Thanksgiving Day and sickened and angry about the physical, cultural, economic violence being perpetrated by Energy Transfer Partners against the #StandingRock Sioux Tribe and the more than 300 Indigenous tribes and other peoples standing with them as they prevent the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Thinking about the organizing against DAPL in relation to the Hill District takes me to when the Hill District and folks like Ms. Alma Speed Fox organized to say “no further” in response to the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s forced removal of residents and businesses from the Lower Hill. The removal and redevelopment stopped and thank goodness, if it hadn’t been stopped I might not even be here writing this post. 50 years later the entire effort delivered almost nothing on its promises and had to be “fixed” by having its development rights essentially given to the Pittsburgh Penguins, so that they would not leave. About ten years later there’s still really no development on the Melody Tent site in the Lower Hill. To make a contribution to support the protesters, here is a link to support those at the Sacred Stone camp. They have been there since April. #NoDAPL
Digging this view coming down Wylie Ave. Bomani Howze was the person I knew who really campaigned to connect Wylie Ave to downtown for the Hill’s economic benefits. I hadn’t thought about the aesthetic benefits. The reports that this connection has now been made are greatly exaggerated , but the plans are to get it to Washington Place, so I am good with this first connection to Fullerton. I get a relaxing breath just going down this street. A piece of the Greater Hill District Master Plan that is coming to pass.
Glad I decided to walk to work and that the guy turning up Roberts didn’t run me over as I type on this phone! Just met Chef Hassan Davis, owner of Affordable Elegance Catering/Cafe/Bakery who has opened up a pop up cafe in conjunction with the Hill Community Development Corporation’s business incubator program. Affordable Elegance has sandwiches and pastries available three days a week in the storefront through November 9th. You can find him 9-4, Monday, Wednesday & Friday in the Hill CDC building, 2015 Centre Ave. Sooooooo beautiful. Mr. Davis is now looking at spaces to open up a full service cafe, catering business with an accompanying banquet hall and space for music. And the icing on the cake? Born Hill Disticter feeding the culture. Shouts to the Hill CDC for its partnership with Mr Davis and shouts to Mr. Davis for adding this and his commitment to the neighborhood. Super dope.
To reach Affordable Elegance, email firstname.lastname@example.org or give a call to 412.224.0653.
Sunday morning, thinking of a master plan, and perusing the amazing body of work of Alternate ROOTS, the southern based, artist membership organization with a mission to
support the creation and presentation of original art, in all its forms, which is rooted in a particular community of place, tradition or spirit. As a coalition of cultural workers we strive to be allies in the elimination of all forms of oppression. ROOTS is committed to social and economic justice and the protection of the natural world and addresses these concerns through its programs and services. In wanting to learn more about their work, I found The Resource for Social Change, ROOTS’ training publication describing how they bring their 40 years of experience working at the intersection of arts, justice, community & place to developing responses to range of problems & challenges of arts, culture and community. The model is built on five principles of POWER, PARTNERSHIP, DIALOGUE, AESTHETICS & TRANSFORMATION & the publication includes case studies of their work in different communities, a comprehensive bibliography and set of internet resources at the end. It is soooo challenging to do the work and document the work. HATS. OFF.
And, Alternate Roots, put me in the mind of #ArtsinHD, the planning and implementation process to increase the visibility & quantity of artists and arts activities in the Hill District. For this work that I sit on the steering committee with my wife Bonnie Young Laing, Co-Director of the Hill District Consensus Group, Kendra Ross, who is the consultant helping us keep our train moving, Diamonte Walker, Program Associate of the Hill District CDC, and newly joined Samantha Kellie-Black, our next steps will include a Hill District artist meet up, collaborating with Sembene Film Festival for a film showing, quarterly story telling events and an arts festival next summer. How dope it would be to have an annual gathering of Hill District artists and culture workers like Alternate ROOTS?! Maybe the artist meet up we are planning for September will be the first of 40…
On another note, I feel similarly about the value of this document for the work we are doing at The Heinz Endowments with, The Transformative Arts Process. This program, an experiment in participatory grantmaking, is building the field of those teaching artists, arts organizations, youth and grantmakers who work at the intersection of arts, justice, youth and African American neighborhoods. Just the way ROOTS has codified their work is an incredible accomplishment and I hope to see us do some of this with TAP. It has been an awesome learning experience to work with TAP Advisory Board and they have done some amazing work. If you are connected to an arts organization, program or artist with three years of experience working in a particular African American or “distressed” neighborhood, you may be interested in checking out the current Request for Proposals. The informational being held on September 6th has plenty of openings. Please email Siovhan Christensen at Schristensen@heinz.org to register.
