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Hill District

Crossroads Of The World
Poet Claude McKay called Pittsburgh's Hill District the “Crossroads of the World”. The Hill was the home of immigrants from 25 countries and a national center for African-American sports, journalism, theater and commerce. It was also a crossroads for jazz artists from around the country who performed with Pittsburgh's many acclaimed musicians in the Hill's jazz venues.  A jazz Renaissance began on the Hill in the early 1920s and continued through the 1960s.  Jazz evolved and thrived in Hill District's many lively night clubs, dance ballrooms, theaters and the Musicians Club.  Jazz giants Earl Hines, Roy Eldridge, Erroll Garner, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine Billy Eckstine, Mary Lou Williams, Ray Brown, George Benson and many others learned and honed their talents on the Hill.  WHOD DJ Mary Dee, who broadcast from a storefront on the Hill, pinpointed the location of the "Cross Roads of the World" at the corner of Wylie Avenue and Fullerton Street.  
The jazz clubs located on along Wylie Avenue, Fullerton Street, Centre Avenue and Crawford Street were the heart of the neighborhood’s entertainment district.  

The history and culture of the Hill District were captured by photographer Teenie Harris, documented in the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier and brought to life in the Pulitzer Prize winning plays of August Wilson.

The Hill District, located on the slopes above downtown Pittsburgh, is comprised of three neighborhoods: the Lower Hill, the Middle Hill, and the Upper Hill also known as Sugartop.  The Lower Hill which was initially inhabited by freed slaves was originally called  Haiti.  The middle Hill was called Lacyville  and the Upper Hill known as Minersville were initially settled by Germans and Scotch-Irish. In the 1880s central and eastern Europeans migrated to the Hill.   

The 100 acre lower Hill District neighborhood was located between Centre and Bedford Avenues bounded on the upper end by Crawford Street and Washington Place on the lower end.  It was a thriving integrated multi-ethnic melting pot neighborhood with restaurants, beauty shops, barbers, theaters, grocers, butchers, bakeries, clothing stores, book stores, schools, churches, social clubs, and night clubs.  A city within a city it had everything: jobs shopping, schools and entertainment.  

Hill History

The Hill District was one of Pittsburgh's most historic neighborhoods that came to life in the early 1800s.   The land of the Hill District was initially owned by the grandson of Pennsylvania's founder William Penn.  
After the Revolutionary War 150 freed slaves came to Pittsburgh from Virginia.  Among Hill's original settlers they founded the Bethal AME church in 1818 and established businesses.  Before the Civil War the Hill was a center of the underground railroad and the abolitionist movement led by Martin Delany,  Reverend Lewis Woodson, and John Vashon.  

Ethnic Melting Pot

Beginning in the 1850s the Hill District became Pittsburgh's primary arrival point for Irish and German immigrants. Italian and East European immigrants arrived in the Hill during the 1880s.  Southern Blacks began their migration to the Hill District in the 1910s when European immigration was halted by World War I and created a labor shortage in Pittsburgh.  The 1940 Census found that the Hill District was an ethnic melting pot with 25 nationalities.  Immigrant children attended integrated schools. Jewish, Italian, Greek, and African American merchants served the neighborhood.  The historic ethnic churches, business, and entertainment venues provided the Hill's citizens with a vibrant social life.  

National Sports Championships

The Hill District was home champion African American basketball and baseball teams.  
The Monticello-Delany Rifles basketball team, starring Cum Posey and Sell Hall won the Colored Basketball World’s Championship in 1913.  After changed the team name to the Loendi Big Five they won the Colored Basketball World’s Championship four years in a row from 1920-23.  Cum Posey and Sell Hall also played for the Homestead Grays baseball team in 1917 and 1918.  Sell Hall left the Grays to pitch for the Chicago Giants and became their owner/manager.  Cum Posey eventually became the owner and manager of the Homestead Grays.

