By: Bill O’Driscoll | 90.5 WESA | Listen/read the full story
Njaimeh Njie spent three years on her public artwork “Homecoming: Hill District, USA.” This month, she completed the project’s final piece, a photo mural on the front steps of the Hill House Association’s landmark Kaufmann Center. But if a visit just hours after the installation is any indication, the work is already meeting its goal of connecting community members across time and space.
On that sunny afternoon, Hill resident Gerald R. Parker Sr. came to the site, on Centre Avenue, because a friend had just phoned to tell him that one of the seven people depicted larger-than-life in the mural was his late mother.
Dorothea Lee Parker, who died in 2011, was, among other things, a school crossing guard and Allegheny County’s first black female deputy sheriff. She’s pictured in her deputy’s uniform.
“This is her neighborhood, and I’m proud of that mural.”
“I came up here right away, because she did a lot for the Hill District,” said Parker. “This is her neighborhood, and I’m proud of that mural. I’m trying to not get too emotional. Because she would love that. That’s why I’m texting all my people, and my family. They all over the country. They would love to see this.”
The mural is in black-and-white, and formally innovative. The images were printed on strips of vinyl cut horizontally and glued to the faces of the Center’s concrete steps, like the slats of a Venetian blind. The work was fabricated and installed with help from local signage firm Printscape. Viewed from street level, the slats coalesce into a grouping of seven 20-foot-tall figures gathered from around the Hill and across generations.
“That brings back memories to see that. Heck, yeah,” said Parker, who is 67. “To see her right there. Oh, yeah, that’s my mom!”
“It’s just a way to honor those experiences”
He said his mother worked as a crossing guard just blocks away, in the 1950s and ’60s. He and his extended family still celebrate his parents’ wedding anniversary. (His father is 95.)
The other people in the mural are Clarence Battle, longtime director of Ammon Recreational Center; community activist Tamanika Howze; Arthur Giles, depicted as a child with his mother, the late Juanita Flannigan; and the late Louis C. Coles, whom Njie described as “a steelworker turned chauffer.” The young woman in the photo is unidentified; Njie found her photo in the archive of the Hill branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
“It felt like a really good representation of the diversity of people’s experiences in this neighborhood,” said Njie. “It’s just a way to honor those experiences, the people whose names aren’t necessarily chiseled in stone, but who still mattered.”
Njie, a multimedia artist, was commissioned to do the work as part of the Office of Public Art’s Temporary Placemaking initiative.
Njie, who lives in Bellevue, grew up in the city and attended Schenley High School. She spent a year researching the project, compiling oral histories and photos ranging from family snapshots to her own photos and archival materials. (The photo of Parker came from one of Gerard Parker’s sisters, but he was unaware of the project until this month.)
The materials are gathered on the project’s website as “a people’s history of the neighborhood.” The first of the four murals honoring the Hill’s luminaries and everyday people was installed in the spring of 2018. (The other three murals are at the August Wilson House, 1727 Bedford Avenue; 2145 Centre Avenue; and 200 Robinson Street.)
The Hill House donated its steps for a period of at least two years, said Njie. The Kaufmann Center is located at 1825 Centre Avenue.
It’s the perfect location for Parker, he said while admiring the image of his mother in the mural.
“Me and my wife and my daughter come past here every morning,” he said. “Now we know what we coming past here for.”