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Tuesday

Visions of Hilltop Dance Through My Head...

If you are from Pittsburgh, PA specifically the Homewood area, then you know about Hilltop. But if you don't, keep reading because some of the things that I will talk about apply to just about any hood anywhere in the United States and beyond.

I had long forgot about Hilltop, a project comprised of African Americans who stayed in small single homes arranged in courts. There was Mohler Court, Nolan Court and others. The project was called, "Hilltop" because it sat on a steep hill. There were row houses with small front and back yards that sat on that hill. All the homes had upstairs and downstairs. If you had a large family, you stayed in the larger homes that had as many as four bedrooms.

The hill was a beast to walk or drive especially in the snow, because it was so steep similar to a long staircase that got higher and higher the more you climbed it. I recalled jitney drivers (an unlicensed cab service that primarily served blacks because of racial disharmony and prejudice) never making it to the top of the hill to pick up their clients due to the ice and snow. Sometimes city workers couldn't care less about hilltop and wouldn't bring the snow trucks out to take care of the roads up on the hill.

Back in the 1980s, I was about 10 years old when I began to really notice the differences between the black ghetto and the black elite. I had been visiting my grandma in those projects since I was a baby. She always kept her place clean. When you walked into her home, you were already upstairs where three bedrooms faced the entrance door and a bathroom that was around the corner to the right. Grandma had a long plastic runner for your feet. You wasn't going to mess up her carpet! If you turned right from the entrance, there was a short staircase that led down into the living room and just off of that was the dining room. A small kitchen was around the corner and to the back was a laundry room. In the living room was a back door that would let you out into the yard.

I didn't know that Hilltop was designed for poor black folks. To me, everything seemed normal at least during the daylight hours when many people were gone off to work. However, evening would come and let the games begin! I remember an incident where a woman ran down the street after being beaten by her man who carried a knife in his hand. I recall a time when "someone was shooting" a friend of grandma's reported. There were plenty of stories of robbery and smells of "reefer" also known as weed and marijuana that filled the air. Folks in those projects loved their music, car and clothes. They would turn the bass up on a "jam" and sit outside showing off. If some weren't smoking and cussing, others were peeping through the window "being nosy" some of my relatives would say. I saw my share of babies walking around with full diapers, messy faces and no shoes too! They seemed to be happy and no one would bother them. Every now and then you would hear someone say, "Go ahead on in that house with your mama!" There were mamas alright short, fat, skinny and tall, but many had no daddies staying with them just the occasional "boyfriend." Most of these mamas had attitudes and was ready to beat a child if they "didn't mind!" I was the child told to "stay in front of the door." That meant there was no roaming around like the other kids. I barely had room on that short sidewalk to jump rope and grandma wouldn't let us play on her grass. "It cost money to plant grass...kids is hard on grass," she would say. She had a small fence on both sides surrounding her little yard. Sometimes the neighborhood kids would fall into the wire fence and bend it, "You can't keep nothing around here! When you get something nice they want to mess it up!" she would say.

There were good times on Hilltop. I got to meet all sorts of people, because Grandma was selling snacks out of her home. She had icy cups, gum, candy, dinner plates, ice cream cones, pop, and other edible things she would sell to the community. I would take the customer's money and put it in a peanut jar. Then help grandma take the items up to the people. Poor people lived in the projects, but I couldn't tell. Some of those nice cars that I would see, wardrobes and hairstyles said something different. I was a child, so I didn't know about illegal hustles. All I knew was that some of these folks didn't look poor. There were roaches in some of those homes and they would spread like wildfire! You knew when someone new moved in next door who had roaches, because suddenly you were seeing them in the bathroom and your kitchen! I recall seeing a red pump under the bathroom sink. I thought it was an air pump and proceeded to use it, until I saw a small smoke cloud come out. It was roach spray! I got in trouble for messing with it.

While visiting grandma on Hilltop all those years is what grounded me young. My parents had distanced themselves from the hood, before my sister and I were born, and moved out into the suburbs to give us children a life they didn't have growing up. So when I wasn't visiting grandma in the projects on weekends, I attended private school through the week.

The ghetto and the elite world were so very different.

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