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Rebirth of the Crossroads: the Past, Present, and Future of the Hill District Arts & Culture Community

I am less concerned with the foreign ideas of what a healthy arts and culture sector looks like, than how we define, rebuild, and protect the cultural legacy of our communities during this current climate of gentrification.

On October 1st and 2nd The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council (GPAC) hosted two meetings to discuss what the city’s changing economics, new leadership, and neighborhood development means for the art communities of Pittsburgh. Topics for sessions included: what a healthy arts and culture sector looks like in Greater Pittsburgh; how might we collaborate to improve our communities; and, what is the role of a healthy arts and culture sector in creating communities where all citizens can thrive and prosper?

When I found out that another GPAC meeting was scheduled on October 9th to explore equity and inclusion in the arts, my initial reaction was, “Aren’t these the same conversations?” Why are they having a separate meeting to talk about equality and inclusion in the arts, when that should be one of the primary topics at the first two? After all, (let’s be honest) “changing economics” plus “new leadership” plus “neighborhood development” equals gentrification. And since most of Pittsburgh’s gentrification is occurring in areas predominantly populated by the African American minority, then the just and fair thing to do is to consider what is healthy and beneficial for the people who have lived there… for decades. Right?

As an African American artist in a city recently ranked as one of the least diverse cities in the nation, who has watched the just and fair concept above demolished to rubble during the takeover of other urban neighborhoods, I am less concerned with the foreign ideas of what a healthy arts and culture sector looks like, than how we define, rebuild, and protect the cultural legacy of our communities during this current climate of gentrification.

Else those planning the cultural conversions throw up a few buildings, catch a bad case of Spike Lee’s Christopher Columbus Syndrome, and act like they discovered an arts culture that’s been here for more than a century.

Fortunately, leaders and other artists of my community, The Hill District, saw the writing on the wall and have already begun laying the groundwork to cultivate and preserve our cultural institution.

Reconstruct

On the third floor of the historic Alma Speed Fox building on Wylie Avenue, an exchange of ideas, passion, and vision have merged to create The Pittsburgh Cultural Arts Collective. An organization comprised of resident artists who are dedicated to nourishing their individual careers, as well as the development, health, and growth of The Hill District cultural community.

“I see The Hill as a cultural institution. It’s important that we work to carry on its legacy and artistic integrity,” says Thomas Chatman, Founder and Executive Director of The Pittsburgh Cultural Arts Collective. “With the significant number of people who are rooted and connected to the area, paired with the emerging and established artists who have done and are doing phenomenal work, this neighborhood has tremendous potential to be the cultural center it once was.”

However, while The Hill’s mid-century notoriety was mainly attributed to its excellence in jazz and entertainment, what is dawning on the horizon is not the heyday of old. The present renaissance promises to embrace all spectrums of the arts including literature and visual arts, performing arts, and the African and Indigenous healing arts.

Why healing arts?

Chatman stresses that the intuitive practice of holistic and healing arts is especially needed in areas that are constantly battling violence, drug-addiction, and other health-related issues ignited by poor nutrition and lifestyle choices. The WholeHealth Network has been put in place to address these issues. It offers services such as nutrition counseling, massage therapy, and holistic wellness programs for individuals, community groups and organizations.

African dance and drumming classes in the Alma Speed Fox building have already begun, and students at Miller African Centered Academy also have the opportunity to participate in these activities during the after-school program that the Collective provides in partnership with the school.

By providing residents with a full arts education, leadership development, technical assistance and entrepreneurial foundation to succeed in their chosen art field, The Pittsburgh Cultural Arts Collective is striving to be more than just another performance art center.

“We want to raise the benchmark in terms of how skill is developed and how traditional art of the diaspora is presented,” says Chatman. “One of our primary goals is to not only cultivate talent, but to elevate it. To bring traditional arts to the Pittsburgh audience on a master level.”

