Pittsburgh has long been considered a city of neighborhoods, from hip Lawrenceville to traditional Deutschtown. One of the town’s most historic areas is the Hill District, a collection of neighborhoods located northeast of downtown Pittsburgh. The city’s first black district, this uptown neighborhood was once a mecca of arts and culture, with a strong sense of community. It was known by many names: Little Harlem, Little Haiti and “the crossroads of the world.” However, it was all but lost to urban renewal in the 1950s. Read on to find out more about the rich history of this iconic Pittsburgh area.
The Early History of The Hill
This city within a city was born of the marriage of two catalysts: the desire to have a better life and the demand for steel mill workers as men went off to fight in World War I. Recently-freed black men and women found a home in the Hill and quickly made it their own.
A Cultural Icon
From the 1930s until the 1950s, the Hill District was known as the “crossroads of the world.” Music, art, culture and commerce thrived in Little Harlem. The Hill boasted the only all-black radio station, its own weekly newspaper (the Pittsburgh Courier), and a vibrantly active jazz scene. The photographer for The Pittsburgh Courier was Teenie Harris, whose work can still be seen today at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Neighborhood nightclub The Crawford Grille boasted such jazz greats as John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. The owner of the club also owned one of Pittsburgh’s first and only negro league teams, The Pittsburgh Crawfords, which included famous players such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. African-American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker even opened a beauty parlor and school in The Hill. It seemed the Hill District was set to become one of the area’s strongest and most vibrant historical communities.
Declining Economy and Urban Renewal
After World War II, the housing in the Hill was slated for redevelopment due to aging housing conditions. However, this process was not planned out well, and the lives of the local people were disrupted as the renewal got under way. Over 8000 residents (as well as 400 local businesses) were displaced, and the area’s access to the downtown economy was cut off. A new arena and parking lot were built in an area that predominantly black families had once called home. The civil unrest and violence of the late 1960s added fuel to the fire, and soon The Hill had deteriorated into a shell of its former self. By 1990, 71 percent of the community’s residents and a majority of its businesses were gone. Vacant lots and decrepit buildings replaced the colorful and vibrant Hill that had once been such an integral part of the city of Pittsburgh.
The Hill District Today
However, the story is far from over. These days, the Hill can be seen garnering local attention as residents both old and young strive to preserve its culture. Public interest groups are working diligently to restore the Hill to its former glory and bring the neighborhood’s residents out of poverty. A new grocery store was finally built in 2013, and both a YMCA and local library have recently joined the community. Newly renovated housing is being built all throughout the district, and a long restoration project is in the works for a historic jazz club. A charter school has also been opened in the area, with great success. As recently as June 2017, a pedestrian park was announced that will connect downtown with the Hill District and celebrate its unique and vibrant history.
Despite the struggles of the past, the Hill District is looking toward the future — and we’re all a little bit brighter for it.
When I think of the Hill District, I always think of Willie Stargell’s homeruns bringing “Chicken on The Hill”
All Pro fried chicken, if you were in store when he hit a home run you got free chicken. Those were the go ole days my friend
I remember going to Pirate games where the chant was, “Spread some chicken on the hill, Will, “ whenever Stargell was up to bat.
Born in 1944 and raised in the Hill district, I would love to return to my old streets and explore my roots at A Leo Wyle School, Terrace 1 and 2., Elmore Square, Grove And Burrows Street. At my last attemp, before I left to live in Colorado, I was warned by a concerned gentleman, the Hill was not a safe place. He recommended I leave immediately! So, are you saying, a person can move around those areas and be out of harms way? Nancy
Hi Nancy. Your post about the Hill District brought back memories, I went to A Leo Weild school, lived in the Projects on Burrows St, and oh yes, Herron Hill and Schenley High school
When I think of the Hill District, I think about the stores, bars and other businesses on every other corner of each street that no longer exist. Because technology, it was fun and safe to play outside and gun violence didn’t a thought. I went to basket ball games when 5th Avenue was opened and also went to Ozanam after school. There were many places to go daily, Ammons, Ozanam, the old YMCA on 2621 Centre Avenue and Y-Bop on Friday!
Betty Murphy In the early 1950’s wasn’t the TB League Hospital there?
Betty Murphy Oswaltirish1931@gmail.com
Does anyone know where Elm street was?
In 1953 I lived on Elm Street in a 5 story bldg at the corner of Elm and Clark Street. It was the tallest bldg in that area and there was a vacant lot in front of it. If you were coming from downtown going east on Fifth Avenue it was on the left side of Fifth Avenue and ran parallel to fulton street. When you started up Elm Street going north, there was an alley on the right called Our way. A few yards further you came to clark street and if you kept going north you came to Webster Avenue.
When I was a kid – in the sixties – a lot of people said it wasn’t safe to go through “The Hill District.” I remember my folks driving through it and my aunt, from out of town, locking the doors. But I walked around in it many times, and enjoyed the area. It doesn’t mention the building of the Civic Arena, but that and “urban renewal,” the same kind that destroyed the neighborhoods around E. Ohio Street, destroyed the Hill as well. I’ve walked the streets there since – it’s nice to see some reinvestment there, though it’s not the same.
It saddens me to learn about the destruction of such a vibrant black community. I am working on putting a project together about the Hill District, its prime, its downfall, and what it means to be black in Pittsburgh both then and now. Would you be interested in talking to me about your experience as it pertains to this?
I can give you my experiences from childhood (1950) to when I left for the service (1966)
I lived on Locust street and then moved to Robinson Ct (Terrace Village) I attended Forbes Elementary, Frick Elementary & Schenley High School
My mother was a nurse at Passavant Hospital. As a child, I would take the streetcar down Center Avenue, from Neville street, walk up a big hill, can’t remember the street name, to meet her after work. I was never afraid. She always told me everyone knew I was her daughter, I was protected.
I grew up on the Hill Back in the late 60s and early 70s. I went to Mckelvey Elementary School and Robert L Vann Elementary School. My fond memories consist of Charlie Daniels Boxing Gym, Ammons, Civic Arena, Bethel AME Church where I attented, WAMO radio station, Webster Ave where I lived, and a number of truly missed friends, that I had growing up there. I’ve travel back a few times and was happy to see the improvements that are taking place now.
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Look forward to reading other comments and stories about the Hill.
My great, great and great grandparents lived in the Hill in the 19th century and the early 20th. Started what became Matthews International. One of my great uncles was a trolley conductor on the Wylie Ave. and the Bedford Ave. lines. I always wondered when the transition to a Black community happened.