The Hill district had two African American owned baseball stadiums and negro league teams.  Sellers Mckee Hall moved the Giants of Pittsburgh calling them the American Giants baseball team .  Sellers purchased the Central Park Field baseball stadium located at Wylie Avenue and Chauncey Street.  The Giants played at Central Park Field from 1920 to 1924.  In 1930 Hill district numbers king and businessman Gus Greenlee purchased the semi-pro baseball team the Crawford Colored Giants.  The George Steinbrenner of his day he signed the top stars of the Negro leagues including legends Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell.  Joining the Negro Leagues in 1932 the Crawfords won the black National League championship in 1935 and 1936.  Enraged that his players were not permitted to use the Forbes Field dressing rooms, Gus Greenlee built Greenlee Field in 1932.  Located at 2500 Bedford Avenue in the Hill the park had 7,500 seats and lights.  Greenlee Field also hosted black college football games, boxing matches, and other sporting events.   

The Bard of the Hill

Pulitzer and Tony winning playwright, August Wilson, who was born in and grew up in the Hill District, wrote ten plays, each set in a different 20th century decade, about life in the African-American community. His plays include Fences, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, The Piano Lesson. a winner of a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Nine his plays are set in Pittsburgh's Hill District.  His plays examine the ways that African Americans who moved to Northern cities in the great migration create lives of dignity in the face of segregation, racism, and urban renewal.

Pittsburgh Courier and Photographer Teenie Harris

The Pittsburgh Courier, based in the Hill District was the most influential African American weekly newspaper in the United State. Published from 1910 to 1966 it had a national circulation of around 450,000.   It published both a national paper and 14 local editions in Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York.   The Courier had over 400 employees in 14 cities.  Edited by Percival L. Prattis, the Courier covered national issues such as segregation, civil rights, and poverty that effected African-Americans across the county.   It also celebrated and promoted African American sports, music and arts.  Courier photographer Charles “Teenie Harris” from 1935 to 1975 captured the vibrant social lie of Pittsburgh’s African American community in over 80.000 photos.  He photographed the daily life of the residents of the Hills along with the many celebrities who visited or performed in the Hills entertainment venues.  A national artistic treasure, his photographs are now housed in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum.

Hill District Clubs and Concert Halls

Jazz grew and thrived in the clubs, dance halls, and theaters halls of the Hill District from the early 1920s through the 1960s.  Sellers McKee Hall, Harry Collins, Gus Greenlee, Woogie Harris, Harry Hendel, Joe and Buzzy Robinson, Birdie Dunlap and others promoted jazz in their ballrooms, theaters and clubs.  
Pittsburgh's earliest jazz performers Fate Marable, Louis Deppe, and Earl Hines appeared at the Collins Inn and the Leader House in the 1920s.  Big bands appeared the Pythian Temple, the Lincoln Theater, the Ellmore Theater / Savoy Ballroom, the Star Theater and the Roosevelt Theater.  Small jazz combos performed at the Harlem Casino, the Crawford Grill No. 1, Stanley's, the Melody Bar, the Ritz Club, the Washington Club, the Loendi Club,  the Webster Grill, Kelly's Bar, Derby Dan's, Bobby Hinton's, the Blue Note,  Teddy Hornes’ club, the American Legion's Carney Post,  and the Iron City Elks Club.  On the Upper Hill jazz was featured at the Crawford Grill no. 2, the Hurricane Club, the Flamingo Hotel, Mutt’s Hut, Mason’s, the Ellis Hotel, the Perry Hotel, and the Little Paris Club.  Jazz was performed into the early morning hours at the after hours clubs the Musicians Club, Berryman and West, and the Bambola Social Club.

Collins Inn and the Musicians Club

The Musician’s Club at 1213 Wyle Avenue was located in the building that was formerly one of Pittsburgh first jazz clubs the Collins Inn.  Louis Deppe, who started the first jazz band in Pittsburgh, got his start singing at the Collins Inn during the 1920s.  Gus Greenlee purchased the Collins Inn in 1923, renamed it the Paramount Club, and operated it until the early 1930s.  The Pittsburgh African American Musicians' Association received its Local 471 charter from the American Federation of Musicians in 1908.  After Gus Greenlee opened the Crawford Grill in 1933, Musician’s Local 471 moved to the former Collins Inn/Paramont building. Union Local’s 471 Musician’s Club  was a lively after hours club that presented great jazz by local and national musicians for 30 years.   The club was a piano bar and rehearsal space that was the vital social and creative hub for jazz musicians.   Pittsburgh and national musicians socialized, jammed, learned from each other, auditioned, formed bands, booked gigs, rehearsed, and performed at the club.  Late at night it was an after hours club.  National touring musicians went to the Musician’s Club after their gigs for food, drinks, and jam sessions.   The Musician’s club was also a social hub for jazz fans.  Obtaining a liquor license in 1941 the Musician’s Club began presenting bands and floor shows.   During the 1950’s Wednesdays were “Celebrity Nights” when national touring artists performed with members of local 471.  Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins were a few of the many stars who performed at the Musician’s club.  The Hill District’s historic Musician’s Club building on Wyle Avenue was torn down in the 1950’s to make way for the Civic Arena.

