Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Njaimeh Njie’s art series honoring black lives in Pittsburgh’s Hill District emerges as reports show that black lives haven’t mattered much in the city.
It is perhaps just as important to note that there are black people still in the present as well, especially in a city where black lives—and the lives of black women in particular—have been under-valued and unprotected. Njaimeh Njie, a Pittsburgh-based artist who works primarily with print and photography, set out on a journey in 2016 to document black lives in her city, focusing on the Hill District, the historic black neighborhood that serves as the home base for some of the world’s most pioneering musicians and August Wilson’s 10-play theatrical universe.
Njie recently completed work on her three-year long project “Homecoming: Hill District, USA” which celebrates black life in the neighborhood via an interactive online map, a collection of oral history narratives told by Hill District residents, and a series of public art installations. The composite is a Hill District where black people are holding their own amidst an ever-shifting landscape where the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, the University of Pittsburgh, and other market forces are licking their chops to see who can snag the primest cuts of real estate in this downtown-adjacent collection of neighborhoods.
“It’s a restoring and reinserting of black people into the narrative of this city and this region where we have been erased or at least not fully acknowledged,” says Njie. Reads her “Homecoming: Hill District, USA” website:
What you’ll find in this project are just a few, among thousands and thousands of Hill District stories. It’s somewhere to hold space for ancestors, leaders, and loved ones who the history books may not name. Among the joy, pain, and love in these stories, there’s room to reflect, to analyze the past, to ask questions of the present, and to reimagine new futures. This is a Pittsburgh story, and this is an American story. Welcome to the Hill District, USA.
For those who can’t or who may never physically make it to the Hill District, the map guides you through a variety of landmarks, breaking down the streets and neighborhoods that demarcate the Hill’s legacy, along with past and present cultural reference points.
The map is supplemented on the website by six volumes of stories, each collected from time periods along the Hill’s growth and development. The first story is about a Jewish family that arrived there in 1920. Edith Hirsch Flom Schneider explains to Njie how her mother hoped to bring her other family members to Pittsburgh from Poland, but had already begun losing them in the 1930s to the Holocaust. But most of the stories throughout the project are told by African Americans describing life throughout the 20th century up until today.
Another story told by Bomani Howze, a developer who is helping lead the residential reconfiguring of the Lower Hill District after an urban renewal project in the 1950s decimated the housing stock there, describes what it was like growing up in one of the Hill’s most well-known families:
My twin brother Salim Howze and I were born at 1:28am and 1:32am on March 13, 1974, at Magee Hospital. Our little bro Patrice Howze came shortly after in ‘75. My mother Tamanika Howze was the bedrock. She was the community mother. Even to this day people call her Mother-Sister. My brothers from another mother simply call her, ‘Ma.’ Growing up in that household, she was just always educating us. Educating us about our history, educating us on how to survive out of the entrapments of—I shouldn’t say poor housing policies, but deliberately entrapping policies (segregation, Redlining, etc.). She was full of love, and full of activism. I would always hear the stories of the ‘60s; the activism of my father Sala Udin, and the leadership my father had at that time. My father was the type to lead out front. Create new initiatives, new movements, new institutions.
Howze’s mother—”Mother Sister” in his story—is featured in one of the three public art installations Njie has placed throughout the Hill. For these installations, Njie took images of Hill community members and transformed them into larger-than-life-sized portraits displayed across the walls and steps of several buildings. The images were sorted into four exhibits: “The Vanguard” is on the August Wilson House, the home where the playwright grew up, which is currently being converted into a cultural center; “The Village” is presented on the front stairs of the Elsie Hillman Auditorium next to the now-shuttered Hill House community center; “The Anchors,” presented along the side of a building known as “The Corner”; and “The Beatmakers,” an installation that has since been taken down because the building that was hosting it is now under renovation.
From a few feet away, the artworks look like painted murals. They are actually digital images of photographs that Njie took herself, and a few that she found in archives as she was researching. They were printed out as six-to-nine feet tall images and, for most of the installations, laid over billboard-sized collages (Njie cites Romare Bearden as one of her inspirations) that were then mounted to building exteriors. They are meant to resemble “pop up rooms” that emulate gathering spaces—porches, stoops, living rooms—allowing viewers and visitors snapshots into the interior of black life in the Hill.
Black women are centered throughout the ensembles: Tamanika “Mother Sister” Howze; Dorothea Parker, once a crossing guard who went on to become the first black woman deputy sheriff in Allegheny County; Kim El, a popular actress and playwright in the city, are just a few examples. And this matters because Pittsburgh is not a city that invests in public art that features, commemorates, or is even created by black women, or even women in general—so much so that in 2018 mayor Bill Peduto created a Task Force on Women in Public Art, which is looking to create a statue that will honor an African-American woman from the city’s history.
This is not to say that Pittsburgh has no black women artists: Selma Burke was a Harlem Renaissance-bred artist who created and taught art in Pittsburgh; Vanessa German, whose sculptures, photos, paintings, poems, and creations can be found throughout her Homewood neighborhood and around the city, was just awarded the Pennsylvania Governor’s Artist of the Year award; and Alisha Wormsely, who was able to leverage the controversial censoring of her “There Are Black People in the Future” art installation last year into a new residency program for black artists, to provide funding, development, and enrichment for an emerging class of creators, ensuring that there really will be black artists in the city’s future.
