Tour the Hill District through our photo slide show.
The Hill District is one of Pittsburgh's most storied neighborhoods, a community that is both geographically and culturally at the heart of the city. It’s long been a hub for African American culture, and some of Pittsburgh’s most renowned residents were either born or lived here—August Wilson, Teenie Harris, and Roberto Clemente, to name a few. And institutions, from jazz clubs like the Crawford Grill, to newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, put the city on the map, either for the talent they drew here—like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington—or for contributions to social movements nationwide.
But the neighborhood exists beyond its role in history books. Even though it has seen better times, the Hill is alive and filled with people and places building on that legacy of culture and community.
“The Hill District is a scenic place,” says Carl Redwood, executive director of the Hill District Consensus Group. “We have some of the best views in this city.” And due to its strategic location in between Downtown and Oakland, Redwood says the neighborhood is enjoying an exciting period of redevelopment.
Beginning in the 1950’s, the City of Pittsburgh embraced a period of Urban Renewal policies that demolished much of the Hill’s vibrant business districts. To make room for the then new Civic Arena, nearly all of the Lower Hill was erased. Like other neighborhoods in the city, the Hill District entered a period of decline.
Yet a half century later, the Civic Arena has been torn down, and the 28-acre site is poised to again be remade, including a restored street grid and mixed-use development. (For the time being it will be a parking lot, as the Sports Exhibition Authority recently announced.) Those several acres represent a microcosm of the Hill’s modern history, its ups and downs, and are a good place to begin your tour.
Start at the Church of the Epiphany
, a red brick Romanesque structure that proudly rests at the bottom of Centre Avenue. Built in 1902, the Byzantine-detailed church is one of the few buildings that remain from the pre-Civic Arena Lower Hill.
At the church’s Friday Fish Fry, you can get an enormous fish sandwich, and choose from sides like mashed potatoes and stuffed cabbage, all for just $7.00. Take it to go, or enjoy it in the recently restored parish hall.
From here, continue up Centre Avenue. On the left, you’ll pass the St. Benedict the Moor
church. Perched high on the roof is a statue of the saint with arms spread wide, considered by many as a welcome beacon to the Hill.
Across the street is Freedom Corner
, a public square that began as a gathering place for Civil Rights protests in the 1960’s. It continues to serve as a gathering place for groups advocating for justice in the Hill and beyond. Among the monuments located here, the bronze-cast Spiritual Form was sculpted by Carlos Peterson, who grew up on nearby Crawford Street.
An institution that continues to work for progress in the community is the Hill House Association
. Founded in 1964, the association focuses on several types of family and community development. Partially located in the historic, former Kaufmann Settlement (1835 Centre Avenue), on any given day a variety of programs are held here.
The HDCD holds monthly meetings at the Hill House, where it collaboartes with other organizations to create community redevelopment strategies such as the Hill District Greenprint
, and Centre View, a plan for remaking the greater Centre Avenue corridor into a thriving business district.
Centre View includes new housing developments, like Addison Terrace, 400 units of housing overlooking Downtown and the Monongahela River; a series of new townhomes on Dinwiddie Street; and a conversion of the former Miller School building (61 Reed Street), which is transforming the gymnasium and auditorium into loft-style apartments.
Also part of the effort is the YMCA, which opened earlier this year at 2114 Centre Avenue (with rooftop terrace views of Downtown).
“One aspect of our plan for the community is to make sure [the Hill District] is a healthy community,” Redwood says. “The Thelma Lovette YMCA
is part of that process.”
The state-of-the-art facility is named after 96-year-old civil rights leader and activist Thelma Lovette. Community leaders hope that the new YMCA will be a catalyst for positive change, much like the building’s namesake has been throughout her lifetime.
Perhaps the most sought after—and much delayed—development is the construction of a new, full-service grocery store. Although the lot is cleared, construction has yet to begin. Once built, the SHOP n’ SAVE will be a key piece in making the Hill whole and healthier.
In their heydays, Centre and Wylie Avenues were bustling corridors of commerce, style, and entertainment, where prominent community leaders mingled with everyday Pittsburghers. The Ujamaa Collective
is working to bring that retail legacy back to the district.
At 1901 Centre Avenue, the Ujamaa Collective’s boutique is a showcase of Africana art and culture, including hand-crafted items from local artists, and fair-trade items from Africa and the Caribbean, such as jewelry, stationary, and wide range of clothing, scarves, and home decor.
Celeta Hickman, a collective founder, says her organization’s goal is to build wealth within the Hill District among women of African descent using traditional models of marketplace economics found throughout Africa.
