A Conversation with Marimba Milliones, Part One


Marimba Milliones at a zoning meeting (PublicSource)

Daevan Mangalmurti and Sam Bisno

Everyone in Pittsburgh knows about the Hill. From Pittsburgh’s Harlem, “the crossroads of the world,” to one of the country’s tragic stories of failed urban renewal, the Hill District has seen it all. Today, the Hill is working to revitalize itself while preserving its rich culture and history, and one of the most important people behind that effort is Marimba Milliones, head of the Hill CDC. Ms. Milliones is involved in nearly all of the exciting projects going on in the neighborhood today, and our conversation with her covered topics from anti-apartheid activism to the importance of attracting business to the significance of an African-American mayor in Pittsburgh. The second part of our interview of Ms. Milliones will be up later this week.

Daevan Mangalmurti: Tell us a little about your life and work.

My name is Marimba Milliones. I’m President and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation, also known as the Hill CDC. The Hill CDC is focused on the comprehensive revitalization of the Hill District neighborhood. We work from what we call a community master plan, specifically the Greater Hill District Master Plan. The master plan helps us to envision the real estate development, housing development, neighborhood development, commercial development, and green space of our neighborhood, as well as programs that deal with quality of life. That could be anything from arts initiatives to education.

Sam Bisno: You come from a family of prominent black leaders in Pittsburgh. How did that shape your childhood? How does it affect you today?

Well, it has shaped every part of my life. As you said, I was born into a family not just of leaders -because leadership can be defined very loosely- but my parents were very civically engaged, in addition to being scholars. I think that their dynamic and well-rounded approach to activism from both the academic standpoint but also the grassroots standpoint shaped my perspective of the world. From a very young age, I remember being very civically engaged, whether it was helping my parents knock on doors to get out the vote, or trying to promote a specific candidate that my parents thought was going to work in the best interests of our region or our neighborhood, or it could have been picketing a jewelry store Downtown because they wouldn’t stop selling Kruegerrands [the old currency of South Africa], and the idea was that if we could get US companies to withdraw their investments and support of South Africa’s economic system, that they would end the apartheid system. So, you know, I spend many days as a child, every Saturday at two, watching my peers come to and from sneakers stores, arcades, those types of thing, and we were out picketing. That foundation of grassroots activism coupled with strategic action really shaped my approach to community development. I view community development as a very interesting space that operates at the intersection of business, politics, and community. I think that in this role you really serve as a liaison between those different parts, and because I enjoy all those different sectors to some degree, I find it to be a very fulfilling field. One, by the way, that I feel flies under the radar for a lot of young people, because you don’t really hear about CDCs growing up. We have a tendency to lump community work into community based organization work, and we think of it in a very casual, grassroots framework, where it’s just about knocking on doors, but community development is about business transactions, it’s about working with people, it’s about developing places, it’s about promoting progressive policy. I really enjoy that space and the variety of professional opportunity within it, and I think that my childhood really shaped me to appreciate all that a community development corporation offers.

SB: On a personal note, if you don’t mind, both of your parents passed away when they were relatively young, and you were very young. How did that shape your career and your plans for the future?

My biological mother, Margaret Milliones, passed away when I was three. She was on the school board at the time, the elected representative for this area. She ran because she couldn’t recruit anyone else to run for her [laughs], or to represent the interests that she thought were important. She ended up running, and she passed not long after that. My father ended up running to take her seat, and he won. He ended up serving, I believe, for 8 years. I’ll have to fact check that, though I’m sure you’ll do it for me [Jake Milliones, Ms. Milliones’ father, served for a little less than 10 years]. He ended up running for city council after that, and probably would’ve run for mayor, but ended up passing, right there at that point where it was going to become a reality. My father did remarry, and my stepmother was an activist, a passionate educator particularly focused on high achievement for black children. That was the framework of my household. You couldn’t really escape it. It was just the culture of our world, to be at community meetings, to be door-knocking, to be out talking to folks, to look at the world through a perspective of what is just and right from our vantage point, from our value systems, and to try to be sophisticated and try to think of these complex systems, but not to be afraid to impact them in a way that would allow us to really create long-term systemic change. From my vantage point, that really gave me a level of understanding to engage systems in a way that can sometimes be intimidating or scary for someone who is being introduced to it at an older age. So I’m grateful for that experience, although it probably made life a bit more complex at a young age. I remember as a freshman in high school I was pretty upset -I went to Schenley, and I’m still sad that Schenley closed- when I came into the school, and it must have been February 3rd, right at the beginning of Black History Month, and no one had mentioned anything about Black History Month all of January. So I’m waiting to see if there’s going to be something, anything. I walk in and all of a sudden the school had launched word of the day on the main billboard, and I was thinking “We’re going to use the main billboard at the beginning of Black History Month for the new initiative called word of the day?” So I decided to launch my own Black History Month program by focusing on some African-American hero or heroine by posting them along the school. That didn’t last very long, because when I was in school you had to get things approved by the activities office. I ended up in the principal’s office, and I explained why I did it, and I ended up going down to speak to the school board about it, because I just did not appreciate [the lack of caring]. And it wasn’t like our curriculums had black history in them, and I was very conscientious about that, because I believe that understanding one’s individual history and contributions to the world is essential to any student’s confidence and ability to achieve. Case in point, if an African-American student’s history starts at slavery, then from their vantage point, that’s where their beginnings are. And we know that’s not the case. So I really wanted to see a more robust program, but I say all that to give you an example of where my mind was in ninth grade, and has kind of been on issues ever since.

