First Person / Getting used to diversity

A white boy from farm country explores a city of different worlds

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I was raised in a white bread, downstate Illinois town where appreciating "cultural diversity" meant knowing the difference between corn and soybeans. Our occasional cultural forays to Chicago were fraught with tension: We locked the car doors as we passed unsettling places and unfamiliar people on our way into the Loop for museums, tours, performances or holiday shopping.

One year as we headed home, our car broke down on the Dan Ryan Expressway. Dad walked to the next interchange and found a service station open on a holiday night on the South Side of Chicago. We were towed into a gritty urban garage for repairs and then sent on our way.

Our mortified family never left the vehicle. Diversity at street level was intimidating, especially when we were suddenly the scrutinized minority.

Despite reports to the contrary, Pittsburgh is culturally diverse. Ten years ago we took the plunge, found a home in the city and put our four daughters into public schools. Ever since -- like the song says -- we've been "Getting to Know You."

As a cultural tourist, I sampled shows in the Cultural District, exhibits at the Carnegie museums and commerce in the Strip. I strolled through street festivals to learn the traditions, arts and foods of various neighborhoods. But I felt there was more to the culture of this city than its celebrated refinements.

I began walking to work, ignoring well-meaning advice to avoid certain neighborhoods along my route. Walking allows me to see that even neglected neighborhoods are built of individual homes. At street level I notice subtle changes, such as a sidewalk being repaired, a house getting a new porch or a sooty church having its stone walls cleaned. These are good signs: hopeful people do such things.

Last fall I learned of an event named "Taste the Future of Larimer." This intrigued me, for Larimer is a tough neighborhood by reputation. Still, I went because of the woman who invited me: Carolyn Peeks, a classmate in the Civic Leadership Academy. Connecting neighborhoods is one of the academy's objectives.

On a cold November night I warily walked 2 miles from my home in Morningside to St. James AME church on Lincoln Avenue. I arrived to find a great sampling of foods from East End restaurants and a presentation by the Larimer Green Team. This committee of the Larimer Consensus Group has worked several years toward its vision of green spaces and a village commons. Gardening in Larimer is tough business because there is a layer of rubble from demolished homes just beneath the surface.

Their plan is now bearing fruit -- literally. I've returned several times to help with plantings and maintenance at the Larimer community garden. I greatly enjoy it. I have learned that the future of Larimer tastes like hard work and hope, and some good barbecue too.

On the first Monday of every month, the August Wilson Center's Mark Clayton Southers assembles a cast for Reading Round Table, a free reading of plays by August Wilson and new works from emerging playwrights. I had no awareness of Wilson before coming to Pittsburgh, but I was intrigued by the use of his plays as a lens through which to view African-American culture.

I have followed the development of the center since it was a Styrofoam model on display during gallery crawls. Now architectural reality, the building presents a long wall of windows along Liberty Avenue. The view from inside is ordinary, of pedestrians, traffic and storefronts. The center's placement at street level is fitting because Wilson's plays were forged nearby in the gritty Hill District, toward which the building points like an arrow.

At the first monthly reading, I bought a copy of "August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays," by Laurence Glasco and Christopher Rawson. This guidebook -- funded in part by the National Park Service -- describes the places and times which shaped the life and dramatic work of Wilson, born Freddy Kittel in 1945, son of a largely absent German immigrant father and a working class African-American mother.

The Wilson tour of the Hill District includes a number of decrepit structures and vacant lots, symptoms of continuing societal separation. But the real history of the Hill is the ongoing story of its people, not just an outdoor museum of buildings with plaques.

In his cycle of plays, Wilson reached back through all 10 decades of the 20th century to paint a portrait in powerful, prosaic stories of the collective human experience. Wilson planted the Hill District firmly on the dramatic landscape, a lasting artistic legacy with roots that reach beneath the rubble of the Hill's current neglect and bear fruit in theaters across America.

I attend Reading Round Table as a cultural student of Pittsburgh. On a deeper level, however, I've long needed some urban renewal in my social worldview -- there were some vacant spots I was avoiding.

Freddy Kittel's own story -- self-educated in the Carnegie Library, self-discovered on the streets of the Hill and self-invented as Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson -- is an inspiring model for personal renaissance. I'm working my way through Wilson to grow my appreciation for cultural diversity and to refashion my own attitudes.

For a milk-fed white boy from a homogenized small town, I'm making some progress. I'm not where I want to be yet, but thanks to grassroots outreach from the Larimer Green Team and the ambitious education mission of the August Wilson Center, I am growing into an adopted son of Pittsburgh who can walk all over this city and feel at home.


David Malehorn is a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and works at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute ( davemalehorn@msn.com ).


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