Duquesne University class learns importance of the Hill District

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In most classes, cramming comes last, for the final. Evan Stoddard's Community and University Honors class at Duquesne University crammed at the beginning.

They watched interviews of August Wilson. They watched his plays. They watched "Wylie Avenue Days," a 1991 film in WQED's Pittsburgh History Series about the Hill District's most vibrant years. They walked, went to church and met people in the neighborhood. Some went to the Teenie Harris photo exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Their mission was, in Mr. Stoddard's words, "to imbibe the spirit" of the Hill and the late playwright for their final project -- a master plan for a first-of-its kind partnership.

At a recent gathering at the Carnegie Library on Centre Avenue, the students presented their plan for how future Honors College classes will work to support, serve and learn at the Daisy Wilson Artist Community.

Named for Wilson's mother, the artist community is a nonprofit board with a building that needs repair and code updates. An apartment above a small market in the building, at 1727 Bedford Ave., was Wilson's boyhood home.

The board of the Daisy Wilson Artist Community has been raising money to renovate it -- almost $100,000 to date -- and plans to start with the storefront to accommodate a new coffeehouse to raise revenue and awareness about the project.

Wilson's nephew, Paul Ellis, bought the building several years ago, intending to create a center for artists, musicians and writers to perform, exhibit, hold workshops and live.

Mr. Stoddard, associate dean of the McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts, has taught the Community and University class each spring semester as a service-learning experience in different neighborhoods. The service ends when the class does.

This spring's class was asked to dig deeper roots when Kathleen Glenister Roberts, director of the University Honors College, asked Mr. Stoddard to take on the partnership.

"We have many community partners," she said, "but this is designed as a long-term relationship.

"The class hashed out ideas of how they could take part," she said, such as music majors having jam sessions with jazz artists, students volunteering in the coffee shop, helping with workshops and other programs and maintaining the vacant lot beside the building.

"I am so proud you guys see the scope of what we're trying to do and the potential cultural impact in generations to come," Mr. Ellis told the students.

Mr. Stoddard said most of his students had never been to the Hill District "and many knew nothing about August Wilson. For them to do something meaningful, they have to learn a lot of stuff quickly."

Most of the students said they were moved by the experience.

"Before you can make connections, you have to break down barriers," Curtis Evans said. "I grew up in Pittsburgh and had never been acquainted with the Hill."

Bronson Domasky wrote on the class blog that when they visited the Hill, "we began understanding why so many people care about revitalizing it. Somewhere along the way, I realized I cared, too."

Attorney Kevin Acklin, executive director of RenewPittsburgh, is chairman of the Wilson community board. Renew is a volunteer organization whose crews have cleared out the building and are working with contractors who are donating time. Massaro Corp. has donated $30,000 to $40,000 in work, he said, and architect Rob Pfaffmann, a member of the board, is working pro bono.

An original grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation paid for a feasibility study, followed by grants from the Heinz Endowments, McAuley Ministries and individuals. The complete renovation is estimated to cost between $1 million and $2 million, Mr. Acklin said.

He said the board intends to launch a capital campaign that will reach out to the playwright's national network.

The building has a new roof and is "in decent shape," Mr. Pfaffmann said. "We might be able to isolate the little commercial space" to get the coffee shop up and running first.

"Personally," Mr. Domasky wrote, "I cannot wait to have a cup of coffee and read one of August Wilson's works under the roof of his former home. I think it will be a beautiful thing."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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