Friday, July 2, 2010

Hill Leaders, Preservation Community break Bread at Church Meeting

Dr. Kimberly Ellis, AKA Dr. Goddess, AKA the Executive Director of the Historic Hill Institute, facilitated a catered gathering on Tuesday evening at Ebenezer Baptist Church, for the purpose of properly introducing those interested in preserving the Civic Arena to those in whose community it is located.

"Do you know Kimberly Ellis?" the two young white architects seated next to me asked. "She pretty much speaks for the Hill District."

What a difference two years and an election make!


Ellis led off with a slide show update on the progress of historic preservation initiatives already underway in the Hill, including:

  • Greenlee Field (named for Sam Greenlee, a numbers runner, and provider of loans, initial investor in the Crawford Grille for the purpose of "laundering his money")
  • The Kauffman Auditorium at the Irene Kauffman Settlement House
  • The Crawford Grille, which has new investors (including Franco Harris, a retired Pittsburgh Steelers running back)
  • The August Wilson childhood home
  • The New Granada Theater

Summarily, "historic preservation is alive and well in the Hill District".

This history is poised to be leveraged as part of a community development campaign which will promote "Pittsburgh's most famous neighborhood." Ellis explained that although the Hill District does not qualify to be on the National Register of Historic Places, it is exploring forming its own Conservation District.


Nevertheless, "reconnecting the street grid is not of ultimate importance to us," said Ellis on the topic of the 28 acres of the Lower Hill on which the Arena stands. The paramount goals seem to be jobs, community empowerment, and economic and other development which will encourage vitality and livability further up the Hill.

The slide show continued telling the story of urban redevelopment in the Hill, including: neighborhood demolition, arena construction, official plans to extend the Golden Triangle much further east, promises made and the reality which unfolded, and the community response.

It was pointed out several times that the Hill District leaders of that era were initially excited and supportive of coming redevelopment efforts, although little-to-nothing in the way of community jobs, relocation for the displaced, and new low-income housing ever unfolded. After nearly a decade of this disruption and disappointment and the riots following Dr. King's assassination, the Hill fell into disrepute as far as redevelopment energies.

According to Ellis, at a recent meeting with the Penguins, UDA architects stressed that "We'll reconnect your historic street grid!", representing that their plan is "the only way to make the Hill District whole again." Ellis acknowledged that the Penguins' new plans do not actually reconnect anything historic to anything else, but also suggested that the magical palliative of streetwise connections is somewhat beside the point.

This brought discussions to the present. When the Penguins were accorded development rights to the land it became mandatory for them t go through a "Section 106 process" to identify historic assets, gather public input, and assess the effects of a variety of options. Failure to compete the 106 process results in the loss of any federal money going into the project, including for infrastructure. The Sports & Exhibition Authority asserts that they have "about two more meetings" to complete the 106 process, though that claim is controversial.

"We're here!" was one message Ellis was interested in getting across. "We're engaged!" in the processes of determining what is to become of the Lower Hill and the arena itself.

Next on the agenda was testimony from select Hill District witnesses as to their lived Civic Arena experiences, and what specific memories that structure preserves for them.

During the years-long process of hammering forth a "community benefits agreement" with the City, the URA and the Penguins, Kimberly Ellis and some of her compatriots were frequently shouted down and disparaged at meetings of the One Hill coalition for insisting on dredging up "all this history" -- even when that "history" dated back 2007 and a meeting of the Sports & Exhibition Authority. Now the coalition was doing everything it could to make sure its history was related in what it considered the proper measure and context to what they refer to as the "preservation community".

Brenda Tate, whose personal history includes sparking more assertive negotiations for that benefits agreement, led things off by saying, "I'm really not here to bash the arena."

Tate did recall that as construction in the Lower Hill got underway in the 60's, kids began mysteriously transferring out her her grade school classes. She remembers soot and plaster everywhere during those times also, on her clothes and in her lungs. She remembers regarding the eventually completed arena as a bizarre "spaceship", although she did say that as an early concert-goer she was wowed by the spectacle of the arena opening up as it did.

Sala Udin, up next, began, "Everyone knows I'd be glad to bash the Civic Arena. But I won't." Yet his remembrances of the structure were even less positive on balance.

"We don't have a current consensus on what ought to happen to the Lower Hill," he eventually summarized, "but we all have in common a desire to see the rebirth of the Hill District itself."

And later: "We need to make our decision based on our best interests, and what will maximize development throughout the Hill. We have to ensure a development that nourishes the entire Hill.

