In the late 1700s, Black-owned business thrived in what’s now Downtown’s PPG Place Plaza. Benjamin Richards, a Black man who helped petition for the creation of Allegheny County, ran a successful butchery on Third Avenue and once had more wealth than anyone else in Pittsburgh.
Because of this history, Pittsburgh City Council issued a proclamation in August 2021 declaring Third Avenue Pittsburgh’s “Black Wall Street.” PPG Plaza, since 2019, has also been a venue for the annual Pittsburgh Soul Food Festival, a celebration of Black culture that draws thousands of people.
However, PPG Plaza’s owners, Highwoods Properties, have told the festival’s organizer William “B” Marshall that they’re not welcome next year, primarily citing noise complaints from tenants, according to Marshall. Marshall isn’t backing down from what he sees as a racist double standard not applied to similar events such as Picklesburgh and has lawyered up in response.
“It is really not about the noise,” Marshall tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “It is really about who’s making the noise … Noise is down there all the time, but you just don’t see a variety of Black people down there all the time, in those numbers.”
Marshall, a prominent local figure who started the group Stop the Violence Pittsburgh, organizes Pittsburgh’s largest Juneteenth celebration. Four years ago, he started the Pittsburgh Soul Food Festival, an event with music and food from Black artists and cooks. Citing data prepared by Bynum Marketing and Communications, his organization estimates the September 2023 festival drew about 22,000 people and generated more than half a million dollars, which amounted to more than $200,000 in profit for small businesses.
The tumultuous relationship between Highwoods Properties and the festival has come to a head after brewing for years. In a screenshot of email correspondence with Highwoods Properties from March 2022, provided by Marshall, the senior vice president wrote, “[t]he disruptions to our office customers were substantial and I believe a different location would be in everybody’s best interest.”
For the 2022 festival, Marshall still opted for PPG Plaza but agreed to not feature music until after business hours on a Friday in response.
Now, according to Marshall, Highwoods Properties told him it won’t host the festival in 2024 because of noise complaints, logistical concerns such as parking, and an incident involving an arrest at a previous festival. Marshall views this as racist and hypocritical, noting that Picklesburgh, a similar event in about the same area that draws several times more attendees, is not receiving the same treatment.
Highwoods Properties has not responded to City Paper phone and email requests for comment.
The City of Pittsburgh has been largely supportive of the festival throughout the years – in 2019, former Mayor Bill Peduto signed a proclamation declaring Sept. 1 “A Soulful Taste of the ’Burgh Day.” Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration did not comment on the current dispute. “The City of Pittsburgh is not a sponsor of the Soul Food Festival. This is a situation between two private entities,” a spokesperson wrote to City Paper.
Marshall said he’s been hoping some City of Pittsburgh official would publicly support him.
Marshall, believing this could be a case of discrimination, has enlisted the help of two local attorneys: civil rights attorney Alexa Gervasi and Turahn Jenkins, former Assistant District Attorney for Allegheny County and a founding member of Allegheny Lawyers Initiative for Justice.
“It doesn’t seem to me, based upon what I’ve heard and what I’ve read, that other events are encountering these types of impediments,” Jenkins says. “And he’s been very, very reasonable in accommodating their requests. It gets to the point where we gotta say enough is enough. He’s gotta be treated equally as everybody else. I don’t think that’s a whole lot to ask.”
At the time of publication, Gervasi told CP she plans to soon send Highwoods Properties, who she emphasizes is a federal contractor, a notice threatening litigation. Both attorneys hope the situation can be resolved without going to court. (Update: CP found out shortly after publication that the letter had been delivered.)
“The purpose of the letter is just to say, ‘Listen, what you’re doing here is wrong, it’s discriminatory, you know it’s wrong and discriminatory, knock it off, or we’ll have to elevate this,’” Gervasi says.
Marshall hopes to continue the festival the same way it’s been done because he believes it does a lot of good for the community, not just financially.
“Everybody enjoys the Soul Food Festival. It’s not really a Black-white issue,” Marshall says. “We get all type of people who come down to Market Square and buy food. We’re hopeful that somebody will eventually realize that it’s very important to have these kinds of events in Downtown Pittsburgh.”