"The significant fact which has not been thoroughly appreciated heretofore is that the Negro migrates North not to secure creature comforts alone, such as more food, better housing and the like, but rather for what we call new experiences; and as one migrant put it, ‘to enjoy life more.'" Negro Survey of Pennsylvania, 1927.

"Everything was happening on the hill. . .it was jammin' on the Hill."
Shirley Anderson, owner of The Beauty Mark Salon

Easter Parade on Wylie Avenue, 1951

Sprawling over blocks, the Hill District overlooked downtown Pittsburgh. A predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the early twentieth century, the Hill District became one of the most energetic and powerful African American neighborhoods in the country from the 1930s to the 1950s. Variously called "the crossroads of the world" or "Fun City," the Hill District flourished as a center for business and art, and drew bustling crowds both day and night. The music scene this environment fostered rivalled that, at times, of the most groundbreaking cities in America.

Clubs and the Social Scene. . .

Wylie Avenue, 1932.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Pittsburgh's Hill District became the definitive center for music and nightlife between New York City and Chicago.

Among many other talented musicians who frequented the Hill, jazz greats like Count Basie, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Art Blakey, George Benson, Artie Shaw, Jack McDuff, Ahmad Jamal, Mary Louise,
Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstein, Art Coltrain, Dexter Gordon, Errol Garner and Duke Ellington all came and played.

Billy Ekstein


Errol Garner

Today, the Crawford Grill on Wylie
Avenue is still open for buisness.

William Henry Johnson

Almost all of the many clubs that lined Wylie and Center Avenues attracted both African American and white customers. White musicians who played in clubs in downtown Pittsburgh often came to the Hill when they finished their gigs, and stayed jamming til late.

Still, it was emphatically African Americans whose financial power and creative energy controlled and fuelled the famous Hill District.

Barbeque, Archibald J. Motley Jr.

Dressed in their most stylish clothes, people from all over Pittsburgh took buses or street cars to the Hill. Famous clubs like the Crawford Grill and the Hurricane Lounge drew the hottest musicians and most chic clientelle, but many other clubs flourished as well, like Green Front, Coobus Club, Little Paris, Bamboola Club, the Flamingo Hotel, Center Avenue Elks, Perry Bar, Granada Bar and the 471 Musicians Club. At the Hill District clubs, people talked, laughed and danced steps like "Trucking" until dawn.
"If you dress cleanly, clean-cut, they call you 'Mr.'"
--Mr. Walter Hamm, owner of Hamm's Barber Shop in Pittsburgh's Hill District

Neighborhood Street in the Hill District.
An early drawing of Kaufmann's, 19th Century.

As signs of social status and self-respect,nice shoes and clean clothes mattered in the Hill District and people tried hard to look their best. African Americans in Pittsburgh often shopped in Kaufmann's and Gimbels's downtown. At these department stores, residents of Pittsburgh, unlike their African American contemporaries in Birmingham until the 1970s, could try on the clothes before purchasing them. Gimbel's Department Store in downtown Pittsburgh, 1920s.

Outside the Clubs. . .

On weekend nights in the Hill District, the muted sounds of jazz riffs and conversation drifted through windows and down alleys for blocks around. Main streets like Wylie and Center Avenues bustled with people and energy until the early morning.

William Herny Johnson, "Street Musicians"
On the corner of Wylie Avenue and Fullerton, Goody's Drug Store stayed open all night, and was a favorite late night stop for sodas and snacks. In the Depression, barbecue stands that lined Wylie Avenue sold navy bean sandwiches for five cents, or a plate of chitlins for a dime.
At Nesbit's, hungry couples could stop for a meal, or for a slice of sweet potato, strawberry or coconut pie.
Beauford Delaney, "Canfire"
During the daytime, groups of men often congregated at barbershops in the Hill District, especially the famous Crystal Barbershop and Archie's Place, both on Wylie Avenue.

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