DM: How did the Hill CDC come to be, and how has it evolved in the decade or so since the Consol Energy Center was knocked down?

So the Hill CDC came out of a tradition of a lot of CDCs at the time. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Community Reinvestment Act. There was a national movement to get banks to invest in neighborhoods after they had disinvested or wouldn’t make loans to minorities and/or black folks, essentially causing American segregation. So there’s a national industry of community development corporations, and I like to share that with young people, because people tend to think of local organizations as local organizations, but there’s an entire national system of community development corporations. One of the earlier projects was the Crawford Square project right above the Lower Hill, which was essentially a Hope Six project under the Clinton administration, building new for-sale and mixed income apartments. Then there were a couple of commercial buildings. One Hope Square partnered with a small boutique African-American developer, Ebony Development, to bring 1 Hope Square and Williams Square online, and then Bedford Hill came, which was again a public housing community that was transformed into a mixed-income rental neighborhood. So all of these things are, you know, early stage activities that the Hill CDC was involved in. So the Hill CDC turned thirty last May, and we had a big celebration last October. Since the time of the Community Benefits Agreement and the One Hill Coalition, I would say that the neighborhood has taken the master plan, created implementation strategies for the master plan, and you see pockets of development as well. One of the things that we are working on now is an uptick in public sector investment and focus to ensure that our plans become reality. I would say that the Hill District is experiencing even greater market pressures, sitting between Downtown and Oakland/University District makes it a very valuable swathe of land, a 1.8 square mile neighborhood sitting between two of the state’s top economic generators gives it lots of interest from a variety of stakeholders ranging from the universities to private developers to corporations to residents who want to live in a desirable and accessible neighborhood. What we really do every day is we go about the business of implementing our master plan. We are bringing artists housing into the neighborhood, we are bringing a restaurant into the neighborhood. We own the New Granada theater building, which is under redevelopment now, and that’ll be open over the next three months- we’re really excited about that. A lot of perceptions that people have about the Hill being dangerous or an undesirable place are absolutely misguided, and it’s evident in the market. The Hill District has very little available housing. Any occupyable space that is in the Hill District is occupied, and that is how professionals determine the market viability of a neighborhood. So, in other words, if you have a 3% vacancy rate, that means lots of folks want to live there. You don’t have a 3% vacancy rate for a neighborhood that’s undesirable. People want to be here, people are here, there are still lots of families- there’s a very deep familial and communal connection in the Hill District that still exists in spite of the urban renewal that occurred in the late 50s and 60s. The Hill District survived a lot of those hits, so even though it’s hard to tell by driving through some of the main corridors, when you get into the neighborhood and you start to meet folks, its very clear that those communal relationships and that fabric is still woven. It’s tattered in places- economically there’s still a great need for job opportunities, for community amenities, for economic development and workforce training, but there are a lot of assets, and we choose to focus on the assets of our neighborhood.

DM: To take a look back at the past, why do you think David L. Lawrence’s urban renewal program failed so badly in the Hill in the 1950s?

