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The Art of Improving Homewood

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Homewood is one of the largest neighborhoods in the city and also one of the most economically diverse, with both the poorest and most affluent blacks in Pittsburgh. But there's no thriving artery where its natives can eat and play: Businesses and amenities along main-drag Frankstown Avenue are few and far between.

 

 

The emerging Homewood Arts District Committee is seeking to create a cultural district similar to Downtown's Cultural District or the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, whose district runs through Garfield to East Liberty. Organizers hope "arts tourism" will generate the buzz and the revenue needed to restore Homewood to its former glory.

The neighborhood has a history comparable to the early African-American Hill District, and John Brewer got a little agitated plugging for it at the Homewood Arts District's Feb 11 meeting. Brewer is owner of the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum on Frankstown, which houses the bar/restaurant Ramseys II. It also has a huge ballroom for concerts and cabarets, as well as the Trolley Station Oral History Center. (The Coliseum was formerly a bus and trolley barn and skating rink.) Brewer told the group that black Pittsburgh is "a tale of two cities," pointing out that "many of the jazz artists who played in the Hill were either born or lived in Homewood," including Ahmad Jamal, Mary Lou Williams and Billy Strayhorn.

 

The Hill District's August Wilson is often cited as the greatest black writer from Pittsburgh, but novelist John Edgar Wideman of Homewood is often overlooked, he added.

 

"If you're from out-of-town, then you need to be exposed to these two communities," Brewer said.

 

The group expects other Homewood figures to be a part of such upcoming major extravaganzas as Major League Baseball's All-Star game at PNC Park this July, and the city's 250th birthday celebration in 2008. Major black historical icons such as Pittsburgh Negro League teams owner William "Woogie" Harris and Pittsburgh Courier founder Robert L. Vann both owned landmark properties in Homewood that still stand today, notes Rick Adams, dean of the Homewood branch of Community College of Allegheny County.

 

Harris's National Negro Opera Company house, operated by Mary Cardwell Dawson as the first permanent black opera company in America, was discussed as a possible anchor for the arts district. So was Brewer's Pittsburgh Coliseum, which is the second-largest special-events facility in the city, according to the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

 

Jonnet Solomon, current owner of the Opera House -- once the quarters for celebrities such as Lena Horne, Roberto Clemente and Joe Louis -- was on hand to say she was willing to partner with the arts committee. The building's $1.8 million renovation will require financial support and other resources from the community, she adds. "I get e-mails from people weekly who want to buy the Opera House and turn it into condos," she says. But both Solomon and Brewer stress the need for community residents to own and control their own properties.

 

Other institutions upon which the community can build its new district are the Images gallery and market on Frankstown, the Afro-American Music Institute on Hamilton Avenue and the newly remodeled Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library, also on Hamilton.

 

"It's going to happen," concluded Brewer. "It's just a matter of who's going to step up and do it."

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