Njie sits firmly in that black artist conversation with “Homecoming: Hill District, USA.” Despite having never done public art before, her work is now situated among a pantheon of work from Hill District artists such as Teenie Harris, Burke, Bearden, and Wilson.
”We recognize Njaimeh Njie’s unique artistic expression and have proudly supported her year-long installation on the August Wilson House,” says Paul Ellis, Wilson’s nephew and executive director of the August Wilson House cultural center.
Despite reports on the dismal quality of life for black women in Pittsburgh, the city’s present and future is gradually becoming blacker, not bleaker, meaning brighter, as black women artists like Njie project their voices and visions. There’s more to say on that, but here is Njie in her own words, taken from an interview she did with CityLab during a recent site visit to her installations in the Hill District:
So, this is your first public art offering and you’re doing it in the neighborhood that gave the world August Wilson, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, and Jimmy Wopo, and where Romare Bearden, Lena Horne, Mary Lou Williams and Ella Fitzgerald produced some of their most famous works—how does it feel stepping into that legacy?
I was definitely a little intimidated, especially with the opportunity to work deeply in and with the community. But the Hill is the Hill. It’s sacred ground. I didn’t want to approach it with this feeling of fear, but it’s also a little bit of a pressure to do something that is going to represent this neighborhood and these people in a positive way.
Your work features everyday people, not the big famous names associated with the Hill District and scales them at large magnitudes. What was your mission behind that?
Yeah, I feel like growing up here I always heard about that cultural legacy: the jazz, the Wylie Avenue Days—but it felt like those stories kind of stopped at a point. I don’t know if that’s maybe because of the demolition of the lower Hill or even the 1968 uprising after Martin Luther King was assassinated. But it just felt like there was a chunk of the history that was missing from the mainstream narrative. So part of what I was trying to do with this project was to go back and get a little bit of that back, because it's not like people stopped living here. Right? It’s not like people stopped being proud of the Hill. I wanted to get up under that.
I did struggle with whether I should be putting people up on these installations that you know are quote-unquote big names in the neighborhood or have somewhat of a historical narrative. But my work focuses on everyday black life. I think it’s important to celebrate what’s perceived as the mundane, if you will, because most of us are living somewhere between that struggle and excellence. So I try to lift that up. And I hope that whether you know these people or not, you can see something of yourself in them. And that was kind of the goal.
The “Vanguards” installation on the August Wilson House location is in almost neutral territory between historic houses and new housing development happening all over the Hill. Did these shifting landscapes figure into your artistic statement at all?
Yeah. The past and present is very literally just up against each other in the Hill all the time. I don’t know that I would say I was trying to insert myself or my work into that conversation, but I would say it was on my mind. And I think I just wanted to hold space for the people who have been here who have kept the neighborhood afloat through good times, bad, celebrated, and not so celebrated, because it matters that they were here, and it matters that they are mothers and fathers and friends and siblings and mentors and coaches. Regardless of what people say on the outside, they are the fabric and the glue that keeps all of the Hill’s lives together.
As I was doing research, I looked at a ton of Teenie Harris images to get a sense of what actual spaces looked and felt like on the Hill. I was particularly interested in the 1940s-70s, as that was the primary era the stories I was collecting were coming from. I drew inspiration for the interior aesthetic of the “room” installations from the visual evidence he left for us of what life on the Hill was like for a large portion of the 20th century.
There is tension in the city over whether Pittsburgh is doing a good enough job of protecting and honoring black women who live here. This installation is one of the few that projects images of black women into the public sphere. Why was that important to you?
One of the things that I noticed in terms of the pictures that I was taking and researching was that it felt like there were a lot more men in the public realm. But there were a lot more women who I was interviewing, and they were kind of the keepers of the history. But I think that also may speak more to who has gotten recognition as an artist in the neighborhood and also in the city and beyond—you know, who we deem as artists and who gets that nomenclature. So, yes, I tried to kind of create a gender parity in my work, because we know that black women are incredible creators. We make and create to sustain our everyday lives, but we don’t always get the opportunity to sell work in a gallery or have it recognized in that way.
Your installation “The Anchors” is on a corner that was once known as part of the Hill District, but is now considered part of Oakland, the neighborhood that hosts many of the city’s colleges and universities. Was the placement of this installation partially to remind college students who lived here before them?
It marks a little bit of space, yes, to just say, you know, ‘Be cognizant of where you are.’ The thing about this whole project is it’s not really to say that any of these places have always been exclusively black because we know that that’s not the case. If we’re talking like a 50-to-75 year history, in most of these spaces, that’s not what it is. But at the end of the day who I had access to in terms of collecting those images and stories and lived experiences, yeah, they were black. Who was showing up in a lot of the archival information that I had access to? Those folks are black. I'm black. I love black people. So it is in some ways intentionally about marking these as black spaces.