February 24, 2017

The Story Of The Pittsburgh Neighborhood That Inspired "Fences"

The Hill District

photo by: Ronald Woan/Flickr/CC BY NC_ND 2.0

The Hill District in Pittsburgh is the setting for the play and movie "Fences."

Preservation wins have been hard fought in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania's Hill District. Over 1,300 buildings were razed in the 1950s and '60s in the name of urban renewal. Roughly 80 blocks were cleared and 800 residents relocated to make way for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Civic Arena, which itself was demolished in 2012.

But even long after so many of those physical markers were destroyed, the history of the neighborhood—once the heart of black cultural life in Pittsburgh—is far from forgotten.

Credit for that rests with many, but foremost among them is playwright August Wilson, author of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences, whose film adaptation was nominated for Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards.

The author of a ten-play series (nine of which are set in the Hill District) called the Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson—who passed away in 2005 at the age of 60—introduced countless readers to the neighborhood.

“There are people in this neighborhood who have a living memory of him,” said Terri Baltimore, the director of community engagement for the Hill House Association, a nonprofit community development organization in the area. “So they knew him personally and they know the way that the world has been able to, in some respects, see the neighborhood through his eyes.”

Hill District Lower Hill Demolition

photo by: James McClain

Large swaths of the area were demolished in the 1950s and '60s.

Hill District Street Scene

photo by: Pittsburgh City Photographer

The street scene in the 1930s.

Like the play, the film adaptation of Fences is set in the Hill District. But while shooting was largely done in Pittsburgh, much of it was actually in other neighborhoods like the better-preserved West End. The main reason, according to Marimba Milliones, President of the Hill Community Development Corporation, was the number of vacant lots and neglected properties—the “missing teeth” in urbanist parlance.

As one of the major stopping points for jazz musicians traveling between New York and Chicago, the landscape wasn’t always like that. Concert halls dotted the neighborhood, the Pittsburgh Crawfords Negro League baseball team played there in the '30s, and the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most prominent black newspapers of its time, was based in the Hill District.

Deemed by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay the “Crossroads of the World,” the area prospered from its proximity and accessibility to downtown.

And ethnic diversity was stitched into the community’s fabric. While a hub of black culture and commerce, Jewish, Italian, and other communities thrived as well.

August Wilson in front of Grenada Theater

photo by: Hill Community Development Corporation

The playwright August Wilson in front of the New Granada Theater.

But that fabric began to unravel in the second half of the 20th century. When the Penguins’ arena opened in 1961, it had not only uprooted an enormous part of the area’s population, but it had cut the neighborhood off from many of its downtown access points. Streets that once ran right to the core of the city were suddenly dead ends.

“Not only was the neighborhood disconnected, but sometimes when people don’t go to and through a place, they don’t think about it,” Baltimore said.

Paired with the severe decline in Pittsburgh’s steel industry, the Hill District couldn’t recover. According to Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, the population of the Hill District and neighboring Uptown was 62,500 in 1950. In 2010 it was just 17,050.

But those who remain, along with some newcomers, see the tides turning. Focused on bringing back neighborhood amenities, taking advantage of the area’s green space, and preserving the historically rich places that still stand.

Wilson’s childhood home is currently being rehabilitated; the plan is for it to ultimately house performance space and a writer-in-residency program. And the New Granada Theater building, where musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong once performed, is slated to become retail space and mixed-income housing under the ownership of the Hill Community Development Corporation.

August Wilson Park

photo by: Hill House Association

The newly renovated August Wilson Park features quotes from his plays.

Already completed is a renovation of a park at the northern tip of the neighborhood through a partnership of various community groups. August Wilson Park features a new recreation area and beautiful vistas of the city, with quotes from some of the playwright’s works to go along with it.

And after nearly thirty years without a grocery store, the neighborhood saw the arrival of a Shop’n Save market in 2013.

According to Baltimore, there’s a level of community engagement that has people once again optimistic about the neighborhood’s future and trying to correct for some of what was done in the past.

“Once people get here and they hear people talk about places, or hear people talk about the way a building was used in the past and how people are thinking about using it in the present, it’s a real game-changer,” Baltimore said. “There’s something about this place that grabs your heart and doesn’t let go. There’s such energy and history and art … and challenges.”

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Jared Foretek

Jared Foretek enjoys historic train stations, old bars, and interesting public spaces, he was an editorial intern at the National Trust.

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