The Hill District: Still waiting for something great to happen

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A once thriving community

In Pittsburgh’s boom years, the Hill was a thriving working class neighborhood with a vibrant cultural life and bustling commercial areas. Dotted with iconic restaurants, theaters and bars, many of the great names of the jazz era came to play there.

But even at its height, many Hill District buildings were poorly built and badly maintained.

When the city began redeveloping Downtown in the 1950s, eastward expansion seemed logical to city leaders. A survey of buildings in the Hill District revealed that many were old and dilapidated, sometimes even lacking indoor plumbing.

This state of affairs prompted City Council member George Evans to write in 1943, “Approximately 90 percent of the buildings in the area are substandard and have long outlived their usefulness, and so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.”

If urban renewal had continued as planned, even more of the Hill would have been razed.

“There was so much good intention,” said Justin Miller, a city planner who has studied blueprints and maps of the 1943 planned developments around the Civic Arena, which were intended to be the centerpiece of a new cultural district with other theaters and high-rise apartments.

But investors pulled out of the redevelopment plans when the process didn’t move quickly enough.

“They didn’t think about the people,” said Redwood of the urban planners of the time.

Today, city planners are much more aware of community interests. When possible, old buildings are adapted for new uses, rather than being demolished. For example, The Miller School, a former elementary school in the Hill, is being renovated to include apartments and office space.

While the philosophy of city planning has changed dramatically, past experience makes Hill District residents deeply skeptical about the future.

“There is deep suspicion of what the city is up to,” said Miller. “We try to be as transparent as we can. They key is getting more people involved.”

Community involvement is key, said Payne, but it’s “like nailing Jello to the wall.” Residents of the Hill District, like people in other neighborhoods, are busy with their own lives, she said.

And some residents believe the Hill District doesn’t normally get the attention other neighborhoods do.

Payne noted that the empty lots near her home are often overgrown. The city is responsible for maintaining the lots, but residents often must complain to get them mowed.

“We force them to do it,” she said. “It’s disheartening to fight to keep it clean.”

City officials say they are working with the community to institute positive changes. Throughout the city, community input is now sought whenever developers want to build.

“Now it’s very different,” said Karen Abrams of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. “A community process has to take place.”

The community has been deeply involved in the development of the grocery store complex on Centre Avenue, which is expected to attract further developments.

The Hill House Association owns the land for the retail center and has helped secure other retail tenants.

“The community has to fight for what they want,” said Cheryl Hall-Russell, president and CEO of Hill House Association, noting there is a “massive deficit of retail” in the Hill.

Hall-Russell believes that bringing retail back to the area will be a crucial amenity for current residents who had to go outside the neighborhood to buy food and other necessities for the last 30 years, often using limited public transportation or jitney cabs to do so.

“Our first loyalty is the people who have waited so long for this,” she said.

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