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MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We end our program with one more Pennsylvania story, this one from the Hill District in Pittsburgh. That's the neighborhood made famous by the late playwright August Wilson. He set his critically acclaimed plays there, illuminating the African-American experience over the course of a century, and the lives of the people in that community. We have this essay from Wilson's nephew, Paul Ellis Jr., who is now fighting to preserve the place in the Hill District that Wilson called home.
Mr. PAUL ELLIS JR. (Nephew, August Wilson): I remember it like it was yesterday. The look on my uncle's face when I told him I bought the house he grew up in. We were in Connecticut at a cafe near Yale Repertory Theater. I tried to catch him off guard and waited until he took a bite of his sandwich. And I said how would you feel knowing that your nephew owns your childhood home? He started grinning and when he finished chewing he said matter of factly, how'd that happen, man?
In hindsight it was sheer destiny. Most of the credit belongs to my mom, Freda Ellis, August Wilson's sister. My mom knew that I had been trying to buy the building from the prior owner for three years. As fate would have it, he lost the building to foreclosure. My mom found out when she happened to drive past the building and talk to the real estate agent she spotted outside. He told her that the house would be for sale soon. My mom put me in touch with him. We met, we talked, and a few weeks later, we closed the deal.
I waited months to inform my uncle so I could tell him in person. When I did, he nodded approvingly with a sort of grudging admiration. He had been interested in buying the home himself, but my uncle wasn't satisfied to know that I had bought the house. What really mattered to him was what I planned to do with it. He had spent a great deal of time chronicling and fighting to protect the cultural integrity of the Hill District. And we used to have long talks about gentrification and destructive redevelopment in black neighborhoods. My uncle's childhood home and the building attached to it, which I also own, were built in the late 1800s. The property housed a community store when my uncle lived there called Bella's Market, and long time residents remember when their grandparents and great-grandparents used to shop there. But when I visited the property a few years ago, it had become a rundown convenience store that sold little more than penny candy and cigarettes. Some of the adults in the neighborhood told me they refuse to shop there because they didn't like having to wade through groups of kids loitering in front of the store, and in their words, the store don't got nothing. It was disheartening, and that's when I decided that I had to have the property, not just for my uncle, but for the good of the neighborhood.
Now, all eyes are on me. I literally don't have room to fail. Residents of the Hill District are used to black landmarks being destroyed and the properties that I bought are the only ones for blocks that are still in dire need of repair. For the community, the renovation would mean a certain victory. A significant African-American landmark in their neighborhood will have survived gentrification, and one of their own will have been rightfully honored.
For me, it means giving back to the community, and showing residents the benefits of perseverance. And lastly, for my late uncle August Wilson, renovation of his childhood home would mean that the life lessons and cultural history reflected in his plays would have passage through an actual physical structure, ensuring a point of cultural pride for residents for generations to come.
MARTIN: Paul Ellis Jr. is an attorney in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For a picture of August Wilson's childhood home, please go to our website, npr.org/tellmemore.
And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.