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Pittsburgh's Hill District, Reimagined

Thanks to grassroots community efforts and investments by nonprofits, foundations and developers, the neighborhood is on the cusp of a long-awaited renaissance.




Photos by David Kelly

 

On the wall of the sunny reading room of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in the Hill District hangs a massive map labeled “August Wilson’s Hill.” Colorful and bright, the 1923 map is annotated with various locations from the works of the the iconic playwright, from Aunt Ester’s Wylie Avenue house in “Gem of the Ocean,” to the backyard of “King Hedley II,” to the former jitney station of “Jitney.”

While the annotations are compelling, what’s really striking about the map is the denseness of the Hill District in 1923. Houses filled every residential block, and the commercial strips of Wylie, Centre and Herron avenues were chock-full of businesses — markets and shops and bars and jazz clubs. “Wylie Avenue was about 3 miles long from Herron all the way to the courthouse — 3 miles of retail stores, door to door,” says Dr. Nelson Harrison, a longtime jazz musician and neighborhood historian. “A dollar changed hands 12 times before it left the Hill District.”
 


Herron Avenue, 1923. Photo courtesy of Archives Service Center/University of Pittsburgh

 

The decades following that map’s design, though, were filled with devastation. Centre Avenue, which long served as a connector between downtown and East End neighborhoods, saw a huge loss of traffic and accompanying business spending when the Boulevard of the Allies opened in the 1920s, routing drivers around the Hill. A few decades later, urban renewal was cited as the reason to raze the Lower Hill District to make way for the Civic Arena and a never-built cultural district, displacing 8,000 people and 400 businesses.

Those actions, combined with the construction of Crosstown Boulevard, effectively and suddenly severed the remaining Hill District from downtown. Massive public-housing complexes were built in the 1940s and 1950s, and middle-class families fled for other neighborhoods and suburban communities.
 
As the neighborhood withered, the city leveled vacant and dilapidated buildings, rather than finding people to maintain the structures. The result: Today, the neighborhood resembles a Jack o’ lantern’s jagged grin — buildings here and there, surrounded by enormous empty spaces. In 1950, around 60,000 people lived in the Hill. In 2010, the neighborhood’s population was down to 11,000.

And yet, there is a growing feeling that the Hill finally is on the cusp of resurgence, thanks to the relentless work of a web of community-focused residents, nonprofit organizations, churches and foundations. Problems remain, of course, and given its history of urban renewal, the neighborhood has legitimate concerns that some developers may not have its best interests at heart. Unlike some past efforts, though, this is no top-down overhauling — the community has a powerful seat at the table and is using it.
 


 

Consider, for example, the new core of businesses and organizations along the Centre Avenue corridor, all of which have been developed with community backing. The library at the intersection of Centre and Kirkpatrick Street was designed based upon neighborhood requests — a sunny reading room, plenty of computers and a strong section of African-American literature — and has been a resounding success. Its opening in 2008 also kicked off a wave of development that hasn’t stopped. Fifth Third Bank opened a branch on Centre Avenue in 2009, providing another banking choice for the area. The Hill House reopened a renovated Kaufmann Center, with the stunning Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium, in 2011. The YMCA opened a sparkling new $13 million facility in 2012, Shop ’n Save opened a grocery store in 2013 and Dollar Bank opened in 2014. This year, Crazy Mocha, Subway, Nationwide Insurance and Cricket Wireless all are slated to start serving customers.
 


 

Centre Avenue is the core, but green shoots are appearing elsewhere in the neighborhood, too. Last year, the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center on Enoch Street opened to provide academic, cultural and athletic services to teens. A few blocks away, the first tenants began moving into Skyline Terrace, a 400-unit residential development that replaced a crime-ridden former public-housing development; the new iteration mixes handsome market-rate and subsidized townhomes of the kind found in any middle-class suburb.
 


 

How far has the Hill District come? Up on Arcena Street, high above the Strip District and the Allegheny River, the new three-unit River View Ridge Condominiums offer the type of amenities found in the city’s swankiest neighborhoods: private balconies, hardwood floors, stainless-steel kitchens, a garden and sweeping views of downtown and the North Shore skylines. What’s most stunning, though, is the asking price — $299,000 and up — sought by developer DeWayne Ketchum, a Hill District native who returned after living and working for a few decades in Philadelphia, determined to be a part of the neighborhood’s revival. Indeed, young professionals already are beginning to move into the neighborhood in greater numbers.