Shouts out to Alternate ROOTS and all working to make a #justculture, a #justpgh.
The Black Panther Greens were a big pretty hit, so in the spirit of Ujima, to build and maintain our community together and to make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems own to solve them together, here is another dish for folks with the problem of looking to have another vegan cooking trick in their culinary bag–Bonnie’s Red Curry Vegetables (pronounced Ve-je-tah-bulls) over Brown Rice named after …my wife, Bonnie! Curries are a pretty easy and flexible dish, particularly when you use curry powder or paste, in that you can use the base in many, many ways i.e. chicken, shrimp, lamb, different vegetables & tofu, etc. so you can change this up pretty easily. This recipe makes the curry from scratch, so it requires a little more preparation, if you don’t already have all the spices. This recipe’s selection of vegetables really worked well and were the choice of Bonnie. However, as I said above, once you have the base of spices, onions and garlic, anything else can follow.
1 good sized tomato, chopped
1 good sized yellow onion, diced
3 clumps of garlic from a jar or 8-10 cloves
2 carrots, diced
1 sweet potato, diced
2 red skinned potatoes, diced
1 red pepper diced
2 shakes of a bag of peas
1 lb of spinach, use whole leaves
1 can of coconut milk
1/4 tsp of cayenne
1 tbs of cumin
2 tsps of chili powder
2-3 tsps of coriander
1 tbs of turmeric
1 tbs of paprika
3 tbs of olive oil
1 1/2 cups of brown rice
Cook onions and garlic in olive oil for 5 minutes or so and then add spices and cook for another couple of minutes. Don’t put the heat to high or you’ll burn the garlic. Then add the rest of the vegetables and cook for 15-20 minutes and then add coconut milk and cook for another 30-40 minutes on a medium heat & until they are level of softness you like. (My kids have never liked their vegetables too crunchy. Of course this would be healthier, but it’s all vegetables already, so you’re already kind of winning.) Meanwhile, boil the brown rice with a couple pinches of salt and cook it for 45 minutes. I haven’t cooked with brown rice for a while and I forgot how much better brown rice keeps itself as separate kernels, rather than merging into one pretty sticky rice clump. When the curry is ready, spoon it over the rice and serve.
Ok, so there’s another vegan dish you can bring to a Kwanzaa event or make for your own Kwanzaa event at home or make anytime during the year. As I said before, once you get a hang of the curry base, you can curry anything!
Shootings as an ongoing epidemic and the ravaged lives it leaves in its wake, continues to be a festering, untreated, disease in the Hill District. Despite the fact that the Surgeon General has declared gun violence a public health issue, and Pittsburgh, like almost all American cities, continues to have an epidemic of gun violence in predominantly African American neighborhoods, there is no mention in the Health Department section of the 2016 Comprehensive Fiscal Plan proposed by County Executive, Rich Fitzgerald, of preventing gun violence. Homicide is the leading cause of death for African American men and boys 15-34 and that doesn’t even begin to describe the trauma, and mental health, economic, educational destruction it is wreaking. And. There. Is. No. Mention. Of. Preventing. Gun. Violence. However, this is what is in the budget.
- Allegheny County Jail-$75,933,931
- Shuman Center-$10,514,615
- Public Defender-$9,572,773
- Juvenile Court Placement-$32,787,748
The Health Department’s budget is $17,790,632. Ice Cube’s character Dough Boy said in “Boys in the Hood” –“Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” Of course Dough Boy knew what the budget makes explicit, they don’t care. Our communities do, though, deeply, and that needs to show up in the budget.
