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Over the Hill

A history lesson, for those who would rather forget it

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It might be petty to say "we told you so" now that a developer wants to open a strip club near the future Majestic Star site. But I’ll say it anyway, because it shows exactly what residents of the Hill District were worried about in 2006, when the Pittsburgh Penguins were trying to get a new casino built in our front yard.

 

In fact, it’s interesting City Councilor Tonya Payne is asking the North Side community for its opinion about the strip club. She did not, after all, ask the Hill District if we wanted a casino in our neighborhood before announcing her support of the Penguins plan.

It all shows how residents here have been ahead of the curve from the start. There were numerous meetings back in 2006, anchored by the work of the Hill District Gaming Task Force, an umbrella group co-chaired by the Hill House Association’s Evan Frazier and the Hill Community Development Corporation’s Marimba Milliones. Participants formed committees to study the area’s economic development and housing needs, the social impact of gambling, and to put together a community-input process, headed by state Rep. Jake Wheatley.

After the committees completed their work and developed a blueprint for proper reinvestment and safeguards, hundreds of residents attended subsequent community meetings and approved of the 10 key points of communal reinvestment — demands the community would insist on, with or without a casino next door. Based on those focal points, community members rated each casino-development plan.

The only problem with the task force is that it remained neutral, a position repeatedly challenged by a number of community members, particularly an old-school civil-rights veteran, Rev. Johnnie Monroe, pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church. But the task force’s work became the basis for everything that followed.

In each proposal to the gaming applicants was a clear requirement: Any development must include an immediate Memorandum of Understanding, and a legally enforceable Community Benefits Agreement, to insure a new arena and casino was part of a broader reinvestment in the area. That demand established a process for negotiating the Hill’s demands — long before the existence of what is now known as One Hill.

I bring this up because while One Hill was the result of those terms as well as the need for an updated process, it is pursing a somewhat different agenda. Both proposals include job-training and hiring requirements, and seek a real financial contribution to the area (the term sheet requests $10 million and now One Hill requests an unspecified community development fund). But there are also important differences: The One Hill plan does not, for example, include a guarantee to hire people of color to 30 percent of positions at all levels of employment. But it should.

Some see those differences as an opportunity to divide the community, and play one side against the other. Or they say that ministers and other community members are raising objections to One Hill at the last minute. But if residents, ministers and other stakeholders had not stood up in the first place, the CBA process would not have begun with such ease, and the Hill might have been steamrolled again. And if one were to compare what community advocates wanted in 2006 with what they want now, one will find little difference.

Pitting the wants and needs of the community, as presented by activists and ministers against those advocated by One Hill is ridiculous. And ultimately, it does not matter to me who proclaims victory — because none of it would have been possible without the rest. We created synergy from the same, overall idea: that we deserve and demand social and economic justice. Despite my misgivings about either of the processes, I am extraordinarily proud of the Hill District. The community interaction and activism has made the Hill District a household name — for reasons far beyond the usual negative press story.

Many of us are not choosing between One Hill or the "term sheet" the ministers helped present with other stakeholders (myself included). We don’t have to. Both the One Hill process and the process spawned by the task force were imperfect in varying ways. This pushing and pulling is not really about representing the community. It’s about controlling the outcome.

 

Dr. Goddess Says: Thou Shalt Let Go and We Can Make a Mountain out of the Whole Hill

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