1839 Wylie Avenue

Our Green Playces are meant to be havens for youth and their community – spaces where kids (and adults!) can connect to their environment in meaningful ways, discovering themselves and their place in the world. That’s why we’re thrilled and honored to be working with the Hill District community on a Green Playce at 1839 Wylie Avenue.

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What’s at 1839 Wylie Avenue? Some might say “not much” – it’s a hilly green space behind what is now the Grayson Center. But looks can be deceiving, and those who know the history of the Hill know that 1839 is an extraordinary place indeed. Thanks to the masterful pen of August Wilson, this otherwise vacant space was transformed into a mythical center for the community – the home of Aunt Ester.

The very first line of dialogue in Wilson’s Pulitzer prize winning American Century Cycle tells us “This is a peaceful house.” The cycle ends with a character picking up a paintbrush to restore the aging building, after it was nearly demolished for the sake of “development.”

Harmond, the developer turned preservationist who picked up the brush at the end of Radio Golf, describes the house as follows:

It’s a Federalist brick house with a good double-base foundation. I couldn’t believe it. It has beveled glass on every floor. There’s a huge stained-glass window leading up to the landing. And the staircase is made of Brazilian wood with a hand-carved balustrade…You should feel the woodwork. If you run your hand slow over some of the wood you can make out these carvings. There’s faces. Lines making letters. An old language. And there’s this smell in the air…The air in the house smells sweet like a new day.

Throughout the play cycle, characters visited the house to speak with Aunt Ester, a mythically old wise-woman, to ask questions and to discover answers about who they were and where they came from. It’s perhaps no coincidence that “Aunt Ester” slips easily into “ancestor.” Nor is it a coincidence that August chose 1839 for her home’s address – 1839 was the year of the Amistad Slave Revolt. For August and his play’s characters, Aunt Ester, who reportedly died at the age of 366 in the 1980s, was a literal connection to the traumatic but essential history of the Hill District and its African American inhabitants. In this way, Aunt Ester and her house were and are a foundation for all of the plays’ people and places.

Of course, in reality, Aunt Ester and her house never existed, though the space has been significant in the real history of the Hill as well. Early on, it was the front of St. Brigid’s Church, which was torn down 1961. August attended this church in his childhood, taken there by well-known neighborhood caretaker Miss Sarah Degree (whose name shows up in August’s works as well). For the latter part of the 20th century, it stood outside Ozanam Cultural Center, a community facility famed for its Basketball League which, though no longer there, retains its legacy “in the NCAA and NBA champions, Olympic gold medalists, NFL players, doctors, lawyers, social workers and average men and women it produced.”

With so much history in one place, we are working diligently to make sure that our Green Playce comes to fruition in the spirit of Aunt Ester, who tells us “You got to plan better. I told you the key is to plan. You plan right you can unlock any door.” With this in mind, we ask that anyone with an interest in 1839 Wylie Avenue share their stories and ideas for a space that we hope will remain a strong foundation for the community, especially its youth, for years to come.  And of course, keep an eye out for many other August Wilson related developments happening this year in the Hill District, from the reopening of August Wilson Park (formerly Cliffside) to the restoration of August Wilson’s childhood home, to the new film of Fences, directed by Denzel Washington and filmed in the Hill.

Please feel free to reach out to g.white@gtechstrategies.org with your thoughts and ideas as we plan the space.

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