Homecoming: Hill District, USA
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The Pressure

The 80s bring a struggle to hold on to community in the face of new, major challenges.

Bomani Howze (b. 1974)

(Left to right) “Three the Hard Way”—Salim Howe, Patrice Howze (Rest in Peace), and Bomani Howze c. 1980. Courtesy of Bomani Howze.

“My twin brother Salim Howze and I were born at 1:28am and 1:32am on March 13, 1974, at Magee Hospital. Our little bro Patrice Howze came shortly after in ‘75. My mother Tamanika Howze was the bedrock. She was the community mother. Even to this day people call her Mother-Sister. My brothers from another mother simply call her, “Ma.” Growing up in that household, she was just always educating us. Educating us about our history, educating us on how to survive out of the entrapments of—I shouldn’t say poor housing policies, but deliberately entrapping policies (segregation, Redlining, etc.). She was full of love, and full of activism. I would always hear the stories of the ‘60s; the activism of my father Sala Udin, and the leadership my father had at that time. My father was the type to lead out front. Create new initiatives, new movements, new institutions.

152 Reed Roberts Place, Apt 6E. It was like the jewel of the Hill to me. It was liked disguised public housing—modular units that weren’t even built to last more than 10 years, but they ended up lasting for decades. Hip-hop was very much at the center of my life in Reed and Roberts. All day everyday. Hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop. And this was in its rawest form. Live, outside, people [in the] early morning used to put their speakers in the windows and blast Public Enemy. Run DMC. LL Cool J. Rakim Allah. Poor Righteous Teachers. The whole battles that were going on. This amphitheater—this hip-hop amphitheater—this front courtyard of Reed and Roberts was just a place where you could go, and you knew every day the music would be shared into the community. I was fully engaged in all the elements of hip-hop, and I was a true B Boy. That’s what I remember most about the ‘80s.

Five buildings, 14 apartments each building, three floors, walk ups. We were a village. It was a loving, loving community. Until the CIA and the Mexican cartels channeled crack cocaine into our neighborhoods. We know that now, but back then we didn’t know what was happening to our neighborhood. Hip-hop made the whole crack era…bearable. Because there was a way to escape it, and enjoy your childhood through music and dance and art. And it was all over the Hill. It was almost like the resurgence of what we had heard about in the Hill District renaissance. The ‘Little Harlem’ of old. It was live every single day. That was our era. That’s where I grew up. Today, I see my beloved Hill District as a canvas of Kuumba (creativity) of which I’m charged to to make more beautiful and beneficial than the way I inherited it.”

 

 

Diamonte Walker (b. 1981)

Diamonte Walker (pictured right) and her brother in their Francis Street living room c. 1980s. Courtesy of Diamonte Walker.

“I’ve experienced the Hill District across a very very wide spectrum. My first home in the Hill was on Francis St., which is no longer. It’s [now] an old parcel that I think HACP (Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh) owns. 2269 Somers Drive is where I grew up. For most people it’s for all intents and purposes the housing projects, but for us it was our playground, it was our laboratory, it was our boxing ring, and it was home. Even though we really didn’t own it, it didn’t keep us from saying that it was ours and it was a part of us.

There’s nothing shameful about living in public housing. There’s nothing that really intimidates me, and I wouldn’t have that if I didn’t have that place to grow up in. But [the projects] were really not designed to be a home—it didn’t feel like it. It was just somewhere the government sort of cobbled together using the same materials they used to build everything else, to build our housing. It was incumbent upon us to make it something more than that. You go from really loving this place, it shaped you, it’s cultivating you, but then you come against this reality that says ownership of the land matters when you’re talking about home. So we learn now that we may have been borrowing home for a very very long time, and not realizing it until you’re confronted with a decision. So every generation [in our family] from now on will think about ownership, regardless of where we start.

A few years ago I had started doing research on my family. In drilling down to those records, I started looking at the census records and found out that my great-great grandmother lived in a house on the same street that my husband and I decided to buy. After everything that my family kind of went through, [we’re] coming back full circle. Just driving by every morning I’m like wow, my family’s footprints are in the concrete. They were in this space, they were here, and they matter. So for everyday people like myself, our heroes are the people that sacrificed and made a way for us when things were virtually impossible. And their names may not be enshrined on buildings. But they’re there. So it’s nice to be able to go back and look at that and see how the decision my husband and I were able to make was predicated on our own history and we didn’t know it.”

 

 

Terrel Williams (b. 1981)

Terrel Williams (pictured, right) with his brothers. Courtesy of Terrel Williams.

‘You know how there’s a Captain America? My pops would be Captain Hill District. His name is Embry Williams, or Bunky Williams. He’s the ‘50s and ‘60s version of like, the super hood dude. He’s got stories for days. My mother, she’s in her 70s as well. Good, good lady. Met my pops at a party in the Hill District projects. Funny how that works out.

