Excavating Pittsburgh's Hill District | Art Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Excavating Pittsburgh's Hill District

"Teenie Harris, Photographer" turns up a lost world


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From the 1930s until his retirement in 1975, Charles "Teenie" Harris took photographs for a major African-American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. The Courier offices were located in the city's Hill District, a black community that Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay once called "the crossroads of the world." Jazz drummer Art Blakey lived on the Hill; playwright August Wilson set most of his epic Pittsburgh cycle, a chronicle of 20th-century black American life, there.

A 1950s urban renewal project displaced 8,000 residents of the once-prosperous neighborhood, which was further ravaged by riots in the '60s and crack in the '80s. But there are no riots, no wrecking balls on display in "Teenie Harris, Photographer." The exhibit, on loan from the Carnegie Museum of Art, doesn't focus on dissolution—though that lurks, for instance, in a photo from 1966, showing Eartha Kitt at a ceremony inaugurating a neighborhood revitalization program. Instead, there are people dancing—including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and his wife Elaine, who look thrilled to be doing it. In four out of five images collected here under the heading of "Style," Harris's subjects pose alongside big, beautiful cars.

The collection feels preapocalyptic—a memoir of a lost black middle class. It makes me think of John Patrick Leary's 2011 essay "Detroitism," in which he discusses "ruin porn": the tendency to aestheticize the tragedy of once-great cities, particularly in the rust belt. Artful photos of declining Detroit, he wrote, are "pictures of historical oblivion," lacking any narrative about the political processes that produced them. Harris's pictures return us to history and force us to ask how we got from there to here. It wasn't always this way.

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