The Next Page: That arena on the Hill

The complex legacy for black Pittsburghers

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People often assume that the Civic/Mellon Arena has only negative connotations for black Pittsburghers. But in fact for many blacks, the Arena is a source of strong visual and emotional memory, but largely negative historical memory. Acknowledging and understanding the sources of these mixed feelings has important implications for what should be done with the building.

The Arena has long been part of residents' visual memory. As the land slopes gently down the Hill, the glistening Arena framed by downtown skyscrapers is deeply embedded in the mind's eye of more than two generations who have grown up with this marvelous and unique vista.

The Arena also has long been part of residents' emotional memory. In the 1960s, for example, it hosted any number of important civil rights, cultural and sporting events. The NAACP held massive Freedom Rallies there in 1963 and 1964. A. Philip Randolph, the noted labor leader, was honored there in 1967. The Poor People's March camped in the Arena's parking lot in 1968 before boarding buses to Washington, D.C.

Blacks, as well as whites, flocked to the Arena's many jazz concerts and annual jazz festivals that showcased such artists as Ray Charles, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington and Walt Harper. They attended R&B performances by the likes of James Brown and Aretha Franklin, professional and Golden Gloves boxing matches, and high school, college and professional basketball games.

And, finally, the Arena has long been part of residents' mixed historical memory.

Originally blacks clamored for redevelopment of the Hill. In 1945, as Pittsburgh prepared to redevelop the Golden Triangle as part of Renaissance I, the Pittsburgh Courier noted sadly that the city had no plans for redeveloping the Lower Hill. In 1950, as authorities turned their eye to the Hill, black leadership applauded when the Urban Redevelopment Authority termed the Hill a "fruitful area for development."

Homer Brown, Hill representative in the state Legislature, supported redevelopment so long as racial discrimination did not prevent blacks from living in redeveloped areas. Paul Jones, black Pittsburgh's other leading political figure, said tearing down the Hill was "necessary" because of "the run-down shacks, the rough streets, the rampant rackets" there. And, in a multipart series, Frank Bolden, distinguished Courier reporter and city editor, described the negative consequences of segregation and urged redevelopment and the dispersal of half of the Hill District's black residents into integrated neighborhoods around the city.

To understand why black community leaders clamored for redevelopment, one must note that the Hill was not monolithic. The Lower Hill, affectionately termed "Pot Likker Flats" by Bolden, had restaurants, markets, night clubs and jazz spots of note, but also bars, brothels and rooming houses of notoriety. It had some stable and hardworking families, but also many drifters, gamblers, prostitutes and pimps. And its housing, streets and sanitary conditions were, for the most part, reprehensible.

It was this area, extending east to Crawford Street, that black leadership wanted to see redeveloped. They were not thinking of the area east of Crawford Street to Herron Avenue, known as the Middle Hill, which had a higher proportion of homeowners and stable blue-collar residents. And certainly not the Upper Hill, located east of Herron Avenue-called "Sugar Top" by many and "Scotch-and-Soda-Highlands" by Bolden-which housed much of the black middle and upper class.

Early on, there was some basis for economic optimism because tearing down the Lower Hill lessened, but by no means ended, black business activity. Those who could-and, of course, many could not-moved to Centre Avenue. Courier columnist John Clark felt that Centre Avenue businesses lacked the "glamour" and "spirit" of the old Wylie haunts, but he approved of such places as the Hurricane Music Bar, B&M Restaurant, and "Woogie" Harris' new Crystal Barber Shop.

Even after the Hill was torn down, the Courier evinced pride in the beauty and technology of the Arena. Its year-end review for 1960, for example, praised "the retractable roof of the silver domed new Arena" as evidence of a city with "a bright future-and growing ever brighter!"

Originally, then, blacks' visual, emotional and historical connection with the Arena were quite positive.

But the community soon had major complaints with other aspects of redevelopment, which tarnished their memory of redevelopment's leading icon, the Arena. The first complaint concerned jobs. Blacks had been told that redevelopment would mean employment, and while some blacks were paid to assist in the demolition of Hill District buildings, they were kept from helping to erect the Arena. Job discrimination at the Arena long remained a sore point and sparked angry protests.

The second complaint concerned housing. Blacks had been promised that those displaced would get adequate housing before they had to move, something mandated by state and federal law. But it did not happen. Authorities reassured the community in numerous meetings that the displaced would be taken care of, and folks accepted their promises at face value.