This past Sunday I was able to catch the second half of a talk given by an artist named Rick Lowe at the Open Engagment Conference held here this past weekend. Mr. Lowe’s conversation was about his work around the country employing art as social change and his twenty year work called Project Row Houses (PRH). I’ve heard great things about Rick Lowe for a long time and particularly wanted to get some ideas and inspiration that could go into the Hill District Arts Plan. However, I would’ve stayed in the family Sunday space and wouldn’t have made it if not for dope, new arts directer of the Hermera Foundation, Tatiana Hernandez checking on me, so thanks Tatiana!
I have never been to PRH and have only met Rick Lowe once and so this post should not be seen as anything like an authoritative account on that work. We actually have artists in Pittsburgh like Alisha Wormsley who have worked with PRH and so look them up for a deeper Pittsburgher understanding.
In my case I have heard more of the excitement around the work than really know it (Rick Lowe won a $250,000 Heinz Award, somewhat akin to the MacArthur “Genius” Award), but I do know that he has done an incredible job attracting resources for art to the 3rd Ward of Houston, TX and I love the mission statement that talks of employing African American culture in the development of the neighborhood. That’s right in line with Hill Master Plan’s 1st principle “Build Upon The African American Cultural Legacy”. So, I am feeling that for sure. Shouts also to Kilolo Lucket who is working with Alisha on implementing an interpretation of Lowe’s ideas in Homewood in a project supported by the Advancing Black Arts Initiative.
I left the talk inspired, but it wasn’t all simply “rah rah Project Row Houses” and, much to his credit, Lowe wasn’t looking to convey this message and I appreciated this as well. There were some obvious tensions that Mr. Lowe is wrestling with around art, funders, developers and justice in the ALAANA (African, Latino, Asian, Arab and Native American) communities he is often working in and a couple times he expressed concern that his work could become a pawn in the hands of developers. There was actually this very interesting moment when Lowe was talking of art and revolution and he mentioned being criticized as a college student by activists further on the left for not being revolutionary enough as he was discussing the need for artists to continue to use the word revolution in their work. In this vein, Lowe ended the talk defining revolution as the “continual empowerment of the powerless” and encouraging the audience to continue to also use the words justice in their art work in communities. Here I didn’t agree. Can we turn revolution into a word that could co-exist inside of an oppressive state and economic system and never have to confront it? Is that just taking artistic license or co-opting the word to be something less threatening? I left thinking we have to add “capitalism” to the list of words we can talk about.
However, I don’t want to leave this post on that note because Lowe has accomplished so much of what he has imagined and there is a lot we could learn for the Hill District and the work we are doing on the arts plan. One of things he said that I dug the most was how he has looked for ways to pay community members for work that consultants would normally get paid to do in his residencies
as well as his stories of how PRH has created other avenues for community members to realize dreams inside of the 3rd Ward. I like this because its the idea that art should develop community & community members, rather than be used as a tactic to draw outside capital and increase the dollars that developers can get for selling property in the neighborhood. This, again, is raises the question of what and who is community development really developing? I say this because as someone who is paying a mortgage on two homes in the Hill, increasing the property value of our homes happens not to be our family’s first priority and yet we represent a population supposedly community development orgs and city governments want –professional class African Americans. Not having housing value as a first priority is unlike city government and city fathers /mothers which are much more narrowly focused on the property taxes of neighborhood, particularly African American neighborhoods with a lot of vacant property. Safety, enjoyment, a sense of community, things to do for my children. Those things matter more to me.
So, how do we take these ideas of community development actually developing community into the art plan? A couple of nights ago Bonnie and I spent part of the evening working on the next step of the the planning process: artist focus groups. I won’t reveal the questions here because the streets is watching (of course they’re absolutely not watching, but apparently good focus group practice is to let the questions be responded to spontaneously), but I note from the PRH website that the idea came from a vision of artists, so I am starting to get excited about what could come out of these conversations. Not thinking we need to “replicate” PRH, but rather be inspired by it and create something that makes sense in our own space and time. For example, what would a mission focused on providing a voice and platform for Hill District artists look like in action? How might that deal with issues of justice, power, racism, markets and capitalism? What else might be needed? What other visions might folks have for art and culture in the Hill? We’ll learn more next Tuesday at the Hill District artist focus group meeting starting at 6 pm. If you know folks who are Hill District artists please ask them to come out and for more information please call 412.697.4692 or email at email@example.com.
