John Brewer, Jr. // Historian, Owner of The Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum
The Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum has a long and varied use history. It started its life as one of four large buildings used to service the many trollies with which Pittsburgh streets were once lined and crossed. "It was the shady side of the street for blocks." John Brewer Jr. told me—pointing out where we were in a large photograph illuminated by a light box. Thus began out chat for over an hour about Homewood, the Coliseum, and black history here in Pittsburgh.
Walking into the space where Mr. Brewer holds court, the room is really a gallery of countless framed images featuring the city, the people who lived in it, and some major historical figures who spent some time here. Brewer has spent decades collecting photographs, including images from the original Pittsburgh Courier. He tells the story of finding what was once believed to be a lost archive, in the crawl space behind some Christmas ornaments.
What struck me about this conversation was how short our memories are as human beings. Looking over the images John flipped though, I saw so many people living so many different lives across more than a century. When we think of the past, many of us think about this big stuff—the huge events that become the small planets we revolve our attention around. John has some of those images, (see the picture of Rosa Parks). He also has a picture of three young black women sitting in a shiny new convertible in the 1950s—all smilies and period appropriate hairdos. He has images of kids playing outside, of black and brown families smiling for family portraits. He has pictures of lives lived in Pittsburgh that weren't obvious to you but they mattered because everyone that came before us paved our place in the spaces we inhabit today.
When I posted about this conversation some wondered why they never heard of the GPC before. It was pointed out in the comments that if you didn't spend time in Homewood or weren't invited to an event at the space then you might not be aware of it.
It illustrates the rifts, territorial barriers, and neighborhood lines that were and continue to be drawn here in Pittsburgh. However we forget with our short memories how those seemly bolded lines are blurred and shifted. That's not an indictment against anyone, just something to keep in mind. A week before this was recorded, there was a 400 person wedding that took place in that space. Since this chat, concerts and other activities have taken place there. It begs the question, "Did you not know because you never thought to look?"
That's the theme of this conversation. There is so much to learn but we have to be willing to ask. John receives images from people who found family heirlooms only to discover a fascinating history associated with them. He has made a carrier collecting, curating, and writing about these lives. He has worked with the Smithsonian and the Carnegie Museum of Art to bring life to images whose stories would otherwise be forgotten. It was beyond a pleasure to meet and talk with him. Please enjoy our conversation and
John Brewer Jr. on the Internet
Thank you to my lovely friend Tom Hughes for introducing me to John. Keep adding people to your list for me!
All images posted with permission from John Brewer Jr.