PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Take a stroll through the Hill District, particularly down Wylie Avenue, and you’ll notice the bright brushstrokes of murals depicting historical tales juxtaposed against doomed buildings with peeling paint.
Both scenes offer perspective on black monuments that have been lost to time and raise questions about what once was, questions that local historian Samuel Black has the answers to.
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“There’s so much history that’s happened here, so much culture that’s existed and continues to exist here,” said Black, director of the African-American program at the Senator John Heinz Center for History.
KDKA-TV spoke with him outside the former Crawford Grill #2, a once thumping jazz club that has attracted international sensations like Miles Davis and showcased a variety of local talent.
“I argue that for a city of its size, it had the most significant jazz alumni…everything from ragtime to contemporary jazz,” Black said.
But the Hill District has always been more than just a center of entertainment.
People of over 25 different nationalities from Europe and the Middle East inhabited this house over the years before it became a predominantly black neighborhood, a reasonably self-contained neighborhood in the early 20th century, giving residents very few reasons to leave the Hill.
“Stores, doctor’s offices, pharmacies, jazz clubs and restaurants,” Black said.
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But in the 1960s they left, but not because they wanted to.
More than 8,000 people were evicted from Lower Hill for the development of the old Civic Arena, moving them up the hill and to other neighborhoods like Homewood and East Liberty. It disrupted the lives and shattered the livelihoods of black business owners, many of whom never recovered.
“You have to realize there was real estate and infrastructure discrimination against African Americans,” Black said.
Other institutions and churches like Bethel AME, the oldest black church in Pittsburgh, also suffered losses during this time due to the change of location. All of this, later coupled with the collapse of the steel industry, caused great financial ruin to this once thriving black neighborhood.
“It followed the same old pattern, which was, we have this growing black community, break half of it and take the rest for gold. And that’s what happened,” Black said.
But today, fences and tarps are showing signs of growth. An example is New Granada Square along Center Avenue. It is a $2 million mixed-use redevelopment project by the Hill CDC, promoting affordable homeownership and providing artist apartments, cultural and performance spaces, commercial spaces, retail, restaurant and office.
And while the future looks bright for the Hill District, Black tasks everyone with continuing to tell the Hill’s story so that the work of those who have gone before us can never be lost.
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“Teaching history makes you realize that you’re part of something bigger than yourself and there’s a real responsibility that comes with taking care of that,” Black said.