“We have an Isusu
, which is where we share work,” Hickman says. “If there's a woman who has a project coming up and she needs labor, whether that's making pancakes or making body care products...we have a group of sisters who will go and volunteer to help her.”
In addition to the boutique, the collective operates a two-acre farm within the Dwayne Cooper Garden of Hope
, located on the former Francis Court public housing site. The A. Phillip Randolph Institute
manages the garden, which allows Hill residents to grow fresh produce in raised beds.
The Ujamaa Collective sells their bounty at an open-air marketplace (2030 Centre Avenue) throughout the summer. The next scheduled market will be July 6th, from, 11am to 5pm, and will feature a gospel performance at 6pm.
It’s fitting that artists would come together in the Hill, where making art has a long tradition. It was in this neighborhood that August Wilson, one of the most celebrated American playwrights of the last century, was born, and where he wrote many of his award-winning plays. Wilson masterfully transformed his experiences, and the lives of fellow Hill residents, into stories that transcend time and place to reach a broad spectrum of the human experience.
Wilson’s series of ten plays, known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, are almost exclusively set in the Hill District. The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company's
current production, extended through this week, is one of Wilson’s last plays, Gem of the Ocean
Set in The Hill District in 1908, it tells the story of, among others, the 285-year-old matriarch Aunt Ester, and Citizen Barlow, a young man fresh from Alabama, finding his way in the industrial North. The play is showing at the theater’s new venue, 937 Liberty Avenue (Downtown), through Saturday, June 28th.
Wilson’s childhood home at 1727 Bedford Avenue was bought in 2005 by his nephew Paul Ellis. Along with a group of fellow board members, Ellis founded the Daisy Wilson Artist Community (named after Wilson’s mother), a nonprofit dedicated to restoring and reusing the house as a center for the arts in the Hill.
Working with community partners, the group will provide technical support to artists, and host workshops and seminars, among other programming.
Anyone who takes the time to learn about the cultural richness of the Hill is pleasantly surprised, Ellis says.
“The residents of the Hill District have been through a lot," he notes. But there’s a resiliency about the residents that, once tapped, is "like waking a sleeping dragon.”
Another individual bringing arts to the Hill is Kelli Stevens Kane
. A Pittsburgh-based poet, playwright, and oral historian, Kane traces her roots in the Hill back over four generations. Her oral history manuscript, Big George’s Wylie Avenue
, illuminates her grandmother’s unique role in the community’s social fabric.
Over the course of the summer, Kane will read from the book at various Hill District landmarks. The next reading will take place at the Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church (1000 Bryn Mawr Rd) on July 15th, at 4 pm.
It wasn’t until recently that she realized how much of an impact the neighborhood has had on her work as an artist, Kane says. “It fueled my own kind of personal mythology and the realm of things that I’ve become interested in as an artist."
Where to Eat and Drink
Stop in at the Hotel Terrace Hall (2335 Centre Avenue) for a cold beer or mixed drink, and owner Eugene Taylor might be there to tell you about the days when performers like Rodney McCoy and Silk, and Bobby “Broom Clean Sweep” Hamen, graced the stage five nights a week. Although its live-music days are now over, this sleepy establishment exudes character and memories aplenty.
Now at this point in your tour of the Hill, it’s time to eat. There’s only one place to sit down for a meal, and that’s at Grandma B's Café
. Dorian Moorfield opened the homey diner two years ago, its name a tribute to his grandmother. You can usually find him behind the black-and-white tile counter where he warmly welcomes patrons as he takes your order. Breakfast, like fish and grits, and dinners, like the hearty Al Burger, provide the right fuel for any time of day.
For take-out, head over to Herron Avenue’s Z-Best Barbecue
, and enjoy their signature ribs and barbecue chicken, along with a host of sides including mac and chees, sweet potatoes, and stewed cabbage. From there, continue up the hill (the district’s highest) for a picnic or a stroll in the park.
Robert E Williams Memorial Park (also known as Herron Hill Park), was created in 1889, and designated a Historic Landmark in 1989. To get there, climb Milwaukee Street to the tree-lined residential section of the Hill known as Sugar Top.
This park offers one of the most unique, panoramic views of Pittsburgh. Parallel with Mt. Washington, one can walk the circular path and look down on the Cathedral of Learning, beyond East Liberty, and into the Allegheny Valley. From this vantage, it’s hard to deny the Hill District’s rightful place in the heart of Pittsburgh.
Photograph copyright Brian Cohen