As soon as you emerge from the Fort Pitt Tunnel in Pittsburgh, the city's impressive skyline appears, with the 44-story art deco Gulf Tower and the glassy, neo-Gothic PPG Place. Those two buildings tell the tale of the city. Once defined by its production of iron and steel, along with the ensuing smog, Pittsburgh now has self-driving cars being tested on its streets and rapid gentrification.
Pittsburgh has been steadily evolving for generations. August Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, poet, scholar and native son, knew this firsthand. Change was something that Wilson brilliantly captured in the Century Cycle, his collection of 10 plays that reveal the broad African-American experience for each decade of the 20th century.
The seminal elements of Wilson's plays pay homage to the people of the Hill District. The working-class and heavily African-American neighborhood serves as the setting for nine of his cycle plays.
"August wrote what he knew," said Pittsburgh playwright Mark Clayton Southers, adding that "he championed the common man, with themes like duty, honor, trust and betrayal."
Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel Jr. in 1945, the son of Frederick August Kittel Sr., a white German immigrant, and Daisy Wilson, an African-American domestic worker. Wilson was a resident of the city until 1978, before moving to St. Paul and then Seattle. He also made frequent trips back to Pittsburgh, the place that would define a career that ended only when he died in 2005.
I set off to explore the district and arranged to speak with some of the family members and friends who knew him best. They would define a portrait of an artist who had an unwavering commitment to chronicling both the triumphs and the painful setbacks of African-Americans.
City of bones
I turned off the Fort Pitt Bridge, near where the Allegheny River and Monongahela River converge to form the Ohio River, and the water brought to mind one of the most poignant passages from Aunt Ester in "Gem of the Ocean," Wilson's earliest play in the cycle, set in 1904.
"I been across the water. I seen both sides of it. I know about the water. The water has its secrets the way the land has its secrets. Some know about the land. Some know about the water. But there is some that know about the land and the water. They got both sides of it."
Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old former slave, is talking to Citizen Barlow, a recent migrant from Alabama. She wants to take Citizen on a spiritual trip to the City of Bones, an underwater city constructed from the bones of slaves. This dialogue is classic Wilson — creative and relevant, yet emotionally captivating.
If I wanted to capture the playwright's childhood, it would require some digging. Much of what Wilson would have seen as a child there had been supplanted. Even the building that he would have gone to every day, Holy Trinity School, no longer existed.
But memories of Wilson and his time there endure. Sala Udin, who recently won a primary election for a seat on the city's school board, attended school with him in the 1950s. Udin recalled that when the other children would play games, Freddy was usually off to the side, writing.
Holy Trinity was demolished later that decade as construction of the Civic Arena encroached on the lower Hill District. By 1958 roughly 8,000 mostly African-American residents had been displaced.
After that, the Hill District experienced many of the same urban ills as other areas; rioting in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. left many stores burned. Despite this, a music scene remained in the area for several years, along with a contingent of local businesses, including Eddie's Restaurant, one of Wilson's favorite places in the neighborhood. He used to get coffee there, smoke and catch up with friends, often passing the hours talking. Wilson may have conceived "Jitney" inside Eddie's, and the diner is referenced in "The Piano Lesson."
"Go on down there to Wylie and Kirkpatrick to Eddie's restaurant. Coffee cost a nickel and you can get two eggs, sausage, and grits for fifteen cents. He even give you a biscuit with it." – Doaker, "The Piano Lesson"
Doaker is referring to Wylie Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in the district. The building that housed Eddie's was razed in 2006. The intersection of Wylie Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street is now a grassy lot. A remnant of Eddie's is a stool in a library behind the original restaurant.
Although much of Wilson's Pittsburgh is gone, you could use his words to tour the district. I did so, led by Kimberly C. Ellis, founder of the preservation-minded Historic Hill Institute, who is also the playwright's niece. "The neighborhood has changed a lot," she said, adding that "there is a renewed level of pride."
Ellis took me to 1727 Bedford Av., where Wilson lived with his mother and most of his immediate family until he was almost 13. The brick building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is ringed by scaffolding. After its renovation, the house is slated to be the site of an arts center.
