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August Wilson's Changing Hill

By Former Literary Manager, Taylor Barfield

Nine of August Wilson’s ten American Century Cycle plays take place in his native Hill District. Only Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set outside the confines of this 1.4 square mile Pittsburgh neighborhood. Like many writers, Wilson wrote what he knew. He was born and raised in the Hill. It’s where he bought his first typewriter and began writing poetry. It’s where he sat on stoops and in barbershops, listening to the stories and vocal cadences of the people around him. He once said in an interview, “when I left my mother’s house, I went out into the world, into that community, to learn what it meant to be a man, to learn whatever it is that the community had to teach me. And it was there I met lifelong friends who taught me and raised me.”

His Cycle allowed Wilson to capture the voices of the community that raised him while also indirectly exploring the evolution of the Hill over the course of the 20th century. In writing one play for each decade, Wilson was able to exhibit the extensive changes that occurred in Pittsburgh as a result of the Great Migration, the fight for equal rights, the economic decline of the neighborhood, and the gentrification projects that are at the heart of Radio Golf.

Century Cycle in Chronological Order
1904: Gem of the Ocean
1911: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
1927: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
1936: The Piano Lesson
1948: Seven Guitars
1957: Fences
1969: Two Trains Running
1977: Jitney
1985: King Hedley II
1997: Radio Golf

Century Cycle by World Premiere Year
1982: Jitney
1984: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
1985: Fences
1986: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
1987: The Piano Lesson
1990: Two Trains Running
1995: Seven Guitars
1999: King Hedley II
2003: Gem of the Ocean
2005: Radio Golf

Although Wilson wrote specifically about Pittsburgh, his stories are emblematic of changes that happened across the country during the 20th century in places like Detroit, San Francisco, Baltimore, St. Louis and Chicago.

Like many of these cities, Wilson’s Pittsburgh was greatly affected by The Great Migration. During the century’s first four decades, black people fled north looking to escape the segregation, disenfranchisement and violence prevalent in the south. Many also sought opportunities in these bustling industry towns.

Wilson’s plays that focus on these decades—Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Piano Lesson—all feature characters adjusting to the city after beginning their lives in the predominantly rural, Reconstruction south.

According to census data, Pittsburgh’s black population grew 93% (from 28,472 to 54,943) between 1910 and 1930. The city saw the population increase another 83% (from 54,943 to 100,692) between 1930 and 1970. Discriminatory housing practices led to two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s growing black community living in one of three areas—Homewood Brushton, East Liberty, or the Hill District. That’s about 3 square miles for over 50,000 people in 1930. To put that into perspective, that’s about the same amount of land as Red Bank and Keyport, which only have a combined 19,000 residents.

The stark population increase in these three neighborhoods led to mass conversion of single-family homes into multi-family dwellings. Furthermore, since black tenants had a difficult time finding homes elsewhere, landlords in these areas had little to no pressure to renovate or perform basic maintenance on these homes. As the social scientist, Joe T. Darden wrote about Pittsburgh in his 1973 book, Afro-Americans in Pittsburgh: The Residential Segregation of a People, “lower-quality housing for blacks than for whites has become a rule, and blacks have been forced to pay higher rents than whites for housing of the same quality or equal rents for lower quality housing.”

Despite these living conditions, Homewood Brushton, East Liberty and the Hill District teemed with life in the early half of the century. Wilson notes in an interview, “at one time it was a very thriving community, albeit a depressed community. But still there were shops all along the avenue.” The Hill, in particular, developed a vibrant entertainment district that turned the area into a cultural hub for music, especially jazz and blues. Black entrepreneurs established a number of nightspots including nightclubs, bars and gambling dens. This concentration of entertainment spots along Wylie Avenue, Fullerton Street and Centre Avenue provided ready venues for both famous national acts and upstart local artists to perform.

The relative prosperity of the early 20th century did not last, however. Following World War II, the federal government committed to upgrading housing across the nation, and a large swath of the Hill District was targeted for urban renewal projects. In an article from 1943, George E. Evans, a member of the City Council wrote,

“The Hill District of Pittsburgh is probably one of the most outstanding examples in Pittsburgh of neighborhood deterioration…There are 7,000 separate property owners; more than 10,000 dwelling units and in all more than 10,000 buildings. Approximately 90 percent of the buildings in the area are sub-standard and have long outlived their usefulness, and so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.”

Led by Evans and other politicians, The Pittsburgh Renewal Council was formed in 1950 to facilitate the demolition of large chunks of the city to make room for parks, offices, and other buildings. The Council purchased buildings in the Hill District and other areas, forcing residents to move elsewhere, oftentimes overcrowding already overcrowded black neighborhoods. Instead of immediately tearing down these old buildings, however, the city left many to rot for years, sometimes decades. Most of the public projects that the city promised never materialized and the ones that did caused further harm to
the community. For example, the city began construction on the Civic Arena in the summer of 1956 by demolishing around thirteen thousand structures. Fifteen hundred families (more than eight thousand residents) were displaced. The redevelopment severed the Hill District from surrounding neighborhoods, devastating the Hill’s local businesses. And although the construction of the Civic Arena created jobs for residents in the short term, once the project was finished, those jobs also disappeared. The once lively Hill District would soon become the home of vacant buildings and deteriorating futures.

The Pittsburgh Renewal Council looms over Wilson’s plays focused on the later half of the century such as Two Trains Running, Jitney, and King Hedley II. In those plays, audiences witness characters full of life, love, and wisdom, experiencing their businesses, livelihoods, and community spaces assailed in the name of urban renewal. When George Evans wrote that “there would be no social loss” if these spaces were destroyed, he wantonly dismissed the rich life that August Wilson captures in his plays. These streets were once home to neighborhood kids playing the Dozens on the block, beauty parlors smelling
of freshly pressed hair, soul food restaurants that would make folks weep, jazz clubs blaring bebop and big band till four in the morning. From the 60s to the 90s, Pittsburgh lost the gambling joints, the numbers runners, the barbershops, the gossip, the shit-talkers, the hop-on-a-crate philosophers, the militants, the pacifists, the free lunch programs, the shamans. It lost the corner stores where owners would give you a loaf of bread on Wednesday even if you didn’t have the money till Friday. It lost the community spaces where a young August Wilson listened to the old folks telling stories and an adult August Wilson watched disappear while he was writing his Cycle in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s.

At the center of Radio Golf is the question of what to do with the wreckage of the once thriving Hill District. In 1997, Harmond Wilks and Roosevelt Hicks are partners in a redevelopment project that would tear down a sizable section of the Hill to make way for high-rise condominiums and retail giants such as Barnes & Noble, Whole Foods, and Starbucks. Right in the middle of Harmond and Roosevelt’s development site, however, is 1839 Wylie Avenue, a house that was once inhabited by Aunt Ester. In Wilson’s Century Cycle, Aunt Ester served as the spiritual guide to Hill District residents until she died during the events of King Hedley II in 1985 at the age of 366. Aunt Ester was born in 1619, or when the first Africans were brought to this country during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. With the memory of Africa, the middle passage, and black experience in the United States, Aunt Ester appears in Two Trains Running and Gem of the Ocean to guide characters to a better understanding of themselves and what they have to do to move forward in their lives.

Like other spaces in the Hill District that once contained incredible life during the 20th century, Aunt Ester’s house stands on the precipice of destruction in service of a gentrification project that will exclude many of Pittsburgh’s black community. While Harmond and Roosevelt see the demolition of 1839 Wylie Avenue and other remnants of the Hill as a small price to pay for progress, other characters emerge to reveal the real spiritual costs of leveling a community.