Black-led Community Spotlight: Dr. Kimberly Ellis

click to enlarge Black-led Community Spotlight: Dr. Kimberly Ellis
Photo Credit: Rick Southers
Dr. Kimberly Ellis provides closing comments to Topping Off Ceremony of FNB Financial Center

Pittsburgh’s Hill District is one of rich and predominantly Black history. The steel industry and the first wave of the Great Migration (between 1916 and 1945) accounted for the large number of Black families who chose to settle here.

There is an abundance of stories lurking around every corner of the Hill District. Photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris documented the culture of the neighborhood’s residents and visitors. It stands as the birthplace of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, August Wilson. Jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane graced the stage of the legendary Crawford Grill. The contributions are significant.

Unfortunately, The Hill’s glory days have been lost to forces beyond the residents’ control and, for years, there has been a sense of neglect surrounding the neighborhood. A fire in 1951 closed The Crawford Grill and the building was eventually torn down as part of the Civic Arena development plan. Some would say that was the beginning of the end for Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

During the 1950s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh declared the Lower Hill to be “blighted” and cleared 95 acres of the neighborhood. Since then, the neighborhood has been mostly cut off from the Downtown area.

However, community members have not forgotten what the Hill District once was, and what it could be again. Among those set on revitalizing the area are Dr. Kimberly Ellis and her employer, the Buccini/Pollin Group, a development firm based in Wilmington, Del.

When asked to describe herself, Ellis lands on “scholar and artist and an activist.” She has dedicated decades to serving the community that she has called home since she was 5 years old.

Before becoming the director of community, arts, and culture for the Buccini/Pollin Group, she put in the better part of 25 years volunteering to help better the Hill District. Her work includes, but is not limited to, serving on the committee that edited and created the historic landmark for the August Wilson House, establishing the Historic Hill Institute, leading historical tours through the neighborhood, and co-creating the Greater Hill District Master Plan.

When there was talk of building a casino in the Hill District, Ellis took action. She organized “Raise Your Hand! No Casino in The Hill” in 2005, a campaign to protest the proposal for a casino being built in the front yard of the historic neighborhood. “I knew, just theoretically, that communities that were next to casinos ... never had good reputations, and they were always described as having failed as a result of a casino,” Ellis tells Pittsburgh City Paper.

Since then, she has worked to ensure the neighborhood will not be erased. “One thing I’m very clear about is that there is a general fear of gentrification,” she says. “Half of our neighborhood is vacant. We have buildings going down all the time.”

Ellis is also very concerned with other area neighborhoods being rebuilt well before “one of the oldest and most famous neighborhoods in the country.”

A large part of Ellis’ motivation can be attributed to the people who call the neighborhood home. “I just wanted to keep the mothers in the community that I knew who walked around the Lower Hill, who saw The Hill as still a safe haven, I wanted to keep them safe,” she says.

A major move toward revitalization is getting money back into the community, and the Buccini/Pollen Group prides itself in supporting small businesses. According to the Lower Hill Redevelopment website, as of August 2022, $45 million in awarded subcontracts have gone to minority and women-owned businesses. Specifically $25 million of that has gone to Black-owned businesses.

One of those businesses is Prestige Cleaning, owned by Angelica Grant. Getting the contract to handle clean-up for several celebrations in Point State Park, including the Juneteenth Celebration and the Pittsburgh Black Music Festival in 2022, meant a lot to the five-year business owner.

The contract also made Prestige Cleaning the first Black woman-owned business to maintain the park. Having always wanted to pursue the path of entrepreneurship, making this historical mark means the world to Grant.

“I was inspired to run my own business.” Grant says, “So back in 2018, I was blessed with a gift, a financial gift. And I went ahead and purchased my LLC and insurance and hired a business strategist to pursue my dream.”

Many are optimistic about what the future holds for the neighborhood that was once the center of Pittsburgh’s Black culture. Ellis was on the committee in charge of designing the now-opened park named after late community activist Frankie Mae Pace, who also dedicated her life to preserving the Hill District.

click to enlarge Black-led Community Spotlight: Dr. Kimberly Ellis
Kimberly Ellis with Frankie Pace’s daughter at new Frankie Pace Park Rededication Ceremony

The park opened to the public in November 2021 with the goal of reconnecting Downtown Pittsburgh to the Hill District, and features pedestrian pathways, bike routes, and rain gardens. There are also story walls honoring Pace and Martin Delany, an abolitionist, journalist, and educator who also resided in the Hill District.

“I am inspired by Ms. Pace and while I did not know her or get a chance to meet her, she is amazing and more than deserves to be highlighted and to have a permanent place in the Historic Hill District that honors her contributions,” Ellis states on the Lower Hill Redevelopment website.

Ellis sees projects like Frankie Mae Pace Park as examples of what can be accomplished when everyone has a common goal.

“We’re doing really good work,” remarks Ellis. “We could do even better with greater cooperation.”