"And if that building stands in the way of that kind of development, it must come down."

And summarily: "It's not because I hate hockey -- which I do," (a laugh line), "but I would love to see the preservationists fight as hard for the preservation of a people as they do for the preservation of a building. Talk. About. The people."


A certain Dr. Glasgow [sic] was invited next to relate a historical analysis and some pointed though vague recommendations. He said that "hopefully" something will appear in the Post-Gazette this coming Sunday, which will even further lay out his findings and impressions.

I took less notes during his presentation because I was somewhat spellbound, and if something like it does appear in the Sunday P-G you're all in for a real treat.

Among his quick-reference recommendations to the neighborhood were 1) Be careful what you wish for, 2) Don't take anything at face value and 5) Once something gets demolished, you lose all your leverage.

Carl Redwood pointed out that one of the 19 development principles spelled out in the CBA was to "leave no remnant" of the Civic Arena -- but volunteered that that is a plank that "could change" if a credible preservation plan that suits the community's wishes were to come forward. (Another of the 19 development principles was a requirement to reconnect the street grid "with Downtown", and that seems to be morphing.)

Jason Matthews, an official involved with the development group that seemed for a while to entice Kuhn's supermarket to the neighborhood, and is continuing to seek replacement grocers for that development ("We're working hard, and we're moving forward. We're working hard, we're moving forward, and that's all we're allowed to say at this point.") said that "fond memories" of concerts cannot be what the question is about -- it must be about economic benefit.

"You're not going to get a deal done, if you don't have a relationship with the political leadership" Matthews warned.

More speakers followed. There was concern that if the arena is to be preserved, it cannot be permitted to become "a mothballed building". There was pointed skepticism that "that architecture" is going to benefit anybody moving forward. There were pointed admonitions that anyone seeking to deal in that neighborhood must "respect us as human beings."

Yet somehow everybody came up conspicuously short of saying, "I'm against the arena" or "We must tear it down."

And then, two hours into the history lesson and the relaying of impressions, and after establishing by a literal show of hands that everybody in the room learned something during all segments -- Preservation Pittsburgh was invited to present its case.

Scott Leib, volunteer president of Preservation Pittsburgh, held his own shorter slide show which seemed to roughly echo a fair bit of the history covered in the first sessions. A case was made in very general terms that historic preservation can be beneficial for economic development, and can be used as tool to ensure that something enriching to the neighborhood manifests itself on that land.

As for the process being undertaken currently by the SEA, Leib opined, "I think we're all getting snookered" (borrowing the term from Dr. Glasco's historical segment). He predicted it would result immediately in no more than 28 acres of surface parking -- the most valuable surface parking in the city -- and complained that the Penguins have "very little incentive to commence development" any further. In response to some immediate consternation, he agreed that there are deadlines in the lease agreement with the SEA, but insisted, "I don't think it's clear," and reminded the assembled that the Steelers had been permitted to miss deadlines on the North Shore.

After the brief presentation, Marimba Milliones drilled down tightly on one question, as is her practice. "If we decide ultimately that preservation is something we don't want, will you proceed with historic designation efforts?" Her concern was that this would further delay development.

Leib and the preservationists didn't answer the question directly. Instead they suggested that two groups needed one another -- one had an undeniable history in need of a solution, the other had a building with some public processes attached.

At this point at least a couple in the audience began letting less diplomatic impressions be known.

"There is disingenuity here. The approach of the preservation community has been highly problematic," offered Bonnie Laing.

Laing explained that in her opinion, "The preservation community has been privileged" in the discussion, and, "there's a real history of superiority that I see going on. We're being portrayed as sentimental, emotional." Preservationists were even accused of suggesting that the issue be mediated "by therapists" because they believe the community suffers from some sort of mental trauma.

This was met with quite a bit of shock and horror. It was shortly discovered that preservationists had floated the idea of utilizing professional mediators care of the Pittsburgh Mediation Center -- which only recently has been absorbed by the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime. The idea of some neutral mediation was defended again for an instant, but was waved off by a great many attendance.

Although attempting to rally, the preservationists were now accused by Bonnie Laing of approaching the discussions from a "white supremacy" point of view. As Leib and company protested this characterization, Bonnie's husband Justin Laing chimed in to counter, "It doesn't surprise me that would surprise you. You would not be aware of it. That white racial framework is something that you bring with you."

