August Wilson’s Pittsburgh – The New York Times


Eventually the Civic Arena, which many came to see as a harbinger of the community’s destruction, was torn down and replaced with the modern PPG Paints Arena. Half a block away, the Freedom Corner was dedicated in 2001, commemorating the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s who sought to maintain the Hill District. It is also a symbolic gateway to the neighborhood.

In 2006, a proposal to build a casino in the lower Hill District was overwhelmingly rejected by residents. To this day, the sphere of influence from downtown generally stops at Crawford Street, which for me was a jarring reminder of how ghosts from the past don’t easily dissipate.

Though much of Wilson’s Pittsburgh is gone, you could use his words to tour the district. I did so, led by Kimberly C. Ellis, a digital consultant and founder of the preservation-minded Historic Hill Institute, who is also the playwright’s niece. “The neighborhood has changed a lot,” she said, adding that “there is a renewed level of pride.”

Ms. Ellis took me to 1727 Bedford Avenue, where Wilson lived with his mother and most of his immediate family until he was almost 13. The brick building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is ringed by scaffolding. After its renovation, the house is slated to be the site of a multidisciplinary arts center, with an artist-in-residency program. We then saw her brother, Paul A. Ellis Jr., the executive director and general counsel of the August Wilson House. “This center is going to be an economic anchor for the entire Hill District, which is huge,” Mr. Ellis said. “It is a significant undertaking.”

Wilson used the house as valuable source material: It was the conceptual basis for “Seven Guitars,” which begins after a death and focuses on character and mortality.

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The Original Oyster House, which Wilson frequented.

Credit
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

I walked to the back of the house, to orient myself. In the play, the backyard is a meeting point for the characters, including Vera, who has conflicting feelings about the return of her musician ex-boyfriend, Floyd, and the down-to-earth neighbor Louise. I saw the cellar doors leading to the basement that Wilson described as storage space for the always eccentric Hedley.

Set in 1948, during Wilson’s early childhood, the play chronicles a time when many African-Americans were returning from serving in World War II but still faced inequality. Wilson never shied away from this sort of commentary, as it honestly tackled the African-American experience in a northern city, something that was often overshadowed by the overt oppression of the Jim Crow South. Being near the cellar reminded me of one of Hedley’s monologues, in which he laments the need to constantly defend his self-worth at a time of rigid racial norms.

“Everybody say Hedley crazy cause he black. Because he know the place of the black man is not at the foot of the white man’s boot. Maybe it is not all right in my head sometimes. Because I don’t like the world. I don’t like what I see from the people. The people is too small. I always want to be a big man.” — Hedley, “Seven Guitars”

The Bedford Hill Apartments, part of the Hope VI redevelopment plan, are across the street from Wilson’s home. The apartments were intended to create mixed-use housing in areas where public housing was predominant. It, too, appeared in one of Wilson’s plays. In “Radio Golf,” which focuses on gentrification, the “Bedford Hills Redevelopment, Inc.” exists.

Skepticism about the durability of minority political power is a theme in the play. In one scene, Harmond Wilks, an African-American real estate developer with mayoral ambitions, is speaking to Elder Joseph Barlow, known as Old Joe. Old Joe doesn’t think a presumptive African-American mayor would be allowed to have as much power as a white mayor. Harmond disagrees, but gives a witty retort: “Naw, I’m going to have all the keys and they’re going to have to make me some new ones. We are going to build up everything.”

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The main Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which nurtured Wilson’s intellectual curiosity.

Credit
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Ms. Ellis and I headed to the Upper Hill District and 809 Anaheim Street, where “Fences,” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, was filmed. It is a private residence, so there aren’t any tours. The facade is enough. Passing the tidy brick house, Mr. Wilson’s depiction of Troy echoed in my head, especially in a heated scene with his son Cory over a desire to play football. “See … you swung at the ball and didn’t hit it. That’s strike one. See, you in the batter’s box now. You swung and you missed. That’s strike one. Don’t you strike out!”

In the Middle Hill District, mostly along Centre and Wylie Avenues, are the remnants of the neighborhood’s golden age. Several buildings are ripe for renovation, but others have been demolished.

The Pittsburgh Weil School, where Wilson created the Black Horizon Theater with the playwright Rob Penny in 1968, continues to operate as a public school. At Black Beauty’s Lounge, a huge, colorful mural by Kyle Holbrook of Wilson and his plays is painted on the side of the building.

The building that formerly housed Lutz’s Meat Market, featured in “Two Trains Running,” stands vacant. In the play, an intriguing 1960s-era generational divide between Memphis Lee, who runs a diner, and Sterling, an aimless young man, breaks out in the open. Memphis is skeptical about the black power movement, while Sterling is curious about it. Memphis tells Sterling that African-Americans have to use the system that’s currently available and work within it, despite its flaws. “Freedom is heavy,” he says. “You got to put your shoulder to freedom. Put your shoulder to it and hope your back hold up. And if you around here looking for justice, you got a long wait.”

The New Granada Theater, originally built as a fraternal lodge and designed by Louis A. S. Bellinger, one of Pittsburgh’s first African-American architects, has been in disrepair for years. Despite this, it’s a stunning structure, and as Ms. Ellis noted, the theater often hosted musical legends including Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

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