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Keeping the faith

Residents working hard to make most of community's momentum

Wednesday, April 14, 1999

A gentle wave of soul-stirring gospel music washes over the elevator passengers as soon as the doors slide open.

 
  Ruth Lewis, 89 , who lives on Centre Avenue in the Hill, rarely misses Sunday services at Ebenezer Baptist church, a fixture in the community. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette) More photos

The music is a wonderful welcome to Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill District, where love of God and fellow man aren't just preached but are visibly practiced - joyfully at that.

The smartly dressed, smiling congregation claps and sways to the singing of a 15-member choir clothed in red and white robes and accompanied by an organ, keyboard and drums.

Hallelujah, glory, glory
He's my rock.

To the right of the choir, a woman signs for the hearing impaired, her hands signaling the words, her swaying body communicating its captivating power.

As the music subsides, the Rev. Dr. J. Van Alfred Winsett - affectionately known to this congregation as "Dr. J" - asks in his deep, passionate voice that the 175 people in attendance "turn to the person to your left and your right, look them in the eye, shake their hand and tell them."

"You're in the right place at the right time!" the congregation says in unison.

The truth of the sentiment sinks in for a visitor when a woman to his left turns to him, grasps his hand, looks him deep in the eyes and offers the gracious, heartfelt welcome.

Now, in a beautiful, soaring alto, a choir member sings:

"Call on Him, any place, any time
"I know, Jesus, He'll be right there."

And then a call and response between the soloist and the choir:

"In the morning...
"You can call him...
"In the evening..."
"You can call him"

The congregation moves to the music. They clap. They tap their feet. Some stand. Some raise their arms in the air. It is as impossible not to move to the music as it is not to be moved by its exuberant expression of faith.

The music continues but subsides a bit as Mary Young takes the microphone and welcomes radio stations WGBN (Pittsburgh), WDIG (Steubenville) and WJCM (Toledo, Ohio) to their weekly broadcast "from Ebenezer Church in the Hill District."

The music rises, the choir's voices soar as they conclude the song.

Now, swaying slower, the choir begins a new song:

"Oh, though I'm in chains
Angels in heaven
Sign my name."

It is a beautiful song of struggle, of dignity, of faith.

On this day, among such deep-feeling people, one is moved to think of slaves singing from the depths of their souls of a better afterlife than the hell they were forced to endure on earth.

On this Sunday, when their progeny sing so emotionally of real and symbolic chains of human suffering that remain - and of the promised eternal reward - it is clear why the church has long been the bedrock of black life and struggle.

Staying in the Hill

Winsett sits in his church office, hands folded on his desk, his eyes sparkling behind gold-rimmed glasses. He says he used to take out-of-town friends to Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair to show them comfortable homes and enticing neighborhoods.

No more.

"Now I take them right to the Hill," said the ebullient pastor. "I never thought I'd live to see the day there would be the beautiful homes in the Hill that we have now, because it had been vacant for so long."

There's a joy flavoring Winsett's words that is unmistakable and understandable. After all, he first came to the Hill just after the riots in April 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Those riots only heightened the decline of the neighborhood begun a decade earlier when urban renewal wiped out the once vibrant Lower Hill and displaced 8,000 people, most of them black.

Now, in the same areas where burned buildings and vacant lots were community scars, there are new developments with homes and townhouses for rent, purchase and subsidy, creating an invigorating diversity.

"People are coming back to the Hill, which is prime property," Winsett says.

Five years ago, 78 percent of Ebenezer's congregation lived outside the Hill. It's an indication of how many people were displaced and, significantly, just how strong a bond this neighborhood creates, drawing people back for fellowship, if not for residence. Now, the percentage of members living elsewhere has dropped to 68 percent, and Winsett expects it to keep dropping as more former residents return to the Hill, to their roots.

"There is a sense of awe about the Hill District," Winsett says. "Before, when I would drive into the Hill and would see vacant lots and boarded-up buildings, it was a silent reminder of what used to be, whereas now I have a sense of pride.

"In 10 years, you won't know the Hill. In 20 years you really won't know it," he says with as much passion as in his moving sermons.

'It's coming back'

Mary Walters has seen a lot in the 40 years she's lived in the Hill. She likes what she's seeing now.

"It's coming back, it's coming back to life. People who have moved out now want to come back this way," she says excitedly before the service at Ebenezer.

"We want it to be a melting pot where everyone can live together.

You hear people say 'I wouldn't like the Hill,' but ... you have to come in and see it.

"The Hill District is the place to be for me. I love the Hill."

The singing activist

Tim Stevens is at the microphone, but tonight he's not addressing issues as the president of the Pittsburgh Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Tonight, he is the singer - backed by a guitar and drums - in the trio "The Tim Stevens Project" appearing at the Crawford Grill.

