A new day is dawning for New Granada Theater


Sooner than you think, thousands of people in the Hill District and beyond will be enjoying the brand new performance spaces, small businesses and overall vitality of the New Granada Theater and its surroundings along Centre Avenue, called New Granada Square. Walking into the New Granada will be as normal as heading to the grocery store.


But to put into words the time, effort and finances it has taken to start the restoration process of the New Granada back to its glory days of the early and mid-1950s, might take up this entire newspaper. Like a lot of people in the ‘90s, Marimba Milliones, the longtime president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation (Hill CDC), didn’t have it in her mind originally to restore the historic theater, designed by Black architect Louis Bellinger, which played host to the legends; Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and countless others. Milliones was the first web developer for the City of Pittsburgh, when the Internet was in its infancy.


In the late ‘90s, Milliones decided to have a meeting with the former Hill CDC leader Elbert Hatley. She had an idea to give African Americans in the Hill District and elsewhere a place to come to train on web coding, which is a highly-paid profession.

“I was super green and super young,” Milliones recalled, “and I didn’t know I was being cultivated for volunteer work. So, I walked in pitching to him (Hatley) and I walked out on his list of people he was going to recruit to the (Hill CDC) board.”

As part of their conversations, Milliones said she remembered Hatley wanting to raise money to save the New Granada Theater. “He thought we should save that building,” Milliones said, “and he was the one who planted that seed in my heart to carry that struggle forward.”

Fast forward more than 20 years later, and here we are. In the year 2023, May 25 to be exact, the hard hats and shovels were out in front of the New Granada Theater, symbolizing the official groundbreaking to the restoration of the historic building that means so much to African Americans, means so much to Pittsburgh.

It took more than 7,300 days of fighting ferociously for the funding, the capital for the project. More than 7,300 days of being told “No,” “Yes,” “Maybe,” “Not right now,” “Why are you doing this?” and more. More than 7,300 days of hearing from longtime Hill District African Americans, telling Milliones to keep pushing forward.

About 100 people celebrated the milestone on a sunny Thursday afternoon, hugs and handshakes abound, knowing that the endless fighting for the tens of millions of dollars needed for the project had been secured, and it was time to “get to gettin’.”

Jake Wheatley

“I want to lift up Marimba and the Hill CDC and all of their boards for years of fighting, scratching, working hard to try to make this a reality,” voiced Jake Wheatley, Mayor Ed Gainey’s Chief of Staff. Wheatley previously was the longtime state representative whose district included the Hill. In fact, Wheatley’s office, “The People’s Office,” was located, literally, steps from the New Granada.

“When we first started this, Marimba was on the board of the CDC…and Marimba would tell me that we needed to do something significant for this community, we gotta save this building because it was on the demolition list, the roof was caving in, it was left abandoned…and I looked at Marimba and said, ‘What do you want me to do?’”

The crowd laughed at that remark, because the crowd already knew that everything turned out alright.

“She (Milliones) was able to leverage the money we were able to bring in from the state to some foundations (in Pittsburgh) who were willing to invest in a dream to save a building,” Wheatley said during the May 25 groundbreaking event. “This wasn’t yesterday, this wasn’t last year, we’re talking almost 20 years ago. She’s been fighting this fight for almost 20 years. She’s taken ‘L’s’ (losses), she’s taken personal attacks, she’s been criticized for being selfish, singularly focused and without community support, but I’m going to tell you all in front of her how great of a champion she’s been to see this vision through.”

A highlight of the New Granada Theater will be the University of Pittsburgh as its anchor tenant. Pitt’s Hill District Community Engagement Center will be housed on the top floor, featuring a STEAM studio, which will offer programming around science, technology, engineering, arts and math. There will also be programming for Pitt’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics.

Next to the New Granada Theater will be 5,000 square feet of retail space, so expect many small businesses, cafes and eateries, all under the “New Granada Square” moniker.

Bill Generett Jr.

Bill Generett Jr., Senior Vice President of Civic Engagement and External Relations for Duquesne University and Chair of the Capital Campaign Committee, said that he “didn’t know a leader who is more intelligent than Marimba.” He also called Milliones “fearless. There were walls pushed in front of her; Marimba didn’t care because she goes through walls.”

Generett wasn’t done. He said Milliones was resilient and was in it for the long haul. “In today’s society, people think you can get (major) things done in a 3-to-5-year cycle; Marimba has been at this for 20-plus years and it’s a true testament to who she is as a leader.”

Seventeen funders and partners came together to raise the $36 million in funding for the initial phase of the New Granada Square development, according to the Hill CDC. A separate group of funders collaborated on the $16.5 million for the New Granada Square Apartment building, which is already built and fully occupied on Centre. Some organizations were part of the funding for both the apartments and the theater.

Milliones, in her remarks, reiterated that it wasn’t just her and the Hill CDC that wanted to save the New Granada Theater. Hundreds of Hill District residents wanted it saved, in concert with the revitalization of Centre Avenue as a whole. But, with a chuckle, she also said she didn’t know it would take two decades to see the change.

“If I had known then what I know now, I would not have accepted the duty or the responsibility,” Milliones said, “because (the responsibility) has been tremendous and quite frankly, it has changed the trajectory of my life unexpectedly and unplanned for.”

However, Milliones said, recalling the conversations more than 20 years ago with Elbert Hatley: “The thing that stands out to me about that moment, is that it is our duty to carry forth the work of prior generations…at the end of the day, if we are not preserving the culture, what are we really doing?”




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