Even without a building, Hill District CEC director is hard at work


With six months under his belt, Kirk Holbrook, the director for the Hill District Community Engagement Center, is focusing on laying the foundation for the CEC with on-the-ground organizing and building relationships with community members.

Holbrook, who has been operating out of the Bedford Hope Center for a few months, has been a part of the community for more than 17 years — as an eight-year resident and through multiple community positions.

He most recently was chief of staff in the district office of state Rep. Jake Wheatley. Prior to that, he was a community organizer for A+ Schools and the program director for the Hill House Association.

Holbrook, a Wilkinsburg native, has introduced a variety of educational programming to the various schools in the area through partnerships with NASA’s Destination Station and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to help promote science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

Tracy K. Smith, U.S. poet laureate, visited the Hill District library in November where she chatted with residents.

And there’s still much more to come, he said, as he continues to partner with Pitt’s School of Engineering, the School of Social Work and other Pitt institutions to help promote education — both for the Hill District residents and for Pitt researchers.

Over the next few months, Holbrook is focusing on engaging the various stakeholders of the Hill District and will continue to do so throughout the year as he aims to strengthen Pitt’s relationship with the community.

“I think the engagement is really crucial,” Holbrook said. “In a community, any community, there can be misconceptions, perceptions that aren’t all the way correct. And I really believe in what the CEC is trying to do, and what we will do.”

He added that the engagement will lead to stronger idea of how the CEC can best benefit residents’ needs.

Holbrook works closely with an advisory council made up of 29 residents, including Rev. Paul Abernathy, director of FOCUS Pittsburgh, an organization that focuses creating community programs to help with the trauma these communities have experienced.

The Hill District has seen many changes over the decades, many of them related to public housing, Abernathy said.

The neighborhood has a rich, multicultural history filled with art, he said. It once was “the center of African-American culture in Western Pennsylvania” but grew to encompass residents from Italy, Syria, Russia, Greece and more.

Claude McKay, a Harlem Renaissance poet, once affectionately referred to the neighborhood as the “crossroads of the world,” Abernathy said.

“This was a very powerful image of community at a time when much of the nation was segregated both North and South,” Abernathy said of the district in the mid 20th century.

However, in the 1950s, the lower Hill District was targeted for “urban renewal” and construction, and 8,000 residents were displaced, and 400 business were torn down. Eventually, this area of land became the Civic Arena, where the Pittsburgh Penguins played, Abernathy said.

“What I understood from that event, is that there was a great deal of injustice that occurred there in the sense that whites were paid for their homes and many African Americans ended up in public housing,” Abernathy said. “We still have residents who remember what it was to live in houses before they lived in public housing.”

Then, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, riots led to many businesses being burned down. Since then, the neighborhood has faced numerous social and economic hardships.

Rhonda Lockett, another member of the advisory council and teacher assistant at St. Benedict the Moor School, said the loss of businesses has made simple things such as grocery shopping a hassle for community residents

And public housing issues and displacement have continued to be a source of pain for many residents, Abernathy said.

“It’s hard to build a community when people are at the mercy of someone else,” Abernathy said.

Lockett and Holbrook said the housing issues extend beyond public housing as there are many vacant houses and lots spread throughout the community.

This can create dangerous situations, Lockett said.

“We had one house literally collapse and fall down. It was falling apart because one house was burned down beside it,” Lockett said.

In spite of these and other community issues, Abernathy sees opportunity in the Hill District CEC and is thankful for Pitt’s partnerships with FOCUS in the past.

“Another hope and expectation is that (the CEC) actually creates a pipeline of young residents who would go on to the University and receive degrees and advanced degrees and remain in our community and continue to do extremely meaningful work,” Abernathy said.

Holbrook said despite the public housing concerns, the community is going through a period of “positive transitions and change.” And the CEC is coming to the community at a great time,

“I think there’s a great opportunity to really make a deep impact by attaching the University’s resources to where the community’s needs are,” Holbrook said. “So, I think it’s synergistic at this time. I think you see some growth, but you also see within that growth, there are some community members who may be skeptical of that growth, because change to some could mean, maybe it could be threatening to their stability or ability to stay in.

“And I think by having, real targeted resources that are attached to community needs and community agenda, I think it’s a protective factor in a lot of ways when you see a community changing.”

Pitt is still in the negotiation phase for a physical CEC space in the Hill District. So far, the University has submitted a letter of intent for one of the physical spaces at The New Grenada Theater, which would be roughly 10,000 square feet, Holbrook said.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.