The Hill District: Still waiting for something great to happen

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Leeretta Payne rises at 5:30 on warm mornings to take care of her Cliff Street garden. Her corner townhouse is similar to others on the block – red-brick and well-kept.


Standing on her street in the Hill District, Payne can look west and see the U.S. Steel Building towering over nearby Downtown. It feels close enough to touch.


The view in the other direction is dramatically different. Facing east, two sides of Cliff and Cassatt streets are empty lots, with grass growing tall where buildings used to be.


This study in contrasts is apparent throughout the Hill District, a place where home ownership and community pride intermingle with desertion, decay and untapped potential.


Payne has lived in her Cliff Street home for 30 years. Two of her sisters live on her block. And three of her other siblings are in the neighborhood. Payne has seven children of her own, the youngest of whom is 15.


“We really look out for each other,” said Payne of her neighbors. “We know each other’s business.”


Payne has endured the area’s ups and downs. As a teenager, she worked at Eddie’s Restaurant, a popular spot in the area’s prime. She can point to empty lots throughout the neighborhood that used to be bars, restaurants and retail businesses.


Almost all of that is gone now.


These days, the Hill District doesn’t even have its own coffee shop.


“If you want a cup of coffee you literally have to take a Styrofoam cup and freeze-dried coffee and ask for hot water,” said Payne.


But that won’t be the case much longer. In the same plaza where the new Shop ’n Save supermarket opened in mid-October, a Crazy Mocha Coffee shop is planned.


And Payne, who runs a catering business, plans to open the Legacy Café, a coffee shop and eatery, on the first floor of playwright August Wilson’s childhood home on Bedford Avenue in the next year.


The Hill looks forward

There are other significant changes in the works for the Hill District. The Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports and Exhibition Authority is working on plans to redevelop the former Civic Arena’s parking lots into city streets, with commercial and residential buildings. In some cases, they are building streets that will reconnect the Hill District with Downtown for the first time in 50 years.


In the 1950s and 1960s some 1,300 buildings on 95 acres of land were demolished in the Lower Hill to clear space for the arena, displacing 412 businesses and more than 8,000 residents and cutting the Hill off from the Downtown area.


The gulf between the Hill District and Downtown has been more than a physical separation. Residents of the majority African-American Hill District have felt cut off and marginalized from the economic activity of the city. And for many Downtown workers and residents throughout Pittsburgh, the district has been an unknown and largely misunderstood place, feared because of its reputation for crime and poverty.


“If you don’t go through a neighborhood, it ceases to exist” in people’s minds, said Terri Baltimore, vice president of neighborhood development for the Hill House Association, a social service agency that promotes economic opportunities in the district and that coordinated the grocery project.


While residents and community leaders welcome reinvestment in their neighborhood, they are watching development plans closely to ensure that another generation of residents will not be displaced. They don’t want the skyrocketing rents of gentrification that have happened in other cities to be the norm here.


“We want conditions on development of the Lower Hill,” said Carl Redwood, executive director of the Hill District Consensus Group.


One of the conditions that the Hill District Consensus Group and other community groups are calling for is equal housing opportunities. This condition would call for 30 percent of new housing to be designated affordable to extremely low-income residents.


While the city cannot require this ratio, there are already models of mixed-income developments throughout the Hill.


Bedford Dwellings, a mixed income community built in 2003, includes low-income rentals, market rate rentals and sale units with attractively landscaped. Similarly, the community of Oak Hill, which abuts Oakland, is an attractive mixed income development built to replace Allequippa Terrace public housing.


A once thriving community

In Pittsburgh’s boom years, the Hill was a thriving working class neighborhood with a vibrant cultural life and bustling commercial areas. Dotted with iconic restaurants, theaters and bars, many of the great names of the jazz era came to play there.


But even at its height, many Hill District buildings were poorly built and badly maintained.


When the city began redeveloping Downtown in the 1950s, eastward expansion seemed logical to city leaders. A survey of buildings in the Hill District revealed that many were old and dilapidated, sometimes even lacking indoor plumbing.


This state of affairs prompted City Council member George Evans to write in 1943, “Approximately 90 percent of the buildings in the area are substandard and have long outlived their usefulness, and so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.”


If urban renewal had continued as planned, even more of the Hill would have been razed.


“There was so much good intention,” said Justin Miller, a city planner who has studied blueprints and maps of the 1943 planned developments around the Civic Arena, which were intended to be the centerpiece of a new cultural district with other theaters and high-rise apartments.


But investors pulled out of the redevelopment plans when the process didn’t move quickly enough.


“They didn’t think about the people,” said Redwood of the urban planners of the time.


