Like many Pittsburgh communities, the Hill District knows both trouble and triumph. From the 1930s to the 1950s, “Little Harlem” boasted a thriving middle class and an unparalleled jazz scene — one that drew acts like Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie, putting Pittsburgh on America’s cultural map. A collection of historically Black neighborhoods dubbed “the crossroads of the world” by poet Claude McKay, the Hill District’s residents have produced some of Pittsburgh’s most enduring art and institutions (think the photos of Teenie Harris, the voice of the New Pittsburgh Courier, and the plays of August Wilson).
In the 1950s, however, the city demolished the Lower Hill District to make way for a new arena, displacing thousands of residents and separating the community from Downtown. The latter half of the 20th century saw a steady slide toward blight, compounded by Pittsburgh’s job losses and shrinking population. For decades, the Hill District’s remaining neighborhoods — Crawford-Roberts, Upper Hill, Middle Hill, Bedford Dwellings, and Terrace Village — made do made do without so much as a grocery store, despite the community’s central location, panoramic views, and vital contributions to Pittsburgh’s heritage.
But thanks to the vision, hard work, and commitment of the community’s residents, the Hill District is changing once again. Centre Avenue alone now boasts a grocery store, the world-class Thelma Lovette YMCA, and a Carnegie Library branch that’s definitely worth a visit. A few blocks away, August Wilson’s childhood home is being transformed into an artist community — one that hopes to rekindle the community’s cultural flair.
Fittingly, Remake Learning Days is coming here in a big way. With events focused on everything from youth-led activism to soldering and “Mad Science,” the Hill District is remaking learning as it remakes itself. We sat down with Kathryn Vargas, director of Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time (APOST), to learn more about what’s happening in this storied Pittsburgh community.
Can you tell us a bit about APOST and its work in the Hill District?
APOST is focused on building capacity, advancing quality, and advocating for the importance of out-of-school time in Allegheny County. Our partners are remaking learning all the time! We’ve been working with out-of-school time providers in the Hill District for a few years, and I’m really excited to bring more people into spaces there so they can see what out-of-school time learning looks like and why it’s important for kids.
What Remake Learning Days events are you most excited about?
I’m super excited about the Thelma Lovette YMCA’s event — they’re bringing the weatherman! Ron Smiley from KDKA is coming in to teach kids about weather forecasting. I think it’s so cool. Kids see that on TV every day, and during Remake Learning Days, it’s going to be right there in front of them. It’s a fun concept that really gets at the idea of remaking learning: bringing awesome resources to spaces where kids are going to be really excited about it. If I can be there myself, I will be!
What makes the Hill District special?
The Hill District is a very tight-knit community. It’s also in a really great location that more people could come out and experience, and I think Remake Learning Days will allow that to happen. I’m hopeful that we’ll see people who haven’t hung out in the Hill District before come out and see these events.
The neighborhood has these great community anchors that are centered around children, which is really cool. I mentioned The Thelma Lovette YMCA. The Carnegie Library there is one of my favorites, too. If you go in, it has the degree that the library gave August Wilson, the bench he sat in, and a map of his plays and where they take place. It’s an amazing room. There’s also the Jeron X. Grayson Center — that’s another anchor, and both of these places are hosting a Remake Learning Days event. The Grayson Center has a lovely rooftop space with one of the best views of Pittsburgh’s downtown. If the weather’s nice [on May 16], the “Mad Science” event will be held up there. People should definitely take a look!
What do you hope attendees get from Remake Learning Days?
Kids and families are going to be exposed to so many great events and learning opportunities, and my hope is that the idea of remaking learning persists beyond Remake Learning Days itself. And I think it will. I think parents and out-of-school time providers are going to say, “Hey, look at how engaged our students are!”
You know, we’re constantly thinking about what it means to advance quality in out-of-school time spaces. And often, it means providing multiple kinds of opportunities for kids. So I’m hopeful that Remake Learning Days will spark something — that someone will say, “You know what? We should do this kind of thing more often.” I also hope that kids and parents will discover places that maybe they didn’t know they could go. Maybe they’ll find a new, helpful resource, or a new program that they hadn’t considered. That, to me, would make Remake Learning Days a success.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Remake Learning Days?
Go out to the events! In the Hill District and in Pittsburgh in general, there’s so much going on for children. And Remake Learning Days really highlights that — not just for kids, but also for the adults in their lives.
To learn more about Remake Learning Days events in the Hill District, visit http://remakelearningdays.org/hill-district.
This blog is part of “Neighborhood Navigators: Remaking Learning in Your Neighborhood,” a special initiative to connect children and youth in six Pittsburgh neighborhoods and parts of West Virginia to Remake Learning Days (May 15-26). Each week, we’ll spotlight a new community. In Pittsburgh, we’ll visit neighborhoods in the Northside, the Hilltop, the Hill District, the Mon Valley, the East End, and Hazelwood; in West Virginia, we’ll visit Morgantown, Charleston, and Wheeling.
Follow writer Ryan Rydzewski on Twitter @RyanRydzewski.
Remake Learning thanks APOST for coordinating the Hill District’s events and outreach, and McAuley Ministries Foundation for supporting the neighborhood as a Good Neighbor Sponsor.