1,000 Stories documents Hill District in Pittsburgh
Susan Goldberg, an assistant professor at Duquesne University, has her students do deep breathing before going out to read an edited script of oral histories they recorded from Hill District residents.
Duquesne University student Daniella Lees, a senior, reads an oral history.
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In the semester just ended at Duquesne University, Susan Goldberg's psychology and social engagement class received a neighborhood education so rich that one student has plans to reconnect with the recovering addict he interviewed.
"We're going to meet for coffee and talk about things," said Jared Wong, whose family once lived in the Hill District. "She's a wonderful person."
The students, all seniors, could have spent four years in the city without ever catching the spirit of the Hill. That's something that has eluded many lifelong Pittsburghers.
But this past spring, Ms. Goldberg asked Terri Baltimore, vice president of neighborhood development at the Hill House Association, if her students could interview people for the 1,000 Stories project.
Hill House established the project in 2010 as a 10-year initiative to document personal stories of life in the neighborhood. Its staff did the first 15 interviews. Ms. Goldberg's students conducted 12 this past spring and summer and nine in the fall.
By the time they were ready to interview, the students had read Hill District histories and August Wilson plays; studied the black migration north, the black experience in Pittsburgh and Teenie Harris photographs; and participated in neighborhood cleanups and neighborhood meetings.
Ms. Goldberg compiled the interviews, selected stories and wrote scripts for the students.
"These stories were so wonderful, it was agony to choose excerpts," she told the audience at a presentation at Hill House, after which her students received a standing ovation for their interpretations; five interviewees attended.
The stories ranged from happy childhoods in a neighborhood stocked with everything one could want to the searing pain of losing a child, being displaced from a home and addiction.
The stories flowed from one student to the next: "My father was a jazz musician and one of his brothers played in the Negro Leagues ... Twice a summer there was a parade ... I remember the houses before the arena. Every time I go here, I remember that this is where my grandma's house used to be ... We used to sleep on the fire escapes and go to Saturday matinees ... We even visited a few bars, yes we did ... Pittsburgh was my home and the Hill was my room."
One subject was haunted by the smell of wet plaster from memories of when the Lower Hill was razed to make room for the Civic Arena and hoses dampened the residue that rose up from 28 acres of rubble.
Linda Robinson lives in Garfield but wants to move back to the Hill. She said the interview experience was rewarding.
"The students were bright-eyed and very attentive to me," she said. "They thought I was some kind of a legend because they didn't know anything about the Hill. And I thought we were on the map.
"When I started telling them my story, they got teary."
She talked about the addiction recovery she had begun three months before her son was murdered in 1992. She remains in recovery and has been an addiction counselor.
"They said they learned so much sitting down with me," she said. "It inspired me to know that what I had to say was important."
"It was inspiring that someone who had been through so much would have so much hope," Maiotte Jouannelle said of the woman she interviewed. "I made eye contact with her when I was reading and she hugged me at the end."
Kris Bartow grew up in Pittsburgh and said she knew "a little about the Hill, but the most meaningful thing for me was how people who live there actually view it. There was suffering, but people talked about how much they love living there."
Irma Coy of the Upper Hill grew up on Webster Avenue. As an adult, she spent 10 years in Homewood before returning.
She had given other interviews and said she "felt like a lab rat in a study of old black people" when she was asked to tell her story again. "But my daughter said, 'You know, Ma, maybe it helps someone young to know this; maybe it will help them make a difference.'
"It was a surprise to the kids that we have a life, I think," Ms. Coy said. "The Hill for me is a beautiful place. When you live in a place, you understand its dynamics."
She described the Hill of her childhood as "a self-contained unit. It hasn't been that for years. We're not about jazz, and we're not looking for the heyday to come back. I just want stores. I want it to be viable."
Many of the students described how they arrived at a common ground with their subjects.
Marah Coleman was struck by a thought when, on stage during the presentation, she looked at her parents in the audience.
"I grew up in Canonsburg, where my dad has a business," she said. "People in the Hill had so much taken from them. I looked at my parents thinking, 'We have so much invested in Canonsburg and to lose it would be devastating.' "
"I went into the reading nervous, not wanting to misrepresent the person's story," Brandon Graham said. "I used to go to the arena, and I learned there used to be houses there. I had fear that I wouldn't be able to bridge the two experiences, but I had so much in common with this woman. She's a recovering drug addict and I'm a recovering alcoholic."
"I've lived in Pittsburgh most of my life and didn't know how much the Hill has been through, how much was ripped away," Stephen Manly said. "The woman I spoke to fondly remembers her childhood and the parades they had in summer. I've been in parades. I didn't know the Hill had its own. Now it's all different to me."
First Published December 31, 2012 12:00 am