Finally Sala Udin stepped in again to interject, "The preservationists are not the primary enemy here." He brought the focus back to the Penguins and the city, and the deal they had struck.

Someone in the Hill community actually said, "The division may not be as wide as I originally thought."

"We don't like the word, 'Snookered'," Dr. Goddess decided, to pretty much everyone's delight -- and the conversation continued more along the lines of what both sides were trying to do and what they had in common.

Sala Udin had to cut out during the first wave of people cutting out of the gathering, so I caught up with him in the parking lot.

Udin had asserted that if the Civic Arena stands in the way of a development plan that will nurture the Hill District, that arena has to come down. What happens if a plan...

Before I could get the question out of my mouth: "I will fight for it to stay," Udin said.

I asked him, have those who have come out in support of arena demolition -- the Mayor, the URA, other politicians -- have they come forward to offer anything in return for the community's support for demolition? Does the fact that the "power structure" supports demolition make it easier to go along that route?

"No, I wish they would," on the question of whether they had been offered deals. And to the later, "No, because the power structure won't..." and then I couldn't keep up taking notes.

"We're at square one," Udin summarized. "We're at the beginning."

Given how much Udin talked about hockey, I asked him whether he thought the drive for arena preservation was about the Penguins, the stars, the championships.

"A good portion of it, but no I don't confuse them with the Preservation movement," he said. "Those guys are coming at it from a whole 'nother aspect."


Back inside, things seemed to be winding down. Someone suggested that if any memories from the arena deserved to be preserved, it would be the history of urban renewal itself, so everyone could learn. That evoked a room full of sympathy.

Kimberly Ellis picked a few people who would get to speak last and that would be it, except for sidebars in private. David Bear was one of the last speakers.

He thanked Ellis for the history presentations and acknowledged that they were useful, but asked plaintively, "At the same time, I was hoping we'd have some time to get into the nitty gritty of the land, the plans..."

There were some noises to the effect that this would not be the last meeting. [These concerns are fairly well addressed by Ellis in the blog post comments underleaf.]


I had asked my new "two young white architect" friends whether any Hill District residents were there in support of Civic Arena preservation. They pointed me in the direction of Beatrice Binion.

Binion told the Comet that although no longer a resident, she lived there for years and years -- and by next year will have actually worked at the Civic / Mellon arena for fifty years, doing concessions and the like.

I pointed out that she won't quite make it to the Golden Anniversary.

"Yeah, but I was among the first to get moved to the new [arena]," she said.

I asked Binion why she was in favor of historic preservation for the Civic Arena. She answered that with its demolition, "they're not going to give them anything anyway."

"It's not a white-black thing," Binion said, in her opinion. "I'm getting tired of hearing that." She also offered more generally that she was tired of "all this", gesturing toward the remainder of the meeting that was breaking up.

I asked what it is then that she thinks ought to happen to the Civic Arena.

After only a second's pause, she said it'd be nice if they had a skating rink there.

Would people in the Hill be interested in ice skating? I asked a little dubiously.

"Oh yes. Absolutely."


  1. Who even cares about the Hill?

    It was a slum before the Arena went up and it is still one today.

    If people will continue to allow themselves to wallow in garbage and crappy housing then it will never be a place for anyone to live peacefully.

  2. New here? Everybody cares about the Hill. People care about their homes. People should care about the health of the only residential neighborhood abutting Downtown. Let's skip the part where a few try to discourage or poison the discussion, and talk constructively.

  3. Leaving aside the Hill, I'm tired of giant, subsidized public stadiums and the like. I'd like to see the old arena blown-up. If it is still there being lightly used and costing money for upkeep, eventually somebody will come-up with something really stupid but vaguely interesting. Then, in 2015 we're paying a public subsidy for an indoor lacrosse team or cycle-cross or a Blink 182 concert. Even worse, somebody decides the problem is lack of transport and that we need to spend $200 million for a T line to the arena.

    It's a nice building. Should have never been replaced, but it was. Now we need to kill it with fire.

  4. Seems pretty strategic to me so far. After all this time, I think the anti-Arena people are now pretty confident the pro-Arena people aren't going to be able to come up with a re-use plan that makes much economic sense. So, they are saying, "We're not anti-Arena per se, but we'll be anti-Arena unless you can come up with a re-use plan that makes economic sense."

    Personally, I suspect the Arena is in fact doomed by its size, shape, and location: the structure inefficiently uses way too much area in too important of a location, and there really isn't a way around that basic problem as far as I can tell. But I am writing this before the pro-Arena case has been posted, and maybe this time I will finally be convinced otherwise.