Today, city planners are much more aware of community interests. When possible, old buildings are adapted for new uses, rather than being demolished. For example, The Miller School, a former elementary school in the Hill, is being renovated to include apartments and office space.


While the philosophy of city planning has changed dramatically, past experience makes Hill District residents deeply skeptical about the future.


“There is deep suspicion of what the city is up to,” said Miller. “We try to be as transparent as we can. They key is getting more people involved.”


Community involvement is key, said Payne, but it’s “like nailing Jello to the wall.” Residents of the Hill District, like people in other neighborhoods, are busy with their own lives, she said.


And some residents believe the Hill District doesn’t normally get the attention other neighborhoods do.


Payne noted that the empty lots near her home are often overgrown. The city is responsible for maintaining the lots, but residents often must complain to get them mowed.


“We force them to do it,” she said. “It’s disheartening to fight to keep it clean.”


City officials say they are working with the community to institute positive changes. Throughout the city, community input is now sought whenever developers want to build.


“Now it’s very different,” said Karen Abrams of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. “A community process has to take place.”


The community has been deeply involved in the development of the grocery store complex on Centre Avenue, which is expected to attract further developments.


The Hill House Association owns the land for the retail center and has helped secure other retail tenants.


“The community has to fight for what they want,” said Cheryl Hall-Russell, president and CEO of Hill House Association, noting there is a “massive deficit of retail” in the Hill.


Hall-Russell believes that bringing retail back to the area will be a crucial amenity for current residents who had to go outside the neighborhood to buy food and other necessities for the last 30 years, often using limited public transportation or jitney cabs to do so.


“Our first loyalty is the people who have waited so long for this,” she said.


A sandwich neighborhood

While the Hill is slowly redeveloping, the area continues to face serious obstacles.


“One of the contradictions of the Hill District is that it is sandwiched between two of the highest value areas of the city, and yet it is not high value,” said Miller, mentioning Downtown and Oakland as the two high-value areas.


The low values stem in part from the perception that the Hill is not safe. However, statistics from Pittsburgh’s annual police report for 2012 show that the crime rate in the Hill District – about 3 violent incidents per 100 people – is actually slightly lower than the city average. The low rate has remained more or less the same for the last several years.


But the area still grapples with a reputation that goes back to riots in 1968 – when crime in the city as a whole was at a high point – and drug epidemics in the 1970s and 1980s.


This perception has discouraged economic development, despite the neighborhood’s proximity to Downtown.


Payne said she has always felt safe there.


“It’s really a mystery to me why it’s perceived to be dangerous,” she said.


You can find crime in any neighborhood, she added. “If you want trouble, you know where to go find it.”


The Hill has its share of blocks known for drug trafficking and gang violence. But there are many other areas, like Payne’s block of Cliff Street, that are dominated by private homeowners who are invested in the community.


She jokes with friends that they can enjoy the view from her kitchen window for five dollars. With her incredible view of the Allegheny River, it’s a bargain.


These days, she sees college students moving into the neighborhood, and former residents coming back from the suburbs.


An informal community ambassador, Payne is happy to show outsiders that, in addition to its rich history, the Hill District is a place of beauty.


Circling the Herron Hill reservoir – topographically one of the highest points in Allegheny County – pedestrians can see for miles, with breathtaking views of Oakland, Downtown, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield and beyond. On clear days, Payne sits by the reservoir and quilts images of the city.


A short drive from there, Arcena Street, which sits on a bluff above the Strip District, is the neighborhood gathering place to watch fireworks, with stunning views of the Allegheny River.


With its proximity to Downtown, Oakland and the Strip District, the Hill is situated in the heart of the city.


“People are starting to look at this place differently, as a place of opportunity,” said Hall-Russell.


New development will bring new jobs to the area – both in retail stores themselves, and with the construction companies that build them. Abrams, of the URA, said community leaders are working on ideas to establish a workforce in the Hill District, helping people have the means to stay there in the long term through home ownership.


“Keeping people in these neighborhoods is going to be extremely important,” said Abrams. When poor people are priced out of urban neighborhoods, their prospects are often far worse in suburban areas, where there are fewer jobs and less public transportation.


While there is renewed hope in the Hill District, there are still many obstacles to overcome. Abrams compared the revitalization to that experienced in New York City’s Harlem, which happened in increments, but eventually boomed.


“It’s the cusp of the turn of the neighborhood,” she said. “The market is going to take it (the rest of the way). We want to make sure they do it right. That’s heavy on the Hill District.”


“There’s a recognition this is an important place to a lot of people,” she continued. “They’re waiting for something great to happen.”



Susan Jacobs Jablow is a freelance writer. She can be reached at susanjablow@gmail.com. PublicSource is an investigative news group in Western Pennsylvania. Learn more at publicsource.org.


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