Homecoming: Hill District, USA
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The Plan

With the ‘70s, major cracks begin to show in the foundation of the Hill’s housing policies.

Carl Redwood (b. 1953)

1971 photo of Carl Redwood Jr. Courtesy of Carl Redwood Jr.

The system has this long history of racially discriminatory housing policy, which goes back to restrictive covenants, redlining—all those kinds of things—and they continue in new forms today. In the 1950’s there were 50,000 people in the Hill District, and in the 1950’s the majority of people in the Hill District became African-American, or black. Prior to that there were all kinds of nationalities in the Hill. In the ‘50s the plan was put forward to get rid of the Hill from Downtown to Herron Avenue. I would argue that's still the plan.

In 1950 there were 50,000 people in the Hill. What happened is the Lower Hill was torn down to build parking lots. 8,000 people were displaced, and hundreds of businesses. Many of those people were displaced to public housing ‘cause public housing was not new, but it existed. For a lot of black families that was the only place you could go in [the 1950’s]—you couldn't move to a lot of places ‘cause there would be this big backlash. So a lot of people went from renting in the Lower Hill, to renting in the projects, and the projects were predominately black. By 1970 we're down to 28,000 people. By 1990 down to 15,000 people.

[In the 70s], at least two things happened. One, there was definitely an attack on activism, and over time the FBI and other forces were able to kill and arrest a lot of leaders that were part of the movement. The other thing that happened was there was a strong push to bring drugs into black communities. That helped to misdirect a lot of the young people’s energy away from potentially revolutionary kind of activities into, well—into just trade. All that was going on. It's a long protracted struggle that has to be waged. I think many of us thought that something was getting ready to happen, but it takes a longer time to change a whole system that's based on oppression.

 

 

Carol Hardeman (b. 1958)

A portion of Carol Hardeman’s family in the 1970s, including her sisters, her grandmother Odeal Franklin (far right), and mother Welzetta Hardeman (second to right). Courtesy of Carol Hardeman.

My grandmother originally was from Homestead. She was [21] years old when she bought the home I now live in. So over 70 years my mom has lived in that house, raised us. Old school people and wisdom people like my grandmother n’em always used to say it’s the plan. It’s a part of their plan. Growing up I’m like, ‘What plan grandma?’ [She’d say] ‘It’s the plan for them to get this Hill back.’ Now I grew up in the 60s and the 70s, so I heard this all the way through. While I was in high school, there would be businessmen, white men, knocking on the door. [She] used to say, whatever happens to me, never sell this house.

My mom and my dad had divorced by the time I was 11 or 12. And then that’s when you start hearing the single parent sorta thing. So there were several single parents in my neighborhood, but there wasn’t a time when a man that lived on our street wasn’t out there playing football, playing pitch. There wasn’t never a time when adults weren’t taking time, with a man teaching a boy to become a man. Growing up, even when I was going to all my little neighborhood parties right here in the Hill, you could party in the Hill all night. All night. We had YBOP, we had parties over here at the Hill House, we had parties at the K Boys Club, House of Culture, [the] Y. There was always something to do on the Hill.

I graduated high school in the 70s and I wanna say truthfully, our generation dropped the ball. We did. People in the 60s, they fought for us and brought us along the way. But when we got up there we were on a whole other thing. After the riots I remember James Brown making the song ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ but I think we took it to another level. I think James Brown was saying be black, be proud, but don’t be crazy. We just took it to, it’s my thing I do what I wanna do. Now, we changed the game, but I think we let our guard down a little too much.

 

 

Ruth Thomas (b. 1961)

A group of school age young ladies at the Wylie Avenue Hill Library c. 1974. Courtesy of the Carnegie Library - Hill District Branch.

“My mother’s family migrated here, they were from Opalaka, Alabama, and they migrated here when I think my mother mighta been about three. But they were down there when they were lynching and everything. I know in her younger ages they were down by the old Civic Arena on Foreside St, before they did that eminent domain and moved all the people up toward towards Francis. I think from Francis my grandmother moved up on Somers. Her life [in Pittsburgh], she remained in the Hill.

I grew up in the Hill, Robinson Court. That was public housing, closer to Oakland. We were one of the first black families to move up there. When we moved on Robinson Court there was a lot of white people that lived there, but once they started moving [us] in, they started moving out. So you knew it was built segregated. Once they start moving the black families, black families, black families—not that it was going down, but sooner or later the University wanted to take it over.

