Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The structures both define and devalue a fabled Pittsburgh neighborhood.
Throughout this week, CityLab is running a series on borders—both real and imagined—and what draws so many of us to places on the edge.
I drove around The Hill District the other day in search of fences. You may have heard that The Hill is the historic Pittsburgh neighborhood where the legendary playwright August Wilson was born, and it’s also the setting for his award-winning play, Fences, which Denzel Washington recently adapted into a movie.
The Hill is also where I was born and where I lived until I was about five years old. I moved back to Pittsburgh as an adult, where I’ve lived off and on for roughly 14 years. However, after watching the movie Fences, I couldn’t shake this nagging thought that I didn’t remember any actual fences in The Hill District.
I had reported news in The Hill for years, visited family there, and even squatted in the neighborhood for a brief stint during college. I had a lot of Hill images in my head. But a fence wasn’t one of them.
The Hill of my imagination was an idealized one: a congealing of untroubled neighbors, castle-like churches, unassuming jitney stations, and historic monuments to the bars, juke joints, and theaters that once were. In my mind, it is its own shining city upon a hill, rising above Pittsburgh and needing no gates within its landscape.
But when I got out of my head—and out of my car—the other day, I realized that, yes, The Hill is full of fences, of all varieties. They are especially prominent in a slice of The Hill that runs directly adjacent to the neighborhood of Oakland, home to the University of Pittsburgh. Houses within this sliver, along roads like Andover Terrace, are large, single-family residences that smack of an upper-crust gentry. I spoke to a resident outside of her home that day who told me she believed her home was actually in “North Oakland.” Nope, that’s the part of The Hill called “Sugar Top.”
I found that there is even a fence around the yard of the home I lived in as a toddler, which is located deep inside what city maps call “Middle Hill.” I don’t remember us having a fence back then in the late 1970s. But now, there it was, plain as day.
This made me think about the recent brouhaha around the “Hidden Fences” gaffes made by NBC News correspondent Jenna Bush Hager and actor Michael Keaton during last weekend’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony. They each, on separate occasions, confused and combined the titles of two black films up for awards that night—Hidden Figures and Fences—into Hidden Fences, now a widely circulated meme. It smacked of the kind of racial blunder often visited upon the black actor Morgan Freeman, who’s been misidentified as Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Russell, and even Nelson Mandela.
The music producer Pharrell Williams, who Hager was interviewing when she stumbled over the title, was forgiving about the goof, though:
Don't worry @JennaBushHager!Everyone makes mistakes. Hidden Fences does sound like an intriguing movie though. Just saying... 😂😘❤— Pharrell Williams (@Pharrell) January 9, 2017
In fact, Wilson’s play is about fences both seen and hidden, and even those that are obscured in plain sight. The story revolves around Troy Maxson, a garbage worker living in The Hill who’s coping with the responsibility of securing his family financially and structurally. His wife, Rose, has ordered him to build a wooden fence around the house—a task that Troy and the couple’s son, Cory, both resent.
In one scene where Troy and Cory question the necessity of the fence, Troy’s long-time friend Bono explains it this way: “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.”
It’s within those lines that the audience understands what the fence is supposed to mean: Protection, but also segregation. Love, but also resentment. Sandra G. Shannon, a Howard University professor of African-American literature, writes, “As the play’s namesake, ‘fences’ yields a variety of interpretations that allow a better understanding of the need that African Americans have to establish protective boundaries.”
Rose wanted to protect her family and their property, and for good reason. The play is set in the 1950s, when The Hill District was a working-class neighborhood where African Americans—many of whom had migrated there from the South, as Troy Maxson did—were finally coming into home ownership after failed Reconstruction and the Great Depression. Between 1940 and 1960, black homeownership jumped from 20 percent to 39 percent, nationwide, though it still lagged far behind white homeownership.
Much of that housing was considered “blighted,” though, by the agents of redevelopment, especially in the Lower Hill District, which directly abuts Pittsburgh’s downtown. Italian and Irish immigrants shared that part of the Hill with African Americans during the 1940s and early 1950s. At the time, it was one of the few racially integrated residential settings, which is partially what made it vulnerable, given white hostility toward integration.
When Pittsburgh tapped Robert Moses, the storied New York City urban planner, in 1939 for advice on giving the city a facelift, he insisted that the Lower Hill should be cleared out, due to the swaths of what was considered sub-standard housing found there. His instructions became reality in 1956, when some 8,000 families—1,239 of which were African American—were removed to make room for construction of a new civic arena.
“People forced to leave the integrated area moved mainly to neighborhoods that reflected their own race, thus worsening the city's segregation problem,” wrote Dan Fitzpatrick in a 2000 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. “By 1960, Pittsburgh was one of the most segregated big cities in America.”
Many of the displaced black families ended up settling deeper in the untouched parts of The Hill, where the Fences story takes place. They had nowhere else to go. White neighborhoods worked actively to make sure that their residents would not have to live next to black families. As Renee Marie Cardelli wrote in her study “Segregation by Manipulation: The Move of African-Americans Into Pittsburgh Public Housing 1950-1970”:
In 1958, 74.4% of city blocks were White, 1.9% Black, and 23.7% integrated to various degrees. Also around this time almost half of the City's Black residents resided in public housing units. Keep in mind that "integration" at this time could mean that only one Black family was living in the neighborhood. Numerous cases of White opposition to integration were published during this time, and one survey by the Greater Pittsburgh Board of Realtors reported that city residents were "overwhelmingly against compulsory housing integration." The survey was a response to Gov. David T. Lawrence's Fair Housing Legislation, which prohibited the denial of a sale because of race, color, or creed, and the results showed that 50.3% of city residents were opposed to integration.
Rose’s need for a protective border around her home in Fences may have been an artificial fortification against the powers that cleared out her Lower Hill neighbors. It may have been to protect her family from the overcrowding created by displacing black families. Or maybe it was a little bit of both.
In the play, Troy Maxson lashes out while building the fence, saying, “What the hell she keeping out with it? She ain’t got nothing nobody want.” The clearance of the Lower Hill suggested otherwise.
On the flip side, hidden fences appear throughout the story, segregating and detaching families from economic and educational opportunities. One curtailed Cory’s dreams of pursuing football; his father believed that a job at the gas station down the street was more practical. For Troy, these barely obscured fences meant that he, a one-time Negro League baseball star and a former felon, could imagine no better life for himself or his family than working in the service sector.
Fences play a dual role in the story, and in black life in general. There is a romantic notion about segregation that still holds strongly today: That living in predominantly black communities and working in black-dominated work sectors serves as protection from the anti-black racism just beyond segregation’s borders. Given the history of violent terror, plundering, and displacement visited upon African Americans, one can’t blame that sentiment as entirely faulty.
The consequence of that, though, is that the black families trapped inside those protective borders get cut out of the social and commercial developments occurring in the places they’re cordoned off from. The white agents and guardians of segregation would prefer it that way so they don’t have to share the spoils of those developments with people whom they detest. This is the foundation of the racial wealth and educational gaps seen today.
The fence works as a protective boundary. Yet, “at the same time,” writes Sandra Shannon, “the fence metaphor illuminates the need that African Americans have to dismantle them.”
Without this dismantling, African Americans are rendered invisible, even when present at the peak of visibility, such as at movie award shows. The Golden Globes glitch may have been a simple faux pas, but it felt like a Freudian slip of the truest magnitude. “Hidden Fences” does sound like an intriguing story idea, and it’s a good thing that Wilson already made it.