Leader House and the Crawford Grill No 1

The first Crawford Grill club began as a hotel called the Leader House.  It stood on the corner of Crawford Street and Wylie Avenue where Crawford Square now sits. Pittsburgh jazz pioneer Louis Deppe’s band performed at the Leader House in the 1920’s with its young pianist Earl Hines.  Gus Greenlee purchased the building in 1930 and renamed it the Crawford Grill.  The building was almost a full city block long with three floors.  The main room on the second floor had a central elevated revolving stage.  The third floor housed the exclusive “Club Crawford” an insider’s only club where Greenlee and his business associates held court.  During its hey day top jazz musicians such as Louie Armstrong , Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne and Dizzie Gillespie headlined there along with Pittsburgh’s own stars Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Roy Eldridge, Mary Lou Williams, and Erroll Garner.  Big Band swing musicians who played concerts at the Roosevelt Theater in the Hill and at Stanley and other theaters in downtown Pittsburgh came to the Grill after their shows for all night jam sessions.  Members of the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, and Fletch Henderson could be heard battling in jam contests at the Grill with Pittsburgh’s legendary jazzmen.  
As the Grill welcomed both white and black music fans, it was a meeting spot for all jazz lovers.  Crawford Grill number 1 was destroyed in a fire in 1951 leaving only a burnt out shell.   Gus Greenlee died the following year.  The building was demolished in 1959 when the Wylie Avenue business and cultural center was tragically destroyed in the name of “urban renewal” to make way for the construction of the Civic Arena.

Elmore Theater / Savoy Ballroom

The Savoy Ballroom and its predecessor the Elmore Theater located in Pittsburgh’s Hill district was an important entertainment hot spot for African Americans during the 1920s and 1930s. Opened in 1923 the Elmore Theater presented musical and vaudeville reviews featuring early jazz and blues stars such as Ma Rainey, Ethel Walters, Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton. Converted to a large dance hall and renamed the Savoy Ballroom in 1933 it hosted the major swing bands of the era including Duke Ellington, Chick Web, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Cab Calloway, Fat Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, Andy Kirk, Mary Lou Williams, Lucky Millinder, Don Redman, Noble Sissle, Luis Russel, and Jimmie Lunceford. According to music historian Colter Harper the Savoy Ballroom was an important center for musical and social life in the Hill. Music fans watched their favorite performers. Teen socialized meeting to dance the hottest new swing crazes. Young Pittsburgh musicians learned their craft by watching and sitting in with the big bands. They gained experience and earned an income playing in the pit bands of the Elmore Theatre shows and the dance bands of the Savoy Ballroom.  The Savoy was sold in 1940 is now the Olivet Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, a center for Gospel music.

Pythian Temple / New Savoy Ballroom

From 1928 through the 1950s The Pythian Temple, located between Wylie and Center Avenues in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, was one of the nation’s premiere venues for jazz.  It was a must stop for touring jazz artists and “the” place in Pittsburgh to dance to the music of the big swing bands. Promoter Sellers McKee Hall, Pittsburgh’s first African American music promoter, brought the biggest names in jazz to Pittsburgh for his popular dances that drew crowds of 1,500 to 2,000. Sell Hall booked Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissie, Don Redman, Chick Web, Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, the Alabama Jungle Band and other swing bands to Pittsburgh for his all night dances. In a nationally broadcast radio performance from the Pythian Temple ballroom in 1930 Duke Ellington was crowned the “King of Jazz”. Promoter Harry Hendel took ownership of the Temple in 1937 turning the 1st floor into the New Granada movie Theater and renaming the ballroom to the New Savoy. A new generation of jazz artists performed at the ballroom during the late 1940s and 1950s. Top R&B acts performed there from the 1960s until the ballroom’s closure in the early 1970s. Hosting dances and concerts by national and Pittsburgh artists for over 40 years the Pythian earned its place in the annuals of jazz history. 