[The Hill] is a rich place. It’s proof that it’s rich, because now they’re offering you a easy way out. The taxes is goin’ crazy so that you could move out. If you really think about, they’re offering lower mortgage rates in other communities—it seems appetizing or appealing so you could move out. However, I been over here all my life. I like where I live. We’re empty nesters, so me and my husband are here, and [we] like where we are. Every couple days we come home and there’s something on our door about do you wanna sell or do you wanna buy? ‘We Buy, We Fix Up,’ or whatever. But we fix up our own. We’ll be here until they take over it.

 

 

Arlene Williams (b. 1936)

Two women table for the services available to all citizens and Hill residents through the Hill House Center at the Wylie Avenue Library c. 1974. Courtesy Carnegie Library - Hill District Branch.

“What happened was housing authorities decided they would hire people to become police officers that lived in lower income housing. I didn’t have a job, and didn’t have the education like going to college and everything, so they’d given [me] a chance to be someone. It was a job. I had six kids, they had to be fed. I got a job, I’m gone keep it as long as I can. That’s how I felt about it. You ask me [if] my ambition was to be a police when I was a little girl? No. It came with the territory.

I moved to Waring Court February, ’68. Waring Court was in Terrace Village II. To your left going to Kennard Field from A. Leo Weil school is Waring Court. Was, Waring Court. It takes a whole village to raise a kid. Waring Court was the village. Everybody’s kid respected everybody’s mother and father. If you go up there now, you wouldn’t know where Waring Court was. Where I lived, I can’t find it. I’m not looking for it. I don’t want to see it. It’s nothing like where I raised my kids. They don’t even wanna go back there, it’s so different. It doesn’t bring back memories when I look at what I see. I don’t see no reason to go, there’s no memories. When I go there and look—the steps on Burrows St., the bus stop? There’s no steps, no bus stop, no Burrows St. I just don’t go. I refuse to even want to. I can’t place my apartment. Above the steps, second floor, on the left. Can’t place it.

Now I left Waring Court before I even quit work. They told me I was crazy paying $800 a month rent and I didn’t have the things I shoulda had for $800. So I decided to move. From Terrace we moved to Crawford Square. Then we left Crawford Square and moved to Elmore Square. And that’s when I bought my house. My children want me to come live with them. They live in the suburbs. I ain’t no suburb person! I wanna be on the Hill! My son said ‘Why don’t you wanna come—’ [and I said] ‘No!’ If I want quiet, I woulda asked for quiet. I live with noise, I work with noise, I want noise. I still am where I wanna be. And I’ll be here until they kick me out. Or take me out feet first. One or the other.”

 

 

Patricia Peay (b. 1945) & Debbie Atkins (b. 1954)

Pat and Debbie’s mother, c. 1960s. Courtesy of Pat Peay and Debbie Atkins.

Debbie: “My parents were hard workers. My mother worked for the school board and my grandmother worked for the school board, so we were raised to know that you're getting up and you have responsibilities. My dad played with the Negro Leagues. In fact, he's in the Encyclopedia of the Baseball Leagues. Joseph O. Atkins. On my father's side, his parents were from Mobile, Alabama. My mother's side, those people were from Virginia. They moved North too, looking for the Promise Land. They came here to work. We would always have a roomer from somebody coming up from Virginia to get started. My grandmother, and grandfather, and family would take them in until they could get on their feet. So that's how we lived. It wasn't just our family. It was most families in the community. It was so much fun.

Pat: “When we lived in the Middle Hill on Rose Street, it was a very, very all black neighborhood. And then when we moved to Robinson St., we were the first black family on Robinson. That was in 1956. The summer of '56. There was another black family that lived on a cross street, Terrace [St.]. My father told us when he bought this house, ‘Now, remember this house is for you all. Anybody ever need to come home they can come home.’ And this house has been just that. We've all checked in, some of us don't check out. But I think we have done our job. We've taken care of the sick, the elderly, the dying.  

Debbie: [Now] we're moving. We're going to sell the house. It is bittersweet because I'm the one that sat there every day saying, "‘I'm not selling this house. I'm not doing it.’ I'm happy for the students that they don't have to live on campus and they can live in a home atmosphere, but it's not helping our community at all to see cans and trash and couches and clothes and abandoned TVs. That's not how we're used to living. Everybody had beautiful lawns and flowers and nice lawn furniture and things of that nature. I dislike how it's changing. I really do. Nobody takes any pride in their homes and things anymore, you know? That's what saddens me.’

Pat: We're getting older ourselves. Our children are going to be living in all other places. The choice with this house is either stay here and keep patching it up, and have quantity but no quality. We decided she’s going to go do her thing, I'm going to do mine. We're it. We're the last of the people to come home. So now it's time for us to take care of ourselves. So bittersweet. We're excited, looking forward to the new change. Sad about what happened, but very confident.”