The Hill District and August Wilson’s Fences
Published by John Good for Bath Theatre Royal, 20.02.2013
Nine of August Wilson’s ten Pittsburgh Cycle plays are set in the strip of central Pittsburgh – less than half a square kilometre in size – called the Hill District. Wilson himself was born there, on Bedford Avenue, in 1945. He grew up with his five siblings in a two bedroom apartment above a grocery store. “I set them in Pittsburgh, I guess, because that is what I know best,” he later told one academic.
The one exception is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the second of the cycle, which takes place in Chicago. According to the University of Pittsburgh’s Christopher Rawson, at that time, in 1984, Wilson “hadn’t yet realised the Hill could so completely epitomize black America.”
In the late 1840s, farmland once owned by the grandson of Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn, was brought and subdivided by Thomas Mellon, who sold the individual plots for a tidy profit. It was here that immigrants from Europe’s ghettos flooded between 1870 and 1890 – first Jews, then Italians, Syrians, Greeks and Poles – displacing the original, mostly German and Scotch-Irish, inhabitants.
Black and African Americans started arriving in the Hill District from 1880 onwards, many of them runaway slaves lured in by industry recruiters promising relief from the South’s rigid segregation laws. Most took up residence in the Haiti neighbourhood, which later became Lower Hill.
The result was, according to local resident Walter Worthington, “an ethnic and racial melting pot.” Others went further: Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay called it “the crossroads of the world;” local Radio DJ Mary Dee, “the intersection of the universe.” Only at such a junction could Wilson’s German father Frederick August Kittel have met Daisy Wilson, an African American woman originally from North Carolina.
However, things weren’t always so harmonious. Pittsburgh welcomed its white immigrants with open arms – many started small businesses – but its black residents struggled for similar opportunities. Most laboured in nearby mines and mills. By 1946, a third of white Pittsburghians owned homes compared to only 12.7% of black families. In Wilson’s plays, those that buy houses do so with lucky gambling wins or, as in Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun, inheritance money.
Lower Hill was overcrowded, poor and rife with tuberculosis. Nonetheless, black culture began to thrive. The Pittsburgh Courier, America’s first major black newspaper, was born and local black baseball team Pittsburgh Crawfords regularly topped the Negro National League. The Hill itself became a jazz powerhouse, affectionately known as Little Harlem. The Hurricane Lounge and the Crawford Grill (Lyons gigs there in Fences) hosted legends like Kenny Clarke, Ramsey Lewis and Oscar Peterson. “It was the place for those who would woo the midnight muse,” Courier editor Frank Bolden wrote of the Grill.
However, that didn’t satisfy the City Council. In 1943, councillor George E. Evans said, “Approximately 90 per cent of the buildings in the area are substandard and have long outlived their usefulness…There would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.”
In 1955, the Council allocated $17.4 million to redevelop Lower Hill, clearing 95 acres and razing 1300 structures to make way for commercial and cultural amenities. “From their debris,” wrote the then director of the Pittsburgh Housing Association, “will arise modern structures set amid lawns and broad walks.”
Bulldozing began in 1957, the year that Fences begins. 8000 people were displaced – 1,239 black families and 312 white; among them, Wilson’s own family, forced to nearby Hazelwood, a predominantly white middle-class neighbourhood where they endured regular racism. Relocatees faced insufficient affordable public housing and little compensation. 90 families refused to move and wound up in substandard accommodation. By then, according to local paper the Pittsburgh Press, “The Hill…was completely worn out, like an old pair of shoes that has gone its last mile.” Even the then mayor admitted, “It has been ripped apart.”
As with Troy and his sons, the battle was between home and leisure, preservation and progress. In place of residential housing came the vast Civic Arena, the world’s first stadium with a retractable roof. From 1961, it hosted the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera – hardly catering to the locale – and, six years later, housed the city’s NHL team, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Hill’s redevelopment was hardly a success. Displaced residents harboured resentment and racial tensions simmered. In 1968, three years after Fences ends, riots erupted in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Any remaining hope burst and over seven days in early April, the Hill District suffered 505 fires, $620,000 of property damage, 926 arrests and one death. It never really recovered.
Today, 40% of Hill District residents, the majority of whom are black, live below poverty level. The area has been without a grocery store for 30 years, though one is awaiting construction. Across Pittsburgh, home-ownership remains skewed: in 2000, 72% of white residents own homes and only 39% of black residents. August Wilson was an artist, not a surveyor, but in Fences and the rest of the Pittsburgh Cycle, Hill District is more than just a backdrop. It’s a character – if not the protagonist – in its own right.