August Wilson was a reader first

Turn the Wilson Center into a celebration of literature, suggests the former Post-Gazette book editor

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There was something about Pittsburgh that made August Wilson uncomfortable, like a pair of too-tight shoes that he couldn’t wait to take off. Years ago, when I was driving him (he never learned to handle a car) through the Hill District, the setting for all but one of his plays, he slouched in his seat, barely acknowledging the very spots where his dramas played out.

The city’s deep-seated racism was a major reason why he moved to St. Paul, Minn., in 1979. “There’s not the tension here there was in Pittsburgh,” he said when I visited him in 1987, the year he won the Pulitzer Prize for “Fences.” Later, he lived in Seattle where he died.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the dying arts facility named for him hasn’t been able to sink its roots into the Pittsburgh soil and thrive.

Built at 10th and Liberty, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is isolated from the Cultural District, much like its namesake felt apart from the mainstream here. Kevin McMahon, CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, confirmed the disconnect last month when he said the trust had no interest in purchasing or programming the bankrupt facility.

The $40 million building with its whopping debt is supposed to be sold by June 30. Meanwhile, several private foundations, the pillars of the city’s arts community, are working together to “explore opportunities” to keep it going, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh Foundation said.

As we await the center’s fate, I propose a new direction for it and the city that would give it renewed purpose in pursuing its mission: Turn it into Pittsburgh’s first literary center.

First, the backstory. When Wilson won the Pulitzer in ’87, the Post-Gazette assigned me to reach him somehow for his reaction. In those days, you used the telephone, but there was no August Wilson in the St. Paul phone book. Then I remembered that its twin city, Minneapolis, was home to a famous literary center, The Loft. I left a message there that I was trying to reach Wilson. An hour later, he called me. Hooray for The Loft.

I felt then and I believe more strongly now that Pittsburgh really needs a center like The Loft to inject vitality into its scattershot literary culture. And it should be Downtown, not in Oakland.

I am aware that a county with 130 separate municipalities hates centralization, but a Downtown center could prosper if it housed the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series, now based in Oakland; sponsored writing classes for all genres, including drama; offered regular readings by local and visiting authors; threw a major book festival like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York; and resurrected the world of poetry so diminished since the passing of the International Poetry Forum.

The first step would be to interest the Cultural Trust in something it was never interested in — literature. The trust has always ignored proposals where books, not ceramic pots and cheese fries, would fill Cultural District streets with crowds of families. When it took over the Three Rivers Arts Festival, it left something out — writers and poets. So, that’s a serious obstacle.

Another is the Oakland axis where the major universities hide their well-known visiting writers by making no effort to reach the wider public and where the patrons of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series have become accustomed to the neighborhood’s limitations.

Remember, that successful series started Downtown before it filled up with trendy restaurants and wine and whiskey bars. The streets are safe, the parking’s ample, hotels for visiting authors are close and there’s an air of urbanity and sophistication lacking in the city’s medical and university district.

Then there’s this revolutionary thought — a well-stocked independent bookstore with an informed sales force in the Wilson Center’s first floor. Shocking, I know, but not impossible. A bar and cafe would complete the picture. On weekends, writing classes and readings could bring young people Downtown during the day, maybe attracting the next August Wilson to a welcoming, encouraging place rather than the cold shoulders he found growing up here.

Wilson was one of numerous black writers from Pittsburgh, including John Edgar Wideman and his cousin Al French. The Wilson Center could draw on this rich legacy to attract and train would-be novelists and nonfiction writers whose subjects would be the African-American experience and who would be enriched by artists and performers featured at the center.

Then there’s the opportunity to put the city back on the map as a source of poetry as it was when Samuel Hazo’s International Poetry Forum attracted the best poets from America and overseas to read and meet with students.

All of these features would be income sources, too, the kind of steady revenue that was missing from the Wilson Center’s financial picture. Sure, the cash flow from literary events and classes probably wouldn’t make the restored facility a surplus, but it would help toward balancing the books.

More crucially, a literary center in Downtown Pittsburgh would preserve and promote the city’s rich traditions of literature, poetry and drama. August Wilson loved to write, but he loved to read first. A literary center in his name would be another fitting way to mark the life of this remarkable Pittsburgher.

Bob Hoover wrote about writers, books, poetry and publishing for the Post-Gazette for 27 years.

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