Homecoming: Hill District, USA

Fork in the Road

The ‘60s bring a wave of change for new generation coming of age on the Hill.


Margaret Brown’s graduation photo from CCAC c. 1969. Courtesy of Margaret Brown.

“My father lived on the Hill, so even though I grew up in Homewood, I would visit him here. My dad was born in Ft. Deposit, Alabama. A town that has a gas station and a school. He came to Pittsburgh because he had an uncle that lived here. He met my mother and they got married here. He lived on the Hill the whole time he was here and he died on the Hill. His name was Mitchell Brown Sr. but they called him Charlie Rue. He did painting and carpentry. He was also a gambler, but he knew a lot of people. They used to call me Chip—I used to get upset and say my name was Margaret, but they’d call me a chip off the old block. I looked a lot like my dad.

I was 17, I dropped out of school, and I was working on the Hill. I worked at the B&M Restaurant on Centre. It was right next to the Hurricane. Then up the street at Dinwiddie and Centre, there was a restaurant called S&W. So I worked at the B&M from 3pm-11pm, and the S&W from 12am-8am. That was the problem, I didn’t sleep. I got sick. I had to end up in the hospital because I not only worked two jobs, I partied the other 8 hours. At the time I started working down there as a teenager, you could walk anywhere any hour of the day or night. Everybody cared about you—they saw you and you were a child, you were their child. Then it just seemed like at night it got to be less trusted. And they started closing a lot of the places that existed for entertainment. It almost seems like the caring part that was on the Hill before is gone, and it doesn’t seem to exist anymore.”



Kim El (b. 1958)

Kim El (left) with her mother Joan, and sister Cheryl in the early 1960s. Courtesy of Kim El.

“Since I was the oldest I had to watch my sisters. All three of us went to Weil Elementary. We lived in Elmore Square housing projects after my mother separated. We were not allowed to go on Centre Ave because the heroin addicts were down on Centre. There was a drug epidemic in the 60s. And so we just stayed where we were supposed to go. It was safer. The projects was not scary. The projects at that time was not where you see murders and killing. Very rarely did you see that. I had some of my best memories living in Elmore Square. There was a whole ‘lotta kids and everybody watched everybody’s child. If a mother seen one child and you needed to come in, if you needed to take your child over while you ran to the store—it was like that. It was very close knit.

One of the things my mother did was make sure we were educated. And that we had class. We didn’t even take the trash out with curlers in our hair or without lipstick. They thought we were tryna be bougie or classy, but she knew we wasn’t always gonna live in the projects. By the time we get to the 70s my mother had a real big natural. I remember she went down on Centre Ave and got her natural hair cut. And I was like ‘Wow!’ My grandmother hated it. All of us had real big afros. She was mad! My mother wore dashikis. She wore a chain with the fist and she was like that (gestures Black Power fist) all the time. She was very militant. Which I’m glad because she instilled that in us. My great-grandmother would say, ‘She’ll get over that.’ Talkin’ about my mother. But she didn’t. My mother never did.”



Tamanika Howze (b. 1949)

Tamanika Howze (pictured, center) holding a sign during a protest on the Hill, c. 1968-1972. Courtesy of Tamanika Howze.

“[My mom] was a domestic worker. My mother was paid by day—you go to work on Friday you get paid on Friday. If you don’t work on Monday you don’t get paid. But I remember she would take off work and we would have school bazaars. She was a child advocate, and I ended up being one. When I was in elementary school, I used to see things on TV. We were one of the first ones around to get a TV, you know. And then my family would get Jet Magazine and Ebony. And I would say something’s not right, this is not right what’s happening to black people. I don’t know—it was just the Civil Rights thing that was just grabbing me. But when I was in high school Stokley Carmichael came to town. He was at Ebenezer, and I went to see him. And on my way back [home], walking down the street, [I hear] ‘Bang bang, beep beep, Ungawa, Black Power!’ You know? So, I went through that.

There was a CORE office on Centre. And I would stop in there, and I would peek, and I would look. And they would talk to me about different things, and one time they asked me, which was wrong—they should’ve asked my mother—if I would go to Mississippi or Alabama with them. So I went home and asked my mother. She said, ‘If a white person spit in your face, what would you do?’ I threw my fist up and said, ‘I’d do this and (inaudible)’ and she said, ‘No baby you can’t go.’ I said, ‘Why, why? It’s for freedom!’ And I was so angry with her. Of course I couldn’t voice that to her, but I was so angry with her. And I didn’t understand what she meant. She said, ‘Because you would come back in a box.’ She’d kinda told me things and I’m supposed to kinda keep this oral history going in the family. Our family has had some really bad experiences, and so I think that was it. She knew something would happen.

After the assassination of Dr. King, that’s when people started organizing and moving from the nonviolent turn the other cheek philosophy, to Black Power. So that’s kinda what it was. I would probably become depressed if I could not be an activist in some way. I think it’s part of my DNA now. It’s just all the things I’ve learned along the way and continue to learn. We owe it to ourselves, the generation that’s here now and behind us. We have a right to have a just life. To have greatness. It’s just in me.”



Monica Brown-Wilson (b. 1961)

Wylie Avenue at Green Street, facing Centre Avenue from the stairs of the Wylie Avenue Branch of the Carnegie Library, circa 1970. Courtesy of the Carnegie Library - Hill District Branch.

