Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center: Time for an Open Conversation and a Plan
Late last week I got caught up in a discussion about Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture with two Pittsburgh arts aficionados and colleague whom I consider an expert on everything cultural and political. It was spirited, yet pragmatic, in that we all expressed our disappointment over the Center’s current predicament, but focused heavily on how it could be saved. You can read more about this topic in a previous blog entry here.
So when the New York Times ran an extensive piece on the Center’s troubles today, I thought it was appropriate to revisit the topic. The New York Times piece is largely built on quotes from a two politicians from the Hill District (the predominately African American Pittsburgh neighborhood August Wilson grew up in); the nephew of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who is having his own challenges securing support for the renovation of August Wilson’s childhood home; a former steelworker (who may or may not live in the Hill District) who curiously observed that neighborhood residents “don’t want to work,” and a former director of the Center’s theater program who bemoans the fact that the African Americans in the region are ”not traditional theatergoers or cultural consumers.” There are so many things wrong with this article, most glaringly, the lack of any real interest on the part of the reporter to provide context for quotes attributed to those whom were interviewed (I sympathize with the former theater director). But the article does bring up some topics that Pittsburgh must come to terms with regarding the Center, and to a greater extent, addressing the needs and interests of African Americans in the city and the region.
My Testimony at Pittsburgh City Council’s Green Infrastructure Post Agenda Hearing
It was an honor to be asked to join a panel of experts to testify before Pittsburgh City Council during a post agenda hearing on green infrastructure- Investing in Opportunity: Growing Benefits though Green Infrastructure- which took place Monday, November 18, 2013. This hearing was coordinated by Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith (Council District 2) with the assistance of Pittsburgh United’s Clean River Campaign. To say the least, it was probably the most well-attended city council hearing I’d seen in my two years here in Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh United knows how to organize pretty well).
Smart cities are what happens in the intersection of urbanism and art exploration through digital media facades and other kind of critical thinking interventions in public space in which citizens engage, build, organise, create and share a common platform— our cities.
Who Would Want to Save the August Wilson Center?
Above: The August Wilson for African American Culture
When it comes to preserving African American cultural legacies, Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture (AWC) should have been the model for Western Pennsylvania. Instead its mere five-year existence has become a cautionary tale. While discussing the pending foreclosure of AWC on Facebook over the weekend, a good friend asked, “who would want to save AWC…or least the concept of a black friendly arts/cultural space?” This is a question colleagues, friends and many artists and I have tried to tackle over the two-plus years I’ve been working in Pittsburgh.
I am from Harlem, New York. Harlem is considered the cultural capitol for African Americans. And it’s hard to leave Harlem and compare it to other African American communities, and their cultural histories. Often times I whack African American Pittsurghers around for their indelicate and lazy attitudes towards their rich past. I am particularly hard on my neighbors in the Hill District (see this previous post and this one as well) because they proudly boast of being the center of African American culture in Western Pennsylvania, yet very few of them fight to keep the physical vestiges of that legacy around. Sometimes my criticisms are unfair. There are underlying and unspoken racial/ cultural issues that are simmering beneath this city’s surface preventing any meaningful conversations about how to plan and preserve African American cultural history. So instead, we just go about creating projects, often times with no way to sustain them economically. We must be honest enough with ourselves about how much investment it takes to keep these projects afloat.
I believe there needs to be a thorough investigation into how AWC found itself in such an unfortunate situation. This would not be an exercise to punish the organization, but to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated on similar projects. (Although it would appear that if, within a mere five years, you’ve mismanage upwards of $13 million taxpayer dollars, and millions more from foundations, people will want some answers. And I imagine there are more than a few CDCs and CBOs in African American communities considering how much of an impact that investment could have had in the Hill District, Homewood, Larimer, etc. And lastly there’s this unfinished project.)
I’m not sure anyone wants to save AWC without drastic changes. Acting URA executive director Robert Rubinstein sees this as “the wake-up call for restructuring of the management and operation of the facility.” However, I know there is a strong desire to support what my friend referred to as a “the concept of a black-friendly cultural/ arts space.” African Americans create those spaces all over the the region, but support the idea of a prestigious institution that represents their past, yet will embrace and reflect current and future African American artistic and cultural movements. I believe that Pittsburgh philanthropy supports the concept. The Arts and Culture program at the Heinz Endowments, which has provided $9 million to AWC since its inception, is exploring the notion that arts can have an transformative impact on youth and adults in Pittsburgh’s distressed African American communities. And I believe that AWC interim executive director Byrd supports this concept because he wants artists and educators to think of AWC as “an accessible and inviting institution whose performance, gallery and meeting spaces are a perfect fit for their audiences and programs.”
On a broader level, Pittsburgh must have conversations about what the cultural legacy of African Americans looks like for future generations. Another friend on Facebook wrote, “How about the novel approach of planning and establishing both long term and short term goals, then identifying individuals that can implement those goals.” And in doing so, we must ask the hard questions: What does that legacy look like? Can we attain it? Is it sustainable? Who is qualified to execute it? Do we need to look outside of Pittsburgh to do this? Do we need to cultivate and educate a generation to plan and execute this? And does one institution manage all of this, or do several?
I believe this wake up call is for more than just AWC. This may signal to other organizations that things must change. Another friend communicated to me on Facebook that she was shocked about the possible foreclosure. She wrote, “but I just thought the AWC would be a drug addict cousin that we keep supporting until he/she had a come to Jesus moment…maybe that moment has come.” That moment has come.
Agrarian Urbanism: Background and Research by DPZ.
Agrarian Urbanism is a concept that involves food not as a means of making a living, but as a basis for making a life and structuring the places in which we live. The shift in focus from “agricultural urbanism” or “urban agriculture” to the more encompassing term of “agrarian” refers to the planning initiative developed and forwarded by DPZ, promoting a type of sustainable community that intensifies agricultural activity across the Transect whilst promoting the associated economic, environmental and social benefits. This initiative has direct links with each of DPZ’s other initiatives - contributing to their goals or, in the case of Sprawl Repair, being one of the possible outcomes.
Read more on DPZ’s Agrarian Urbanism here
In San Francisco, three pedestrians are hit by vehicles every day. Our streets should be designed to be safer than this, and we think in the process they can also become viable public spaces that enrich our urban experience. In this project for Walk San Francisco, inspired by a GOOD Design challenge from Center for Architecture and Design, we wanted to transform everyday infrastructure to achieve both of these goals.