The first thing I remember [was] running around Elmore Square. The red bricks, all the little drug dealers and their cars, everything like that. Just seeing a lot of just people, doing 101 things. I remember starting off, Centre Avenue was packed. I remember seeing faces, and faces, just thinking, this is the life, you know? I remember what it was like before crack hit, and when crack hit, and how everything changed. It went from maybe a fun area like South Side, Carson Street., to being an area where you can get robbed, you can get drugs, you can get prostitutes, you can just generally draw the attention of the police. Before crack hit there was like fights and maybe a couple people got shot. But I remember after it hit it seems like it just went on a whole ‘nother level up Elmore Square. [Around] ‘86-88, things just went way left.

I went to Pitt. When I hit college I was angry. I was real angry. I’m trying to figure that out even to this day. I feel like it was the trauma of growing up, you know? It took a lot of painful things happening to get to where I am today. Me at 36, I feel like I’m 56 ‘cuz I feel like the ‘80s and ‘90s and ‘00s aged me like, quicker, from everything that happened. But when you hold on to something—whether it be God, or your ancestors, or your morals and ethics—if you can hold onto that regardless of what you go through, the world will either be impacted or it will change. My Hill District made diamonds from coal because there’s pressure on my Hill District. And [that] pressure, it’s either gonna make you or break you. God’s good because he made me, you know what I mean, through that. And I’m proud of where I came from.”

 

 

Tamiko Stanley (b. 1978)

Tamiko Stanley (pictured, right) with her mother Pamela Renee Seals-Stanley, and her sister. Courtesy of Tamiko Stanley.

“It’s interesting because I remember just being all over the Hill. My aunt lived down the street, my other aunt lived down the street the other way, and my grandmother was at the corner, my other grandmother was at the other corner where I wasn’t allowed to go. You were not to sneak to Centre Avenue. The younger kids with freedom would be down that way. The reputation of prostitution in that area. The reputation of young, attempting to be drug dealers down that direction. And of course what really, I think the main reason it was always seen why kids weren’t allowed down that way was there was always a lot of bars that were open down that end, during the day. But what made it difficult as a kid was that, that’s also where all the candy was, the fun stores, the video games, the arcade…so it was kinda like ‘Ohhh I wish I could go down there (chuckles).

I think for a long time it preserved what we were supposed to be in terms of a community. I remember just, that feeling that I’m gonna be on my best behavior because everyone knows everyone. And if you do something wrong my mom’s gonna find out. Or the person, whoever saw you is gonna address you because it’s just like one big family. And I don’t see that anymore. And it makes you wonder whether that physical change brought about that? Where did the sense of the community go? Regardless of how it looks or how it has evolved, logistically—what happened to that spirit of community? 

The more I started to pay attention, I started to realize we had no control over what happened to us as individuals. As citizens. I started to understand subsidized housing, and what that meant. Having this idea that even if I do really well and get a great promotion and a great range, that you make more, we’ll take more. So I thought of it as a vicious trap. That’s what it felt like to me. So I knew by 17 that the Hill District wasn’t as great as I thought it was. It almost started to turn into a jail to me as I started to pay attention to the fact that we had zero freedom over our advancement, when you think about it. And so, I started to view the Hill District differently. Less of this fun filled community full of family, more as a device or vehicle to keep people at a certain level of life.”

 

 

Clinetta Hill Jackson (b. 1975)

Clinetta Hill-Jackson pictured with her daughter on Bentley Drive. Courtesy of Clinetta Hill-Jackson.

“My grandma was known around the Hill. Josephine Ross. She ran the numbers a lot. She played the numbers a lot. She was a hustler. She was grandma to everybody. She took in any and everybody who needed a place to stay. [She] definitely [had] unconventional ways of raising kids and grandkids, but she would still be that grandma that baked cakes and cooked dinner. She was a little bit of both. [My mother is] from the Hill District also. She demanded respect at all times, but was really fair and firm—she was loving. She did anything for anybody.

I spent all of my young years and some of my young adult years on Bentley Drive. Everybody was watching you. No harm could come to you. You felt safe and you also knew that you couldn't get into much of nothing because they were going to tell. Everybody knew whose child you were, who you belonged to, what family you belonged to and they just kind of looked out. My mom used to work as a barmaid in different bars throughout the Hill, so a lot of people knew my mom that way. I'm glad that she was [strict] because I probably would have been a different kid. I was a good student, honor roll, scholar classes, all that fun stuff, [but] I was interested in the street life because lot of my family members were in the streets. She just pulled me back. She was not having it.

As I got older things started to change, and there was a lot more division amongst the people on the Hill. It may have been there all along but you start seeing it as you get older. We became selfish. It came with the times, the televisions. At one point we all had the same all-white sneaks on and it wasn't a big deal. It started out with the Adidas, the change in the clothing. ‘I need to get the freshest, the latest, the gold chains.’ When the attire started to change we became more flashy. At some point it was like, ‘No, we ain't friends no more. We beefing because you look like you got more than I do, or you said something, and then they just kept trying to top each other. Of course there was always that social-economic climb within. That's in every community. But in the process of wanting to be ‘it,’ everybody's focusing on themselves and forgot about everyone else.”