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Power Steering

August Wilson celebrated jitneys in his first published play, but their role in a new and improved Hill District is not so certain

"Put my name down as 'Lance' -- Lance in Defense of the People," he says from

behind the wheel of his late '90s midnight-blue Chevrolet Cavalier.

It looks no different than a dozen other college-freshman first cars buzzing through the city. Shoe debris is tracked on the carpet mats. A small sandal (from one of his grandkids) sits on the dashboard. A wooden bead necklace hangs from his rearview mirror -- a gift from India given to him by his wife of 10 years, from whom he's been separated for longer than he cares to share. The radio is fixed on jazz.

There's a not-so-pleasant odor. A used-car type odor, but not like the ones on the lot -- no, the smell is more as if a lot of bodies have used this car.

"You know what? Go ahead and use my name. Shoot, they know who I am, and I ain't doin' nothin' wrong."

He's not doing anything wrong, but what he's doing is technically illegal. Lance's common name is Sanjulo Ber, but he's still in defense of the people. After all, he's providing a service that the Hill District sorely needs: public transportation.

Sanjulo's "service car" a.k.a. "jitney," identifies more with the yellow cars on the street with black-and-white checkered stripes. They perform the same function, but in two different societal lanes. Yellow Cabs are sanctioned to transport people 24/7 grossing $1.40 a mile ($1.80 for the first 1/7 of a mile), not including tips. Jitneying doesn't have the same standardized pricing and, though illegal, it is tolerated -- meaning you can rest assured that you won't be so much as reprimanded by a cop if you drive a jitney or use one's services.

Unlike Pittsburgh taxis, you can actually flag one down & also unlike taxis, jitneys share no uniform coat of paint or logo to distinguish them from any other car on the road. They're plain-clothed car operatives who will more likely flag you if they catch you stranded or walking.

The black-market transportation serves a mostly black market; jitney stations are a staple of just about every black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. When playwright August Wilson premiered his award-winning play Jitney! in 1982, he transported America to Pittsburgh's prized Hill District, where the play is set and where Wilson was born and raised.

Set in 1977, Jitney! depicts a Hill District jitney station that's been targeted for demolition by urban development authorities to make way for new homes. The drivers at the station, who depend on the hustle, band together behind the station's manager, Becker, vowing to fight "the Man" who wants to take their land.

As life imitating art would have it, there are plans currently on the table to facelift Centre Avenue in the Hill so that it blings again. Urban redevelopment firms are lined up ready to revamp the blighted Centre Avenue corridor, while renovations on Bedford and Wylie avenues have already begun.

Urbanization of this kind always entails some necessary surgery, like the kind that upset the characters in the play. Jitneys provide a much needed service, but the physical structures of the stations can often be eyesores. To make an omelet -- newer homes, retail outlets that actually have pulses, a grocery store -- a few eggs will have to be broken. Usually the eggs broken are the buildings and structures that are deteriorating, forlorn and not producing any revenue for the city's coffers.

Jitney stations pretty much fit that description.

Jitney stations are normally squatted or rented edifices that are maintained just enough for their function. As in a play, where all action takes place on a confined stage, your average jitney station consists of just one room. They're furnished plainly with a few couches for drivers to lounge on while waiting for fares, a chalk or pegboard where rates, rules and regulations are posted, maybe a refrigerator, maybe a coffee maker and most importantly, a phone.

The purpose of a station is not to be a physically attractive or even a livable place, but simply a point for dispatch. And for that reason, stations could find themselves in a bulldozer's path.

Last year, when Henry Parran purchased his building, an old car garage that sits on a busy section of Centre Avenue, he decided his station would look more presentable than most. It's a flat stone structure containing four moderately-sized rooms. It's not IKEA, but at least there's a sofa and TV in each room.

Parran, who says he's jitneyed for as long as he's known how to drive, uses one room as his office, complete with cluttered desk, calculator and file cabinet. Posted on the wall is an alphabetized list of every neighborhood in Pittsburgh, beginning with the airport, and the cost to get to each.

One room serves as storage space while another is the kitchen, which consists of a small table, a fridge and microwave. Veny, Parran's wife, prides herself on keeping the place tidy and clean. Unlike other jitney stations, they are overtly welcoming to visitors; as Veny sees it, "Business been slow. Anything we can do to draw people, I don't care."

There are two bathrooms that used to be his-and-hers, except one is being used as a driver's locker. Clothes are strewn in piles, making this particular bathroom out of order.