The Bedford Hill Apartments are across the street from Wilson's home. The apartments were intended to create mixed-use housing in areas where public housing was predominant. It, too, appeared in one of Wilson's plays. In "Radio Golf," which focuses on gentrification, the "Bedford Hills Redevelopment, Inc." exists.
Skepticism about the durability of minority political power is a theme in the play. In one scene, Harmond Wilks, an African-American with mayoral ambitions, is speaking to Elder Joseph Barlow. Old Joe doesn't think a presumptive African-American mayor would be allowed to have as much power as a white mayor. Harmond gives a witty retort: "Naw, I'm going to have all the keys and they're going to have to make me some new ones. We are going to build up everything."
Ellis and I headed to the Upper Hill District and 809 Anaheim St., where "Fences," starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, was filmed. It is a private residence, so there aren't any tours. The facade is enough. Passing the tidy brick house, Wilson's depiction of Troy echoed in my head, especially in a heated scene with his son Cory over a desire to play football. "See ... you swung at the ball and didn't hit it. That's strike one. See, you in the batter's box now. You swung and you missed. That's strike one. Don't you strike out!"
In the Middle Hill District are the remnants of the neighborhood's golden age. Several buildings are ripe for renovation, but others have been demolished.
The Pittsburgh Weil School, where Wilson created the Black Horizon Theater with playwright Rob Penny in 1968, continues to operate as a public school. At Black Beauty's Lounge, a huge, colorful mural by Kyle Holbrook of Wilson and his plays is painted on the side of the building.
Nearby, the former Westbrook Jitney Station is now a grassy corner. When cab companies wouldn't service the Hill District, jitneys stepped in. Reading "Jitney," which won this year's Tony Award for best revival of a play, I was fascinated by the practicality and quiet dignity of the character Becker, who runs the jitney station.
"You look up one day and all you got left is what you ain't spent," he says. "Every day cost you something and you don't all the time realize it."
We soon passed the now-vacant Crawford Grill No. 2, where Wilson relished a performance by saxophonist John Coltrane. Down the block is the former Wylie Avenue branch of the Carnegie Library, which Wilson frequently visited as a small child. The building now houses the First Muslim Mosque of Pittsburgh.
The central location of the Hill District allowed us to get downtown in mere minutes. Soon we were at the Original Oyster House, a local institution in Market Square that Wilson frequented throughout his life. A mural inside depicts him eating a fish sandwich alongside other patrons.
A few blocks east we came upon the August Wilson Center, which features a 486-seat theater and art and dance spaces. Opened in 2009, it struggled financially for several years, but recent leadership changes have prompted optimism about a turnaround.
On my second day in Pittsburgh, I decided to go to the Oakland neighborhood, where Wilson had some of his most formative experiences.
As he moved around, Wilson went to several schools. At Central Catholic he gained encouragement for his writing from his English teacher, Brother Dominic. Yet Wilson struggled with constant racial harassment. He left after one year and then enrolled at the Gladstone School in Hazelwood, where a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a term paper. Distraught, Wilson shunned the classroom and played basketball outside for several days. No one ever came outside for him, so he simply left.
The stacks of the main Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh soon became Wilson's new classroom. I walked throughout the building, imagining him using the large reading rooms and admiring the architecture. With the words "Free to the People" etched in stone across the entrance, the ornate library, which opened in 1895, complements the nearby 42-story Gothic Revival Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.
Back in the Hill District, the local Carnegie Library branch has a community room dedicated to Wilson. During my visit it was packed, filled with patrons playing chess. There is that stool salvaged from Eddie's restaurant, a large map of the Hill District and notably, a high school diploma issued to Wilson by the library.
August Wilson was 60 when he died of liver cancer. His memorial service, held at the grand Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, was followed by a jazz-infused procession through the Hill District. "When Wynton Marsalis played 'Danny Boy' at the service, there wasn't a dry eye in the house," Udin said. "August dealt with death in a manner of dignity, the same way he would have done with any of his characters."
I always wondered how August Wilson could write about joy and tragedy with such vigor. But then I realized that his use of raw vernacular among African-Americans was rather unprecedented. Not only are Wilson's poems and plays necessary, but they will continue to be vital in understanding the complexities of the common man.