Among regulars, the Wylie Avenue restaurant/club is often referred to as Crawford II because the original club, where international jazz greats had graced the stage, was torn down along with other Hill District businesses and homes during urban renewal in the late '50s.

The scene here is much as it was in the old club. Men in sport coats and women in suits and dresses chat softly and smile constantly, their faces illuminated by lighting as soft and smooth as the jazz being played.

Stevens' trio is set up between a front room, where booths, a bar, a small library and African folk art are located, and a back room, where the grill's legendary meals are served and a spinning silver ball plays tricks with the lighting.

The crowd of about 85 people is predominantly black, but whites are made to feel welcome by both the clientele and the efficient waitresses in white starched shirts, black bow ties and black pants.

Stevens, wearing a multicolored shirt and black pants, holds a wireless microphone as he strolls the floor, singing "The Two of Us" to the upbeat crowd, often stopping at tables to sing directly to patrons. There's an understated excitement in the air, a happiness that's infectious.

The crowd on this night includes Frank Bolden, 86, the former city editor of the Pittsburgh Courier when it was the country's most influential black weekly newspaper, and city Councilman Sala Udin.

Manager Mark Allen, dapper in a blue blazer, white shirt and earring, moves through the crowd, making certain everyone is doing fine.

They are.

In a nearby booth, Dennis Ross and Patty Lawson drink in the ambiance. They invite some newcomers to the grill to share their booth and a chat.

They are an attractive, interesting and interested couple. They are the kind of people who make sure visitors feel comfortable in a new setting, the kind of people you meet in the Crawford Grill just by turning to your left or your right.

Lawson, 40, of Oakdale, is an international customer service representative for USAirways. Ross, 33, of the Central North Side, works for the county's Economic Development Department.

She's been coming to the grill for 20 years for the good music and great clientele. Now, she says, the drive there is pleasing to the eye.

"I like what's happening now with Crawford Square. It's beautiful," she says.

Ross, who for years has been coming to the Hill to play basketball, says he foresees a great future for the Hill. Nearby, a man holds a small child, rubs his head and smiles.

The couple shares some laughs and some stories with their new friends. Too soon for everyone, it's time to go. Lawson and Ross leave. Their effect lingers.

Enthusiasm spreads

Lew Montgomery took over ownership of the Crawford Grill - and all of its storied history - at the beginning of the year. He hopes to be part of a little history himself.

"The reason I took over here was because I kept hearing about the rebirth of the Hill. I see that rebirth," Montgomery says, shifting his body a little to let a waitress slide by. "Anybody who comes through can see it. There are new homes, new [buildings] and new attitudes of people.

"Better things are happening. Housing is improving; they're tearing down the slums; the police force is acting on our behalf. Under Sala Udin's direction, we're definitely trying to move [drugs] out of the Hill District completely."

Allen, the manager, says the Crawford Grill has always maintained a happy atmosphere. But now, he adds, "you look at the neighborhood and the people are happy. The Hill District is starting to look appropriate."

Feeling welcome

Ron and Andrea Freeborough live in Mt. Lebanon and have faith in the Hill - and not just because they belong to St. Benedict the Moor Church there.

The Freeboroughs also socialize in the Hill, having become regulars at the Crawford Grill. In their adopted neighborhood, they've found a friendliness, graciousness, joy and depth that puts the lie to stereotypes about predominantly black communities.

"We became so enamored of the people and their love that it kind of made us want to stay within that group, in a sense," says Freeborough, explaining how the couple began going to the grill. "It's been very positive from the first time we went there.

"As soon as we walked in, it was not unlike what we had experienced at church, where they opened their arms to you. They didn't just shake your hand but hugged you. It seemed like they almost appreciated us being there, more so because we are white."

The draw is not just the music, he says.

"There's intelligent conversation and people are friendly and come over to you to make you feel welcome."

Freeborough, president of Mariani & Richards, a masonry restoration firm on Route 88, said that over the past four years, he's seen an influx of more whites at the grill "but still there are not that many. Many times we were the only two white people there, but we didn't think anything of it. It didn't even dawn on us."

But he's aware that walls unfortunately remain.

"Our friends, people who we've gone out with socially to other places, won't go with us there. Most people don't have a clue what's going on. I just think too many people typically stereotype the area and blacks in general."

The people in the Hill are great, he says, and so too are the new developments there.

"Crawford Square is just a lovely place. If I was looking to move, I would live there in a minute."

'Never give up'

While taking a tour of the Hill earlier this year, city Councilman Sala Udin became intrigued with a mural painted on the side of the Gold Coast Market at 2035 Bedford Ave. The mural depicts a black man fighting a monster. "Never give up" is written underneath.