Rebuild

Sharing Chatman’s vision for this cultural renaissance is Errol “Mobutu” Reynolds and Charlotte Ka, owners of the Mecca of Kulture & Art Gallery (MOKA), one of the first organizations to join the Collective.

Reynolds and Ka are currently restoring a building located on the corner of Centre Avenue and Reed Street. A building that has been abandoned for more than 40 years, my entire life. Upon completion, MOKA will serve as an art gallery and studio, music performance space, artist residency, and African culture center. Though the MOKA gallery will be an exciting and welcomed addition to the community, percussionist, sculptor, and MOKA musical director Errol Reynolds is no newcomer to the Hill District artist scene.

In the late seventies, Reynolds, along with other Pittsburgh artists, renovated an abandoned warehouse at 304 Dinwiddie Street and christened it The Archive Institute of Creative Art. Equipped with studios and an auditorium, The Archive provided community writers, artists, actors, and musicians a place to collaborate and perform. Reynolds remembers it as a mecca of activity, where musicians in town to play at the Crawford Grill would stop by and jam. And where playwrights August Wilson and Rob Penney came to hang out and create work.

Decades later, Reynolds finds himself investing in his neighborhood once again.

“We missed and longed for the rich diverse culture of art and music that was so vital to the Hill. We felt that because we lived through part of the Hill’s rich history and had extensive experience in the arts and music, that we should provide a space for another rebirth of culture,” says Reynolds.

When asked why they choose the Hill District to build instead of Garfield or one of the other neighborhoods that have already undergone a cultural facelift, artist director Charlotte Ka says, “Our goal is for MOKA to provide a breakthrough in thought concerning properties in the Hill District by providing to the community a beautifully designed and renovated property. Our desire is for this project to stimulate beautification rather than removal.”

With four floors primed for art exhibits and studios, a rooftop garden, and an outdoor space ideal for courtyard concerts in the spring — all beautifully designed by architect Chuck Culbertson — MOKA is an inspirational example for local artists looking for affordable and promising spaces to set up shop.

Rebirth

This summer, The Hill Community Development Corporation (Hill CDC) unveiled its redevelopment plans for the Middle Hill and — wouldn’t you know it — the plans include an arts & entertainment district, designed to attract visitors, strengthen business, and satisfy the needs and wishes of current residents.

Deemed CENTREflow, the project is set to run along Centre Avenue, reserving the blocks between Dinwiddie and Kirkpatrick Streets as the Cultural Centre.

After a layered and lengthy process of collecting input from the community, the Centre Avenue Steering Committee came up with a list of possible features for the A&E district including restaurants, arts supply and bookstores, a recording studio, and of course a jazz club. Anchoring the corridor will be the continued renovation of the New Granada Theatre, and where the #2 police station currently sits – Heritage Plaza. An area envisioned as a social gathering spot where visitors will be able to grab a sandwich from the cafe, sit and listen to live performances on their lunch break, or possibly visit a proposed African American living history and music museum. An institution that many in the Pittsburgh arts community agree is long overdue.

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Okay. I know this is beginning to sound like one of those timeshare pitches you’re forced to sit through after “winning” that three-day trip to Kalamazoo, so I’ll stop here. But I’m not trying to sell you anything. Nor am I trying to discourage anyone from attending equity-in-cultural arts meetings, because we get it. We value diversity and cross-cultural experiences as much as the next guy… When they benefit everyone.

What I am trying to do is show that we got this. That given the opportunity to determine what the future for our communities look like, and the access to the same resources that potential investors have (Yes, resources. Another conversation to be had at a later date), we are more than capable of cultivating our own arts and cultural gardens. What we would like is for imminent residents, artists, and developers to acknowledge and appreciate the strategic and concrete work that went into planting these seeds.

Long before they arrived.

So while the gentrification of our neighborhoods continue, the question on everyone’s mind won’t be how we fit into their plans of colonization — but rather how they can contribute to the rich, historic, and blooming arts culture which already exists.

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.

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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