This post has been sitting for a second, but I’ve been a little distracted. It is written in protest of the confidentiality component of the recently launched (March 30th) Hill District Development Review Panel, the process developed by the Hill Community Development Corporation and the Hill District Consensus Group to facilitate the process by which new developments can be said to have community support. I was nominated to the DRP by the Hill District Consensus Group (where my wife is the co-director) and went to the December orientation meeting, but had real disagreement with both the actual power of the Panel, which appears limited, and process of the Panel. Maybe I will devote a future post to the power of the panel ( you can see some of my thoughts in the linked email below), but I want to call out a particular part of the process and that is its confidentiality. That is in order to participate on the Panel the participants must sign a confidentiality agreement, a confidentiality agreement so strong that the signers agree to not mention the agreement itself. I sent an email to the signers of my initial invitation to join the DRP in January, Ms. Marimba Milliones, Ms. Chloe Velasquez of the Hill District Community Development Corporation and Mr. Carl Redwood and Dr. Emma Lucas Darby of the Hill District Consensus Group saying that I would not sign the confidentiality agreement to which I did not receive a response. However, according to Mr. Redwood, chair of the HDCG, I am still one HDCG’s nominations to serve on the DRP which is cool because the idea of communities engaging development and developers is a good one. I will not recount the explanation I was given for this mandatory agreement as it I don’t fully understand it and I might get it wrong, but you can read my criticism of what I was told in my email to the parties saying I would not sign the agreement. I sent an email a couple of weeks ago to both organizations seeking to confirm that the confidentiality agreement was still in place and Mr. Redwood’ said the Panel has not actually been convened since it met in December.
Maybe the most important question in terms of community development work is how does confidentiality contribute to community? My view on the role that community planning processes should play in the development of community go back to Laing letter to Lavelle-Support the Planning Forum in 2012. Our community development leadership just doesn’t seem to see building collective power as being in our individual best interest. Were we to face any of these hateful acts of police murder, or even as we are traumatized by our young family members being murdered by other young people in the community we are not organized sufficiently yet to change these outcomes. This same logic applies to how the Penguins failed to meet our goals for community development, or how the Lower Hill is discussed as a critical location by the City and my employer, The Heinz Endowments, do we have the collective power to make sure the Master Plan and its goals are our an important part of the conversation? If we take our recent inability to get the Penguins to honor our affordable housing goals as evidence of where this neighborhood’s ideas for itself sit in Pittsburgh’s economic, social and political thinking, the answer to that question is no.
Very productive Arts Plan meeting sponsored by the Hill District Consensus Group last week, March 17th. I am on the steering committee along with Tanika Harris of the Hill CDC, Karen Abrams, resident, Suzie Sparks of the Hill House Association and my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing, Hill District resident and Co-Director of the HDCG. The purpose of the meeting was to get us back on track after a slowing of momentum over the end of the 2014/beginning of 2015 and share the plan the steering committee had come up with to get us going again. The meeting had nice attendance with 15-20 ppl and a good representation of Hill District artists with that being the majority of folks there. To see the meeting agenda, click here.
Bonnie got us started by sharing slides of the data from more than 250 surveys and for those slides that are a work in progress click here. A few highlights of the data:
- 65% of the respondents identified as Hill District residents;
- 85% identified as African American
- Most commonly used word to define art?–“Expression”
- When asked about preferred art words most commonly used were “Children” “African/Black” “Music” & “Dance”;
- There’s a broad set of tastes in the neighborhood with lots of arts mentioned when asked about preferences;
- An influence from international travel;
- A desire for opportunities for youth;
- “Festivals” was the most frequently mentioned method by which people got art and the Three Rivers Arts Festival, specifically;
There was a good conversation that followed about how the data showed there was an interest inarts & experiences in the neighborhood and a willingness to spend $, but a lack of venues. Folks also talked about how more options need to be given to the community because we don’t know what we don’t know when it comes to art choices. An idea that stood out to me came from visual artist, Kaceem Barnett, about the Hill having an “Art all Night” experience like Bloomfield. What would that look like??