As a result, black leaders were slow to wake up, a fatal mistake because after long drawn out meetings and forums, things suddenly moved rapidly.

In July, 1955, City Council and the mayor gave the OK for redevelopment to begin, but only in November did any community group-in this case the NAACP-sound the alarm that there was no place for the displaced to move. The authorities did in fact secure housing for some, but as the "headache balls" began tearing down homes a year later, others scrambled to find places to live. Italians had a relatively easy time relocating, with many moving to Dormont and Brookline, but racial prejudice closed "white" neighborhoods to public housing and to black residents, forcing them to crowd into the Middle and Upper Hill and Homewood.

It took blacks a while to realize they had been snookered.

In 1961 the Courier ran a blistering series by Phyl Garland chastising urban redevelopment for having "swept under the rug its dregs of human misery-those displaced persons ... unable to find suitable housing on their own." And in 1962, local NAACP head Byrd Brown uttered the slogan that was gaining currency throughout black America: "Urban renewal means Negro removal."

Complaints about jobs and housing were joined by a third complaint: being left out of the decision-making loop. The URA clearly had plans to redevelop the Middle and Upper Hill but kept them vague. In October, 1957 the Hill District Home Owners and Tenants Association invited public officials to tour the Middle Hill in hopes of avoiding the fate of the Lower Hill. But the authorities paid no heed. Two months later they asked for $50 million in federal funds for "slum clearance" of the Hill all the way up to Devilliers Street, well past what today is the Hill House.

Blacks suspected a plot to reclaim the Hill for white business interests, a suspicion that persists to this day. Councilman James Jordon expressed his constituents' worries and outrage when he clashed sharply with Robert Pease, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Jordon complained that although he was chair of the city council committee on redevelopment, the URA had not given him "the courtesy of keeping me informed as to what was going on." Protests and complaints kept the URA at bay, but the agency by no means shelved its plans.

Resentment and worry led to resistance. The CCHDR, Citizens Committee for Hill District Renewal, led by realtor Robert Lavelle, businesswoman Frankie Pace and civil-rights activist Jim McCoy, worked for rehabilitation of individual homes rather than massive redevelopment. In 1968 the CCHDR spearheaded the erection of a famous billboard at the corner of Centre and Crawford Street: "Attention: City Hall and URA. No redevelopment beyond this point." Finally, the riots of 1968 devastated the Middle Hill and ended city plans to redevelop the Hill until Jake Milliones, and then Sala Udin, spurred the Crawford-Roberts redevelopment in the 1990s.

By the late 1960s, however, many had developed a negative image of redevelopment. In 1967 the Courier's Ralph Koger laid out what has become a widespread narrative that persists to this day:

"The promise to slum area Negroes at that time was that ... no family was to be moved until new housing quarters are provided by the Urban Renewal Authority. ... And then what happened? Only one luxury apartment building was built... which has windows on all sides except those looking toward the still slum-infested Hill District. Families were dumped wholesale into the Homewood-Brushton District and other parts of Pittsburgh, causing homes originally built for single-family occupancy to be pressed into service for two, three or more families.

"Instead of the jobs which the Pittsburgh Renaissance building boom was supposed to supply for Negroes and which were to be augmented by the lower Hill District urban renewal project, the rate of unemployment among Negroes in the remaining area rose to 18 per cent. ... The area was changed from a predominantly Negro territory to one which is now almost all white."

A historical perspective, then, shows why today blacks have mixed feelings about the Arena. These feelings are based on positive visual and emotional memories of the building itself and of the many rallies, concerts and sporting events it hosted, combined with negative historical memories of unfilled promises of jobs and housing and of not being able to shape the process.

Those interested in the future of the Arena can draw at least four lesson from this history.

• First, be careful what you wish for; you may get it.

• Second, take no promises, however glowing, at face value.

• Third, beware that processes that seem slow and deliberate at one point can suddenly speed up and catch you off guard.

• Fourth, make sure you know exactly what you are getting before anything gets torn down, because afterwards you have no more leverage.

Laurence Glasco ( ) is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has taught African-American history since 1969. His books include "Legacy in Bricks and Mortar: African-American Landmarks in Allegheny County" (written with Frank Bolden and Eliza Smith) and "The WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh." He is at work on a book about August Wilson's Pittsburgh with Christopher Rawson.


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