Bambola Social Club - After Hours Mecca for Shake Dancers and Be-Bop

The Bambola Social Club opened in November 1946 as a chartered membership social club.  It was one of the most popular clubs in the heyday of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  It was housed in the wide basement underneath the RHUMBA movie theater located at 53 Fullerton Street three doors from the intersection of Wylie Avenue.  When the bars and clubs of the Hill closed for the night the members of the Bambola and their guests went to the Bambola for more late night entertainment.   It was open every night and provided entertainment from midnight to five or six in the morning on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The Bambola presented floor shows which were two hour sets of acts by dancers, comedians, risqué shake dancers, and a band hosted by an emcee.  In 1947 trumpeter Tommy Turrentine took over the Bamboloa’s band leading a quartet of pianist Robert Head, bassist Bobby Boswell, and drummer Cecil Brooks II.  The floor shows started at 2 AM when most of patrons came in after the regular hours bars closed. The band played music from midnight to 2 A.M. while the crowd was sparse.  Turrentine took advantage of that time to play the adventurous new sounds of Bebop that were frowned upon by other clubs on the Hill.   The Bambola Social Club closed sometime in the mid 1950’s.  The Rhumba Theater, which had shown movies since the 1920 silent movie era, was demolished to make way for the Civic Arena.  Fullerton Street no longer exists. 

Birdie Dunlap's Hurricane Club

The Hurricane Club, located at 1603 Center Avenue, opened in October 1953 to become in its glory days during the mid-'50s through the late '60s one of the hottest small jazz clubs in the world.   Working class jazz fans and celebrities mingled and rubbed elbows packing the club to hear top “soul jazz” and hard-bop acts.  Wes Montgomery, Roland Kirk, Kenny Burrell, Roy Eldridge, Sonny Stitt, Nancy Wilson, George Benson, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Wild Bill Doggett, Jimmy Smith and many other jazz stars played the stage of the Hurricane. The Hurricane was the queen of "The Chitlin' Circuit" of small “soul jazz” organ clubs spread across the East and Midwest. Jazz organist Jimmy McGriff hailed the Hurricane as “the Apollo Theater” of the jazz organ universe.   The Hurricane was the proving ground and launch pad for the careers of organists Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Groove Holmes, Johnny Hammond Smith, Shirley Scott, Don Patterson, Wild Bill Davis and Pittsburgh’s own Gene Ludwig.  Owner Birdie Dunlap  was jazz maven who gracefully welcomed a socially diverse mix of jazz fans to her club and introduced her patrons to great new artists.  It was a must stop for true jazz fans.  As one patron said "if you hadn't gone to the Hurricane over the weekend you hadn't been out."

Urban Renewal's Destruction of the Hill District

Being one of the Pittsburgh's oldest neighborhoods much of the Hill District's housing built in the 1800s lacked running water, toilets, modern kitchens, and central heating. According to s
tudies conducted in the 1940s one third of the Lower Hill homes were either unfit for living or needed major repairs.  A report by the city claimed that  that 60 percent of dwellings needed major repairs or lacked private indoor bathrooms.  In the late 1940s the U.S. Supreme Court gave redevelopment authorities the power of eminent domain to acquire properties that they deemed "blighted".  

As part of Pittsburgh's first Renaissance project the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority sought financing to clear and "renew" the Lower Hill District. In 1950 Pittsburgh's Planning Commission deemed the entire Lower Hill district a dilapidated slum with substandard buildings that had outlived their usefulness.  One city councilman stated "there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed."  In 1963 the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced plans to demolish 100 acres of the lower Hill District. The land of the Lower Hill was to be reclaimed for the construction of the Civic Arena and a "Cultural Acropolis" with an opera house and symphony hall, a theater for dramas and musicals, a modern art museum, an exhibition hall, luxury apartment buildings, hotels, office buildings and underground parking.  It was to be Pittsburgh's Lincoln Center.  

