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Arts and Attainment

Synerarts wants to put community back into Hill's community development



In the heart of the Hill District, on overworked Centre Avenue, sits the 77-year-old New Granada Theater, once a place for all of the pop and jazz greats of the past to perform and party: Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and every toast of the town, white and black.



Today it's just about dead. But you'd be hard-pressed to find one resident of the Hill who'd suggest pulling the plug. Look closely at the Granada and you'll see a small sign: "Hill Community Development Corporation. For the Hope of the Hill Synerarts on Centre Avenue."


Synerarts is a program Danita Solomon, community development specialist for the Hill District CDC, helped create. Synerarts hopes to engage residents in their own community's revitalization, using art and entertainment as therapy for an area suffering the multi-decade shock of being uprooted. Solomon also hopes Synerarts inspires them to become part of the change, including redevelopment of the New Granada, which the Hill CDC owns. For years, residents were the last group consulted about neighborhood changes. Solomon wants to ask them first.


"The Granada used to be a pillar of the community," she says, then catches herself -- "No, is still a pillar of the community, and when you look at the whole process [of local development] and how things are flowing, yes, it perturbs us. But it's a process, and they should be willing to come in and be part of that process."


A few years ago, "they" could have been anybody: the politicians on Grant Street, private developers, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the residents, a grocery store -- any grocery store.  Today, "they" means everybody, especially a grocery store -- but not just any grocery store, one that will truly serve the needs of the community: If a child-care center in the local grocery store is good enough for the North Hills, then it's good enough for folks in the Hill, where single mothers abound.


Less than two years ago, Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority passed over developers indigenous to the Hill, selecting instead a corporation specializing in urban-core redevelopment -- New Markets, based in Las Vegas. New Markets pledged to work with the Hill CDC and the local Ebony Development firm, headed by Hill District native son Irvin Williams, to turn the terminal Centre Avenue corridor into a thriving business district anchored by a grocery store.


Less than a year later, New Markets was fired for failing to come up with either a plan or financing. Solomon and the Hill CDC aren't waiting for another letdown. While the URA and rich corporations claim to have development down to a science, Solomon hopes to show that the process is more a work of art.


Lunch, sadly, is at a small Thai restaurant in Oakland because there are no quiet places to eat like this in the Hill District. Save for a Subway, the Hill has no sit-and-eat establishments period.


The waiter comes and asks for Solomon's order and she quickly asks for his recommendation


"I can tell you what's popular," he says.


"Could you?" she says.


Solomon is headed next for a meeting with city council to go over the recent designation of the New Granada as a City of Pittsburgh Historic Landmark. It's only natural for her to gauge what the people want before making a decision -- at lunch, too, but especially when dealing with the sensitive issue of urban renewal.


"We're receiving all these letters and people telling us what not to do with [the Granada] but they're not becoming a part of the process," she says, using the word "process" at least 30 times in 60 minutes. "We're trying to create a process where residents and even persons outside the community can come in and be a part of the process to determine what to do with the Granada."


That process means getting residents involved in art projects throughout the neighborhood -- painting murals, participating in music festivals -- as well as community clean-up days. There haven't been enough events yet to make Synerarts a regular presence, but they have begun making a little bit of noise -- both good and bad.


When Hill resident George Gist was recruited by the CDC to work on murals and decorate a soundstage for their festivals, Gist says some of his work was criticized by long-time Hill resident and activist Jorge Myers. Myers could not be reached for comment, but he has praised and despised artworks in the Hill many times. It hasn't deterred Gist, though.


"They're exposing the Hill District to the nuances and works from different places, music bands from different places," says Gist, who is also a bass player in a jazz band. "That Synerarts is absolutely one of the most positive programs on the Hill.


As soon as the CDC gets that Granada open," he adds, "I think that's gonna rejuvenate the whole area."


Synerart's season-ending music festival last October featured Tony Campbell, Jazz Inc., Buttonpusha and Judah Livez as well as vendors. Meeting the people where they're at is always a sound theory, but Solomon admits it hasn't been easy.


"There is an enormous sense of apathy that exists in the Hill, as is in other communities," says Solomon. "I think holistically the residents are starting to understand that they want to preserve themselves, don't want to be moved out of their community. They have to meet us halfway, though. As we provide the resources they have to reach out and grab them."

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