Pittsburgh's Hill district began on "farm number three", a piece of land owned by William Penn's grandson and later sold to General Adamson Tannerhill, a Revolutionary War veteran, for $20 an acre. In the late 1840s, Thomas Mellon bought a tract of farmland on the slope nearest the city. He subdivided the tract into smaller plots and sold them for a tidy profit. Thus began the Hill's development as a settled community.
The Hill is actually composed of several smaller hills, which were inhabited by three communities. Haiti was on the lower hill, inhabited by runaway slaves. the middle portion was called Lacyville, while the upper hill was called Minersville. The latter two areas were populated predominately by Germans and Scotch-Irish until the 1880s when central and eastern Europeans began to settle there.
Blacks began arriving from the South between 1880 and 1910. During the years leading to World War I, blacks were urged to come by industry recruiters who promised relief from the segregation laws of the South. New arrivals swelled the area and the Hill became an ethnic and racial melting pot of Russians, Slovaks, Armenians, Syrians, Lebanese, Greeks, Poles, Chinese and Jews. The races wove a rich and vibrant tapestry for Pittsburgh city life. Hill District residents supplied the labor for mines, mills, business and government. They toiled, raised their children and contended with each other; they established a community that left an indelible mark upon Pittsburgh's religion, politics and economy.
The ethnic diversity of the Hill produced a bustling business community. Wylie and Bedford avenues and Logan Street were lined with neighborhood stores. Their vibrancy lasted through the hard times of the Depression. It was through these difficult times that the Hill remained a place for music. The Hill was known on the National Jazz Circuit with places like the Crawford Grill, Hurricane Lounge, Savoy Ballroom and Musicians Club. Celebrities like rudy Vallee and Paul Whiteman came to the Hill after performing at Downtown theatres and clubs to hear black musicians play. Later black musicians like Ramsey Lewis, Oscar Peterson, Cannonball Adderly, Billy Eckstine and Lena Horne entertained nightclub patrons. In the 1940s and '50s the Hill was brimming with interracial bars and clubs. There were blocks that were filled with life and music, with people going from club to club.
Although the Hill District continued to be a vibrant, politically active community, a deteriorating neighborhood infrastructure began to take hold. In 1943, George E. Evans, a member of city council, wrote that "approximately 90 percent of the buildings in the area are sub-standard, and have long outlived their usefulness, and so there would be no social loss if these were all destroyed." Local residents, however, suspected that the officials were using this as an excuse to create a "neutral zone" between the city's black and white areas.
In September 1955 the federal government approved the lower Hill redevelopment plan, making available $17.4 million in loans and grants. Ninety-five acres were slated for clearing, with the demolition of the first of 1,300 structures to be razed set for June 1956. Redevelopment displaced more than 8,000 residents; 1,239 black families, 312 white. Of these, 35 percent went to public housing, 31 percent to private rentals, and 8 percent bought homes. About 90 families refused to move and ended up in substandard housing. Relocatees received little compensation, with maximal benefits coming from the federal government.
A cultural district known as the "Center for the Arts" was originally proposed to replace lower Hill homes and businesses. The ambitious plan failed, as it was perceived as too far from the Downtown core. The construction of the Civic Arena (1961), although an engineering wonder, had met with limited success, and was abandoned by all those organizations, which originally were supposed to thrive under its dome.
The Hill's fortunes took a downturn and struck bottom during the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. The riots began on April 5, 1968 and lasted until April 12. That week of rage saw 505 fires, $620,000 in property damage, one death and 926 arrests.
The Hill District's rich legacy had been leveled by botched redevelopments and riots, but it was black Pittsburghers who met and transcended these problems, and who are striving to rebuild; that gives us confidence that the Hill District will be revitalized. Crawford Square has returned over more than residential homes to the area with plans for retail developments, and the restoring of the New Granda Theatre as a Jazz Center. We can all hope that the Hill District again will have a bright future. PSN
Posted: February 4, 2002
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