Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hillside Houses

A reader in California e-mailed the following comment about Pittsburgh in response to my initial posts: “It seems the stories in such a place are right on the surface, not distracted by the charminess of a place like the Bay Area.” That’s a pretty astute observation, and I especially liked her coinage of “charminess” to imply a negative connotation – charm as a veneer that can be misleading.

The topography of Pittsburgh is that of steep hills and river valleys, and it is this landscape which attracted the industrialists and the workers who settled here. While Pittsburgh has evolved into a high tech white-collar city over the past several decades, there is a blue-collar down-to-earth sensibility that remains deeply ingrained in the people who live here. That tenacity is symbolized by the homes that cling to the hillsides above the three rivers.

Pittsburgh’s hillside houses are not the “Painted Lady” Victorian row houses that cover the hills of San Francisco, or the cute and colorful “Little Boxes” on the slopes of that city’s southern peninsula. Our hillsides are more rugged and untamed, with hillside houses rising vertical and defiant, jutting up amid lush greenery, precipitous on the steep slopes and atop the crests. I didn’t always see their beauty, which may be an acquired appreciation. It’s an unexpected beauty, suddenly noticed when the morning light slants a certain way to sharply define the rooflines and angles, or when last rays of a sunset cast a golden glow reflected by the windows.

From the East End to the West End, the South Side Slopes to the North Side, Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods are defined and divided by hills and rivers. We don’t have a touristy and famous Lombard Street curving past stately homes, but we do have Rialto Street which steeply plummets with no curves straight down the side of Troy Hill and is as thrilling a ride as in any amusement park. There are grand and stately homes here, too, as well as genteel neighborhoods and gated communities, and there are even sections of Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington which remind me very much of San Francisco.

It seems I’m fated to always compare these two cities, loving each of them in different ways. But I’ve long ago claimed Pittsburgh as home. It’s a city with a rich literary history, an active writing and artistic community, and a visually interesting landscape. One of my favorite writers here, Chuck Kinder, wryly describes Pittsburgh as the “Paris of the Appalachians.” Now that sounds like just my kind of town.

Photograph: Houses on Troy Hill, used by permission, copyright 2009 by Kevin Scanlon

Sunday, June 21, 2009

One Shot

Lately I’ve been photographing in Pittsburgh’s Uptown District, an area undergoing significant change with the construction of the new hockey arena. This same area underwent massive redevelopment in the late 1950s when homes and small businesses in the lower Hill District were demolished for the construction of the Civic Arena, now known as Mellon Arena, which is the current home of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. Two distinctive silvery shapes, the domed roof of the Mellon Arena and the statue atop the steeple of Saint Benedict the Moor Church, stand out as landmarks where the Uptown District and lower Hill District connect. I’ve long been drawn to the outstretched arms of Saint Benedict the Moor, attracted by the statue’s graceful lines. But it wasn’t until I began photographing him that I researched the surrounding history and learned the significance of the church’s location as the boundary where demolition of the neighborhood was stopped. It had been a rallying point for protestors and across the street on Centre Avenue is Freedom Corner which commemorates this and other local civil rights events.

Charles "Teenie" Harris (1908-1998) spent his lifetime photographing Pittsburgh, particularly the Hill District and Homewood communities. He worked as a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally distributed African American newspaper, and also owned a studio where he did portraiture and freelance work. Teenie Harris was a storyteller using a Speed Graphic press camera to capture the jazz scene, politics, community and church events, and people living daily life – his work lesser known but equally important to that of Pittsburgh writers August Wilson and John Edgar Wideman. One of the many stories Harris’ photographs tell is of the effect of the 1950s redevelopment.

Teenie Harris earned the nickname “One Shot” from former Mayor David Lawrence, who often requested that Harris cover various events, because he was known for getting the photograph he needed with his first shot. The nickname lives on as the title for his first book of photographs, One Shot Harris, published in 2001 and more recently as "One Shot: Rhapsody in Black and White", a performance combining dance with Harris’ photographs, choreographed by Ronald K. Brown and co-sponsored by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, the Alcoa Foundation and the Pittsburgh Dance Council.

The Carnegie Museum of Art purchased the entire archive of Harris’ work from the Harris family in 2001. Archivists are working to catalogue more than 80,000 images, and because few of the negatives were labeled or dated, they are seeking help from the community to identify people, places, and dates for the images. An upcoming exhibit, "Documenting Our Past, The Teenie Harris Archive Project, Part Three,” opens July 18th in the Forum Gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and is the latest in a series of exhibits seeking information from the community. A larger retrospective of Harris’ work is planned for 2010.

You can browse a database of images, read more about the Teenie Harris Archive Project, and send information about specific images to the archivists via the Carnegie Museum of Art Website.

Photo Credits:

Saint Benedict the Moor Statue, copyright (c) 2009 by Dory Adams

New Hockey Arena Construction and Saint Benedict the Moor Statue, copyright (c) 2009 by Dory Adams