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Rebirth of the Crossroads II: Planning for the Future of Arts in The Hill

What does a vibrant, impactful arts and culture community look like in the Hill? Yvonne McBride talks with the Hill District arts plan advisory committee about the legacy, present, and future of the arts in this historic neighborhood.

In “Rebirth of the Crossroads: The Past, Present, and Future of the Hill District Arts & Culture Community,” Yvonne McBride called for defining, rebuilding, and protecting the cultural legacy of our communities during this current climate of gentrification. Here, she continues this important conversation about the current and future state of The Hill’s arts and culture community, in dialogue with the Hill District  arts plan advisory committee.

In April of 2014, the Hill District Consensus Group (HDCG) gathered a group of artists and art lovers at the Hill House Association for a brainstorming session to invigorate the arts atmosphere for our neighborhood. Using the Hill District Master Plan as a reference for what the future arts and culture sector should look like, they began the process of developing a strategic arts plan.

For a closer look into this process, I spoke with Hill District residents and members of the Hill District arts plan advisory committee: Educator, social worker, and Co-Director for the Hill District Consensus Group (HDCG), Dr. Bonnie Young Laing; Senior Program Officer for The Heinz Endowments, Justin Laing; and Program Associate for Hill District Development Corporation (Hill CDC), Diamonte Walker.

Hill District arts plan committee

Hill District arts plan committee

What are the key goals and outcomes for the Hill District arts planning process?

BONNIE LAING: To promote arts in The Hill, to promote the work of Hill District artists, and to make The Hill a destination place. We think that that’s a draw. That’s why people come here, that’s why people want to stay here, because they want to get that certain vibe or experience. It’s also an attempt to preserve African American culture as part of the legacy of the Hill District, because with the displacement pressure and gentrification pressure, the concern is that the culture of the community will change, so this is a way to combat that. It’s not that we don’t welcome other people, but we want to welcome folks who have a certain kind of culture appreciation.

JUSTIN LAING: We hope to encourage people in the community to get more involved in arts and culture in the neighborhood, and to increase the activity of arts and culture. Actually you can’t increase culture, culture is always there. So increase art and enrich culture in the neighborhood.

DIAMONTE WALKER: Yes, for the current artists to restore that culture or create a new legacy so that our children will be able to value and embrace the new artwork and culture environment the same way that we appreciate the legacy our predecessors left for us. Also, to increase the visibility of neighborhood artists, to see the work of Hill District artists reflected more in the community. I would love more of an exchange and engagement of the arts between area artists and residents.

What does the information and data gathered so far indicate?

JUSTIN LAING: There’s a real interest of artist experiences for the youth. The community is unanimous about that. And I know as a parent of The Hill, there’s a real challenge to find activities for your child. Even the activities that are available, like the Hill Dance Academy Theatre–I know about because I’m a part of the funding apparatus. But I’m not sure that if you’re a parent of the Hill, you know that that program is there. The second piece is that a lot of people said they want good art experiences overall, and they’re not really attached to whether that experience comes from dance or music or a museum or visual arts. They want things that they’ll enjoy, and their interests are diverse.

Jazz Greats mural

“Jazz Greats,” by Kyle Holbrook; 2037 Centre Ave. (photo by sarah huny young)

I’d like to go back to your first point. Growing up on The Hill, we had The Kay Boys Club on Wylie Avenue, the Hill House had dance and music classes, Ozanam had a year-round recreation and arts program for children, teens, and young adults. These buildings are still here and operating in some capacity. So why do you think they’re not offering the same arts programming and environment for the youth today? And do you think the community has failed our children in that regard?

BONNIE LAING: Yeah, when I was a kid growing up here, there were a lot of different arts programs in schools and various centers, but right now there are not many places you can go. Kids barely get any arts in the school at all. [But] I don’t lay that at the community’s feet. The powers that be decide what should be funded and what shouldn’t be funded, and arts have been very low on the totem pole. So I really wouldn’t place the blame on community institutions because a lot of folks have been de-funded. There needs to be a shift in the priority that’s given to arts as a mechanism to revive communities. It’s more of an indirect route perhaps, but it’s still important.

