, great service, great goods?
In the bustling Centre Avenue and Wylie Avenue commercial districts, you could find everything from Nesbitt's Pie Shop - "You have to try the sweet potato pie" - to Goode's Drug Store, to Wholey's and Benkovitz's seafood markets, to numerous restaurants, jewelers, tailors, fruit stands, meat markets, mom and pop grocery stores, barbershops, lawyers, physicians, dentists, hotels and numbers joints.
With de facto segregation hereabouts, the Hill was a self-sustaining city unto itself.
The sum of all that vitality, that vibrancy, was a joie de vivre that even whites responded to, coming by the carloads into the Hill to experience it.
"[People] were having fun," recalls Frank Bolden, 86, former Hill District resident and former city editor of the Pittsburgh Courier. "[Black people] couldn't have fun in Beechview; you couldn't have fun in Forest Hills. If you couldn't have it [in the Hill], where else were you going to have it?
"And the white people would come over here to hear good jazz. You and your girlfriend could meet me and my girlfriend at the Hurricane night after night, but the following week you couldn't invite us Downtown. But we were still friends.
"My brother and his friends came in from Washington, Pa., every Saturday night, six or seven carloads just to have fun on Wylie Avenue. People would be three or four abreast, everyone having fun."
But most of the fun was obliterated with the first crash of the urban renewal wrecking ball in 1956.
Within two years, the Lower Hill and much of the neighborhood's landmarks ceased to exist. And with its demise, much of the remaining Hill died, too, as abandoned shops, deteriorating homes and shattered lives sapped the soul of the neighborhood.
Neighborhood in ruins
A "cultural Acropolis" on the Hill.
That was the thinking behind a proposal for a "Center for the Arts" to be conveniently situated in the neighborhood. The Hill was much desired land, rising majestically as it does above Downtown. Its steep slopes were natural buffers for its northern and southern boundaries, and it had man-made barriers along four major arteries: Fifth and Forbes avenues, Bigelow Boulevard and the Boulevard of the Allies.
The cultural center was planned as part of the city's first Renaissance, a massive post-World War II program of Downtown reconstruction and flood and smoke control. It was an effort to rid Pittsburgh of its "Smoky City" image.
In addition to an arena-auditorium, known then as the "Pittsburgh Center," the Center for the Arts was also to include a combination opera house and symphony hall, arenas, theaters, art museum, luxury apartments, hotels and offices.
On paper from the mid-1940s to the 1960s, the plan was seen as a grand scheme to make Pittsburgh truly a big-league city.
In reality, the proposal was grim and lacking in forethought and social conscience. For in order to clear land for a convenient cultural center for the city's well-heeled, the city displaced thousands of predominantly poor and predominantly black people from the previously residential Lower Hill.
Still, there was little community opposition initially. Few disputed that homes and buildings in the Lower Hill were in such poor condition that they needed to be torn down. And official pronouncements stressed that new low-cost housing would be built, that there would be adequate relocation assistance and that everyone would benefit from the economic revitalization.
The promises generally were believed. But that's not to say there was no opposition.
"Urban Renewal Means Negro Removal," was the headline Bolden wrote at the time for a Pittsburgh Courier story on the plan.
"People were not empowered," recalled city Councilman Sala Udin, a lifelong Hill District resident. "They didn't have representatives in government. There was not a large hue and cry ... but there was some hue and cry. They just didn't have the muscle."
Armed with more than $15 million from the 1949 federal Housing Act and additional state funds, the Urban Redevelopment Authority submitted the final Lower Hill Redevelopment Plan to City Council in 1955. Slated for clearing were about 80 city blocks - 100 acres - stretching from Tunnel Street at its lowest point to Crawford Street, Bigelow Boulevard and Fifth Avenue.
One year later, wholesale relocation of residents began. Between April 1956 and the 1961 dedication of the plan's centerpiece, the $22-million Civic Arena, a total of 8,000 residents - one-fifth of the Hill's population at the time - were relocated. Included were 1,551 families, 458 individuals and 416 businesses, according to newspaper reports at the time.