That’s an interesting question. I think that we could frame it in lots of different ways, but anytime you disrupt and discard people, and literally ignore the fabric of a community, you are bound to run into issues. There’s no win there. You might have a nice shiny building at the end, but there’s a tragic loss on the other side with that. So it really isn’t a win-win, and I believe in win-wins. So I think that was the first mistake. The Hill District historically was the landing ground for the most diverse population of Pittsburghers ever. Jews, Armenians, Syrians, Italians, it was a very multiethnic neighborhood, especially in the Lower Hill. And as the white immigrants were able to access mortgages through the banks and black residents were not able to, those white residents moved out to different neighborhoods, established new neighborhoods and/or suburbs, and the Hill District transformed into a predominantly African-American community, which it remains today. But even after folks left and bought homes in other areas, the African-American community that was there continued to thrive. Jazz clubs and music clubs and culture and entertainment and commerce, it was a very exciting neighborhood, and people continued to come back for decades after they left, because this was home for them. Even if they moved away, this was still their first home. The Hurricane Bar, which was owned by Birdie Dunlap, used to have a line of folks stretched around the corner from every walk of life. They say it was one of the most interesting places, and that she must have advanced Pittsburgh’s integration considerably, because she didn’t care who you were. It’s just interesting to hear the stories because not only do you not really see that in the Hill right now, you don’t really see that in Pittsburgh. There have been population shifts in our region, but I still think that the Hill District is a very special place for our region. It is a historic neighborhood that, if we achieve our goal -which is to redevelop it utilizing the history and leveraging the very powerful history of the African-American cultural legacy- will be a destination community. It is a destination community. When Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are filming here, it should tell our city something. And I think sometimes when you’re looking internally, you don’t always realize the jewel that you have. But I think this is a neighborhood where we all need to be all hands on deck and help it fulfill its true potential and treasure that rich cultural history.

DM: Entrepreneur Kelauni Cook recently launched Black Tech Nation. Were you involved with that?

I was not directly involved with Black Tech Nation. I have met with Kelauni before, and it’s funny because the idea of Black Tech Nation is an idea that I’ve conceptually thought about for many years. In fact, the reason I landed at the Hill CDC is because I came to meet with the Executive Director at the time -his name was Elbert Hatley- and I wanted to pitch to him -I was working in IT for the city of Pittsburgh, and I was their first web developer, and I was astounded by the economic opportunity in tech [and the] opportunity to do amazing things without having to deal with some of the discriminatory factors that exist in other professional spaces- a concept called Hill Tech for the Granada Theatre, and he ended up recruiting me to the board of the organization, which is why I’m here now, to this day. My ideas around tech and really connecting the black community to tech is a long-held hope for me. So I hope to see that that takes off.

SB: Are there certain aspects of other neighborhoods in the city that you se the Hill as lacking in, and are you trying to change that at all?

Lawrenceville seems to be in the midst of a really interesting transformation. Initially they seemed to be doing a very good job of retaining some of their identity; there was just a “grit” to Lawrenceville, and you knew you were still in a working class neighborhood, but the commerce was coming along. I understand now that that is a bit more at risk and that the housing prices are increasing and as that happens you’re going to get more and more stores that are geared towards higher-income families -which is fine- but that question of how you retain the legacy and identity of a neighborhood is central. So we can take lots of lessons learned. Even East Liberty. I know East Liberty is viewed by many as a major success. And from just a pure commercial standpoint, of course it is! I mean who doesn’t want to go to Whole Foods, or go to Bakery Square or Target. Like, all that’s great- if you’re a shopper. Not so great if you grew up there and that was home, and you no longer can afford to live there. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. So we can take those lessons on how they did what they did, and maybe some of the mistakes that they made -like maybe some of what they should have done early on was focus on doing more affordable rental. Or maybe they should have focused on doing more intense business support for the businesses that were there early on so that they could grow with the market. I would say that we take lessons wherever we can get them. Shadyside is a really unique neighborhood, I have to say, because it’s not every day that you see big box stores in a neighborhood commercial district. I mean, that’s very rare. So clearly, someone curated that. I don’t know who that is- I may have to tap into that person, whoever did that. It’s a rare model. You don’t see that in cities like Pittsburgh every day. So we look at everything. We’re really students of the practice of community development.

DM: Do you think that Hill will be able to balance revitalization and retaining its current community?

That’s our goal. It’s difficult. It is very, very difficult, for a number of reasons. One, commerce is driven by the economics of residents. If you can’t demonstrate certain incomes, then certain stores are just not interested. So you have to try and evidence your buying power. And we’ve done market studies, and we can show our buying power. But some retailers just don’t work like that. It’s pretty well known that Trader Joe’s follows Whole Foods. What we want to do is find those right fits for the neighborhood. A dream retailer is one that grows with us, that adopts and appreciates the vision we have for the community, one that understands that we want to preserve the African-American cultural legacy in this neighborhood, that we think there’s a real story, a dynamic attraction for our city in that kind of redevelopment. I would say, if you want shopping, pick any of the malls. They’re always open, and you can go to any of them any time you want. But if you’re looking for a unique experience to go see a show, a poetry set, listen to some jazz, latest hip-hop local artist, or get a soul food dinner, or something of that nature, you can’t get that in a mall. You can’t get that anywhere. So it’s really about “how do we create that experience that people are seeking?” A memorable experience. A destination.