Pittsburgh's Hill District undergoing gentrification

Residential shift is playing out in historic black enclaves

September 08, 2002|By Lynette Clemetson | Lynette Clemetson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PITTSBURGH - Most people look puzzled when Steven Radney talks about moving from a quiet town south of Pittsburgh into the Hill District, one of the poorest, most beleaguered areas of the city. When they ask gingerly what he hopes to gain from the move, Radney answers, "An experience."

"When I look around here, I don't see it as it is," said Radney, a 29-year-old designer and engineer standing in front of an abandoned brick rowhouse that he hopes to renovate. "I see it as it could be, because I know what it was."

What it was one of the nation's most thriving predominantly black areas, and Radney is one of a growing group of middle-class blacks returning to the area as part of a slow-brewing residential shift that some researchers call black gentrification. It is a phenomenon playing out in various ways in other historic black enclaves around the country, like Harlem and parts of Washington and Chicago.

Known to residents as simply The Hill, the 1.4-square-mile cluster of neighborhoods perched here above downtown Pittsburgh was home to jazz greats like Stanley Turrentine and Art Blakey and writers like August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who has set many of his plays in the area.

`The crossroads'

The Hill housed The Pittsburgh Courier, once the nation's most influential black weekly newspaper. It was home base for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Negro National League baseball team that fielded Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and James "Cool Papa" Bell. Referring to The Hill's heyday between 1930 and 1950, the Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay called the district "the crossroads of the world."

But political and social change pitched The Hill into a downward spiral. Hopping joints where legends like Duke Ellington jammed until dawn deteriorated into crumbling shells. Corners that hummed with commerce descended to the drone of drug addicts and dealers. That more recent image of The Hill was said to inspire Stephen Bochco when he created the police drama Hill Street Blues in the 1980s.

Now black professionals like Radney, who grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, are part of a push to recapture some of The Hill's colorful past. More than 500 new residents have come into the neighborhood in the past five years: retirees, new families, corporate employees, teachers, artists, athletes - the majority of them black.

"We've diluted our strength moving to far-out places," said Justin Laing, 32, a program director at a nonprofit organization, who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and who recently bought a house in The Hill with his wife, Bonnie, and two children. "I figure, we're black, we might as well face it and try to rebuild our communities from a position of strength."

Whites and other ethnic groups are also looking at the area. And black residents say they welcome the diversity. But for many blacks, who feel they have borne the burden of integration - moving into white neighborhoods only to have whites leave - rebuilding The Hill on their own terms has special significance.

"This is about rewriting the notion of progress and success, of race and space," said Monique Taylor, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, who recently completed a book on black gentrification in Harlem. "It is a statement that some of our ideas about how to make racial progress are stagnant."

The process, if hopeful, is far from easy. There are concerns that new development will homogenize the character of the district and squeeze out the poor. Class differences play out daily. Poorer residents complain about stuck-up newcomers. Middle-class residents worry about sending their kids to area schools.

But the cross-section of residents is reminiscent of the district at its creative and intellectual height. A critical stopping point in the early 1900s for migrants in search of work on the railroads and in coal and steel mills, The Hill was, at the turn of the last century, a rich ethnic stew of blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians, Lebanese, Syrians and other groups. By 1930, fueled by the rush of black Southern migrants hungry for opportunity in the North, the neighborhood had become predominantly black.

Black doctors, lawyers and business owners gathered in prestigious social associations and set up social service agencies to assist the poor. People from all classes met at neighborhood hot spots. There were haircuts and gossip at Woogie's Crystal Barbershop, $1.25 steak dinners at the Crawford Grill, sweet potato pie at Nesbitt's Pie Shop, late-night jazz at the Savoy Ballroom and weekly salvation at dozens of churches.

The atmosphere was chronicled in black and white by Charles "Teenie" Harris, The Courier's renowned photographer who shot more than 80,000 pictures of life in the district.

`It was all we had'

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