That didn't have to be, critics then and now assert.
"[They could have chosen] to preserve places of architectural significance and to rebuild homes on the site - to do true redevelopment," Udin said. "That was not their choice. Their choice was the clearing of the land and the dispersal of the people to the four winds, to public housing."
In essence, the heart had been torn out of the community. Longtime residents were ripped from the only neighborhood they had known, one they loved, and were relocated, primarily to East Liberty, the North Side and Homewood.
The original Crawford Grill, Hurricane Lounge, Musicians Club, and numerous other thriving nightspots, restaurants and businesses fell victim to the wrecking ball.
Once contiguous with Downtown, the Hill now was literally and symbolically isolated from it.
In addition, plans were progressing for the cultural center, to be located to the east of the Civic Arena. It soon became clear, though, that backers of the proposal wanted more land cleared as a "buffer" between the center and what they considered slums.
Indeed, some felt at the time that only by clearing the entire Hill would successful redevelopment be achieved.
With so many homes wiped out, overcrowding of the remaining Hill increased. Fear of further encroachment of urban renewal kept property owners from maintaining their buildings. With the destruction of so many businesses and relocation of so many people, much of the remaining commercial corridor on Centre Avenue likewise eroded.
The Middle and Upper Hill had survived, but without the Lower Hill, it was slowly dying. Some likened it to a nonsurgical amputation that threatens the rest of the body.
In 1963, the Citizens Committee for Hill District Renewal, an umbrella group representing 40 organizations, was formed to oppose the "top-down" planning process - public officials deciding what's good for a neighborhood - that had so critically wounded the Hill. The group opposed the cultural center, saying it would further isolate the Hill from Downtown. Instead, it proposed new apartment buildings and rehabilitating much of the housing already there.
In essence, plans for the cultural center died with Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. His assassination touched off three days of rioting which subsequently left center backers scrambling to find a "safer" location.
The Howard Heinz Endowment purchased the Penn Theater, Downtown, and renamed it Heinz Hall. As the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, it became the anchor for what ultimately became the Downtown Cultural District- in essence, the stepchild of the plan that had shattered the Hill.
And on the Lower Hill site that had been proposed for the Center for the Arts, a parking lot for the Civic Arena was built.
'Not another inch'
For most in the region, the Civic Arena development came to be known as the place for hockey and concerts. For former and current Hill District residents, it remains a bitter symbol of urban renewal without regard to social needs.
"[Hill residents] didn't like the idea of putting them out to make a place for white people to play," Bolden said. "The Civic Arena means nothing to the Hill. You don't hear anybody in the Crawford Grill raving about going to see the Penguins play. They couldn't care less about going to see the Penguins play."
Enough was enough, Hill residents firmly declared after the riots. At Crawford Street and Centre Avenue, at the point where the clearing had stopped, but likely only temporarily, they made their stand: There would be no more sacrifice of their neighborhood for commercial development.
Frankie Pace, owner of Pace's Record Shop, and activist Jim McCoy rented a billboard and declared their battle cry: "Not another inch."
"Powerless people had been taken advantage of," Udin said. "They struggled from their knees to their feet and said, 'No further.' "
The bitterness over broken promises and the distrust of government redevelopment programs lasted for three decades. Only when black people felt that their views, their choices, their plans for their community were being heard did any significant redevelopment move forward in the early 1990s.
Since then, there's been no looking back - except to remember, to respect the past.
Near the corner of Centre Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street, 40 men are hanging out, most waiting for the dope man.
But at the same time, only blocks away, many more men and women walk the newly poured sidewalks of new housing developments, most heading Downtown to work.
As they leave the development of manicured lawns and pass the Civic Arena parking lot, ghostly echoes can be heard
The sounds: Sarah Vaughn singing, Josh Gibson swinging, Centre Avenue cash registers ringing.
Sweet sounds all.