Historian promotes neighborhood’s past, uncertain future
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Stand on any street corner in Hazelwood and it’s likely JaQuay Edward Carter knows something about its history.
“This is the John Woods house, possibly the oldest building in Pittsburgh,” he explained, passing by an old cottage overrun by weeds and tall grass. “It’s from 1792, built in vernacular style, which means the stones came from a nearby quarry.”
A few hundred yards up the road, he pointed to a flight of stairs.
“Right there, as high school students, my parents kissed,” he said, smiling. “And now I’m here.”
Carter is the 34-year-old founder and president of the Greater Hazelwood Historical Society of Pittsburgh and Cultural Center, a group established earlier this year that now has almost 800 Facebook followers.
There are major plans for renewal in Hazelwood. The Hazelwood Green, the former site of LTV Steel, likely will be redeveloped as a hub for high-tech companies and sustainable housing, and is a potential location for Amazon’s second headquarters.
As the community finds itself on the cusp of radical change, Carter wants to make sure the neighborhood does not forget its past.
“Everybody is talking about what is going to happen with Amazon and the Green, but there’s so much more than that,” he said. “I want to bring things back to life, the things people have forgotten about.”
Carter is interested in all aspects of Hazelwood’s past. Not only is there a rich African-American tradition, he said, but the community long served as a hub for immigrants.
In 1882, the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company built one of its large industrial complexes on the Green, drawing many laborers from eastern Europe. Hazelwood saw a large influx of African-Americans in the 1920s during what is known as the Great Migration when Southern blacks left en masse for Northern industrial centers,
Carter explained that Hazelwood was heavily segregated, with white and black residents separated by the train tracks. It was a polarized era, but he believes it is important to engage community members with the parts of Hazelwood’s history that are challenging and uncomfortable.
One particular event — the race riots at Gladstone High School in 1969 — fascinates him. His mother, Denise, was an eighth-grade student at the time, and his parents would meet there two years later.
Ms. Carter recalled that it was an intensely violent time. Along Second Avenue, Hazelwood’s main street, there was looting and destruction, and the eighth-grade students had to be escorted home. According to newspaper reports, blacks and whites squared off at the school with knives, concrete blocks and glass bottles.
“The whites had guns and we didn’t,” she said. “The best thing I could do was stay out of the way.”
Ms. Carter said her son asked endless questions about her experiences during segregation and the civil rights era. In 2009, JaQuay Carter began to build a family tree going back as far as possible.
He explained that it is very difficult for African-Americans to trace their family history to the slave era because only free blacks were counted in census records before 1870. But by digging through Freedmen’s Bureau records from the National Archives, he was able to identify a fourth great-grandmother named Dinah Caves who, as a former slave in 1865 in Virginia, successfully sued a white man for $4.
“My mom and I wept when we found that record,” he said.
When Mr. Carter was born in 1983, Hazelwood was in a crisis. Between 1980 and 1990, as production at the LTV Hazelwood steel site sagged, nearly one-fifth of the population moved away. Second Avenue — once a bustling main street — became known as “Depression Corridor” as businesses closed down. Poverty and drug-related violence soared.
Mr. Carter spent his first seven years — from 1983 to 1990 — in Glen Hazel living among family and friends in a gray, mid-century modern housing project before moving to Homestead. The building’s design was a cross of ski lodge-comfort with spaceship futurism, and provided both refuge from the chaos and hope for a better time to come.
“It was a world of everything,” said Lamar Griffith, Mr. Carter’s older cousin who grew up in an adjacent apartment building.
Afternoon baseball games and swimming at the public pool, Bible study and strong family values made for a wholesome upbringing, Griffith recalled. They lived near at least 15 other blood relatives and innumerable friends who were considered part of the family.
But Mr. Carter was always a bit different from his cousins, brother and friends, his mother explained. While they were into sports and Boy Scouts, Mr. Carter preferred musical theater and dance — and Beyonce.
“For the oldest one, I was a Cubmaster, and for JaQuay I was the choir director,” his mother said.
In the late-1990s, in blighted streets governed by gang violence, Mr. Carter quietly struggled with his sexuality. But he was comforted by the cocoon of a fiercely loving family. He knew that he would be able to rely on his brother and cousins if any bullies tried to intimidate him, and his mother was his best friend.
Mr. Carter reflected on a time when his cousin Lamar confronted a bully for making homophobic slurs.
But, he added, “All of my older male role models have always been like that about me.”
When Mr. Carter was 18 years old in 2001, his first trip on an airplane was to Parris Island in South Carolina for Marine Corps basic training. He had spent a year preparing through the delayed entry program and felt ready to handle boot camp.
However, he collapsed during a training exercise due to heart palpitations and, on more than one occasion, was assaulted by a drill sergeant who punched him in the face while screaming homophobic obscenities.
“It was just not the right environment for me to be in at the time,” Mr. Carter said. “God intervened and my life changed.”
He was honorably discharged due to his medical condition in 2002.
For more than a decade after being discharged, he hopped around various jobs and graduate programs trying to find what made him happy. He struggled to satisfy his intellectual curiosity and desire to serve his community.
Since founding the Greater Hazelwood Historical Society earlier this year, Mr. Carter believes he has found his calling. His mother said she has never seen her son as happy as he is now. His goal for the historical society is to restore pride in the community after decades of decline.
With help from the Heinz Foundations, the Greater Hazelwood Historical Society plans to occupy the original Carnegie Library of Hazelwood on Monongahela Street. Mr. Carter remembers well running around that same building as a child, and he wants its restoration to be a sign of hope for the community. He is also planning to write an “Images of America” series book on Hazelwood’s history since 1925.
This June, Hazelwood will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founding. Mr. Carter says the community finds itself at a critical juncture — when Hazelwood’s past and future appear to be colliding.
“If we look at Hazelwood currently, it’s not where it was 50 years ago. We had to reflect on that to come to this full-circle moment,” he explained.
“But we have 150 years down, and I believe the next 150 years is full of hope.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com