Conversation then moved to the definition of what a Hill District artist might be (see previous post) and folks were good with the definition we were using with the amendment that there should be space for artists who have lived here a “significant” period of time, but no longer live here in addition to the space for artists who were born here and no longer live here. The main issue here is that if we are going to advocate for Hill District artists to support their work and enliven the neighborhood and build on its cultural legacy, then the definition of
who is a Hill District artist is needed. This then brought up a spicy question and a missing part of the definition: the geographic boundaries of the Hill District we would use. This hole was revealed in the question someone posed–“Is Uptown in the Hill?” This got some murmurs and multiple comments from the room that could be summed up in “It depends. Sometimes Uptown wants to be in. Sometimes they don’t.”
The question of Uptown brings up that little issue of race and community identity. When the Hill District was working on the Hill District Master Plan and my wife, Bonnie, was writing up the history section talking about the Hill as a neighborhood predominantly shaped by African Americans, there were white residents of Uptown who talked to her and were insistent that this legacy be reshaped in the Master Plan to speak in multi-racial terms. Terms that she thought (and I agreed) gave disproportionate voice to the multi-racial history in comparison to what we had lived and heard (Bonnie living here her almost entire life and a mom born and raised here and my working and living here about 25 years). Ironically, when you enter Uptown from Oakland, you see it marketing itself as it’s own neighborhood and selling its real estate in the same manner with no reference to the Hill District.
A meeting participant shared a history of the Hill District that included a certain section of Uptown as African American called Soho and we discussed including that section in the definition of a Hill District artist. The thinking being that if white representatives of Uptown are not going to be consistent in their identification as being a part of the Hill District, and when they do identify they
want their participation to be recognized as white contributors to the history of the neighborhood, then we should not include them in this definition of the Hill, while not penalizing African Americans
in Uptown who have long identified as members of the Hill. It may be that Soho no longer exists in this same way, but it was a way of defining a Hill District Artist using the first principle of the Master Plan and that is “Build Upon The African American Cultural Legacy.” If we took a vote today, mine would be to not include Uptown because I think it would lead to disparate benefit to artists who I have not seen as general participants in Hill District and because Uptown arts activities like the Gist St. Reading Series never seemed to me to see folks on the other side of fifth ave as part of their audience, but this will be a subject taken up a later point. Maybe some kind of positive, NAFTA-like, cross 5th Ave Trade Agreement?
The next step will be a convening of artists in mid April to share the data and conduct focus groups that seek to find out how the neighborhood can better support the creation of art by Hill District artists in general and how we can support more of it being made and made visible in the neighborhood. Can’t wait to see what folks come up with.
I recently read Everything I Never Told You by Pittsburgher/Ohioan, Celeste Ng, who grew up here and in Shaker Heights, OH. The story is set in a small, all-white town in Ohio and revolves around the death of teenager, Lydia Lee, the bi-ethnic child of Chinese American, James Lee, and White American, Marilyn Lee.
Despite the rave reviews, and my love for the title, I was pretty much “meh” about the story: it dragged in too many parts, I wanted the characters to take on racism in more dynamic ways and while Ms. Ng (pronounced “ing”) lets us see how the Asian characters struggle with their own racial image, we don’t get that opportunity with the White characters. In this way, the story suffers from unexamined whiteness in kind of the same way the Asian characters in Everything I Never Told You suffer from the unexamined whiteness of the all white people in the all white town.
Still, it is not without interesting moments. It was intriguing to hear the voices of the Chinese American father and his bi-ethnic children (while the town calls the children “Oriental” we do not learn how they make sense of their ethnic identity) as they struggle with INTRA-racism, how they internalize racism, and INTER-racism, how racial ideas are imposed upon them in their interactions with white people. Interesting to me was the way the intelligence of the characters was never at issue, almost always a part of the racial oppression of people of African descent. Rather, the characters struggle with both standing out and yet being ignored in their community – what the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond call the hyper-visibility and invisibility that people of color experience. In keeping with this motif, the Asian-nesss of the story’s fulcrum character, Lydia, goes unseen by her White American mother. Even as Marilyn reflects on Lydia’s death, we don’t hear her comment or even think about what her daughter might have faced as a girl of Asian descent. In the Chinese father we see the hope that class privilege and a quality education will overcome the child’s “otherness” among all-white groups of children and allow Lydia to experience a full childhood outside the box of race. Sadly, that’s a time-tested formula that never works and, ultimately, contributes to Lydia’s death. This is not to say that Ms. Ng is not writing about race and racism, she is, but she just doesn’t sufficiently take on whiteness IMO. Critical in the story is the fact that Lydia is the rare person of Chinese descent to have blue eyes, and not coincidentally, she is the clear favorite of her parents (a shout out to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye?). All of this is then wrapped up in how we grow to understand Lydia’s death. Btw no spoiler here, Lydia’s death is noted in the book jacket cover.
