Pittsburgh has long been considered a city of neighborhoods, from hip Lawrenceville to traditional Deutschtown. One of the town’s most historic areas is the Hill District, a collection of neighborhoods located northeast of downtown Pittsburgh. The city’s first black district, this uptown neighborhood was once a mecca of arts and culture, with a strong sense of community. It was known by many names: Little Harlem, Little Haiti and “the crossroads of the world.” However, it was all but lost to urban renewal in the 1950s. Read on to find out more about the rich history of this iconic Pittsburgh area.
The Early History of The Hill
This city within a city was born of the marriage of two catalysts: the desire to have a better life and the demand for steel mill workers as men went off to fight in World War I. Recently-freed black men and women found a home in the Hill and quickly made it their own.
A Cultural Icon
From the 1930s until the 1950s, the Hill District was known as the “crossroads of the world.” Music, art, culture and commerce thrived in Little Harlem. The Hill boasted the only all-black radio station, its own weekly newspaper (the Pittsburgh Courier), and a vibrantly active jazz scene. The photographer for The Pittsburgh Courier was Teenie Harris, whose work can still be seen today at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Neighborhood nightclub The Crawford Grille boasted such jazz greats as John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. The owner of the club also owned one of Pittsburgh’s first and only negro league teams, The Pittsburgh Crawfords, which included famous players such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. African-American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker even opened a beauty parlor and school in The Hill. It seemed the Hill District was set to become one of the area’s strongest and most vibrant historical communities.
Declining Economy and Urban Renewal
After World War II, the housing in the Hill was slated for redevelopment due to aging housing conditions. However, this process was not planned out well, and the lives of the local people were disrupted as the renewal got under way. Over 8000 residents (as well as 400 local businesses) were displaced, and the area’s access to the downtown economy was cut off. A new arena and parking lot were built in an area that predominantly black families had once called home. The civil unrest and violence of the late 1960s added fuel to the fire, and soon The Hill had deteriorated into a shell of its former self. By 1990, 71 percent of the community’s residents and a majority of its businesses were gone. Vacant lots and decrepit buildings replaced the colorful and vibrant Hill that had once been such an integral part of the city of Pittsburgh.
The Hill District Today
However, the story is far from over. These days, the Hill can be seen garnering local attention as residents both old and young strive to preserve its culture. Public interest groups are working diligently to restore the Hill to its former glory and bring the neighborhood’s residents out of poverty. A new grocery store was finally built in 2013, and both a YMCA and local library have recently joined the community. Newly renovated housing is being built all throughout the district, and a long restoration project is in the works for a historic jazz club. A charter school has also been opened in the area, with great success. As recently as June 2017, a pedestrian park was announced that will connect downtown with the Hill District and celebrate its unique and vibrant history.
Despite the struggles of the past, the Hill District is looking toward the future — and we’re all a little bit brighter for it.