Soft words, big impact— echos from the Hill

Zach Petroff | Opinions Editor | Community leader turned tour guide Terry Baltimore (right) leads a group from Duquesne, including Assistant professor of law Maryann Herman (pictured) on a tour of the historical Hill District.

Zach Petroff | Opinions Editor

Who decides what happens to the neighborhood?

That is the question tour guide Terri Baltimore posed to Duquesne attendees at the beginning of a tour of the historic Hill District. Baltimore, with her soft spoken words, managed to make an impact with her blended stories of the past and hope for the future for the once thriving culture district.

On Thursday, a group of nearly 20 Duquesne staff and students went on a bus-guided tour around the Hill District neighborhood. The two-hour trip allowed participants to see a variety of historical landmarks, repurposed buildings and plans for further development.

Assistant professor of law, Maryann Herman, said she enjoyed the way the tour was able to blend the current Hill District with its storied past.

“I think it’s really important for the Duquesne community to be familiar with and understand everything that’s going on in the great community,” Herman said, “especially considering the history of the Hill District.”

Claude McKay, a Harlem Renaissance poet, referred to the Hill District as the “crossroads of the world,” during the first half of the 20th century based on the area’s contribution to music, literature and arts. A diverse area with a rich multicultural presence, the Hill District has had a rich history of and was home to one of Pittsburgh’s first and most dominant Black districts.

In the late 1950s, more than 8,000 people were pushed out of the lower Hill through eminent domain for the development of the old Civic Arena, moving them up the Hill and to other neighborhoods like Homewood and East Liberty.

Since then, the Hill District has seen rapid depopulation. Between 1950 and 1990, the Hill lost 71% of its residents, according to the Pittsburgh Census Tract.

Research manager for Duquesne’s Center for Integrative Health, Lisa Ripper, said one of the “most jarring” moments of the tour occurred when the group gathered across the street from Freedom Corner on Crawford Street.

“Ms. Terri held up a picture that depicted what the view from where we were on Center Avenue looked like before the government decided to redevelop [the] Lower Hill in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Ripper said.

For Ripper, it was interesting to see the drastic change from hundreds of “bustling” residential buildings into the paved lot that became the Civics Arena.

The tour included stops at several historically significant sites such as August Wilson Park, Crawford Grill and August Wilson Center, the childhood home of the Pittsburgh playwright.

“[The August Wilson House] has become this amazing opportunity for people to come and celebrate the house,” Baltimore said. “It’s a celebration of August Wilson and also celebrates the community that August Wilson has put on his shoulders and taken all around the world.”

After stopping at the Crawford Grill, a historical landmark which once hosted an impressive gathering of jazz musicians from all over the country, the tour welcomed surprise guest Kenny Blake. The world-renown jazz saxophonist and Pittsburgh native serenaded the crowd with an intimate performance from his alto saxophone.

Assistant professor at the school of music, Nicole Vilkner, said she appreciated the legacy jazz has in the Hill District, especially as an active member in a team of students and community partners creating an interactive soundwalk in the Hill District.

“The musical legacy of the Hill District has international significance, and it also inspires us locally in the School of Music at Duquesne,” Wilkner said.

The tour highlighted the work of the many residents who are playing an active role in restoring the neighborhood. Familiar establishments in the community, such as Big Tom’s Barbershop, are intertwined with new business, such as the Nafasi on Centre, that complement the roots of the area while adding a modernized appeal.

“Centre Avenue is really coming alive,” Baltimore said, pointing out the new businesses.

Along the route, Baltimore also noted several local artists, including muralists Kyle Hallberg and James “Yaya” Hough, who have contributed their art to the exterior of the Hill District architecture.

While there is a lot to be hopeful about for the Hill District, the activist-turned-tour-guide made it clear that the area is still a work in progress.

Projects such as the Home Repair project and home repair funding and Catapult’s Startup to Storefront entrepreneurship program are helping to revitalize the area

“In the midst of the changes that are coming to the neighborhood, there are still struggles,” Baltimore said. “There are still struggles with unemployment, there are still struggles with substance abuse. So what you saw [on the tour] is the folks working on building the environment and a lot of social service organizations working on the human aspect of the changes that are coming to the neighborhood.”