Born in Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District, former city councilman and lifelong civil rights activist Sala Udin, 68, experienced some of the city’s most controversial 20th century urban planning decisions from his front stoop.
Udin was an adolescent, for example, when city officials used eminent domain to bulldoze his family’s home along with 95 adjacent acres. The move displaced hundreds of small businesses and more than 8,000 residents – nearly 80 percent of them African American – to make room for the Civic Arena sports and exhibition auditorium.
Though some of Udin’s 11 brothers and sisters had already moved away from the Hill District by then, those who remained were relocated to the Bedford Dwellings housing project. Udin says this move "appeared to be a good thing" at first, because it allowed his parents to use government subsidies for day-to-day expenses. But in the long run, the move taught Udin that deep class and race boundaries exist in Pittsburgh to this day.
Driven away from Pittsburgh by "upper-class boys who didn’t know [his] name and girls who looked right through [him]," Udin dropped out of high school after his sophomore year and moved to Staten Island to live with his aunt.
Udin thrived away from Pittsburgh. He graduated from high school and later became a civil rights leader with the Staten Island NAACP. He watched Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have A Dream" speech as it happened on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and participated in some of the most important and iconic civil rights activism in U.S. history.
But there were dark times, too. After working for four years in Mississippi, he returned to Pittsburgh, though he made multiple trips between the Mississippi Delta to the Hill District. During one of these drives, federal police stopped and searched Udin and three friends. Found in their possession were shotguns and a bottle of moonshine. They were charged with illegally transporting firearms and possession of non-taxpaid distilled spirits.
Today, Udin shrugs off the moonshine but explains that the shotguns were justified.
"We had decided that we had lost so many friends and associates that if we got caught on a dark highway by the Klan, we were not going to just submit to murder nonviolently," he says. "We’d rather have the cops catch us with [guns] than the Klan catch us without [guns]."
Udin was sentenced to five years in federal prison and released on parole after serving seven months behind bars in 1972. He moved back to the Hill District, where helped to establish drug treatment and anti police brutality organizations. He also dabbled in theater, playing the lead role in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson’s play Jitney. Udin stayed in Pittsburgh for a decade, then moved to the Bay Area to work for the federal government as a diversity trainer. He returned again in 1992 to care for his dying mother.
By 1995, Udin was elected to represent the Hill District and nine other neighborhoods surrounding downtown Pittsburgh on the City Council. He would eventually serve more than a decade in office. When he was elected, his first priority was revitalizing the Hill District, which had declined over the past 50 years.
What did you see when you got into office?
The Civic Arena and the development surrounding that building had amputated the Hill District from the rest of the city. The result was a community that was saturated with heroin and crack cocaine. By the time I got on city council the Hill District had lost over half its population. There had been no new housing built since the turn of the century. The schools that had been a model for progress in the 1970s and 1980s had deteriorated and become terribly segregated. Family income had declined drastically. Unemployment was going through roof. It was just a very, very bad condition. And people had the audacity to ignore the decisions that helped create that condition. One of the main issues around this time was a proposal to city council to put a massive parking garage next to the Civic Arena – a 5,000-car lot.
Why was that garage a bad idea?
It wasn’t in the best interests of the Hill District. It was designed to take care of a supposed problem for white suburbanites – that they needed a place to park without having the danger of walking back and forth on the ground in the Hill District. I felt we needed a better solution.
You felt a parking lot would be yet another barrier – another amputation, as you put it.
Right. By that time, all of us who got moved out of the Hill District in the ’50s and ’60s by eminent domain were now adults and able to look in the rear view mirror. We saw the effects of that amputation on the Hill District and what terrible trauma it created. So our commitment then was – and is now – to make sure that any new development is done to feed the Hill District instead of cutting it off from the rest of the city.
And the preservation of the Civic Arena is anathema to that objective?
Absolutely yes. If the Civic Arena stays, you can never attract a development that’s economically sound and that will help to nourish the Hill District. The Civic Arena was a barrier from the moment it was conceived – a way to break off the predominantly black Hill District from the city’s center. As long as it stays there, there will be no new development in the Hill District.
That aside, what if it did stay? What would we do then?
We’d just preserve it and worship this spaceship that never did Hill District residents any good in the first place.
But the current plan isn’t too far from the parking garage you helped to stop while you were on city council.
Well you know that’s really what the Penguins and the suburbanites want. They want a parking lot. They’ve wanted it all along. And they can have it – just not in a place that’s going to cut off the Hill District. We need residential properties where the Civic Arena sits now. Closer to the city, we need mixed-use property that can carry small businesses and residents. That’s what’ll be best for the Hill District and, in my opinion, best for the city itself.
You said earlier that the Hill District has deteriorated. Do you think the right planning choices over the next decade or so can help to reverse that?
Connecting the Hill District to downtown Pittsburgh is one step. Hopefully it’ll support businesses that can be owned by Hill District residents who can work just a few blocks from home. Hopefully it’ll make the Hill District economically viable again. And hopefully by then we will have figured out how to dismantle gun trafficking and drug trafficking in the Hill District.
That’s certainly something to consider. Last year, city police reported that nearly 70 percent of the city’s homicides occurred in an area that included the Hill District. Do you consider the Hill District to be dangerous?
I consider it to be mine. Connecting the Hill District with downtown is a step in the right direction. Another step will be making it safe again. Today, Hill District residents are at a breaking point. They’re at the “enough is enough” point. The community is now ready to be partners with law enforcement – if law enforcement is ready to get serious about taking down criminal enterprises. They can’t do it without us and we can’t do it without them. There are efforts being coordinated now that focus on police community relations. I have faith that if we agree to tackle our crime and drug problems we can succeed. We just need some support.
You think that’s realistic?
I’m not motivated by realistic. I’m motivated by what we have to do.
Well, tell me something. Pittsburgh is where you began and Pittsburgh is where you ended up. Can you tell me why you love your city?
Who said I love this city? I have a love/hate relationship with Pittsburgh. I love the city that I was born in, that raised me. I love the community that sent me downtown to represent them on city council. I love the people who have locked arms with me in battle to try to improve this community over the years.
I hate the persistent racism, the deep segregation of the city and the impoverishment of black and poor people. To me, there are two Pittsburghs: One is the "most livable city" that the sun shines on, with opportunities for the people who have access to its amenities. And the other is the opposite – the dark side where people have access to very little.
I live on the dark side. And it’s difficult to say you love a place that has historically supported that kind of inequality.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space.