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Standing in the shadow of Mystery Manor, the former home of the National Negro Opera Company in Homewood, Alisha Wormsley and Anqwenique Wingfield were met with a disquieting silence. “It was kind of surreal,” Wingfield says. “Scary-movie surreal.”
It didn’t help that the front yard of the Queen Anne-style mansion was completely overgrown with weeds, making it virtually impossible to see from the street. “The trees had grown up in the shape of a ‘Y,’” Wingfield continues. “It felt like a gate, like we shouldn’t go in there.”
But they did.
The two women were on a mission as artists and activists to rediscover the past, acknowledge the present, and imagine the future. The journey started months before when interdisciplinary artist Wormsley was approached by Carnegie Museum of Art to participate in its Hillman Photography Initiative. Her challenge was to explore photography’s connection to light, time, and, ultimately, social justice.
Setting her sights on one neighborhood, Homewood, she put into motion a four-week-long series of public art projects and workshops. Dubbed The People Are The Light, it ran through half of September and half of October, and featured repurposed abandoned spaces and emphasized self-care and healing. Twelve artists, healers, and community organizers, including Wingfield, contributed to the project.
“If you think about photography within the framework of light and social justice,” says Wormsley, “and think about what is light, what changes light, what creates shadows, where is the contrast between light and darkness …
“Abandoned spaces represent the darkness,” she continues, “and so bringing people into them—the people turn on the lights, they bring the light. They are the light.
For Wormsley, this isn’t abstract theory. It is reality, her reality. Wormsley lived in Homewood as a child. After studying film and video at Bard College in New York, anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and photography and digital media at the International Center of Photography back in New York, and then traveling the world in pursuit of her art, she decided to return home.
In 2010, with support from The Andy Warhol Museum, she took on the role of creative director at the Homewood Artist Residency. Until this past May, the program provided a forum for her to work with kids at Westinghouse Academy and in the neighborhood.
Founded in 1832 by Judge William Wilkins, Homewood seemed far away from Pittsburgh. Given the modes of transportation back then, the 22-mile trek to the city was daunting to say the least. As a result, Homewood remained a pastoral, picture-perfect contrast to Pittsburgh’s growing industrial profile.
That is, until the mid-1850s when the Pennsylvania Railroad made Homewood an official stop, complete with its own station house. Thanks to its newfound accessibility, this “suburb” (Homewood didn’t become an official part of Pittsburgh until 1884) became the go-to place for the rich and famous.
Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse, to name two, decided to put down serious roots in the area by building mansions, and huge estates require huge staffs. The first influx of black residents arrived to fill those positions.
As The People Are The Light events unfolded this past fall, Wormsley documented it all using video and drone photography, and made a series of portraits featuring Wingfield and the other nine female contributors. The images and culminating film by Wormsley will be screened at the Museum of Art on December 21.
“In my practice,” Wormsley explains, “I work a lot with collective memory and community consciousness, thinking about ritual, thinking about time collapsing with past, present, and future all happening simultaneously.”
She wanted to bring those concepts to light in her project. “Homewood has a very long legacy of culture and music,” Wormsley says, “and within the last 20 to 30 years has gone through severe economic depression.”
Looking to draw from the past, she turned to Robert Hodge, a Texas-based artist she often collaborates with. His installation, The Beauty Box, was designed to reactivate a once-thriving, long-ago abandoned fruit stand on Homewood Avenue. He cleared the lot, repainted the stalls, and invited people to reclaim the space as their own.
“The space was physically blocked off,” Hodge says. “Now you can feel the energy. It feels retro and modern. It feels lighter.”
He acknowledged, however, that his outsider status may have been the source of some resistance. “My neighborhood in Houston is a lot like this, almost Third World,” Hodge says. “I came here to give, not take.”
In that spirit, he inscribed a simple text mural on the side of the building next door. It reads: “The People Are The Light.”
As the turn of the century approached and the streetcars started running more frequently, Homewood’s population grew. By 1910, 30,000 people—including upper middle-class African-American families, as well as Irish, Italian, and German workers—called it home.
Life was good in Homewood. And nowhere was that more evident than at Mystery Manor. Although built in the late 1890s, it wasn’t until William “Woogie” Harris, local numbers baron and key financier for minority-owned businesses, bought it in the 1930s that the mansion at 7101 Apple Street truly found its rhythm.
It was at the center of Pittsburgh’s black society and culture, the backdrop for all-night parties, and at a time when black Americans were barred from most public lodging, it was where famous athletes like Roberto Clemente and celebrities like Lena Horne would stay. It was also where Mary Cardwell Dawson (known as Madam Cardwell) established the National Negro Opera Company.
Madam Cardwell held court on the third floor, auditioning and rehearsing performers in anticipation of the opera company’s inaugural production of Aida, which would be held at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque in October 1941.
