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Possible legal battle brewing over Pittsburgh Soul Food Festival

Possible legal battle brewing over soul food festival in Downtown Pittsburgh
Possible legal battle brewing over soul food festival in Downtown Pittsburgh 02:54

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — A legal battle may be brewing over the Pittsburgh Soul Food Festival.

The festival is held in Downtown Pittsburgh during Labor Day weekend, but the organizer, William "B" Marshall, said he was told he can't have it at PPG Plaza next year.

Since 2019, thousands have visited the annual Pittsburgh Soul Food Festival from the Boulevard of the Allies through PPG Plaza down to Market Square. It's a celebration of Black culture in a symbolic place.

"We consider Third Avenue to be a historical location, which is right here in this plaza, for Black people. And it's been designated as Pittsburgh's Black Wall Street. So, it's very important to us."

Now, the festival's organizer and his civil rights attorney are fighting back against the owner of PPG Plaza, Highwoods Properties.

"It's been the same complaints since 2022," Marshall said. "They've been complaining about our noise and our customers and our attendees."

Marshall said Highwoods Properties is demanding the move after an altercation between customers that ended in arrests, as well as a man with a concealed weapon threatening people.

There were also noise complaints and logistical concerns like parking, but Marshall calls it racial discrimination.

"When a person tells you that they don't like your music or the bass sounds or things of that nature, for African American people we know that's a code for our culture and our people," he said. 

Marshall's attorney, Alexa Gervasi, said she reviewed the company's communications with her client and compared the festival's footprint with other events in PPG Plaza. She believes there could be no explanation for the company's decision other than racial bias.

"We won't allow any private company to bully or racially discriminate or kick people out or violate the laws of the United States," Gervasi said. "And so if necessary, we will pursue this to the courts and we will ask the courts to step in and enforce the laws of the land."

KDKA-TV reached out to Highwoods to learn more. The executive vice president and general counsel sent back a statement that said, in part:

"While we are pleased to have permitted the annual Soul Food Festival over the past three years and support its mission of celebrating African American food businesses and entrepreneurs, we have shared with Mr. Marshall our concerns around the 2023 event.

"Given the community's embrace of PPG Plaza as one of downtown Pittsburgh's crown jewels, we are planning to implement more defined use, safety and clean-up requirements applicable to all users of the Plaza starting in 2024.  We are happy to host future Soul Food Festivals and other community-wide events provided the sponsors pay all applicable fees and expenses and ensure appropriate security to maintain a safe environment for all users of PPG Place, prevent property damage and take responsibility for clean-up immediately after conclusion of the event."

Marshall and his lawyer gave Highwoods Properties until Dec. 15 to change its decision. If not, they'll sue.

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