On March 30, 2007, SAJE kicked off its People’s Planning School by gathering people from other cities who were facing the same problems of gentrification, redevelopment, and expulsive zoning and who had already taken up the challenge to plan for themselves, claiming their history and rightful standing.
Here is a transcript of Terri Baltimore’s presentation along with some of the images that she showed us. It is longer than most posts, but well worth it — it is full of history, a people’s planning process, and Terri’s love for her neighborhood:
Before I start, I just want to apologize, because I have an awful lot of slides. And I’m going to try to get through them quickly, but a lot of people don’t know the Hill District very well, and I wanted to make sure that you understood the place where I work and the place that I love so much.
And before I get started, I just also need to say how honored I am to be here. But I couldn’t be here today without the elders in the community.
Pittsburgh is a really strange place. Most people kind of stay in the neighborhood where they grew up. And I grew up in an Eastern neighborhood of Pittsburgh called “‘Sliberty.” And for those of you who speak English well, that’s East Liberty. And so growing up I never spent a long time in the Hill District. And in 1992 I got a job there. And I was terrible. I didn’t know the neighborhood at all. And the reason that I was able to get inside the neighborhood, stay there, and learn to love it is was because elders taught me their stories. They taught me about places that weren’t there any more. They taught me about living through urban renewal and losing their homes. So they shared their lives with me. And what they did in the process was help me love the place that they loved. So I need to say, “Thank you,” to Miss Edna. Thank you to Miss Stella. And thanks to all the elders. Because without them I couldn’t tell you anything about ‘Sliberty.
The Hill District is a really rich neighborhood. And in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, if you wanted to listen to jazz, this was the place to be. And if you were a Black musician and played downtown, you came up to the Hill and played at clubs after hours. If you were a White musician and played downtown you came up here to the Hill and played after hours. So there is a rich cultural heritage in this neighborhood, and in addition to the music (Art Blakely, Lena Horne, Ahmad Jamal, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson), we also had August Wilson and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Also, the Freedom House Ambulance Service. For a lot of people who don’t know, the whole paramedics movement started in The Hill with a really progressive funder and unemployed Black men and women who responded to a need in the neighborhood at a time when ambulances didn’t come.
The next few slides I’m going to show you were taken by who was a Pittsburgh photographer who took at least a hundred thousand pictures of Black life in Pittsburgh.
Urban renewal hit this neighborhood. Pittsburgh was one of the first places that experimented with uban renewal. What you see under the overlay is the Lower Hill District. And that was a part of the neighborhood that was dense. It was heavily populated with houses, going-bad structures like outhouses. It was an immigrant community as well. So there were a lot of different kinds of relationships that occurred in that part of the neighborhood as well. And they were really, truly important.
These are the guys who decided that the Lower Hill was not a neighborhood. These are the faces of the philanthropists and politicians who decided that the Lower Hill District was not a neighborhood. Mindy Fullilove, who wrote a book called actually interviewed some of the planners who worked on this plan. And one of them actually said to her, he walked around the neighborhood a few times and, “It wasn’t a neighborhood.” So from an outsider perspective, the neighborhood need to come down. Insider perspective: a lot of rich relationships — social, familial relationships — were torn asunder.
These are pictures of what happened to that neighborhood in the demolition process.
This was then called the Civic Arena, is now called the Mellon Arena. And this place is where Pittsburgh was going to have its cultural center. And this was the place where the Civic Light Opera was going to be. These are the people that the Civic Arena was built to service. Not the people who lived in the community, but it was an attempt, in many ways, to begin to address the issue of white flight.
A lot of times when people think of how communities facing difficulties, they always tend to think of them as hopeless. And I am here to tell you that, with all these difficulties, there was a lot of hope on the Hill.
This was a building that was erected in 1967. And even though the Civic Arena was built and people had lost a part of the neighborhood, there was still this whole sense that people were going to stay. The sign says, “Attention City Hall. No Redevelopment Beyond This Point. We Demand Low-Income Housing for the Lower Hill.
So one of the things I want to talk about the Hill, is that despite all the challenges, there’s a sense of pride and resilience. And it’s amazing that people who lived through urban renewal continued to fight for the neighborhood. They fought for it then, and they are continuing to fight now, because parts of the neighborhood are being gentrified. So the fight at one time with the city fathers was to build low-income housing. The fight continues to be to build low income housing. Because in this part of the neighborhood there are starting to be houses that are gentrifying the edges of the neighborhood.
