By Mark Whitaker
Simon & Schuster.
404 pp. $30
Pittsburgh was a dirty, worn-out industrial city at the end of World War II. In the late 1940s, its business and political leaders launched a drive to clear the air and clean up the town. One of the first places they looked was the Hill District, the mostly black neighborhood east of downtown. It was the logical place to start. It had deplorable 19th-century slums without indoor plumbing and a politically powerless population.
The centerpiece of this project was the Civic Arena, a shiny domed sports and entertainment center. Its construction, starting in 1958, destroyed blocks of buildings, including churches, social service agencies, locally owned businesses, nightclubs, theaters, schools, playgrounds, and historic homes. Also lost was the home of a thriving, energetic community where Pittsburgh's African American population built a culture of music, religion, sports, and journalism known around the nation.
In Smoketown, Mark Whitaker, a journalist with family ties to Pittsburgh, writes about the heyday of this neighborhood, with a focus on the talented personalities that made the Hill a major source of America's jazz stars, national news coverage of blacks ignored by the mainstream media, and, briefly in the 1930s, the foundation of the Negro baseball leagues.
He devotes most of his book to the music scene and the Pittsburgh Courier, the weekly newspaper with more than 300,000 readers across the country in the 1940s, promoting civil rights, boxer Joe Louis, and, in supporting Jackie Robinson, the integration of Major League Baseball.
Whitaker draws from the Courier's archives and second-hand accounts for the history of its glory days, an approach he uses throughout the book. His accounts of jazz history, the competition between the great baseball teams - the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords - and the life of playwright August Wilson, a Hill District native, lack the personal nature of original sources, although some are still available. For example, instead of interviewing Wilson's longtime friend Sala Udin, a prominent Pittsburgher, who starred in the first Wilson play performed in Pittsburgh, Whitaker quotes him from a book about the playwright.
The Hill's contribution to America's jazz history is a Who's Who of talent, including Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, and Ahmad Jamal, who is still alive. His contribution is taken from a documentary film rather than a first-hand account.
On top of a collection of mistakes and omissions, this hands-off approach to telling the story of extraordinary people gives Smoketown a lifeless quality.
One curious omission occurs during Whitaker's account of how the Courier promoted the career of Joe Louis. One of Louis' opponents, Billy Conn, gets but a single mention. Doesn't Whitaker know Conn was from Pittsburgh and gave Louis an epic 13-round battle in 1941, mentioned in a Wilson play where Hill District blacks cheer Louis, not "The Pittsburgh Kid"? Also left out is coverage of several successful white residents of the Hill. They include a former Pittsburgh mayor; a novelist; and the concert pianist, Hollywood film actor, and TV personality Oscar Levant.
In the error department, Whitaker first claims Pittsburgh millionaire Andrew Carnegie funded the building of 16,000 public libraries, then later cuts the figure to 10,000, when, in fact, there are about 2,500 Carnegie libraries, including one in Pittsburgh (and it is not, as reported, built of "marble").
Smoketown shines a light on a neglected but important area of African American culture. Its author marshals his facts and figures in a pleasant narrative style, but he fails to capture the essence of the Hill District's rich, lively past.
Very little remains of the Hill's old buildings - including the arena, torn down in 2012 - and its traditional community has splintered into many pieces around Pittsburgh. Slowly, however, the neighborhood is sprouting new housing and a smattering of businesses, erasing the physical mistakes of failed urban renewal, but the damage to the community is permanent.
Bob Hoover is a retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.