“[I have] four sisters, one brother. Oh God we had an awesome childhood. Our parents were powerful. My parents were powerful. They didn’t bow down, they were educated, and they worked jobs. They took the jobs that they could take. They were organized, they had order in their homes, you know what I’m saying? We had the best mom. Right up there in the projects, Allequippa Street. All she did was mother us. And my dad, all he did was work and provide for us. We were secure. Very secure. We didn’t have no worries. My generation, we tried to be better than them. But most of us didn’t match it.

The Hill was beautiful! It was so colorful, so eventful, so much excitement, so much was goin’ on. If life was hard, we didn’t know it. I couldn’t wait to grow up so I could hang on Centre Avenue. I mean it was busy, it was all kinds of stuff goin’ on. The Hill that I grew up in, it was the last of the big families. Wasn’t no gangs, it was families. We had a lot of good times. We went to YBOP. We went to the Hill House, we went to house parties. Yep, they cost a quarter. I remember all kinds of basketball games. My father’s basketball league was a phenomenal league on the Hill. They had Fifth Avenue jammed up the street. They had the top coaches in the country sitting in there. The best of the best played in that league. Isn’t that awesome? Rucker Park in Pittsburgh! Quit playin’!

Because my mother had all girls, they kept us on a short leash. There’s nothing too much that I can’t handle because I was poured into by strong women. And I listened. All the time. But my mother schooled me on drugs. You see people screaming about heroin? Heroin been out! Everybody had someone in their family on heroin. But crack did the most devastation, ever. Only the strong survived it, trust and know this. We got scars—scars. Generational scars now. Who’s strong enough to break it? Who’s cutting it off at the knee? Who’s breaking the iniquity of this devastation? That’s what destroyed our neighborhood.”



Arthur Giles (b. 1949)

Arthur Giles (right), pictured with his aunt in 1971. Courtesy of Arthur Giles.

“From [ages] 1-9 I lived on Fullerton St in the Lower Hill. Then after Fullerton St, in 1958 we left Fullerton St and moved to Chauncey Drive projects. My mother died from some sort of complications from gallstones. My mother would be alive today if they—they didn’t have the technology they do today. My father died from cancer of the stomach. I was 11 when my mother died, 12 when my father died, 13 when my aunt died. So it was either live with my sister, or live with my cousin. I stayed with my cousin for four years, then I went in the Army.

Most of my life I was a street person. You learn a lot in the streets. Everything I know I learned in the streets. I always had to hustle. I started to get into the game, but I had got put into juvenile court for messing around. Me and my step-father had got in a fight. Then they had me for a whole bunch of other sh—t. So they said if you join the Army we won’t send you nowhere. So I joined the Army and…I started seeing all my buddies that was in the drug business start killing each other. I said, “Whooo, good thing I ain’t get into that.' 

When I came out the service [in 1971], the Hill was still goin’ on. What kilt the Hill was gun violence. Murder. That gun stuff. That’s what kilt the Hill. ‘Cuz all the bars that were on the Hill were still there. And then they started shooting, and one thing led to another and everything left. [The] 70s is when Centre Avenue started closing, getting bars closed down. People changed. [The Hill] was the last place that had unity. It was the last place that had respect. All that’s gone now. Tell you the truth, when your environment is gone, you be in limbo. That’s [where I am] right now. Death don’t even bother me. ‘Cuz the world I’m used to is gone.”

Carlos peterson (b. 1949)

Photo taken from the house on the corner of the former Tannehill Street and Webster Avenue. Crawford Street is in the distance at the base of the dark pole, and the Civic Arena is to the left of it. Vacant buildings such as this were often used as shooting galleries. Photo by Carlos Peterson, 1990.

In the spring of 1956, headlines called it “slum clearing” that forced us from Elm Street to a rundown tenement on Clay Way. While over eight thousand people made way for the planned civic auditorium project, my mother searched but couldn’t find affordable housing elsewhere. Subsisted by public welfare, my family stayed put. So began my journey through different addresses throughout the Hill District.

Having left the Hill in 1970, every visit revealed a changing landscape. Consequences from rioting and ten years of calculated neglect showed on the neighborhood. At times, I felt like a tourist searching for landmarks that no longer existed, particularly around Protectory Place and Wylie Avenue. The Hill, at least that small part of it, seemed caught in a transitional period of being and becoming. Weeds outlined spaces where junked cars rusted. Telegraph poles stripped of wires and cable no longer laced avenues to streets. Twisted pipe and crumbled walls appeared as odd-shaped tombstones marking block-long plots where homes once stood. Vann’s Hotel was a distant memory, and bulldozers shadowed the façade of the Palace Hotel Bar.

I preferred the decrepit places that bulged or leaned to one side or another. I explored garbage-filled first floors with piss-stained mattresses. Sometimes the destitute scurried about, appearing as ghostly shadows, they made it seem that I’d stumbled into a nightmare. Having a camera or a sketchpad with me justified being there. Sometimes it seemed as if I was watching a loved one departing. At times, grief outweighed any desire to sketch or to make a photograph. At length, visits induced stability and a sense of order. Serenity in solitude provided a sense of place and belonging. My art is not a reflection of the neighborhood. It is reflective of the anxiety that resulted from it. Even so, being in those places triggered an inner stillness that exposed self-pity that pushed me there, mostly, homesickness for the Lower Hill. Poverty and crumbled bricks are what I remembered most.