This is one of my favorite people in the whole world. This is Mindy Fullilove. Mindy and her husband came to Pittsburgh almost ten years ago this week. They gave a presentation at the university of Pittsburgh. And they were there to talk about displacement. At the end of the talk, a whole bunch of people were standing around them, wanted to talk to them. And there were a few of us from the Hill who really couldn’t believe that someone who was talking about displacement, was talking about the right issue in the wrong place. So we hatched a plan, and with very little resources, we provided lunch, somebody picked her up at the airport, somebody did childcare for the meetings. And essentially what we did, is pool our neighborhood resources to bring her back. Because if you’re talking about displacement, particularly at that time, she needed to be on the Hill, talking to people who are looking at being displaced.
One of the things that Mindy and her husband did was a series of hands-on activities that we call teach-ins. This was our first teach-in. It was a Saturday morning, where a group of people in the community got together and mapped twelve blocks of the Hill. What we did was we took this map, cut it up in twelve pieces, and sent people out with specific directions. To take photos to talk to people around the neighborhood who knew we were going around the neighborhood. To map the neighborhood. And what we found out in that moment was that the people on the Hill knew more about those spaces and places than anybody in Pittsburgh.
This was our first map. We put this map together, and what we were able to begin to do is to talk to people about spaces and places in the Hill. The baseline map that we used was a map — and what we found was that what the City said was there, wasn’t. And then some places there were buildings where the map said wasn’t. So one of the things that we started to do was realize that if anyone knew the Hill — it was us.
In this process, one thing that we really thought was important was that this involved everyone in the neighborhood. And that included kids. And so, as adults were mapping the neighborhood, so were kids. The kids were not only mapping the neighborhood, but part of their charge was to talk to elders to find out, “What used to be there? Where did they go after school?” And to begin to understand that what they saw, everyday, was not the whole of the Hill. That there was a past that they needed to know about, in order to think about the future.
One of the things was that real important — not only did we map the neighborhood — but we started to talk to people about significant places. So these slides are a series of photos of people’s favorite buildings in the neighborhood. This is the Setnes House. This is the Pitkin Temple which was built by African-American tradesmen in the 1920s. The Granada theater. Green space in the neighborhood. Somebody put art on an abandoned building. This is the Hill, as it looks in the fall.
If anybody is going to be able to think about the future of this community, they need the folks that live there. So we began to find ways to tell out story. One of the things we are really fortunate to have in Pittsburgh is a large philanthropic community. And one of the people who runs a really small foundation, but a very progressive foundation is a guy named Phil … who runs the … Fund. So Phil liked the work that we were doing, liked the work of the Fulliloves. So we planned a conference. And what we did with his money was invite planners from the City, architecture professors, students. And we had a conference where they came to the Craig Museum of Art and people talked about the Hill. People told stories, talked about things about the neighborhood. We had a lovely lunch. And these people were brought to the Hill and they helped us map more of the neighborhood.
What was really interesting was to pair planners and architects with people from the neighborhood. I was telling somebody earlier, that one of the groups included a planner who went past a house that was boarded up. So he began to write that this is a building that isn’t worth saving. But because we had talked to the neighborhood who knew were were coming, Mr. Cooper who lived next door came out and people were telling him that they thought this was an abandoned building. And what he said was, “No, the person who used to live there died. The family didn’t quite know what to do with it, so they boarded up the building to keep it safe until they could dispose of it. So the outsider’s view is, “Old building. Must come down.” Insider’s perspective, “This is place has value, and I know why and I can tell you why.”
One of the things that we did with our stories was we put together a book called Hillscapes. And Hillscapes — reminiscences from the neighborhood, pictures, planners talking about visions for the neighborhood — talked about our story and talked about the space. And what it did was put in one place all these interesting stories and perspectives.
One of the partners in our process is Carnegie Mellon University. And this is one of the projects that we did with CMU. Since 1992, the Architecture Department does a program called the Urban Lab. And initially what they would do is partner the students out, and they would take them to a neighborhood and they would say, “Imagine this as a great new place.”
And most of the time, the students were really bright, but their imaginings were missing a connection to the people who lived there. So we started this thing with the folks at CMU. We had them come in, and people in the community were delighted to welcome them in, provided a couple of conditions. One — the students had to take a tour of the neighborhood. And that’s all they did. Just listened. Because a lot of time students at CMU and other colleges at Pittsburgh were told, “Don’t go to the Hill.” So how can you plan for a place that people tell you to stay away from? It doesn’t make sense.