"This brother, he don't have no place to sleep and he homeless, but he got a decent car and he tryin' to make some money so he can eat," says Parran of the owner of the clothes. "He's not on pension or welfare. There's no welfare, so you gotta survive. But black people are the greatest people in the world at being creative, surviving against all odds."

That there were folks on the Hill who needed a ride to church or the hospital, in fact, is what Parran says motivated him and others to start jitneying.

"I was born and raised on the Hill, so I understand the Hill," says Parran. "I seen women coming down the street having to go to the hospital 'cause they having a miscarriage or they having birth. I have put people in my car that was bleeding and I took 'em to the hospital, and when they left I had to get out my car and clean out the seat.

"If people calling a cab, they'd tell 'em quick, 'I ain't going in that neighborhood, that's a rough neighborhood.' So I took it on myself. I didn't like what was going on so I took it upon myself to sit in the station."

As Parran tells it, there was once a cab company called Owl Cab on the Hill that was black-owned and -operated. He said they covered certain parts of the Hill exclusively, but weren't allowed to serve customers anywhere beyond. As a result, Parran says, Owl was driven out of business.

The Hill District's Eagle Cab Company is owned by 77-year-old Harry Williams, who was once a supervisor at Owl Cab. Eagle has operated for over 20 years, serving most of Pittsburgh's predominantly black neighborhoods. Williams' is the only car service in the Hill with a Public Utility Commission license, a requirement to legally operate a taxi service.

He once ran the United Jitney Service of Pittsburgh, Inc. (UJSP), with another black cab driver named Curtis McCoy. It was an attempt to license jitney drivers so they wouldn't be arrested and fined.

After court battles with Yellow Cab, who claimed that UJSP would be unfair competition, UJSP was granted a license and a miniscule serving area -- an area too small to sustain it. In less than four years it dissolved.

Williams' Eagle Cab has remained in business, albeit with a small niche. A report by the conservative Allegheny Institute of Public Policy, titled "Scared Yellow: An Analysis of Taxicab Competition in Allegheny County," says Eagle's market concentration is only 3 percent, compared with Yellow Cab's market command of 91 percent. The remaining 6 percent is split between three other cab companies.

While the report duly notes jitneying as "dangerous and illegal," it also states "encouraging the operation of jitneys in the legal cab market would bring legitimate competition to the established companies, forcing established companies to improve service and possibly lower their fares. & It is the rational response of the free-market to a need that is not being served by regulated companies."

The taxicab industry is one of the last frontiers of not-yet-deregulated services. The Pittsburgh taxicab market, under the regulatory eye of the PUC, suffers a profound lack of competition, more than most other cities of comparable size. The PUC hands down restrictive licensing criteria that virtually discourage the start of any new cab franchise.

If you want to start a cab business, you have to apply to the PUC, who admits that they then consult Yellow Cab about your intentions. Next, you must prove at a hearing that there is a community being underserved by Yellow Cab that your franchise can serve better. Yellow Cab, then, is allowed the privilege to update or expand its own services to meet that need. After which, your proposal pretty much reaches the end of its road.

A separate Allegheny Institute report found that in 2001 the number of Pittsburgh cab firms, five, was well below the national average of 22. It also reports that Pittsburgh cabs make approximately 40 percent fewer daily trips per 1,000 persons than the average city of similar size; that it takes an average of about 35 minutes to get a cab -- "if one can be had at all" -- and that there is definitely room for more competition in the Pittsburgh cab market.

Buffalo, New York, has 20 cab companies servicing a city of about 300,000 as opposed to Pittsburgh's five cab companies servicing all of Allegheny County's 1.2 million. Pittsburgh's fleet of 350 cabs gives them 30 cabs per 100,000 people compared to 109 per 100,000 for Buffalo.

According to the report, there are over 1,000 jitneys in the city.

Eric Montarti, a policy analyst who prepared one of the AI reports, calls the system a government-protected monopoly. "If there are entrepreneurs that see a need and see their communities as being underserved and they're conforming to health and safety regulations, then there's no reason to prevent someone from starting a taxicab service."

PUC regional manager Denise Cohen disputes claims that the commission is protecting a monopoly: "We don't actively recruit new companies. If someone feels there's an under-service in their community, then they need to get entrepreneurs together and go through the same application procedure anyone else has to go through."

