Constructed Space in the Hill District: Black Urban Appalachia and the Making and Remaking of Pittsburgh

Editor’s note: In anticipation of the Urban History Association’s 2023 conference being held in Pittsburgh from October 26 – October 29, The Metropole is making the Steel City its Metropolis of the Month for January 2023. The CFP remains open until February 20, 2023. See here for details.

By Jessica Klanderud

Years ago, as I began studying Pittsburgh’s iconic Black neighborhood, the Hill District, I started with a question rooted in August Wilson’s Century Cycle series of plays, primarily set in Pittsburgh. Questions regarding the authenticity of Wilson’s vision of the Hill District drove my interest to see beyond the imagery of the Hill District that defines it as a neighborhood decimated by urban renewal and ineffective in its civil rights organizing due to its geography. Instead, I uncovered the Hill District as its residents saw it.

Residents of the Hill District drew strength from the hills surrounding them. The residential neighborhoods for working-class Pittsburghers occupied the tops of Pittsburgh’s hills where, for a time, Pittsburgh got its name of Smoketown. These hills and valleys, or hollers, were reminiscent of the landscape of Appalachia (Appa-latch-uh), where many of Pittsburgh’s African American migrants came from. In this way, the Hill District reflected the constructed urban space of urban Appalachia—towns owned by U.S. Steel, International Harvester, and other extractive industries, where workers negotiated with industry to remake their own home place and define their work.

Spending more time excavating the image of Black Pittsburgh through the eyes of its residents clarified the powerful agency of Black Pittsburghers in defining their own space within the city. The space of the Hill District, and Pittsburgh as a whole, was not developed through organic growth. It was a constructed city that mirrored the company towns of urban Appalachia. The Hill District was created to house European immigrant labor and, subsequently, Black labor for the many manual and industrial sector workplaces that expanded to include Black workers during World War I. This constructed urban space was designed to meet the needs of industrialists, but the residents maneuvered within the confines of the neighborhood to create their own city within a city. The Hill District and other Black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh reflected the social networks, customs, and community patterns of other constructed urban Appalachian space. In this way, Wilson’s description of the neighborhood revealed a more nuanced view of the community than scholars have proposed. His view of the city demonstrated how residents pushed back against industrialist definitions of their space and instead used their social networks to create Black-controlled public space in urban Appalachia.

Black church in mill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1940). Jack Delano, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

August Wilson opens his Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences, with a description of the migration of “the destitute of Europe” who “sprang on the city with tenacious claws and an honest and solid dream.” Such a newcomer to the city would be offered a “partnership limited only by his talent, his guile, and his willingness for hard work.” Wilson juxtaposes this vision of the swelling city with another, that of the migration of the “decedents of African slaves [who] were offered no such welcome or participation.” Those who came from Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, and the Virginias:

 “settled along the riverbanks and under bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses made of sticks and tar paper. They collected rags and wood. They sold the use of their muscles and their bodies. They cleaned houses and washed clothes, they shined shoes, and in quiet desperation and vengeful pride, they stole, and lived in pursuit of their own dream. That they could breathe free, finally, and stand to meet life with the force of dignity and whatever eloquence the heart could call upon.”

They built a neighborhood and carved a home out of the hills that rose from the convergence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers where they form the mouth of the mighty Ohio River. The Hill District emerged on a section of farmland uphill from the point of the rivers but became a neighborhood where new arrivals could find affordable rental housing. This space was not originally desirable land. It was waste space on the edge of the city. 

The Hill District was a marginalized and liminal space, not quite rural, not fully urban. Pittsburgh is a space of contradiction but also of unique geography. As I think about the movement of Black people into the Steel City, I think about the spaces that Black migrants came from as they migrated to Pittsburgh.

Scholars who document the influx of Black folks into the Steel City during the Great Migration often discuss the movement of migrants in chain migration from the Upper South to the urban North and the mass migration from rural to urban. While this analysis is accurate, it obscures how Black people moved from southern and rural parts of Appalachia to Pittsburgh, carrying with them the customs and practices of life from their time in the mountains. Mountain folk used close networks of kin relationships and systems of reciprocity to meet their needs, rather than formal institutions. These social networks evolved in the transition from the rural mountains to the urban streets, but they did not weaken. They continued in the Hill District.