Down on the Lower Hill, meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ redevelopment of the former Civic Arena site is moving forward, despite legal wrangling over some details; the plan calls for a mixed-use development with new jobs and housing for the community; construction there on a new headquarters for U.S. Steel could begin as early as this fall. That project also will take the major step of reconnecting the whole neighborhood to downtown, including capping Crosstown Boulevard with a brilliant park and recreating a stretch of Wylie Avenue that was plowed under 60 years ago.

It’s about time, Hill residents say.
 


 

“There is no other area [in the city] where the land is more expensive and coveted than here,” says Jeffrey Anderson, chief operating officer of the Hill House, a social-services nonprofit organization that has served as a neighborhood hub for decades. “The Hill District is the direct extension of the city [center] — and there is no other community that has the vistas and the views.”

Despite these positive developments, much work remains. For the Hill to revive fully, the neighborhood needs to attract new residents, encourage more entrepreneurs to open businesses, continue building homes and commercial spaces and invest in training so that its denizens can be part of the new Pittsburgh economy. People with roots and interests in the Hill also point to the need for a real effort — both by the city and neighborhood groups — to ensure that longtime residents aren’t displaced by gentrification and that the Hill’s deep cultural history isn’t left behind.

Still, for the first time in decades, despair is giving way to hope.
 

Recently Completed Projects

A Place to Learn.  In 2008, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh opened its first new library in nearly three decades at the key, once-blighted Hill District intersection of Centre Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street. In the years since, the bright and airy space has become an anchor to the community, providing reading programs for children, a community gathering place for adults and Internet access for everyone. The two meeting rooms are booked constantly for everything from an African-American men’s chess club to constituent meetings with local representatives. Beyond that, though, the library provides a prime physical example that the city believed in the Hill. “There’s nothing like a new building that says we are a part of the community,” says library services manager Joyce Broadus. “We’ve got people talking.”
 

A Gym Boom.  Across the street from the library sits the Thelma Lovette YMCA, which opened in 2012 and bears the name of the renowned civil-rights and neighborhood activist. The 43,000-square-foot facility offers spin classes, yoga, swim lessons and childcare, as well as an expansive terrace with stunning views of downtown; when weather cooperates, group exercise classes move outside. The health and wellness offerings have been a fast draw for the community, says Executive Director Aaron Gibson — membership is nearly double the initial goal of 1,500, while group exercise classes have soared from five per week to 24. Those members, many of whom live outside the Hill, are filling parking spots along Centre, which hasn’t happened in decades. “Once people have experienced the facility, our customer service and the relationships with other members, it becomes like family,” Gibson says. “The community has really supported what we’re doing here.”
 

Youth Building.  On Oct. 17, the Rev. Glenn G. Grayson accomplished a supremely bittersweet goal when he opened the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center. The center bears the name of his son, who was an 18-year-old freshman at Hampton University in Virginia and an innocent bystander when he was shot and killed on that date in 2010 at an off-campus party near California University of Pennsylvania. Housed in the former Ozanam Cultural Center, the center has undergone a $2 million renovation. It now offers an after-school hangout for middle- and high-school students, community meeting rooms and a hall that can be rented for weddings, graduation parties and other functions.
 

Job Training.  The former Clifford B. Connelly Trade School, once a city public school and the largest vocational school in the United States, was reborn last year as the sprawling Energy Innovation Center. Overseen by the Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation, the EIC is supported by stakeholders that include a variety of area universities (among them Duquesne and Penn State), foundations (Hillman and Richard King Mellon), corporations (Shell, Duquesne Light and Scalo Solar Solutions) and government agencies, with two intertwining goals: providing a lab for corporate experimentation as well as a classroom to train workers ­— including Hill District residents — to design, construct and run green-energy buildings. While the first tenants are just moving in amidst a $38 million renovation, the ultimate goal is to provide apprenticeship and mid-career training in a variety of trades, including everything from installing geothermal power generators and high-efficiency plumbing to running a high-capacity kitchen. Careers, in other words, that provide a steady income and an on-ramp to the middle class — and can never be outsourced.
 