Yellow Cab customer relations manager Mike Kidder says that accusations of taxis not going into certain areas, and of their company having a lock on the industry, are both bogus. A driver himself for 16 years, he says Yellow Cab has drivers who go exclusively into black neighborhoods because that's where the drivers live. He says the only problem is when "people from those areas call both cab and jitney then sees who shows up first. As long as they disappear when the cab shows up, the drivers won't go back to those same people. They remember addresses and if they get a tendency to get a call form a certain address where the person isn't there, then they won't go."

As for the monopoly, Kidder says Yellow Cab is subject to the same standards as any other company wishing to start a business. He says that when an entrepreneur applies to begin service in the county, any established cab service has the right to contest it, not just Yellow Cab.

Says Kidder, "With the amount of business going through Yellow Cab we will get complaints no matter how good our operation is, and I handle a lot of the complaints and I know we receive a lot fewer than we used to. It's just the way of the game. We try to supply transportation to the whole county."

"People earn their livelihood doing this," says Ber pushing his Chevy through the Hill. "If I didn't have some other kind of income then that's what I'd do. I'd be out here jitneying all damn day. But I have some other income and also I'm a political activist doing political work."

Sanjulo Ber never saw Jitney! The uptown station he jitneys from has received no visits or notices from "the Man." And unlike the characters in the play, Ber doesn't depend solely on this particular hustle to survive: The 64-year-old retired glassworker collects pension and Social Security as his primary sources of income. Jitneying, Ber says, lines his pockets with what he calls "WAM," walk-around money.

Struggling against injustices facing black folks is a route he's covered many times over. Between chauffer gigs, Ber marched and fought alongside many black action groups until 1997, when he helped create the Pittsburgh affiliate of the national Black Radical Congress, a left-leaning collective of activists and scholars continuing to press the black-nationalist agendas popularized in the '60s and '70s.

"One thing I do -- even though this is an economic thing -- if you get in my car you're gonna get a political lesson," says Ber.

Ber admits most jitney drivers aren't as politically motivated as he is, but says that's because most of them are consumed with just trying to get by. Any community-hall meeting, church-basement gathering, Freedom Corner demonstration or political-prisoner court hearing will find Ber in its company. It's a luxury, Ber says; thanks to jitneying, he has ample flextime for activism.

Jitneying at his leisure also gives Ber the chance to spend time with his children (he has eight) and grandchildren. It's a low-pressure job for Ber, and as long as everything is all right under the hood, then he's all right in the 'hood.

But for other jitney drivers, the hustle is a bit more intense.

If jitney drivers really want to ensure themselves a decent wage for the day, they'll queue up in one of three places: the train, bus station or the grocery store. Since there are no major grocery stores in most of Pittsburgh's predominantly black neighborhoods, a typical jitney trip might, for example, transport black residents of Beltzhoover to the Giant Eagle in the South Side.

Some supermarkets don't allow jitneys to solicit in front of their stores; many do. So it's not uncommon to find a line of willing carriers on their best behavior ("We don't want to scare the money," says one driver) as you exit the store.

For the jitney team at one particular supermarket just outside city limits (who asked their names and location be withheld) the consensual relationship between the jitneys and the store they serviced from temporarily fell under arrest. According to one jitney (who we'll call "Fred"), a driver not affiliated with their group -- whom Fred calls a "scavenger" -- robbed one of the store's customers, which prompted the store manager to sweep all jitneys away from his store.

Immediately after, an elder among the jitneys ("Martin") arranged a meeting between the store manager, the owner of the parking lot and the local police. An understanding was reached and the jitney drivers were allowed to stay under certain conditions: They could no longer solicit from immediately outside the store; instead a special area is designated for them a couple hundred feet from the store's entrance. They even have two reserved parking spaces with signs in front that read "Service Vehicles Only." They now carry identification badges, without which they can't proposition or carry customers.

For Martin it's a small victory. Fred calls it "a coming together between us, [store] management and the police for one common bond." It's evidence enough that both the grocery chain and the law understand that the jitneys' presence is needed for those who can't afford other means of getting their groceries home.

But Martin and his crew aren't completely content. Business just hasn't been the same, even before "the incident" (as Martin calls it). They debate the reasons why as they lean against cars which, for being such old models, are handsomely polished and neat inside and out. Equally sharp are the men themselves -- all over 50 -- dipped in creased linen slacks, wrinkleless jeans, soft cotton polos, crisp straw raffias and fedoras, and blinding gold and diamond necklaces and rings. They look more like tycoons than renegade cab drivers.

There evidently used to be a lot more spoils in the market, but now the drivers' classy threads seem only relics of their glory years. Some of them say business is slow now because of a punk economy; others simply say that more people are buying cars.

