Home to such historic sites as the National Register listed Crawford Grill No. 2 and playwright, Pittsburgh’s Hill District was long known as the “Crossroads of the World” because many European migrants and Southern Blacks settled there.
My current project involves researching numbers gambling in Pittsburgh, and on a cold January morning I was photographing a home on the Hill once owned by one of the city’s first Black American numbers bankers, William Snyder, when the current owner of the property pulled into their driveway. This resulting conversation not only enhanced my understanding of the property and its history, but also the encounter became the basis for a group assignment for my seminar on ethnography and community engagement in Goucher College’s graduate historic preservation program. This exercise challenged my students to reconsider the ways in which preservationists work to tell all the layers of stories in the work they do the save places.
My seminar is designed to expose new historic preservation professionals to the ethnographer’s tool kit: oral history, qualitative research, and storytelling. Drawing on current trends in historic preservation practice, I teach my students to speak early and often with the people in the communities where they are working. should be the cornerstones of all their research, from project design to the years after survey reports, preservation plans, and designation documents are completed.
The group exercise that I assigned involved giving the class a packet of information typical in the regulatory compliance world of cultural resource management: some exterior photos and a few maps contextualizing the property. I then asked them to tell me everything they could about the property from the “windshield survey” data they had available. I also asked them to tell me if they thought the building might be historic, i.e., if it might meet one or more of the National Register of Historic Places Criteria for Evaluation or any number of generalized local designation criteria.
My students described the home as a “[two]-story single-family Craftsman-style bungalow with a side-gable roof,” likely eligible for listing in local and national registers as a contributing element to a historic district. “This historic district could be significant for its Interwar development and construction,” they wrote.
They noted that more information would be required to construct a defensible historical significance statement:
We need to know the address. Importantly, some historical background needs to be available to conduct a proper historic context. This context would help shape the statement of significance for the property (or properties) and the period of significance. The above mention of an Interwar Period significance is based on speculation that was driven by the architectural description, which was based on the photos and maps.
They did as well as might be expected with the information available, and without the previous owners’ names. Snyder (c. 1897-1984) bought the home in 1928 and lived there for eight years during one of the most consequential periods in Pittsburgh’s organized crime history. He, along with Gus Greenlee (who later owned the Crawford Grill No. 2 building), William “Woogie” Harris (who owned the recently named one of the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places), and Dick Gauffney established Pittsburgh’s earliest numbers rings.
By the Numbers
Numbers is a daily game like a lottery. People bet small amounts of money—a nickel, a dime, or quarter— and then guess each day’s three-digit number derived from stock market returns reported in newspapers. Introduced by Black Americans in Harlem during the first decade of the 20th century, numbers gambling rapidly spread to cities and rural communities throughout the nation. Pullman porters, musicians, baseball players, and itinerant laborers brought the game to Black neighborhoods like the Hill District.
By 1930, white immigrants, mainly Eastern European Jews and Italians, began displacing Black Americans from their leadership positions in urban gambling rackets. One summer day in 1930, an unusually large number of people in Pittsburgh bet on a single number: 805 [PDF]. Many “bankers” were unable to pay, most of them white racketeers. Legends circulated throughout the city that Greenlee and Harris were the only two bankers honoring the bets placed August 5, 1930.
Snyder was part of the Greenlee and Harris rackets, though no records survive to document the precise nature of their arrangements. During the eight years that Snyder lived in the bungalow, it was both his home and his bank—even on the day 805 hit. Criminal court records and other documents outline his time there. Though useful, when combined with preservationists’ empirical impressions drawn from the property’s exterior, we may be left with an incomplete story.
He, along with Greenlee and Harris, were among a few Black numbers racketeers who quickly accumulated enough money in the 1920s to buy single family homes away from the crowded tenements in the Hill District’s core. Snyder’s neighbors between 1928 and 1936 included merchants, pharmacists, writers, and prominent church pastors. He had leveraged his gambling revenues to become part of Pittsburgh’s small but important Black middle class.