Inside the store, owner Albert Anin smiles as he meets Udin, but he becomes a little shy when asked about the artist who painted the mural. The man, he indicates, has become a junkie.

"You can find him up on Centre Avenue at Kirkpatrick," Anin says, referring to the corner notorious for heroin dealing. "He's a talented brother but he doesn't want to do anything. It's a shame."

"If we cleaned up Centre Avenue, would you be interested in locating there?" Udin asks.

"I'd rather be there," Anin responds.

As the men chat, a steady stream of customers come in and out of the comfortable shop. Each heartily greets Udin.

Anin has run the store for five years, moving there when he lost a lease on the North Side. He's been so successful he opened Gold Coast No. 2 further down Bedford Avenue.

"I was told I wasn't going to survive in the Hill. I proved them wrong," the Ghana native says proudly.

"We want to use the businesses that are already here," says Udin, explaining the commercial development plan for Centre. "We want to give them the first opportunity."

"Anything I can do to help, just let me know. It's going to get better. You have to keep hope alive," says Anin, who moved to the new, attractive Crawford Square housing development even before opening the Gold Coast store.

"I love everything here. One thing I can say, the seven years I've lived there I haven't seen anything that is not working. Everything they've tried is pretty good."

It's clean-up time

Michael Nichols has a thankless job, but you'd never know it by the relish with which the city Public Works employee twice weekly sweeps up cans, bottles, bags and sometimes syringes from sidewalks and streets in the Hill's more blighted sections.

"Some people say it's a waste of [my] time, but I don't. I think it helps the community. People want to see something clean. They're tired of living in dirt," he says as he pushes a wheeled garbage can along Centre Avenue near Elmore.

Nichols is an immediately likable man whose volunteerism with children - they know him as "Mr. Mike" - made him a finalist last year for the Community Champions/Jefferson Award and has earned him other private and public honors.

He smiles as much as some people blink. Ask him about what's happening in the Hill and, even though it seems impossible, his smile widens even more.

"There's a lot of hope," he says, waving as car horns beep at him. "There is a future to the Hill. It's all about development. People put the Hill down, but there are so many good people here who have worked all their lives to have something.

"We have to build a future for the kids. Right now, people see the negative. But this neighborhood has a lot of riches. Look at Crawford Square, the shopping center, the new Shop 'n Save that's going to be built. A lot of things are happening to the Hill."

He stops, and briskly sweeps litter into a pile. He looks over his shoulder at the intersection of Centre and Kirpatrick.

"Centre and Kirkpatrick is not the reality [of the Hill]. What's being done to the Hill is making it better." he says "The Hill is rebuilding. People have a lot of hope at this time. Things are progressing in the right direction."

It's time for a break, but Nichols isn't finished working. He walks to Weil Technology Institute to read as a volunteer for elementary pupils there.

As he walks down a hallway, one student after another brightens and says, "Hi, Mr. Mike." Principal Bernard Taylor smiles appreciatively.

"There are so many good things going on [in the Hill]," Taylor says. "There is a sense of renewal, a sense of optimism. The Hill is really making a comeback.

"There are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about the environment and about people coming from public housing - that there is a lot of dysfunction - and that's not the case."

Mr. Mike walks into a classroom and greets Lori Carmody-Lane's first-grade class: "Good morning, boys and girls." Twenty-six little voices respond in unison, "Good morning!"

Mr. Mike is animated as he reads "Mama Don't Allow." The students sit in rapt attention.

Carmody-Lane says she's seen great things happening in the two years she's been teaching in the Hill.

"I'm seeing a change with the children, with the attitude in school," Carmody-Lane says. "There are a lot more positive influences. Our expectations are high - we expect a lot from them and we're getting it."

She remembers hearing snide comments that planting done at the school last year wouldn't last. But it has, and beautifully at that, she says proudly.

"You always hear negative comments about the Hill. Just because it's the Hill District doesn't mean it can't be like Shadyside."

The Brighton Heights resident noted that anyone working at the school "is here because they want to be." The Hill, she said, is a tarnished jewel being polished to its former sparkle.

"It's coming back around. It's going to go full circle. That's going to disappoint a lot of people who don't want the Hill to prosper and be successful," she says.

Mr. Mike has finished. He tells the appreciative children to "look, listen, learn." They repeat it like a mantra. They applaud. They hug him.

Mr. Mike leaves the school and again becomes Michael Nichols as he pushes the tools of his trade past a billboard that quotes Henry David Thoreau.

"It is never too late to give up your prejudices," it says.

For anyone who doubts the Hill, its people, the rebirth of both, the message should be required reading.

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