"Be realistic 'bout this, man," starts Martin. "Some people wouldn't even be shopping if they ain't had no way to get they groceries home, so they rely and depend upon jitneys. But every time Social Security checks or income tax [refund] checks come out, the car dealer makes that many more sales in automobiles."

Says Fred, "You can't even survive off this no mo' since they started cutting e'eybody off welfare. It ain't like the ol' days when you could make a hundred to a hundred-fiddy dollas a day."

There's one woman ("Lisa") out with the group today. She's parked a short distance from the fellas and chooses to remain in her car for her turn. There are about 30 drivers in their group, but they're allowed only two spaces to work from. So they alternate with the excess drivers parked elsewhere until one of the two spots is freed up, then rotate accordingly. Lisa calls them "one big family" and says that though there are only two other women in their company, the men always look out for them.

Lisa, who's married with a daughter and two sons, works at a pharmacy but her hours were cut back. Like any of the other jitneys, Lisa could just as well drive cabs, but will hear nothing of it.

"My cousin drives for Yellow Cab and the [cab] rent is pretty steep," says Lisa. "They have to pay $110 a day and you have to make their money before you can make your own. Why should they [charge] us? We work hard for this money."

"See if you get into that you gotta go deeper 'cause you got some areas where cabs won't even go, y'know," says Martin. "You call cabs at a certain time of night and they ask you where you live at, where you going and you might not get none if you come out ya mouth with the wrong."

For business to be so drowsy lately, you'd think these riders would be at each other's throats for customers. Not so. When a driver whose turn is up misses a customer coming out of the store preparing to walk, Fred hollers out on his behalf.

"Car! Service car!"

"That's okay! No thank you!" the woman yells back.

"Did you say car service?" asks a white man who seems to appear out of thin air. "I gotta go in there and grab a bunch of gallons of water. When I come out will one of you still be around?"

"Somebody'll be out here," Martin answers. "You see these signs? We got five, six cars out here. Somebodya getcha where you trying to go. No problem."

When asked why he felt more comfortable hailing a jitney rather than calling a cab the patron responded simply, "Because they're here. Yellow Cab's not here and I don't think it will come. Might have to wait an hour for them."

He's been only the third person to accept car service in the past hour. The drivers mosey around and patiently await their next fare. The elder Martin, who is the resident philosopher, has no worries that the slow business may affect their sustenance, or worse, their existence.

"Jitneying been going on since the beginning of time," he waxes. "It ain't gon' neva stop. I'm sure you realize that what bring about rebuttal, as far as jitneying, is just like drugs. If they could legally tax you on drugs them boys be sellin', they wouldn't give a shit, man. They just don't want you getting no free money and they ain't getting none. You should be able to take this automobile right here and do whatever the hell you wanna do wit' it."

From a front-windshield perspective, the major new plans for the Hill are years up the road. But a more immediate concern arises when one looks from the perspective of the side-view mirrors, which bear the caveat: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.

Projects have already begun; some are already finished. A ride up Wylie Avenue wins you first-hand visuals of bulldozers, jackhammers and demolition balls knocking down abandoned and forsaken buildings so new ones can replace them. The Hill has already been zoned to make way for new commercial structures and fancier homes.

Private entities small and large have aligned with urban renewal ideas, and some have already broken ground. Developer Irvin Williams was one of the first to begin breathing life back into Centre Avenue by building his Williams Square and One Hope Square office buildings, which flank the historic Hill House Association building. His firm, Ebony Development LLC, will be joining forces with New Markets LLC and the Hill's Community Development Corporation to help resuscitate the rest of Centre.

Meanwhile, churches -- largely unsung players in the Hill's redevelopment -- such as Macedonia Baptist Church on Bedford Avenue and Central Baptist Church on Wylie Avenue, have plans of their own. Even the Hill House Association has been planting new homes throughout the Hill and has more in store.

A famous catchphrase of most urban redevelopers is "We want to preserve the historical and cultural character of the Hill." Yet as Wilson's play so elegantly conveys, few enterprises capture the Hill's historic and cultural character like jitneys,. But in the play, the antagonist wanting to displace the jitney station was "the Man." Will the new black "boo-jwah" with their BMWs want to do the same?

Williams says it's about to happen very shortly with a station that sits on the corner of Wylie Avenue and Erin Street on the Hill. He won't say whether it's his company or another, but he says the station there is marked to come down very soon. A manager of that station, calling himself only "Henderson," and a friend of Williams' since childhood ("We called him Porky when we was little") confirms the speculation, saying the landlord has already begun looking to relocate.

