Pittsburgh’s Place within August Wilson’s World
Underneath August Wilson’s rhythmic prose is the pulse of his hometown of Pittsburgh. This Rust Belt city serves as more than just the setting for his plays; it’s the source of his literary imagination.
“People think of the Hill District as a slum or a ghetto, but it wasn’t that way at all. In the three to four blocks around the Wilson home, it was a quiet, racially mixed, harmonious neighborhood where people looked out for one another. It was one that shaped August,” said Laurence Glasco, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays, which chronicles the history of Wilson’s Pittsburgh with a focus on the Hill District.
To learn more about Pittsburgh’s place in Wilson’s plays, we interviewed Laurence Glasco, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Pittsburgh. He shares his thoughts on the significance of real estate, memory, and class in the Hill District, the Pittsburgh neighborhood in which Radio Golf unfolds.
I’ve read that you take your University of Pittsburgh students on a walking tour of the Hill District each semester where they view landmarks and talk to residents. Do you ever make any new discoveries on these tours?
The students certainly make new discoveries. I’ve been doing these tours for over ten years now, so I have my set path. But for the students, it’s a wonderful experience. Getting your feet on the pavement makes you identify with the place in a way that reading about it and driving through it doesn’t do. The students come away with a real feeling of the Hill. It’s almost mystical, if you will.
A number of years ago, August’s sister, Freda, was still alive and we met her one time as she was working in her yard. She told us about the Wilson home where she was born and had grown up. For instance, her mother would set out a card table in the afternoon and neighbors would come over and play pinochle. One of the neighbors was Hedley, and another one was Louise, exactly as the characters in Seven Guitars.
The American Century Cycle, except for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which is set in Chicago, provides audiences with a man-on-the-street view of black life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. How does Wilson incorporate this sense of place into Radio Golf?
There are a lot of references that August makes to people, places, and events. Of course, the big event was urban redevelopment and the threat that it posed to the Hill. The Bedford Hills Redevelopment Company, owned by Harmond Wilks, is located, as he says, at the corner of Centre and Herron Avenue. In fact, there was the major black banker and redeveloper of the Hill, Robert Lavelle, who had his business at the corner of Centre and Herron Avenue. It’s still there; his son is now running it. Certainly for someone from Pittsburgh, they would recognize it as a specific place.
The address 1839 Wylie—the home of Aunt Esther—doesn’t exist, but one can infer where it is. People would know it’s right in front of the former Ozanam Community Center; it’s an empty lot. But it’s right there at a place on Wylie, which was the main commercial corridor. The location evokes the past, the liveliness, the businesses, the jazz, and all these other things that went on which made the Hill such an exciting and vibrant neighborhood.
1839 Wylie Avenue is an ancestral landmark of sorts that reoccurs within the American Century Cycle. In Radio Golf, the character Harmond Wilks provides a majestic description of a Federalist brick house with beveled glass on every floor and a staircase of Brazilian wood with a hand-carved balustrade. As you mentioned, the location is real; however, there’s no house there. What do you think this fictitious home represents for residents who are facing the forces behind urban renewal?
It relates to something of value in these homes and places. They may not be as fine as 1839 Wylie, but they are places that have significance and are worth preserving. It’s a protest against urban renewal.
In the 1950s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) characterized the whole area as a slum that needed to be torn down. However, recently reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discovered in the basement of the URA boxes of records that the Authority used, along with photographs, where they classified the homes and described them. The URA’s own notes show that a number of these houses were certainly salvageable and could’ve been rehabilitated. It took the worst examples and used them to describe the whole neighborhood. Although most of the records were lost due to flooding, there were about 200 boxes that survived and paint a very different picture of the Hill. It has become a big scandal in Pittsburgh.
I think it confirms what August was saying in Radio Golf—that these homes were not just derelict properties that were beyond saving. August didn’t know about these records, of course, but I think it fits and he was on to something very important.
The Hill District has undergone immense change. Part of it was demolished for the Mellon Arena. Other sections never fully recovered after the riots spurred by Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. What remains of this collection of neighborhoods? And what preservation efforts are happening to save what was once called Pittsburgh’s Harlem?
Sadly, very little remains. In other black neighborhoods, like on the north side in Manchester, they have done a first-rate job of preserving their homes and rehabilitating them. It mainly has to do with leadership. The Hill, for whatever reason, never had that kind of leadership. It’s a spotty survival now. The Wilson home, fortunately, is being preserved. There’s a big effort to rehabilitate it, and in a year or so, it will be open to the public. ■
Radio Golf is on stage August 30-September 30, 2018.