  5. My main goal to get it blown-up before James Taylor could sing, but now that that has already happened, I suppose we could wait to hear another plan before we kill it with fire.

  6. Hey there, Bram! Thanks for coming to the meeting and being attentive, as usual. There's so much I can say but I need to make a few corrections/clarifications:

    1. I think the "two young white architects" might have said that I speak for the Hill District because at the (closed) Interested Parties Meetings, I usually am. That should not be confused with the fact that the Hill has many voices and I am one of them. Since this is a preservation issue and the Historic Hill Institute is the Preservationist organization for the Hill, it would stand to reason that I would "speak for the Hill" in this particular context. Those architects undoubtedly frequent the Interested Parties meeting.

    2. Greenlee Field is important, not only because Sam Greenlee laundered his money via the Crawford Grill to help pay for costs for the Pittsburgh Crawfords Negro League Baseball Team but also because that field was only one of two huge playing fields owned by African Americans in the country. I don't want for anyone reading this blog to believe Greenlee Field got a marker because Sam was a number's runner, capiche? And in the era of redlining and racism, he was the loan shark for the community. Sad but true.

    3. Thanks for saying "historic preservation is alive and well in the Hill District." It's certainly alive. "Well" is to be determined, which is a part of the point. We are preservationists, too, and I have spent considerable (and obviously not enough) time battling the conception and the language that this is not "the Hill vs. the Preservationists". It's an overall Preservationist and Economic Development question. Again, we are Preservationists, too. The fact that Sala Udin, others and now you are mimicking the language of "The Preservationists" is quite problematic but it's also the realistic description of what people were saying, so my work continues...

    4. I'm not sure where the quote that the Pens' plan is "the only way to make the Hill District whole again" came from or if I said that the new plans don't actually reconnect anything historic. I did say that the street grid will only PARTIALLY be restored and Wylie Avenue will never be connected to Downtown unless the street goes through the Doubletree Hotel, which we know won't be happening. Just a point of clarity.

    5. It is mandatory for the Section 106 Process if federal funding is going to be used on a project, which then invokes federal laws, including those for Historic Preservation, hence Section 106. According to the SEA, they are only "mirroring" the Section 106 Process, since no federal funding is being sought at this time. It's tight rope and fine line but one that's being walked. More on that later...

    6. Dr. Larry Glasgo is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a great historian.

  7. 7. The Hill Grocery store has been signed, sealed and delivered and the announcement will come on July 7, 10:00am, at the site, across from the Kaufmann Auditorium on Centre Ave. Just FYI

    8. Please be mindful that Rob Pfaffman has presented to the Hill Consensus Group at least twice on the Reuse of the Arena. The Pens have presented to the Hill District at least twice as well. What had NOT happened were Hill District narratives and perspective on the Arena, its demolition or its reuse. This is why this meeting was intended to privilege those narratives and Preservation Pittsburgh, Reuse the Igloo, the Pens and even the SEA were invited to LISTEN. This is also why the informal survey was done in the room because even after all of those previous meetings and gathers, you didn't hear the array of information you heard that night. That's why the meeting and resultant dialogue was so necessary. Just offering perspective and proper context here. These presentations have been going on for well over a year now. It was not the first for Preservation Pittsburgh or any other group.

    9. Undoubtedly, issues of race, class and even gender are a part of the politics and presentation of this entire scenario. It's something we have to all deal with better.

    10. I was just kidding about the word "snookered." It was a joke, Bram... a joke...

    Thanks for covering the meeting, can't wait for part 2!

  8. And to the "Anonymous" comment, I would normally not even respond but since I know many people do not know or even understand the history of the Hill District, please avail yourself of the Library and/or order "Wylie Avenue Days" from WQED. The Hill District is as old as the 1700s... SMH @ the high level of ignorance.

  9. Thanks for commenting, Kimberly. I only want to post a few responses:

    On #1 -- That was my little joke, the way I presented that. I hope it's clear to my readers that you in no way (nor could anybody) speak for all of the present and former residents of the Hill District.

    On #7 -- Wow! Holy moly!

    On #10 -- I know it was a joke. It was a funny one. But sometimes it's interesting, the jokes we decide to tell. This one was to me anyway.

    Stay tuned for the conclusion, I'm still taking a breather. Thanks for reading!!! I'm not "mimicking anyone's language" I'm just stating things the way they come naturally to me (or in this case, trying to recreate it as faithfully as I'm able). Honestly I think there are only so many easy/simple ways to say certain things, though perspective plays a roll.

