Students Give Voice to Stories from Pittsburgh’s Hill District

Onstage, Ben Akers and Tamir Frank, juniors at the Winchester Thurston School, described their introduction to Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood, remarking on the preconceptions they carried with them. The prevailing images of the Hill in the media, they said, were of crime and poverty.

But that view of the neighborhood shifted when their class went on a walking tour of the Hill District, finding themselves “immersed in a feeling of warmth and community. . . . Preconceived ideas about the Hill fell away.”

Akers’ and Frank’s remarks were the culmination of an ambitious oral-history project designed by Dr. Michael Naragon and Ms. Callie Gropp, history teachers in Winchester Thurston Upper School, as part of the School’s innovative City as Our Campus program, which provides unique educational opportunities with leaders from Pittsburgh’s cultural, academic, scientific, nonprofit, and business communities.

On Friday, May 15, students shared the results of their project with the public, filling the Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium in the Hill District’s Kaufmann Center to present “Hill District Stories.” The event featured poster presentations, speeches, and a film, shot and edited by students, showcasing students’ interviews with Hill residents.

For the past few months, students learned about the Civil Rights Movement, its impact and its legacy in America. Students applied this knowledge to examine the historical forces that have shaped the Hill District and the lives of its residents. From there, students explored the legacy of renowned playwright and Hill District native August Wilson, whose work depicts the ordinary lives of African Americans living in the Hill. Using oral history methods, students gathered the stories of Hill District residents. In doing so, they examined the ongoing connections between Wilson’s words and the neighborhood’s struggle to have their voices heard.

“Stories are immensely powerful,” said Gropp in her introductory remarks. “Through the power of story, many Hill District residents have fought and are continuing to fight to make the American dream a reality for the neighborhood, indeed for us all. We just need to listen.”

Emmai Alaquiva, Emmy Award–winning producer, took the stage to introduce the film he helped the students shoot and edit. He recalled his initial reaction to the project: “Here are some young people taking on so many voices that have been buried.” And he remarked, “I could not be more impressed with these students, who took everything in their hearts and poured it into this project.”

Along with professionally filmed interviews with Hill residents, the film includes footage of interviews that students conducted by approaching Hill residents on the street, carrying handheld video cameras and smart phones.

The event’s location, across Centre Avenue from the Hill District’s Shop ‘n Save supermarket, was especially fitting. Many of the residents interviewed by students had strong opinions on the store, which opened in the fall of 2013, the first supermarket to operate in the neighborhood in several decades.

Kim El, an actress and playwright who met Wilson, applauded the opening of the supermarket. But she expressed concern that the business lacks strong connections to the Hill. “We need someone with connections to the Hill District to come back and build here,” she said.

Edwin Lee Gibson, an actor who has performed in over 100 productions of Wilson’s plays, told student Ilya Doneyga that he was not satisfied with the Shop ‘n Save, saying that it should not have been “a big deal” or a cause for celebration that the city was helping to take care of its citizens.

Other residents echoed this sentiment, and expressed concern that they would not have a voice in discussions of continuing development in the Hill.

Most observers agree that the Hill District’s difficulties began with the City of Pittsburgh’s decision to build the Civic Arena in the middle of the Hill District, displacing thousands of residents. Cut off from the rest of the city, the Hill suffered economically and culturally. Residents were trapped in a vicious cycle, given few opportunities to succeed as the Hill’s schools declined and crime rates rose.

“They have good reason to be skeptical,” said student Naomi Grossman. “After the Civic Arena came in and displaced families, of course the people who live here would be suspicious of new plans to develop the Hill.”

“The Hill District should be a lesson for the future,” said junior Remy Erkel, speaking onstage near the conclusion of the event. “A lesson of what happens when a seat is removed from the table, when someone’s voice is neglected. But we can also learn that when that community can take that voice back, great things can happen.”

In the opening remarks, Gropp cited Wilson’s play Fences and the central metaphor of its title: “Wilson helps us to acknowledge the fences that keep us from realizing our dreams so that, like main character Troy Maxson, we too might fight to live in pursuit of our dreams.”

Naragon added, “The interviews and student presentations revealed a community trying to break down fences that confine while… daring to dream big dreams.”

Gropp and Naragon began planning the project last summer, discussing “loose ideas about investigating the ways in which historical forces play out in the contemporary world,” said Naragon.

When local television station WQED reached out to see if they would be interested in a project focused on the works of August Wilson, Naragon said, that “refined and re-focused” the project.

The teachers worked not only to connect with partners in the community but to ensure that students were well prepared to engage with that community. They reached out to the Hill House Association, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, and Ya Momz House, LLC, creating vital partnerships that provided students with an overview of the neighborhood, including the walking tour of the Hill, and helped locate interview subjects with stories to share.

Just as important, Gropp and Naragon prepared students for what they would see on their first trip to the Hill District, preparing them to place residents’ voices in a much broader context of social, political, and economic struggle.

“From February to April, we learned about the Civil Rights movement as it unfolded in the South but also in the North,” said Gropp. “We looked at how national trends played out in Pittsburgh, and highlighted the voices of Pittsburgh folks who participated in the Civil Rights movement. We tried to really highlight everyday people throughout history who have been standing up for economic inclusion.”

They drew a connection to Wilson’s work by reading his plays, and kicked off the project by attending a performance of How I Learned What I Learned, one of Wilson’s most autobiographical works. And they supplemented Wilson’s work with readings on the Black Arts movement, of which Wilson was an integral part, enabling students to put Wilson’s work in a broader artistic and cultural context.

While both teachers have featured oral-history assignments in their courses in the past, this project differed in the speed with which students moved from gathering stories to sharing them, contributing to an ongoing conversation on urban redevelopment and economic inequality that is relevant both locally and nationally. In addition to sharing their research with the community, the film that students produced will become part of the Hill House Association’s permanent collection.

“In the words of one of my students,” said Gropp, “‘This project exceeded my expectations.’ The degree to which students want to continue to engage the community has proven for me the power of storytelling and the power of this project.”

Stay tuned for updates as students continue efforts to add their voices to those emanating from the Hill District neighborhood through numerous events and action projects.