But Williams says he understands the necessity of jitney service, and while he can't vouch for the other developers, he said he figures them in when he draws up his plans.

"When we looked at putting a supermarket out [on Centre Avenue] we [recognized] that somewhere would be a congregation of jitneys and we knew we had to provide for them in some type of way," says Williams. "We knew if we walked out the door we would be approached by a brother or sister who'd say 'Hey, you need a jitney?'

And because of that we wanted to at least designate a location where they could congregate, actually leave a bench for them to sit, you know, the whole ashtray, the trashcan, so they could actually call it home because that's part of the culture."

Jitney! is probably Wilson's least-heralded play. Granted, it was his first, but even its 1996 revival hasn't received the same acclaim as others like Fences, The Piano Lesson and King Hedley. In fact, most books and anthologies on Wilson's plays skip Jitney! entirely, beginning with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Jitneys on the Hill seem to be suffering from the same neglect. In a meeting earlier this year at which New Markets LLC announced plans for Centre Avenue, a question raised about the fate of jitneys was met with laughter, as if to say, "What about them?"

When told of this, Ber responds, "Probably because we don't figure into the legitimate aspects of their business -- but it is a business. I think it could happen" that jitneys could be pushed out by urban renewal, he says, "but somebody will rent to us. It's not up to [the developers]. We rent, so it's up to the owner of the building where we rent. So if they want to sell out to new developers and we're not included, then we would have to go."

It's already happened once. A station Ber jitneyed from on Federal Street on the North Side no longer stands, bouldered over to make room for a new building and a fleet of new drivers -- the kind that deliver pizzas. Where Ber once jitneyed now sits a Pizza Hut.

In the play, when one of the characters, Doub, finds out that his station is marked to be replaced with new houses, he responds, "I'm glad to see them do it. It's about time they done something around here. They been talking for years about how they was gonna fix it up."

Ber shares the same sentiment: If it means a family will have some place to live, he's open to that. Station or no station, he'll still be riding. He understands that it's necessary in the black community not only for families to get around, but that they also need a place to rest. The question is, do the developers value the need for both?

"I don't have any problems with it 'cause if we want to continue to do what we do, we'll find a way," says Ber. "If it comes to it I figure we'll sit down and discuss what we're gonna do, but no one has done that yet."

Just 20 years ago, Sala Udin played the lead role of Becker, the jitney station owner, in the first run of Wilson's play. But today, as a city council representative, he plays a leading role in what does or doesn't happen in the Hill District. He even jitneyed himself back in the day, and says he has a sincere appreciation for the jitneys' role in the Hill District.

"Jitneys were so much a part of black culture in the Hill, as was the genius of August Wilson's writing, that people who came from other cities who had no clue what a jitney was, were able to enjoy the dynamics going on between the men on the stage," says Udin. "At first I was worried about how it would play out in New York City and San Francisco because there's so many mentions of Hill District landmarks. But it never interfered with the lessons and ideas being communicated."

As for any entity consciously or inadvertently phasing out jitneys, Udin says he would "fight tooth and nail" to prevent that from happening.

But "[t]he stations today are not owned by the people who run them," notes Udin. "If the owner decided to sell the building to the city, that station is gone not because the city moved in, but because he sold the property."

"Under this economy things won't get better for us black people," says Ber. "Reason jitneys exist is because of lack of transportation services. Black people are very resilient and creative so we just find ways to survive. People come to us 'cause it's easier to catch a jitney than it is to ride a bus."

With the Port Authority Transit slashing services and running out of funds, Ber and other jitneys are expecting a huge boom in business soon. Ber says he once thought about driving a school bus, but never too seriously. When he lived in Philadelphia in the '70s he actually drove a cab. But he says neither experience could touch that of jitneying.

"I don't ever wanna drive a cab again. I get money every day from tips. I got flexibility. If you drive a cab you pretty much gotta go to work when you're scheduled to work, 'cause you don't own them cabs."

Ownership and freedom. They're what makes jitneying so appealing, especially in a society where blacks often don't get decent helpings of either. For Ber, it's an extension of what he fights for regularly with the Black Radical Congress. Jitneying, and the independence that rides with it, is itself a form of protest.

Says Ber, "The jitneys come out of a need to survive. Mostly that's what we do & survive -- more than living. For us that's the same thing because, damn, we got it hard."

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