In the mountain places of Appalachia, Black workers migrated in and through both rural and urban space. Like Karida Brown, I also see that “African Americans for too long have been made invisible to the regional history of Appalachia.” This erasure of Black (and Indigenous) Appalachians obscures how Black Appalachians built communities, social networks, a culture, and a space for a home that they took with them in their migration to the Steel City. The neighborhood that they created in the Hill District was a reflection of that desire for home. The displacement that came later at the hands of urban renewal and now gentrification is another example of what Brown calls the “continual dislocation and displacement” that characterizes Black people’s relationship to home and place.[1] Desire for their own space in the city and resistance to efforts to control and curtail how Black people lived and labored spurred the residents of the Hill District to create space for themselves. Through this work, residents of the Hill District built Black-controlled public space that was urban but distinctly reflected the mountain character of the places they called home and the interactions they had with management and organized labor.

Houses on “The Hill”, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1938). Arthur Rothstein, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Black migrants coming to the Steel City were largely continuing the work that they had always done. As we think about the character of urban space, we don’t often think of mountain space, but understanding how Black migration re-created the social networks and patterns of mountain life helps us understand the geography and culture of Black Pittsburgh. Contrary to arguments that suggest that the geography of Pittsburgh limited the ability of Black peoples to organize themselves to agitate for civil rights, the social connections that emerged from a connection to mountain culture and the type of constructed urban space that existed in the mountains persisted in Pittsburgh in the Black neighborhood of the Hill District.

The constructed urban spaces that U.S. Steel, International Harvester, and other industries created in Appalachia served two purposes: first, to provide access to a labor force in one place; and second, to ameliorate tensions with labor to undermine unionization efforts. In the context of this created space, the fluid negotiations between labor and industry gave Black workers significant latitude to create their own space within the city. Like the Black communities in Benham and Lynch, Kentucky, two cities owned by U.S. Steel, workers were residentially segregated. Yet, they created strong social networks, robust educational systems, and systems of mutual support. These two towns were model communities constructed by U.S. Steel after the United Mine Workers of America won a contract with the workers there. Benham and Lynch had above-average wages, decent housing, department stores, amenities, quality schools, and a robust social world for the Black and immigrant miners employed by U.S. Steel. Joe W. Trotter Jr. argues that “Black workers, using their network of family and friends, organized their own migration to the region. In this way, they facilitated their own transition to the industrial labor force and paved the way for the rise of a new Black middle class.”[2] 

In these constructed urban spaces, Black workers often worked alongside immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Hill District operated similarly to other Appalachian urban space. Black and immigrant workers negotiated the terms of their work and life through kin migration, fraternal and social orders, religious communities, union participation, and simply through street use in their emerging neighborhoods. By understanding how Black and immigrant residents shaped the constructed urban space of urban Appalachia, the complicated interaction between workers, industry, and urban space becomes clearer. Understanding Pittsburgh as a place where rural people remade urban space to reflect the Appalachian and Eastern European hill country they came from crystalizes how Pittsburgh’s people relate to its geography. It is not the hills that separate neighborhoods but instead the people, used to relying on kin in tight social networks, who are suspicious of outsiders and reluctant to cross neighborhood boundaries.

The vision of Pittsburgh as a core part of urban Appalachia helps frame how the constructed space of the city works and its identity as a working-class city dealing with the fallout of deindustrialization. The deep connections to steel and coal labor, the role of labor unions, and the continuing conflict between Pittsburgh’s past image as an industrial city and its current image as a central location in the emerging healthcare and “care” economy and as “America’s Most Livable City” for everyone but Black Pittsburghers clarify how the fall of industrial labor in the city led to a decline in the power of Black social networks to carve out their space within the city.[3] It is time to connect Pittsburgh back to its mountain roots—to consider the role of constructed urban space and how workers demonstrate their social power within the city—and to look beyond geography to see how work remakes the city.

Dr. Jessica D. Klanderud (Clan-der-rude) is the Director of the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education and an Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at Berea College. Her manuscript, Struggle for the Street: Social Networks and the Struggle for Civil Rights, is forthcoming in April, 2023, from the University of North Carolina Press’s Justice, Power, and Politics series and is a study of formal and informal social networks and power on the streets during the Civil Rights Movement in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on neighborhood street-level dynamics of class and race as African Americans defined their own spaces in the twentieth century. 

Featured image (at top): Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the evening (1941). Jack Delano, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress .

[1] Karida L. Brown, Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 5-6.

[2] Joe William Trotter Jr., African American Workers and the Appalachian Coal Industry (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2022), 55.

[3] Francesca Levy, “America’s Most Livable Cities,” Forbes, April 29, 2010,

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