So, one, students get a tour. Two, people would tell them their stories. And they just had to sit and listen. And three, what we hoped what they learned was a respectful way to come into a community. To understand that they don’t know it all and that in the process of being a student and also in the process of being a planner that they had to learn to give and get.
We also had students not only come on site, but also there were times when people in the neighborhood actually go to CMU to be part of the process as well.
This is one of the elders in the community, this is Mrs. Lovett.
Sometimes you don’t know where you are going to find your inspiration. It just comes in the strangest way.
For us the inspiration for the plan that I’m going to share with you came from a French urbanist named Michel Cantal Dupart.
Cantal came to Pittsburgh and he looked around. He came to the Hill and it was love at first sight. He looked around, he ran around. So it was really weird. Can you imagine? A six-foot tall, French guy, who speaks no English, followed by Sophie, the interpreter, who’s right there.
But what he started to see was the fact that there were opportunities in this neighborhood. Where he is standing now — this picture was him standing above what used to be an incline that connected the Hill to what is called the Strip District where there is a large produce market. So Cantal kept asking the question — at some point this connection from this neighborhood to the rivers made sense for workers’ it had made sense that people used it as a way to get in and out. So one of the questions that he asked when he first came to Pittsburgh was, “How do you get to the rivers from here?” And I was in the audience when he asked that question and I, quite frankly, thought it was rhetorical. And I didn’t realize that we would be spending several years of our lives answering that question in a way that would benefit the neighborhood.
That’s Cantal’s squiggle. That was his drawing on a napkin that encouraged us to go out and find rivers.
Most Pittsburghers stay in places where they’re comfortable, and white Pittsburghers don’t come into the ‘hood. So their perception of space and place in the Hill is this: its what they see on TV, its what they hear on the radio. And the Hill District, in part, is that, but then is a lot of other things as well.
I told you that Cantal asked, “How do you get to the river from here?” Well part of the process was serendipity. Because shortly after he asked that question, our mayor created what he was calling the Riverlife Task Force. Pittsburgh was beginning to be deindustrialized in the early 1980s when a lot of the mills closed. And so for the first time, when the mills came down, there was really no barrier between Pittsburgers and the rivers. And so our mayor and property owners and policy-makers decided that they were going to make the rivers an asset for the region. And when they said, “asset for the region,” they meant an asset for the usual suspects. So nobody who looked like me was there. Nobody from a neighborhood like the Hill was there. So as this opportunity arose, we thought, “Why not us at the rivers?”
So we went to a community organization called the Hill District Consensus Group that represented all 65 community organizations. And what we said is,“Here is this opportunity. Do we have your permission to move forward?.” And the Consensus Group said, “Yes, with one proviso. That whatever you do has to benefit the neighborhood in some real way.”
So we rounded up an unusual group of suspects. So we built on our partnership with CMU. We built on partnership with the Consensus Group. We used Community Partners Institute and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. And then we went to the Riverlife Task Force and we said, “We should be your community partner.” And they were. like, “Yeah, right.”
So we had to go do this thing with the staff. We had to convince them that if they need a neighborhood to partner, it should be the Hill. So we convinced them that it should be the Hill. Then we had to go to the Executive Committee. We had to convince them that it should be the Hill. Then we had to go to the entire Board, and convinced them that if they had a partner in this process, it needed to be the Hill.
This is a view of the Monongahela River from the Hill. This is a view of the Allegheny River from the Hill. This is part of the neighborhood that nobody ever sees. Nobody ever thinks urban neighborhood and beauty in the same sentence. But that’s what you see in the Hill.
Once again in this process, we used kids to help us find the opportunities. We took people on the River so we looked at the neighborhood from a different perspective. As a result, what we did was that we got a small grant, and the neighborhood interviewed the landscape architects that worked with us. And we hired a company. And the process was, “Work with a small group, do some designs, come back to the community, get input and redo them. And what I brought was a copy of our plan and also we have one that you guys can keep and download.
From this process what we did is — now we have a plan. The next step was we are working on concrete activities. One — we are doing with art around the neighborhood, we have a group of things where people around the community are making that connection. Two — we’re looking at developing a Green Belt. There’s a lot of green space that is not used in this neighborhood, so we think beauty as a potential economic generator should be fully explored.
And that’s our motto: “Don’t Ever Give Up.