JUSTIN LAING: So this is what I mean by level of awareness to what we do have. Inside of Ammon Recreation Center, we have a program called ACH Clear Pathways [founded by Tyian Battle]…

BONNIE LAING: I mean, if you’re a dancer, yeah, you have a couple of places to choose from. Hill Dance Academy Theatre is bringing together artists. Ujamaa Collective, they’re bringing artists together in different ways, and Kim El is doing work with young playwrights. So there are a lot of people who are doing work separately. But if you have other interests, like ceramics and stuff like that, your choices are limited. So that’s the kind of stuff that I would like to see.

We have two artists. Our son is a student at CAPA studying visual arts, and when the Hill House arts afterschool program was still active, our daughter took piano lessons from Ms. Beckham. She was one of her last students. So there have been arts here, and it has been important. But when we look for arts activities for our children, we have to go outside of our community. They have to go the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts or the Father Ryan Arts Center, and I think, “Why do we have to go so far away to enjoy the arts when I live in the sea of culture?”

And if you look right now at the issue of violence, one of the key mediums that the youth in our community are using are these YouTube accounts, where they’re making their own music, creating their own art, and singing about stuff like weapons and guns and drugs. And these videos that they’re making, they’re extremely popular among our youth. So our kids have a desire to be artistic, that impulse is still there. But they’re doing it in these very dark spaces, without the guidance of adults, and without the guidance of people who don’t hold such a small worldview. So it’s coming out in a very negative way. There’s a West African proverb that says, “Teach a boy to dance or he’ll destroy a community,” and I think that’s literally what we’re experiencing now.

JUSTIN LAING: We also had Ozanam Strings, if you remember. There was the Hill House, and Nego Gato, and in all those cases they were led by individuals without a collective entity behind them. So when Ms. Beckham died, then the Hill House arts program went away. When Ozanam closed, Ozanam Strings went away, and with Nego Gato, I left and pretty soon that was gone. The Hill CDC pays attention to physical development, but there isn’t a collective of people who are committed to the development and maintenance of arts in the neighborhood. So that’s part of the reason. If the [programming] is always dependent on individuals, then it’ll be somewhat random. Maybe if we had a Hill society of arts group–like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has the Friends of the PSO who makes sure they have a symphony. [A society of arts group] would keep [Hill District] arts alive and present, instead of depending on individuals for consistency.

Jazz mural, 2201 Wylie Avenue (photo by sarah huny young)

“Listening Through Time,” Chris St. Pierre & Jordan Monahan; 2201 Wylie Avenue (photo by sarah huny young)

Since you’ve already established a Hill District arts plan committee and have begun the groundwork to gather data and create the goals for an arts plan, will the consensus group or the arts committee take this society on as your project?

BONNIE LAING: Yes, ultimately the arts plan is going to need a home, and that’s part of the discussion. So is the home within an existing institution that’s advised by a community group? Or is the home an institution built up around this plan? We’ll see. Maybe it could be Thomas Chatman’s group [Pittsburgh Cultural Arts Collective], or maybe the Hill House has to take it on. I would love for the arts community to own the plan and make it happen because they’re the ones who have the real talent to launch and to breathe life and vitality into it.

JUSTIN LAING: But I definitely think it needs somebody, at least one person, who is inspired to keep convening and keep it going. I think it should go wherever there’s a person who says, “I want to do two years of hosting this committee and keeping this work happening.” That’s where it should go.

There needs to be a shift in the priority that’s given to arts as a mechanism to revive communities.
Justin, as a representative of the funding community, what role do you think funders have in creating this artist environment?

JUSTIN LAING: I think the funding community should be looking at supporting the development of arts in neighborhoods to help us balance out the ecology. The philanthropic community in general has invested a lot of its resources into the Cultural District. But how can we enrich other cultural centers, or–there’s a phrase we like to use at Heinz called culture kitchens. So, do people have the place to cook up the culture artifacts that are there in that community? Do they have the tools, the cultural kitchens to make it and to create the greatest art they can? If not, the funding community has to make a commitment to meet these needs. And I also think that communities have to create visions for themselves and advocate for what they need as well. Then [they can] call on a funding structure and keep that funding structure going.