This fall, for Wormsley, the present tense was spoken by the 10 female contributors who led workshops and discussion groups on topics ranging from black makers to restorative writing, from singing to yoga and meditation.
“All the women are from and/or work in Homewood and have a relationship with the neighborhood,” Wormsley says. “They represent the well-rounded kind of support that is very fluid in African-American culture. They are all of the pieces of what a black woman does every day. It’s really about self-care.”
Classically trained vocalist Wingfield agrees. “There is a great tradition of black music in America. Whether it’s hip hop, jazz, gospel, blues or field shouts, it’s a way of communing and building community.”
In her workshop “Sirens,” held at the House of Manna on Frankstown Avenue, Wingfield encouraged everyone to find their voice—to sing as a means of coping. “In many neighborhoods,” she says, “the only conversation is about violence. Having us all sing together—to improvise—was the highest activation of the space.”
Bekezela Mguni is a self-described radical librarian. She brought her Black Unicorn Mobile Library to The Beauty Box. Focusing exclusively on black women authors, she asserts that books are “tokens, small shrines.”
“We are constantly being erased, told our voices don’t matter,” says Mguni. “We are pushing back against the invisibility. It’s easy for some people to look at a community and disregard it,” she adds. “We live, work, and struggle here. Books open the portals, the passageways. They serve as the catalyst to ideas and thoughts.”
Nisha Blackwell’s idea to make and sell bow ties wasn’t an isolated thought; it was formed and nurtured by those around her—her community. “I grew up in my grandfather’s house in Homewood,” she says. “I’m still here. I walk two blocks to my studio. My business is rooted in my upbringing. I have a huge support system here.”
Her business is Knotzland, bow ties that are handmade from reclaimed fabrics and textiles. Her workshop was about making things—an area in which women, particularly black women, are underrepresented.
Perhaps that’s why Blackwell’s bow ties make more than just a fashion statement. “They’re about sustainability, the environment, and community,” she says.
That sense of community was a common theme. “Black women find each other, they discover each other,” Mguni says. “If black women are free, everyone will be.”
In the 1950s things started to change in Homewood, and not for the better. The city’s plans to build an arena in the Lower Hill District displaced some 8,000 residents. As many of those people—mostly black residents, many of them poor—moved to Homewood, many whites moved out.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, like many black neighborhoods around the country, Homewood was engulfed in riots. Businesses were burned and looted—and never rebuilt. The impact of the passing of the Civil Rights Act was not as immediate, but was just as profound. Guaranteeing the right of blacks to live wherever they chose, many middle-class blacks in Homewood left for newer homes with larger yards in the eastern suburbs of Penn Hills and Monroeville. A decade of white flight was followed by black flight. According to a 2011 study by the University of Pittsburgh’s Program in Urban and Regional Analysis, 45 percent of all available properties in Homewood are empty and nearly 30 percent of all residential homes are vacant.
In its prime, Homewood boasted a population of more than 34,000. In 2010, it had dropped to less than 7,000. Unlike its history, which was dynamic and diverse, the community’s recovery has been slow and far from fully realized.
Today, the Mystery Manor is boarded up and falling down. “To see the condition of this house,” Wingfield reflects, “to see the large disinvestment in the property over time, is sad.”As Wormsley set the scene, checked the lighting, and grabbed her camera, Wingfield started to sing.
Deep river, my home is over Jordan.
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
“That song in that moment was in my brain and on my heart,” Wingfield says. “For me, it was a thank you to those who were so brave and innovative even though their legacy is much forgotten now. I hope it was well-received.”
Parked in the lot adjacent to the House of Manna church was a meditation space created by soundscapist Ricardo Robinson. Since its arrival, the church’s minister would seek out its relative silence every Sunday morning before giving his sermon.
That’s exactly how Robinson envisioned this time machine he called Morrow’s Hush working. Essentially, he converted a storage pod into a space for reflection, a place where people could sit and contemplate the future and see themselves in it.
“I could have gone with something sonic,” Robinson says, “but I wanted people to be able to listen to themselves, to have a moment to restore themselves.
“It’s still a war zone.”
Homewood, it seems, is unable to escape the reality of news headlines, but that’s not the only reality that exists.
As Wormsley notes, “There are black people in the future.” The irony, she says, is that in some ways the future is looking more like the past.
“When I was kid,” she says, “the future was sci-fi, all silver, and filled with buttons and technology. Now that we have technology, the future looks more rural and green with urban farms and gardens.”
Wherever the past, present, and future meet, Wormsley sees this most recent project as a new beginning for her and Homewood.
“People told me they hadn’t been on Hamilton Street in 30 years,” she says. “Robert [Hodge] and I would love to buy the fruit stand lot and turn it into a maker space.
“There were so many pieces and people involved,” Wormsley says. “It’s been a learning process. But it feels like we’re just getting started.”
Support for the Hillman Photography Initiative is provided by the William T. Hillman Foundation and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation.
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