PITTSBURGH — PITTSBURGH - Most people look puzzled when Steven Radney talks about moving from a quiet town south of Pittsburgh into the Hill District, one of the poorest, most beleaguered areas of the city. When they ask gingerly what he hopes to gain from the move, Radney answers, "An experience."
"When I look around here, I don't see it as it is," said Radney, a 29-year-old designer and engineer standing in front of an abandoned brick rowhouse that he hopes to renovate. "I see it as it could be, because I know what it was."
What it was one of the nation's most thriving predominantly black areas, and Radney is one of a growing group of middle-class blacks returning to the area as part of a slow-brewing residential shift that some researchers call black gentrification. It is a phenomenon playing out in various ways in other historic black enclaves around the country, like Harlem and parts of Washington and Chicago.
Known to residents as simply The Hill, the 1.4-square-mile cluster of neighborhoods perched here above downtown Pittsburgh was home to jazz greats like Stanley Turrentine and Art Blakey and writers like August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who has set many of his plays in the area.
The Hill housed The Pittsburgh Courier, once the nation's most influential black weekly newspaper. It was home base for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Negro National League baseball team that fielded Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and James "Cool Papa" Bell. Referring to The Hill's heyday between 1930 and 1950, the Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay called the district "the crossroads of the world."
But political and social change pitched The Hill into a downward spiral. Hopping joints where legends like Duke Ellington jammed until dawn deteriorated into crumbling shells. Corners that hummed with commerce descended to the drone of drug addicts and dealers. That more recent image of The Hill was said to inspire Stephen Bochco when he created the police drama Hill Street Blues in the 1980s.
Now black professionals like Radney, who grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, are part of a push to recapture some of The Hill's colorful past. More than 500 new residents have come into the neighborhood in the past five years: retirees, new families, corporate employees, teachers, artists, athletes - the majority of them black.
"We've diluted our strength moving to far-out places," said Justin Laing, 32, a program director at a nonprofit organization, who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and who recently bought a house in The Hill with his wife, Bonnie, and two children. "I figure, we're black, we might as well face it and try to rebuild our communities from a position of strength."
Whites and other ethnic groups are also looking at the area. And black residents say they welcome the diversity. But for many blacks, who feel they have borne the burden of integration - moving into white neighborhoods only to have whites leave - rebuilding The Hill on their own terms has special significance.
"This is about rewriting the notion of progress and success, of race and space," said Monique Taylor, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, who recently completed a book on black gentrification in Harlem. "It is a statement that some of our ideas about how to make racial progress are stagnant."
The process, if hopeful, is far from easy. There are concerns that new development will homogenize the character of the district and squeeze out the poor. Class differences play out daily. Poorer residents complain about stuck-up newcomers. Middle-class residents worry about sending their kids to area schools.
But the cross-section of residents is reminiscent of the district at its creative and intellectual height. A critical stopping point in the early 1900s for migrants in search of work on the railroads and in coal and steel mills, The Hill was, at the turn of the last century, a rich ethnic stew of blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians, Lebanese, Syrians and other groups. By 1930, fueled by the rush of black Southern migrants hungry for opportunity in the North, the neighborhood had become predominantly black.
Black doctors, lawyers and business owners gathered in prestigious social associations and set up social service agencies to assist the poor. People from all classes met at neighborhood hot spots. There were haircuts and gossip at Woogie's Crystal Barbershop, $1.25 steak dinners at the Crawford Grill, sweet potato pie at Nesbitt's Pie Shop, late-night jazz at the Savoy Ballroom and weekly salvation at dozens of churches.
The atmosphere was chronicled in black and white by Charles "Teenie" Harris, The Courier's renowned photographer who shot more than 80,000 pictures of life in the district.
'It was all we had'
"The Hill was a conglomeration of everything and everybody," said Robert Lavelle Sr., 86, who oiled presses at The Courier as a young man before founding his own real estate agency, which has operated in The Hill for more than 50 years. "It was black people running their own lives, and we loved and cherished it because it was all we had."
Much of the neighborhood's spirit was crushed - literally - in the mid-1950s when the city demolished the lower part of The Hill as part of an urban renewal project, displacing 8,000 residents. The destruction was carried on by the 1968 riots, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the steady outflow of middle-class blacks to other neighborhoods.