My conversation with the current owner of Snyder’s former home yielded a key clue to his time there. According to the owner—who wants to remain anonymous and who asked me to not disclose the home’s exact location—there was a large safe in the basement when she and her husband bought the home in 2005. It fit a description that noted Pittsburgh Courier photographer Teenie Harris, Woogie’s younger brother, provided to a University of Pittsburgh historian. “My brother, he had 2 safes in the cellar,” he told historian Rob Ruck in a 1981 oral history interview. “He kept a lot of his money in there.”
Past and Present Intersect
But there is more to the house and its story than an old safe that belonged to a pioneering racketeer. In recent years, real estate speculators have set their sights on the Hill District. Gentrification is occurring in mostly vacant blocks with deteriorating buildings as well as in redeveloped public housing sites, and in quiet single-family residential areas like the street where William Snyder used to live.
Before we spoke about the safe, the current owner asked me a question that I have gotten in gentrifying neighborhoods in Atlanta and Decatur, Georgia; Washington, D.C.; and, in Pittsburgh. Was I there taking pictures because I was planning to buy some property?
“When I saw you, I just thought, ‘Oh, he’s just somebody looking, scoping the neighborhood,’” the woman explained in a phone interview afterwards. “I mean we get letters in the mail from people I’ve never met saying, ‘Hey, we want to buy your house.’”
The unsolicited letters, phone calls, and even visits are commonplace in gentrifying neighborhoods across the United States. I have collected examples from Georgia and the District of Columbia. Most people simply toss them. Some take the flippers up on their offers. Yet, everyone I have interviewed in my work views them as an ugly reminder that powerful and unrelenting displacement forces have now arrived at their doors.
“We live here. This is our home,” the woman said. “We have nowhere to go.”
Gentrification and displacement can derail families from building intergenerational wealth that has long been denied to Pittsburgh’s Black residents. The woman who owns the numbers racketeer’s home recognizes that.
“This is a hot area, up and coming, and so there are investors buying up houses, she told me. “Some are just buying houses and just flipping them. They’re flipping them and selling them.”
An investor owns the home next door and rents it out.
Yet, she fiercely clings to the wealth she and her husband have built for their family. “My hope is to pass this home down. Growing up, we’ve never owned property,” she said. “My mom was the first of her family to own a home.”
I asked the current owner how the safe and William Snyder influence her attachment to the house. “It’s now part of our history, right,” she said.
Snyder and his safe make the house even more special. “It makes it more interesting,” she told me. “It’s just really interesting that a lot of the things I’ve touched, that person probably touched, walked the halls, things like that.”
In my class, we take a people—and values—centered approach to historic preservation. It is built into the Goucher preservation program. The numbers banker house and its safe provided us with a perfect opportunity to explore the importance of speaking with people in the communities where we work instead of simply going in, taking pictures and notes, and then leaving to complete our survey reports and designation documents.
Our discussion of the house and its story brought together several converging issues in historic preservation, not the least of which is telling the full story about the Black experience in American communities. Snyder’s former house doesn’t fit well within universe of expected Black history sites in Pittsburgh. It isn’t a jazz club, a church, or a famous writer’s home.
The house represents the city’s significant Black middle class and its diversity—from real original gangsters to doctors, shopkeepers, and the clergy. Situated in gentrifying space, the house also gave my students an opportunity to understand how they (all white) might be perceived in similar spaces once they begin their careers, and the impacts they may have on the people they meet.
Because I’ve written about Snyder’s former home twice now, I’ll be looking for a new group assignment for next year’s seminar. That chance encounter in January, though, will have an enduring impact on the current homeowner, my students, and Pittsburgh’s history.
David Rotenstein is a public historian and folklorist living in Pittsburgh. He teaches ethnography and community engagement in Goucher College’s Master’s in Historic Preservation program and he writes on industrial history, gentrification, and race. He last wrote for the Forum in 2018 about oral history and a historic bridge.