A New Shopping Center.  After 30 years as a food desert, the Hill District obtained a much-needed, much-sought source of groceries when Shop ’n Save opened a store in Centre Heldman Plaza, a new complex on Centre Avenue, in 2013. Accompanied by branches of Dollar Bank and Nationwide Insurance as well as planned Subway and Crazy Mocha coffee shops, the neighborhood now has a spot to shop, eat or have a meeting. The center not only provides broader access to healthy food, but it also cuts down on long commutes for shoppers and supplies much-needed jobs for the area.
 

What’s Next: Projects in the Pipeline


Lower Hill Overhaul.  There are few pieces of real estate as valuable and pivotal to Pittsburgh’s development as the 28 acres of parking at the former Civic Arena site — what other North American city boasts that much empty property immediately adjacent to its downtown? Little surprise, then, that the Penguins’ plan to turn the area into a mixed-use development of housing, retail, office space and parks has been hotly debated, particularly over its benefits to the neighborhood at large. The redevelopment scored major wins at the end of 2014, including approval by Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission, as well as the announcement that U.S. Steel was building a new five-story headquarters on the site. “It signifies that the development is real,” says city Councilman Daniel Lavelle, pointing out that many in the neighborhood were skeptical that the city and Penguins would ever build something. “But it also sends a message to the rest of the region and even the country that this is the place to be.”
 

Bring Back the Music.  Situated between New York and Chicago, the Hill earned the nickname of “Crossroads of the World” decades ago, thanks its once-vibrant jazz scene. While the recent revival of the new auditorium at the Hill House Association’s Kaufmann Center has created a nice venue, small local clubs are even more essential to the music scene. Few venues had a bigger impact on music in the city than the Crawford Grill #2, where John Coltrane and Art Blakey once played. “Once you made it as a bandleader in Crawford Grill, you were ready to go anywhere in the world and play,” says Dr. Nelson Harrison, who played in the club from the 1960s until it closed in 2003. Today, a group of nonprofit organizations — among them the Hill House Economic Development Corporation, Pittsburgh Gateways and Urban Innovation 21, as well as a handful of investors that includes former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris — own the historic property at Wylie Avenue and Elmore Street. They are raising an estimated $3 million for renovations, with the aim of reopening the club in a few years.
 

A New New Granada Theater.  There has been talk of reopening the New Granada Theater, which once hosted such jazz legends as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, since it first shut down in the 1970s, but momentum seems to be finally growing to restore the Centre Avenue icon. The Hill District Community Development Corp., which purchased the theater in the mid-1990s, finished a commercial and cultural market study of the building and the surrounding block in late 2014. Its plan, drafted with community input, calls for building  mixed-use retail and housing on the site and repurposing the New Granada into a cultural and commercial retail space.
 

Building Homes and Equity.  Myriad residents, business people and community leaders agree: to help grow and support a strong commercial corridor, the Hill District needs more people, more homes and more home ownership. At present, only 27 percent of the neighborhood’s residents own their homes, compared to a citywide average of 50 percent. “The next decade of development in the Hill is probably residential, and [we need to] get the income mix right,” says Justin Miller, the city planner for the neighborhood. “It has to be a balance of affordable and market-rate [homes].”  That means renovating vacant properties, updating existing ones and finding developers to build homes on vacant lots. In 2014, the Hill District CDC started Hill District 100, a program that aims to help connect interested homebuyers with loans and renovation guidance, with the goal of building wealth in the community.

Reusing and Building Commercial Spaces.  The recent resurgence of neighborhoods such as Lawrenceville and the South Side is owed, in part, to the fact that those neighborhoods still had a strong stock of intact commercial buildings. Even if they were vacant, those buildings were available to be renovated and updated to house coffee shops, restaurants, breweries and retail outlets. That’s not the case in the Hill, where demolition has left Centre Avenue full of vacant lots. “The reality is that business owners are not developers,” says Marimba Milliones, executive director of the Hill District CDC. “They just want to rent a space that works for their business.” That means finding developers who are willing to invest and persuading the city to help out with incentives — perhaps in the form of tax breaks — for the developers. Key to that is a partnership with the U Dream program at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture, as well as a master redevelopment plan for the Centre Avenue business district, which is in early stages. “We have to create the spaces for small businesses to be,” says Councilman Lavelle. “We have to put the infrastructure in to allow a new modern community to exist.”  

   

 

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