The Jitneys of Pittsburgh
“There were a lot of jitney stations in Pittsburgh, located in storefronts with a pay phone. It was a perfect place for a play because you had a set and a community of players who work together and have created something out of nothing, having no jobs. They are generally older men who had jobs working in the steel mills and on the railroad. If they were lucky enough to have a pension, there was a need to supplement with additional income, so they drove jitneys. And I think they do it because they enjoy the company of each other; they have something to do and itís a place to belong. They are a microcosm of the community at large.” -August Wilson
“Jitney” is the term used for a cab that is operated illegally without a municipal or state license. Jitneys served, and continue to serve, an essential role in black communities like Pittsburgh’s Hill district, which are typically woefully underserved by licensed taxis. Local police rarely enforce the law against unlicensed cabs in the Hill district, as the jitneys provide much-needed transportation to residents at an affordable rate.
In a 2004 story on jitneys, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review described present-day jitney drivers operating in much the same way as August Wilson portrays them in the 1970s. Though the storefront jitney station that was most familiar to Wilson is gone, similar stations continue to operate in the area, including one at 2046 Wylie Avenue where drivers sit and wait for calls from a pay phone, just as they do in Wilson’s Jitney. Each driver pays a regular fee to a station manager for the use of the station’s phone; there are rules in place to make sure no driver tarnishes the reputation of that number.
In Chicago, where jitney cabs have fulfilled a similar purpose for decades, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Anthony Beale (9th Ward) introduced a series of city taxi reforms earlier this year that included the creation of a new kind of license for jitney cabs, allowing the drivers for the first time to operate legally within the neighborhoods—but barring them from competing with large cab companies in the downtown business district and the airports.
–Drew Dir, Resident Dramaturg