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Hill District Tours Aim To Change Impressions Of The Neighborhood

A few decades ago, Terri Baltimore tagged along with a group of architecture students and their professor while they were visiting the Hill District.

“And what they said about this neighborhood broke my heart,” she said. “That it was dirty.

It was ugly. And they couldn’t believe that they had to come spend time here.”

This story is part of Essential Pittsburgh, an ongoing series exploring how Pittsburgh lives, and how it's evolving.

Baltimore knew that the Hill had been struggling. Once a major cultural center for jazz, the neighborhood had suffered displacement and economic decline in previous decades. But what those students had said bothered her.

So Baltimore, who works for the Hill House Association, started leading her own tours. Now, she gives 50 to 60 tours a year for native Pittsburghers and international visitors alike, to showcase the Hill’s hidden gems, cultural landmarks and new developments.

She said it’s her mission to change the still pervasive negative impression of the neighborhood — an impression that she says is shared by all of Pittsburgh’s “H neighborhoods.”

"But in the Hill District, in Homewood, in Hazelwood, in Homestead are the cultural and industrial roots of Pittsburgh,” Baltimore said. “So you miss those neighborhoods, and you miss the very essence of Pittsburgh.”


The other side of the Hill

In September, Baltimore led a group of volunteers from PPG who were painting a senior center in the Hill.

As the group looked straight into downtown over the parking lots of the Lower Hill, Baltimore explained that before the Civic Arena broke ground in 1958, the neighborhood was a major throughway to the city’s core.  

 “The development of the arena changed the street grid, changed the traffic patterns, and changed the way people related to this neighborhood,” said Baltimore.



The group continued on, walking by the remnants of the Penn Incline, which once connected the Hill to the Strip District. A few years before the construction of the Civic Arena, it had been dismantled.  

“So all of the connections and throughways that brought people to the Hill were closed off,” she said. “If you don’t come to a place, it’s like the place and the people are invisible.”

The next stop was the childhood home of August Wilson on Bedford Avenue. The renowned American playwright lived in this brick home until he was five.

Now, it’s being renovated as an artist and community space. Earlier this year, a production of one of Wilson’s plays was held in the backyard.

“So the notion of reclaiming this house is about reclaiming it for its cultural integrity,” said Baltimore. “Also, [it’s] thinking about how do we influence what happens in the neighborhood? And one way to do that is to invest.”


After seeing the playwright’s home, they moved on to the August Wilson Park. The lush, wheelchair accessible space was renovated and reopened earlier this year as part of the Hill District’s Greenprint plan. It sits right on the northern edge of the neighborhood, where you can see for miles.

“Oh my gosh, you see a whole different side of the city,” said Patty Twidwell of New Kensington. “I’ve lived here 58 years and never been up here to see this. Ever.”

The park also incorporates cultural elements like screened photos from the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Teenie Harris archive on the basketball court.

The final tour destination was a steep drop-off at Arcena Street, above Bigalow Boulevard; the group gazed out on the view. Baltimore declared it the best place in the city to watch fireworks. It was a totally new vantage point for most of the tour-goers.

“That’s the Strip District down there?” asked Twidwell. “I’m so confused!”


Changing minds, one at a time

On the walk back, Shu Goto admitted that he has heard negative things about this neighborhood.


Leroy Dillard, 71, built his home at 1703 Arcena Street on the bones of the Penn Incline, which traveled over Bigelow Boulevard from the Hill District to the Strip from 1884 to 1953. The project was a love letter to his city and the neighborhood it likes to forget, he said.

“We hear a lot of stories that we should avoid it,” he said. “But you come here, it’s not bad — it’s normal.”

Terri Baltimore said the Hill is going to face a lot of challenges in the coming years, especially housing, avoiding displacement, and further gentrification. While the neighborhood works to manage development’s double edged sword, her ultimate goal is to make people more sensitive to those issues, by giving them first hand experiences here.

“People should come to The Hill,” she said. “Look around. Meet people. Ask questions. And come back.”

Virginia reports on identity and justice for 90.5 WESA. That means looking at how people see themselves in the community, and how the community makes them feel. Her reporting examines things like race, policing, and housing to tell the stories of folks we often don't hear from.
Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.
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