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Building Consensus 

Cleaning up the Hill -- without cleaning out its history

I'm sitting here a bit despondent as the homes and buildings keep coming down in my neighborhood. You know the one, you've heard about it for months now: the historic Hill District. It's strange to be "en vogue" and so heavily desired, especially after the well has run dry a number of different times in the past. But we're more hopeful now than ever: Whatever else a new hockey arena might bring to the Hill, at least we have the city's attention, and can step to the mic and share a few thoughts.

For decades now, I've watched my mother give informal tours of the Hill community to reporters, photographers, students, historians, passersby, jazz enthusiasts, baseball fans and, certainly, the lovers of August Wilson's plays. I used to find it annoying that she did so many of these tours, so often and for free, as if her time was not worth her money. Thankfully, she passed on a lesson that we can't always be paid -- even our just due -- in order to engage in the kinds of activities that we should be involved in. And if there is a payoff, it might look different than we imagine.

Which is why I'm now chairing the Historic Hill Initiative, an entity designed to preserve and protect our neighborhood's past. The initiative's focus is on the preservation and sustainability of our historic treasures: the churches, civic and cultural buildings, historic homes, green spaces and open spaces like "Freedom Corner" -- the junction of Centre and Crawford streets where most city parades, and more than a few demonstrations, begin.

The value of some of those sites may seem more than obvious. But community members and preservationists have been dismayed by continued "spot demolition" in the Hill District -- including the razing of Eddie's Restaurant, a staple cultural resource which was repeatedly given pride of place in August Wilson's plays. In November 2006, the Hill District Community Development Corporation, Preservation Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh History & Landmark Foundation convened to protect these cultural resources. Eventually, they formed the Historic Hill Initiative (or, for the more hip amongst us, "the double-H-I in the H-I-double-L").

We have made some progress, with an agreement from the URA not to unnecessarily demolish buildings, to provide proper notification and to respect the creation and continued existence of the "Historic Hill Registry."

But those discussions happened before the departure of former Urban Redevelopment Authority head Jerry Dettore, and the arrival of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's development champion, Patrick Ford. And at the same time, the city's Bureau of Building Inspection has received greater levels of funding and more political leeway to handle vacant lots and abandoned buildings in the manner they see fit -- which usually results in demolition.

To be fair, some of the houses in the Hill are safety and fire hazards. At least one of the buildings cleared by the city had simply fallen apart, literally, from years of neglect and abandonment. There are no devils and angels here, only urgent conditions that need to be handled in a manner that honors a neighborhood's historic treasures -- but that also allows for the community's safety and redevelopment.

Just throwing buildings away is not the answer, especially when their replacements are relatively meaningless. All parties involved need to better engage their imaginations. We will need a synergistic relationship between government agencies, developers, preservationists and community groups to develop a concrete, funded plan that's of mutual benefit to all parties in this city.

As with so many things these days, the template for this collaboration will probably need to be made manifest first in the Hill District. But that simply means everyone else located in poor, black and/or working-class neighborhoods needs to take stock of their own area's history and begin to, literally, mark an X on those spots. In the Hill, we are putting together the building registry, identifying places that should never be demolished. With the help of our architectural consultants, Rothschild-Doyno and Pfaffman and Associates, we're also creating an "Interactive Memory Map" that engages the community in oral-history events and exchanges. That should help protect the places whose histories are not so obvious to young 'uns such as myself.

In the meantime, though, too many buildings are coming down too quickly. Mr. Ford, I'll be giving you a call.


Dr. Goddess Says: History isn't just something you read about. You're living it.


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