Since you brought up community responsibility, in what ways should the community contribute to the growth and sustainability of its arts culture?

JUSTIN LAING: We all need to pay more attention to the artists who are already in our neighborhood and make more of an attempt to support the art that they share with us. It’s challenging, though, because a lot of us feel like art is for sophisticated people–and I blame that on the arts industry, I don’t blame that on residents. We have a lot of unlearning to do around that. If people feel like art is what happens Downtown, and they don’t like what’s Downtown, they’re going to feel like art is not for them. So it’s up to those of us who do get inspiration from that. It falls on us to try and show that art doesn’t have to be foreign.

BONNIE LAING: And at the same time, you have a whole generation of people who haven’t been given the same kind of arts appreciation education. Like for me, to be able to appreciate art, I have to have some exposure to it. I have to have some sense of the differences within arts… and I don’t want to just go to the theater; I want to see something about me. Where am I in this story? And that’s what our kids see too when they celebrate art or when they go to a museum or play or whatever. They don’t see us; they see some other folk. So there’s a market here; we just have to decide how to capture it.

If we find a way to engage the youth of the community, and the people themselves, people will come. Whether it’s [their] cousin or [their] baby, they’ll go to see their own people perform and they’ll pay for it. But it has to be something that they find of value. So in some ways, yes, the community could be more supportive, but it’s also important to think about ways to secure that support. To do that, we begin by asking how can I engage you in the arts? How can I expose you to arts? How can I give you more opportunities to create art and then display it?

Why is this project important to you?

BONNIE LAING: I wouldn’t say I’m an artist, but I’m definitely a culture girl. Pittsburgh is well known for the arts, and Black art from The Hill in particular, all across the country. But there’s not a lot of support and infrastructure to keep that legacy going and [aside from the August Wilson Center] there are not a lot of places to celebrate African American culture in this city in a major way. Black folk need some place that’s theirs and that reflects who they are, so we’re not visitors in our own space. If that’s something that we could add to the landscape, that would be great. That’s what we’re trying to do.

DIAMONTE WALKER: You can tell a lot about a place through the art of its people. Throughout time, art has been used to give us insight into past cultures. We learned how prehistoric man lived, about their culture, and what they had to endure from what they drew inside the walls of their caves. Artists are supposed to be the mirrors and storytellers of our communities. But right now, the media controls the narrative of the Hill District. I want to see art drive the narrative of what our community is all about, as opposed to the media. So that those who are unfamiliar with the area will have an accurate picture of who we are and what we represent.

August Wilson mural

August Wilson mural by Kyle Holbrook; 2037 Centre Ave (photo by sarah huny young)

What does a healthy, vibrant Hill District arts community look like to you?

JUSTIN LAING: To me, it’s a place where talented and interested children can walk to the arts activity of their choice. It’s a place that has an annual festival that features Hill District and other artists, where we all come out and see each other, and we have three days of great buzz around the Hill District and arts. It’s a place where 25 artists get together at each other’s houses regularly to collaborate and improve each other’s work. It’s a neighborhood that has philanthropic money and state money and national foundation money and individual donations pouring into it. It’s a place where people come tour studios because some visual artist is doing important work that they’ve come to see. It’s a place where when someone like Jorge Meyers creates an installation, the URA doesn’t tear it down, and the whole world sees how brilliant that artist is [and] what we had and what we’ve just lost. It’s a place where young artists are mentored by older artists, and Black artists from other parts of the country want to come be a part of our community, because it’s a fresh community.

About the Author

Author, oral historian, and Pittsburgh native Yvonne McBride is inspired by her love for storytelling, folklore, and the rich, musical history of her hometown. She is currently working on a novel based in The Hill District during its golden era of jazz.

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