Every building in the Lower Hill was demolished including historic churches and profitable business establishments.  No attempt was made to preserve or repair historic buildings.  Everything had to go. Demolition began on May 31, 1957.  The original Crawford Grill, the Musicians Club, the Blue Note Café, Marie's, Lola's, the Bambola Social Club, the Washington Club, the Loendi Club and many other thriving jazz nightspots fell to the wrecking ball. The historic AME and St. Peter's churches were destroyed.  The corner of Wylie and Fullerton was erased from the map.  No effort was made to save and preserve the Crawford Grill or the clubs of Fullerton Street and Wylie Avenue.  The Fullerton Street area became a parking lot.  Wylie Avenue became a memory in the plays of August Wilson.

Demotion of 100 entire blocks of the Lower Hill District began on May 31, 1956. The Lower Hill was nuked.  The URA destroyed 1,300 buildings, 413 businesses and moved 8,000 people from the Hill. The Pittsburgh Courier in a story headlined "Urban Renewal Means Negro Removal" warned about the eviction of Hill residents.  Thousands of predominantly poor African Americans were forced to move from their integrated neighborhood with hundreds of business to segregated public housing projects in isolated locations. But not enough modern public housing was built. Many of the evicted settled in crowed rental properties in the Upper Hill, East Liberty, and Homewood.  The Hill's Italians and Eastern Europeans bought homes in the suburbs.  

Construction of the Civic Arena began when ground was broken on April 25, 1958.  The Civic Arena was an architectural and engineering success.  It provided Pittsburgh with a stage to host large concerts and sporting events for fifty years.  Millions of Pittsburgh area residents celebrated the glory days of arena rock and championship sports seasons at the arena.  But the urban renewal project that the arena was the center piece of  was a failure.  A culturally vibrant historic neighborhood was totally destroyed to clear way for the un-built "cultural acropolis".   The Civic Arena became the symbol of the uncaring top-down planned urban "removal" project.  Not a single historic building was persevered   Funds were never provided to build the promised concert hall, theaters, art museum, and exhibit space.  With its street connection to downtown cut off and the loss of the lower Hill population the entire Hill District and its great musical and social cultures went into ruin not "renewal".

Pittsburgh by 1960 became one of the most segregated big cities in the country.  With access to downtown cut off by the Crosstown Boulevard and the loss of hundred of business and thousands of people the remaining Centre Avenue businesses and the rest of the Hill District went into decline.  Population of the Lower Hill dropped from 17,334 in 1950 to 2,459 in 1990. Population of the entire Hill District dropped from a high of 62,500 residents in 1950 to 17,050 in 2010.  The Urban Renewal of the Lower Hill was a disastrous failure.  

Destruction of the Hill's Jazz Culture

The vibrant jazz culture of the Hills was snuffed out by urban renewal   Destroyed were dozens of small jazz clubs and the Musicians Club where Pittsburgh's artists learned and perfected their craft on their way to international fame. In the glory days of the Hill touring national jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack McDuff, Sunny Stit and Max Roach played week long engagements in Pittsburgh.  During their stays in town the national artists jammed with Pittsburgh jazz musicians at the Musicians Club and after hours clubs. Showing their talent in the jam sessions many of Pittsburgh's jazz greats were hired by the national touring artists.  Clearing the Hill of its jazz clubs wiped out the opportunity for Pittsburgh musicians to interact with national artists. Instead established national acts performed one night stands at the Civic arena and bolted quickly out of town.  They did not interact with or jam with Pittsburgh's musicians.  

Destruction of the Civic Arena

Other than the Washington Plaza Apartments, the rest of “Cultural Acropolis” was never built.  The Civic Arena was surrounded by empty promises and a sea of parking lots.  But for 50 years it was the center for Pittsburgh's major concerts and professional hockey.  Seeking higher revenue from fancy luxury boxes and banquet rooms the Pittsburgh Penguins demanded a new arena be built or they would move to Kansas City.  The Penguins demanded that the Mellon Arena to be demolished on completion of the new facility.   The domed arena was doomed for destruction iith the opening of the slightly larger Console Center in 2010.  Demolition of the Civic Arena began on September 26, 2011 and was completed on March 31, 2012.  The wreckage of the iconic Civic Arena was tossed into the mountainous rubble of discarded Pittsburgh music venues that include the great jazz clubs of the Hill. 

Today the barren land of the Lower Hill awaits its rebirth as a neighborhood.   The jazz of the Hill is gone forever.