  10. Oh, and it appears it's spelled Dr. Larry Glasco, as though he were a glass company. Many pardons.

  11. Let me make sure I understand. The blacks that want the arena are now suddenly enlightened. The whites that hold signs about "white privilege" are enlightened and are making a difference in the world (although they live in Sq. Hill). The blacks that are in favor of tearing down the arena are "part of the machine" or "sadly, just don't understand what is better for them." Jeez - once again elitist whites trying to tell everyone else how to live, despite the fact they won't do it themselves.

  12. great read I think that the arena should be preserved and re-named the civic arena and it would be the only place where city residents could vote and there could be busses all day to get people there because this would cost just as much if not less than the current system/apparatus which is confusing and slow and easy to cheat to the benefit of incumbents other stuff to do there we could make up also whether the arena stays is not an issue for the hill residents to decide entirely because it is a preservation issue but the use of it or what replaces it is...

  13. Anonymous 8:54 - No, I don't think you understand. Here is what's going on: the neighborhood is mostly black and is itself split over what to do; and although the "preservationists" are mostly white, the rest of this mostly white city is also split over what to do. Just about everyone is split.

    Meanwhile, the Penguins and City Hall (both mostly white) are solidly against the arena -- but because of their continued economic interest on the land (especially the Penguins), they can't be taken as terribly objective. I'm trying my best to learn from what derives some people's confidence that the Penguins & SEA's plans will work out for the benefit of the neighborhood. There may be reasons for that I have not seen, but that is not the history, that was not the stated intention until well over a year after the new arena deal was completed or the new arena lease signed, nor was it implied more recently by leaving Hill residents out of construction jobs for the new arena, nor was it implied by waiting an unnecessary year to hire a community Master Planner so neighborhood planning could commence before the CBA deadline. So my next lines of inquiry will include what are the Penguins own plans, and what makes the Penguins' trajectory seem attractive to those who find it so. I hope this clears up where I'm at.

  14. The whites that hold signs about "white privilege" are enlightened and are making a difference in the world (although they live in Sq. Hill).

    It's very nice in Squirrel Hill, but somebody told me that they now allow white people to live anywhere in the city. I'd check it out, but I don't know what lies north of Whole Foods and I might get lost.

  15. Bram, thanks for bringing public attention to this meeting. We should all care about what happens in the Hill District. This neighborhood has been and continues to be an important part of Pittsburgh.

    I do want to make one comment/correction. Larry Glasco explained that when the Civic Arena was built, promises were made to Hill residents that were broken. He said that "It took blacks a while to realize they had been snookered." During my presentation, I referenced this same word and noted my concern that we were being "snookered" again. Later in the evening, others continued to use this word. Finally, Kim Ellis jokingly said that we should stop talking about being "snookered" and find a different word.

    Anyway, I just wanted to clarify that the term did not originate in my presentation. However, I think it is relevant again today.

    Overall, the Historic Hill Institute meeting on June 29 at Ebenezer Church was an important step in starting a dialogue among city residents. I thank Kim Ellis and the HHI for hosting it and appreciate the input from all those in attendance. In the end, I hope the discussions move beyond black/white and can focus on our shared goals: economic vitality for the Hill and for Pittsburgh.

  16. Thanks for chiming in, Scott. I didn't catch that the term originated with Glasco (still waiting on his piece!) and now that it's being discussed you're right to point it out. Though obviously Kimberly was joking there. Me, I've always preferred the term "hornswaggled". And I think we'll prolly have to work "through" in order to move "beyond".

  17. The whole Hill is public housing now, what more do they want? Projects all the way down to Grant Street?

  18. That area of the Hill was a slum back then. Wow, a few jazz clubs where people performed. Was that worth keeping just because of that?

    People who live in the Hill don't have the income to keep up their properties. Look how bad it is there when you get further away from the Mellon Arena. It's a joke.

  19. Dr.Goddess is just all that! Thank you for sharing the HHI goings on and keeping us in the loop on the Arena. I'm intrigued about the Section 106 Process and am eager to learn more of its compliance according to Dr. Ellis and others.

    How about the term bamboozled? Skirted?

    Why does Yankee Stadium (the old one) come to mind in all this? What's doing in the South Bronx now?

  20. What's doing in the South Bronx now?

    I have no idea, but it is bound to be better than what is doing in PNC Park.