Sadly, sickening, frustratingly, too, death regularly visits teenagers and our families in the Hill District. While white supremacy plays out differently than we see in Everything I Never Told You, hyper visibility and invisibility are in full effect. As happened with Lydia Lee, and with middle class white youth as the norm, in death the media seizes on our teenagers’ otherness, their exoticness, on the racial stereotypes that will somehow justify the tragedy as their fault and the fault of the family with no implications for the surrounding (read white, middle class) society. This is the hyper visibility. The shootings that we hear blamming out multiple times a week in the Hill deserve a wide-ranging, community wide, public health response, not just a police response. But we do not see it. Year after year, the deaths mount. The invisibility.
About two 1/2 months ago, my nephew, Eric Young was killed on his way to school. Through sadness, anger and frustration, I have watched this cycle of visibility and invisibility “Now I see you. Now I don’t.”
First, there was the initial hyper visibility of certain elements of the story i.e. “teenage student shot to death on his way to school” , a picture of Eric with a gun, another with money. At the same time there is the almost complete invisibility of his death and hundreds/thousands of others in the public narrative, including public officials and philanthropy. Despite, or maybe because of this reality, young people keep his name in public spaces as they do so many others they’ve lost. They’ve changed their twitter names, held public gatherings and are still tweeting with dedicated hashtags. These expressions of love & pain are part of the ongoing memorializing that makes visible the loved ones who have been taken. Those who couldn’t be saved. I see this community pain and trauma in the Rest in Peace/Rest With God t-shirts, hashtags, twitter names & “gone but not forgotten” tattoos. These are ways that so many keep their missing friends and family alive and present, while the public narrative draws our attention to the event, the spectacle and turns its eye from a coordinated response.
While many such as Richard Garland,continue to work in this space and advocate for even greater attention to this public health epidemic, that work is being supported with micro responses that help us understand and respond to white supremacy (shout out to my friend Heath Bailey who yesterday had an fb post asking friends to call out white supremacy as the psychological health problem that it is). Of course by “us” I don’t mean African Americans alone. One of the encouraging and distinguishing things to see in the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the way white people are bringing attention to their own whiteness in these murders. Locally, there is the work of WHAT’S UP Pittsburgh an anti-racist organization with an acronym that stands for “Working & Healing to Abolish Total Supremacy Undermining Privilege.” One question might be what does focus on whiteness from white people look like as a movement to educate white children? This too is already taking shape and a number of ideas can be found on twitter at #FergusonSyllabus.
But I think the white community has so many models to take from the International African and African diasporic community in this area as we have dealing with the pain of internalized racism for going on five centuries. One example of this movement is a project with which I am directly affiliated called the Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy. Beginning February 7th at the Kingsley Association, Iota Phi, the local chapter of my
fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., will begin our 4th year running this ten week, Saturday school teaching arts, history and science in an African American cultural context. Dr. Woodson, often called the “Father of Black History” and the founder of The Association for the Study of Afro American Life and History, the organization responsible for Black History Month, was a member of our fraternity. This program is designed as a programmatic response to his most famous work The Miseducation of the Negro. Among many themes, “Miseducation” deals with how intra-racism is developed in African American students through the educational process and how this then shows up in all kinds of ways in the lives of African American people and communities. Iota Phi developed the program as one response to a rash of murders four years ago and it continues in that vein. If we want Black young people to live by the creed #BlackLivesMatter, we need an educational process that lives that creed as well. For more information or to register your children, please call 412.200.7829 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have gotten this far, thank you. Love and light to the spirit of Eric Young, the Young and Potter families, and the families and friends missing young people this holiday season due to what so many see, but some do not, Pittsburgh’s ongoing homicide epidemic.