Historic Preservation and the Erasure of Women's History in PittsburghRoundup
tags: historic preservation, urban history, Pittsburgh, womens history
There is a historic house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Anna Tito Mecca Zizza lived for almost 30 years. She cooked family dinners there and helped raise the children of her large extended family inside its walls and in its yard. Anna grew old inside the house, and she died there after resisting pleas from family members to move as the neighborhood changed and disinvestment and decay settled in all around her.
I have studied and written about erasure for the past decade. Some of my work has appeared in history and geography blogs and some of it has been published in book chapters and in academic journals. One thread running through all of my earlier work is that the erasures began before I had a chance to begin observing them: Black and LGBTQ history in Decatur, Georgia; a rural Black enclave in Maryland; and Black history and white supremacy in Silver Spring, Maryland. My recent work on nominating Anna Tito Mecca Zizza’s house as a City of Pittsburgh historic landmark nomination gave me a front row seat to observe multiple erasures playing out in real time. This post focuses on one erasure that I could not have anticipated when I began the project: the erasure of women’s history and Anna Tito Mecca Zizza.
Erasure is an intentional act rendering invisible people and their contributions to history. It happens by omitting peoples’ stories from histories and historic preservation documents. Historic preservation is frequently implicated in erasure by the stories preservationists choose to tell about the built environment and the buildings, sites, and objects preservationists intentionally select for designation as local historic sites or national recognition (i.e., listing in the National Register of Historic Places). The stories and sites omitted tend to be those associated with people of African and Asian descent, Native Americans, Latinos, women, and other marginalized people.
Resistance to erasure itself has a history in historic preservation. Early calls for more inclusion and diversity in the stories told, places preserved, and people doing preservation date to the 1980s. As historically marginalized groups began exerting more agency in historic preservation, professional practices began shifting away from fetishizing pretty old buildings associated with wealthy white people (mostly men) to more values- and people-centered approaches to preservation. Since about 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the nation’s flagship historic preservation advocacy organization, has been imploring people to “tell the full American story.”
Joe Tito and Pittsburgh’s Vice Business
Joe Tito was a bootlegger and numbers gambling banker who accumulated substantial wealth within the first two years under Prohibition. In 1922 Tito bought a fashionable brick Victorian home in Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood at the foot of the city’s storied Hill District. The Hill was Pittsburgh’s dense early twentieth-century neighborhood where Eastern and Southern European immigrants lived and worked alongside Black migrants from the Deep South. By midcentury, one intersection and the Hill itself had been dubbed the “Crossroads of the World” for its rich cultural diversity.
Like similar neighborhoods in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, vibrant informal economies flourished in this emerging ghetto space created by anti-Black racism, antisemitism, and general xenophobia. These economies enabled savvy entrepreneurs to establish successful bootlegging and gambling rackets. Some of them became wealthy and legendary figures in Pittsburgh history. The rackets, notably numbers gambling, offered economically disadvantaged and stigmatized people opportunities to make money through a big numbers “hit.” The racketeers themselves were part of an essential social safety net in these neighborhoods by providing jobs for thousands of men and women, loans to build businesses and buy homes, and philanthropy.
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