Thinking of a Hill Art Plan

A couple of weeks ago, the Hill District Consensus Group (for whom my wife works, I am a supporter and the organization I work for, The Heinz Endowments, is a funder) held its second art plan meeting at the Hill House Association. The focus of this meeting was, in accordance with The Greater Hill District Master Plan, to take another step in the development of a plan for arts and culture in the Hill District. The meeting was facilitated by HDCG staffer, Brian Brown, and was attended by a range of interested parties including Errol Reynolds (Moe) and Charlotte Ka and who are working to build a cultural center to host artist residencies, performances, classes and more on Centre and Soho, Karen Abrams, Hill District resident and URA staffer, Thomas Chatman, Hill District resident and Executive Director of Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble, IAsia Thomas, teaching artist & poet, Ayisha Morgan Lee, Executive Director of Hill Dance Academy Theater, which holds its classes in the old St. Benedict the Moor School on Bedford Ave, an organization also funded by The Heinz Endowments, and Marimba Milliones, Executive Director of the Hill District Community Development Corporation, who came in during the latter part of the meeting and as I was leaving. Additionally, there were a range of youth staff from the HDCG, staff of Public Allies and Luqmon Salaam who was there in his capacity as a member of S Consulting.

There were a few guiding questions that we worked on in the meeting and the agenda can be seen here HDCG Arts Plan Working Group Agenda & Action Plan_Feb 11 2014. The section of the conversation that was most memorable in my mind was the discussion with Karen Abrams  and Moe around the idea that arts plan should have a balance of work that is designed to help the community remember the best of its past thought and behavior (cultural legacy) as well as facilitate  creative production from professional artists, organizations, and non professional adults and youth (art). Celebrating past creative production and facilitating current production, particularly by African Americans, could play an important role in maintaining the neighborhood’s African American identity, attracting Black artists and attracting former residents to return and new African American residents to want to make the Hill their home while making this neighborhood a much more interesting and child friendly place. My suspicion is keeping the Hill predominantly African American will also keep it more affordable since everything is monetized or given a dollar value  in capitalism and Black life is deemed less valuable in our culture. Think of the “There goes the neighborhood” phrase. I can hear my friend and colleague, Karen Abrams, sucking her teeth and pointing to Harlem, so that could be a misplaced hope. What I am most interested in as a different conversation and set of actions when it comes to artists and “redevelopment” in predominantly African American neighborhoods. So often when Pittsburgh talks “artists” and cultural/economic/neighborhood development what is imagined is the facilitating and relocating of  artists who often do not have a history of being in dialogue or being inspired by the neighborhood, its culture and history and this only continues when they arrive. Most often these are white artists and this only compounds the feeling that a neighborhood is being “taken”. More to say on this matter, but I want to get this up and posted because it’s been a moment since I have posted.

Next steps will be to involve more residents both artists and non-artists and Bonnie and Brian had the good idea to begin to take the questions listed on the agenda to a variety of community settings, rather than wait for folks to come to meetings, so I am excited about that strategy just for the kinds of conversations and visibility it can give to conversations of culture in the Hill.  I believe the next meeting will be in the next couple of weeks and residents (the current priority) should contact Brian Brown at brown@hdcg.org to get more information. To see the good ideas already generated about what kinds of arts activity is desired for the neighborhood, please click on HDCG Arts Plan Working Group Notes_Meeting 2_Feb 19 2014 revised1.  Work on this plan will be ongoing and so I hope to have further updates as it progress. Onward and upward…

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