By 1990 The Hill's population had plunged to slightly more than 15,000 from more than 50,000 in 1950. Most of the remaining residents were poor and living in public housing.
Since the mid-1990s, more than $300 million in government and private funds has been committed to tear down dilapidated buildings, rebuild public housing and provide upscale homes. The diversity in development reflects a mix of aspirations.
Margo Roberson, 35, a flight attendant from Kentucky, moved into The Hill last year with her husband, Erik, who has a window-blind cleaning company. The couple owns a 2,300-square-foot home in Crawford Square, a $34 million development that combines market-rate and subsidized housing.
Taneika Hillman, 30, born and raised in a Hill District housing project, rents a two-bedroom apartment in the same development, through a low-income housing assistance program, for herself and her 8-year-old son, Michael.
Crawford Square, which has grown to more than 400 households since the first residents moved in in 1993, provides both families with unique comforts. The Robersons can prepare fancy parties in their stainless-steel kitchen. They can also get home-cooked soul food and old stories from Barney Moye, a grandmother figure who lives around the corner.
For Hillman, Crawford Square provides a safe environment and positive images for her son.
"We swim in the same pool, use the same fitness room as doctors and lawyers and teachers," she said, standing in front of an American flag near her doorway and a picture of Uncle Sam, whose face she and Michael have colored brown. "Michael thinks it's just natural, like he can be just like them."
But Crawford Square, and other new and soon-to-be-built developments like it, are also a source of tension. People complain that the complexes look like the suburbs plopped down in the city. Others fear subsidies for low-income residents will be phased out, and that rising prices in the neighborhood will eventually squeeze the poor out of the market. A single-family home in the development recently sold for $310,000, blocks away from homes that would have sold for tens of thousands five years ago.
And many people worry that while most residents are black, they are not the primary stakeholders.
"A multimillion-dollar development is only going to turn into a multimillion-dollar ghetto if you don't create an economic base and social structure whereby residents can control it on their own," said James F. Henry, executive director of The Hill House Association, a social service agency that has operated in the area for more than 30 years.
The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, which carried out the 1950s plan that demolished the lower Hill, controls roughly 70 percent of the district's main business corridor. And, though it has financed much of the new residential property, its plan to tear down the Ellis Hotel, a once-favorite haunt of musicians, and the former YWCA for black women, has inflamed old resentments.
"The character of this neighborhood is what gave Stanley the juice, gave August the juice, gives me the juice," said Jorge Myers, 44, an artist who boards up crack houses and creates sculptures and paintings from their decaying structures. "The government and these developers are taking away our juice."
Increasing black ownership, many believe, will ease tensions. The Hill Community Development Corp. is spearheading a project to refurbish the New Grenada theater, a 1927 art deco building once known for its 12-cent movies and now declared a historic landmark.
Macedonia Baptist Church, with a growing congregation of black professionals, has bought 32 properties in the past five years to convert to places of worship, counseling centers and low-income housing.
"The Hill is Jericho Road," said the Rev. Jason Barr Jr., Macedonia's pastor. "Every day there is a challenge and opportunity to be a Good Samaritan."
Amid the growing sense of optimism, The Hill is still rife with despair. "Ain't none of this got nothing to do with me," said one young man, who declined to give his name, as he walked down one of neighborhood's more tattered streets.
But plenty of residents believe such attitudes can be turned around. Last month, a throng of neighborhood residents turned out for the ribbon-cutting of The Hill's newest office complex, One Hope Square. Irvin Williams, the project's developer, was born and raised in The Hill, and he and his wife, Janicee, have filled the building with businesses committed to the neighborhood's success.
As painters applied finishing touches to shops and offices, patrons streamed into the first store open for business, the Sittin' Pretty Salon and Day Spa. Owned by Fletcher and Shenita Jones, both raised in Hill District housing projects, the spa's walls reflect the tapestry of the neighborhood.
In the barber's station hangs an old Teenie Harris photo of Woogie's Crystal Barbershop. In the shop's rear room is a painting by Jorge Myers made from the windowpane of a former crack house. Underneath the picture is a massage table - for The Hill's newer residents who expect such luxuries and the longtime residents who have dreamt of them.
"This is it, our whole story, all right in here," said Jones, 31. The next chapters in The Hill's story remain a work in progress.