How Pittsburgh remembers a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright

The Hill District is the largely green area visible above downtown Pittsburgh in this aerial photo.

The first film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fences” hit theaters around the country on Christmas Day. “Fences” is one of 10 plays in what the late playwright called his "Century Cycle," about African American life. There’s a play for each decade of the 20th century, and all but one is set against the backdrop of Pittsburgh, where Wilson grew up.

As “Fences” wrapped up filming in the city last summer, a local staging of another play in the Century Cycle was about to get underway. Set in 1948, “Seven Guitars” revolves around seven characters, before and after a funeral. And remarkably, last summer’s production took place in the exact setting Wilson referred to when he wrote the script: The backyard of his boyhood home in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

“It's exactly like it's described in the play,” said Mark Clayton Southers, the play’s director. But the same can’t be said for the neighborhood where Wilson grew up. The three-story apartment building he lived in, on Bedford Avenue, is nestled beside two vacant lots, and the place, now owned by a local nonprofit, was condemned years ago. In the decades after the time period of the play — 1948 — the Hill District has struggled. And the city of Pittsburgh has wrestled with how to pay its respects to Wilson.

“I would think that the way a city would honor a white artist of August Wilson’s standing would have been much larger,” said Sala Udin, a former Pittsburgh city council member who grew up with Wilson (and originated the lead role in Pittsburgh’s premiere of “Jitney”). “The city always considered August Wilson its native son. But I think the city considered August its native stepson.”

Andy Warhol, another Pittsburgh-born creative icon, has fared differently in the city’s memory. The old Seventh Street Bridge is now named in Warhol’s honor, and visitors flock to the Andy Warhol Museum in the city’s North Shore neighborhood, which houses thousands of his paintings, videos and papers.

Pittsburgh has transformed itself since its big steel mills closed in the 1980s. But in the city’s comeback story, the historically black Hill District has in many ways been left out. Forty percent of Hill residents are below the poverty level, and crime rates are higher there than elsewhere in the city. For three decades, the neighborhood did not have a supermarket. But when August Wilson was born in 1945, the Hill was a flourishing community. Legends like Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and John Coltrane played the neighborhood’s jazz clubs.

“When we had to go in the house after it started to get dark, we would put pillows in the windowsill so that we could look out and watch the parade of activity and people dressed up, going up and down the street, going in and out of the clubs, talking smack,” Udin remembered.

Then came “urban renewal” — projects that promised to strip away outdated structures in bulk, replacing them with new ones. “Blacks were on board with the idea of urban renewal,” said historian Larry Glasco. “The black community supported it, [the] black political establishment, The Pittsburgh Courier, were all very excited about it. In fact, they wanted it. But you have to be careful what you hope for.”

In the mid-1950s, 95 acres of the Hill District were razed to make room for a civic arena and parking lots. Sala Udin’s home went under the bulldozer, and so did the school he attended with August Wilson. The planned redevelopment around the arena, where the Pittsburgh Penguins played, never materialized.

“It was devastating,” Udin said. “The idea of a whole neighborhood having to move was completely new and perplexing, and had never been heard of.”

The arena was demolished five years ago. For now, at least, the site is serving as a parking lot. “There are no signs of life ever having been there,” Udin added. But he said when the arena still stood, it was a symbol of destruction and demolition.

“Many people hated the civic arena, and hated the hockey games that brought white patrons from the suburbs to watch their hockey games in the park … and then leave to go back to their homes in the suburbs.”

Mindy Fullilove wrote a book, “Root Shock,” about the impact of urban renewal programs on black communities. She called the Hill District the “poster child of the horrors of urban renewal.”

“Not only was it vibrant, it was politically powerful, culturally powerful, socially powerful, and it was becoming economically powerful,” she said. “All of that was set back by the urban renewal project.”

The Hill District was set back again by riots in April 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Aerial news footage from the days following King’s murder shows blocks of burning buildings. News reports from that week estimated that over 4,500 families in the area were in need of food and clothing.

According to Fullilove, the riots weren’t just about King’s assassination. “[They] were in part a response to the empty promises of urban renewal.”

In the 1980s, journalist Bill Moyers asked Wilson about what had happened to his old neighborhood. “Same thing that’s happened to most black communities,” Wilson told Moyers. “Most of it is no longer there. It's the buildings and what used to be at one time a very thriving community, albeit a depressed community. But still, there were stores and shops all along the avenue. They are not there anymore.”

After Wilson died in 2005, Sala Udin helped found the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, built downtown at a cost of $42 million. But money problems and mismanagement plagued the center, and it closed just a few years later. Now reopened with foundation money, the center’s legacy is not the bright one Udin had hoped for.

“It's painful to watch the newspaper stories of the ‘failed August Wilson Center’ — the foreclosure, the this, the that, the taxes … and compare that against what we all hoped we were building by calling it the August Wilson Center for African American Culture,” Udin said.

But Wilson’s childhood home is undergoing its own kind of renaissance. In the weeks before opening night last August, workers hammered away, reconnecting electricity and building bleacher seating. “Seven Guitars” sold out most of its run, and the nonprofit that owns the house is restoring its interior. In its new life, the house will be a performance space and café.

For actor Wali Jamal, who’s been in nine of Wilson's plays, the production of “Seven Guitars” was a return to a sort of sacred ground. “I equated this experience to being a Shakespearean actor performing at [Stratford-upon-Avon],” he says. “To me, it's the same, because he's our Shakespeare.”

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI's Studio 360

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