Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pittsburgh's Hill District: A Portrait of Economic and Geographic Isolation

Posted by Angie Luvara, PITTSBURGH PA -- Recently, I spent two weeks in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, a rather affluent area with shops, restaurants, parks and beautiful hills. One morning, I set out from the comfort of the South Hills to venture into the city. I had decided to take myself on a tour of all the “bad” neighborhoods. I drove through Oakland and East Liberty, and then made my way to what my South Hills relatives unanimously described as the “worst part” of Pittsburgh: the Hill District. I began with the Upper Hill, and worked my way through the Middle Hill and Lower Hill.

The transition driving into the Upper Hill was fairly abrupt. I drove past the University of Pittsburgh (“Pitt”), up a fairly steep, wooded hill, and came out surrounded by intermittent signs of urban decay. It was difficult to identify much difference between the Upper and Middle Hill Districts—both geographically and environmentally. Each had its fair share of seemingly decent housing, dotted with abandoned buildings here and there. However, when I reached the Lower Hill, I noticed significantly more abandoned buildings and empty lots and got my first glimpse at some of Pittsburgh’s public housing. The most shocking point was when I reached the crest of the hill. There I stood in the middle of a street, sandwiched between abandoned buildings, empty lots, and public housing looking at a beautiful view of downtown Pittsburgh glittering with all its revitalized prosperity.

I was almost done with my “tour” by then and set out to find the nearby restaurant where I had planned to eat lunch. The restaurant was located just a few streets over, yet I had to drive almost all the way back to where I entered the Hill District to connect to the street where it was located . It was like the Hill District was deliberately cut off from the rest of the city. Curious, I decided my tour wasn’t over yet. I walked back to the far side of the public housing community to see if perhaps there was another street connection I had missed. There I found yet another surprise: a stone wall overlooking a hill filled with overgrown brush and several very steep, long staircases leading to the road below, and the rest of the city. Not only were the residents here experiencing extreme forms of poverty and geographic isolation, but ironically they had a great view—in two directions—of the economic prosperity that surrounded them as well.

Residents have to use the stairs to get to the bus stops on the main thoroughfare below. This makes for frequent trips up and down these long staircases for those dependent on public transportation. There is no grocery store in “the Hill”, despite “plans” for one to open dating back at least eleven years. The lack of retail establishments not only means residents have to travel outside this area to shop, but also to work. I can’t imagine climbing those stairs day in and day out, let alone with groceries, or in the dark, or during the rough Pittsburgh winters. I also can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up surrounded by such economic depression with a wonderful view of the prosperity just blocks away and yet totally unattainable.

I’ve done more research on the Hill District since I left Pittsburgh, and found it has quite a rich history. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the Hill District was a hub for African-Americans, known for great jazz, great food, great Negro League baseball, and the largest African-American weekly newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. Yes, the Hill District had run down buildings, but it was bustling with cultural activity. Then, in 1956, the government decided to begin an “urban renewal” project in the Hill District. After relocating homes and businesses, wrecking balls destroyed much of the neighborhood. Due to poor planning, the “renewal” portion of the project was never completed. It appears that interest in “renewing” the Hill District rises and falls every few years, but never enough to actually make significant progress. In fact, the only newer developments I saw throughout the entire Hill District were at the very bottom of the Lower Hill, closest to downtown.

I’ve been pondering the connection between the economic and geographic conditions of the Hill District since my visit. Much like the “chicken and the egg” debate, I’m not sure whether the geographic layout of the area, which was further compromised by botched urban renewal efforts, contributes to its current economic condition, or vice versa. But I do know they are related. In the same respect, I’m convinced that the underground economic activity and violent crime that “the Hill” is known for is a direct product of its isolation. Rather than spending millions investing in housing developments that displace residents, I’d like to see two things happen in the Hill District: first, attract legitimate economic opportunities for residents; and second, provide easily accessible methods to get to the rest of the city. I feel those two actions alone could bring significant positive change to the residents of the Hill District.

A main thoroughfare cuts through the side of the mountain. To the right, up the mountain, is the Hill District. To the left, further down the mountain, is part of downtown Pittsburgh.

One of the few housing developments that was actually followed through to completion sits at the very bottom of the Lower Hill, directly adjacent to the beautiful skyscrapers of downtown Pittsburgh.

From the back of the public housing that sits atop the crest of the hill in the Lower Hill, one can see clearly the various Universities, hospitals, and other businesses and residential areas. However, the geographic isolation makes these entities difficult to access.

Public Housing in the Lower Hill District.

This was one of two roads that would take you off “the Hill” without having to backtrack completely out of the Hill District. The road, though in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh, appears to be surrounded by forest. It is barely wide enough for two cars to pass at one time, and has no sidewalks.

A man sits on a guardrail at the bottom of a long staircase tumbling through the woods from the Lower Hill District to the main thoroughfare below, where he can access public transportation.

Angie Luvara is a photographer and Managing Editor of Social Shutter. She has a Master's Degree in Criminology from the University of California at Irvine. You can view more of her photography at And for more photos of the Hill District log on to Social Shutter's Facebook page.

1 comment:

  1. Stumbled across your page while going down a rabbit trail. :) I agree it truly is sad to see, as you put it so well, the "Economic and Geographic Isolation." Truly, it is a shame that there are no businesses that would help the economy and provide greater convenience to its residents. Honestly, I would have to guess that the reason for this is that businesses don't want to plant themselves in such a high crime area. Too risky and dangerous. Sadly, while the government through the years has sought to "help" low income individuals through housing projects, such programs do exactly what you saw in this and other districts (i.e. St. Clair Village). They isolate the poorest among us, crowding them together in a situation that encourages crime and further poverty. It reminds me of the Jewish ghettos in Germany. My heart goes out to these individuals who have been enslaved by the crippling effects of such government programs. Thank you for documenting this.