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Lifestyle
How the South Side got its groove back

The city neighborhood owes its renaissance to a successful melding of the old guard and the avant-garde.

Sunday, July 07, 2002

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Bobby Pessolano thought he had found his place.

South Side residents thought he had lost his mind.

Why, they wondered in 1982, would anyone invest money to transform an East Carson Street storefront, one that had seen much better days, into an upscale tavern and restaurant?

East Carson Street today bears little resemblance to the East Carson of 20 years ago, when many storefronts were beaten down or boarded up. Today, its vacancy rate has dropped from 60 percent to 7 percent, with many one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants occupying Victorian buildings with historic designations. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photos)

Couldn't he see that more than half of the storefronts on East Carson were boarded up, that the South Side business district, a once-thriving marketplace supported by Eastern European steel and glass workers, was in its death throes, just as those industries were?

Pessolano, 25 at the time, saw all that and a whole lot more. With a background in the restaurant business, he saw the beauty that could be restored inside and outside the worn-down building, a place where he could create something unlike anything else on the South Side.

Ignoring the skeptics' snickers, Pessolano pressed on and opened Mario's South Side Saloon at 1514 East Carson.

Today, two decades hence, Mario's remains and no one's laughing at Pessolano or any of entrepreneurs who followed him in taking a gamble on the South Side.

Like the large artistic community that also settled there, they initially were attracted by quality but low-cost properties, subsequently spending $70 million in private money to develop their businesses.


 
 
Online Chart:
South Side demographics

   

 

In doing so, they and the nonprofit South Side Local Development Company (SSLDC) have transformed the neighborhood into a destination location for dining, entertainment, shopping and services in beautifully restored, historically designated Victorian buildings.

Most are one-of-a-kind establishments that cater to niche clientele, residents and visitors alike, ranging from the old guard to the avant-garde.

"We always say we have both kinds of blue hair," chuckled Carey A. Harris, executive director of the SSLDC, which likewise is celebrating its 20th year of historic preservation and economic revitalization there.

"We have seniors and the alternative lifestyle folks. We have young professionals, a large arts population [and] families."

On East Carson and its cross streets, beginning around 10th Street, on to the Birmingham Bridge and beyond, restaurants run the gamut from diners to fine dining. There are art galleries, coffeehouses and music venues. It's the kind of place where shot-and-beer watering holes mix easily with martini bars, where one can enjoy City Theatre performances and cutting-edge performance art.

There, you can find everything from expensive minimalist furniture to magic supplies, from high-priced luggage to studded collars, from vintage clothing to custom-embellished jeans.

Where else in this area can you find as many antiques stores -- four -- as tattoo parlors?

On a street where 20 years ago the vacancy rate was 60 percent, now fewer than 7 percent of the storefronts are empty. During that span, more than 125 facades were restored, 150 new businesses moved in, and 600 new jobs were created.

In short, the renaissance of the East Carson Street commercial district -- along with ongoing residential, retail and office development on the former LTV steel mill site that starts at 25th Street -- has made the South Side arguably the most eclectic, vibrant and diversified of the city's 88 neighborhoods.

"It's the houses on the Slopes and the Flats, our ethnic heritage," Harris said. "I think we're the one place in Pittsburgh that borders on being Bohemian. There are other really cool neighborhoods, but I think we might have that niche."

Pessolano, who went on to also develop Blue Lou's next to Mario's and Nick's Fat City across the street, insists he never foresaw what the South Side would become.

"I wish I could say I was smart enough to realize all of this would happen but I really wasn't," he said. "Not in my wildest dreams. All I wanted to do was survive."

New York state of mind

Under an azure sky and a brilliant sun, an elderly couple and teens with body piercings walk the sidewalks of East Carson. A Mercedes shares the road with Harleys and bicycles. Professionals, young couples pushing baby strollers and slackers pass each other. Not an eyebrow is raised.

At 1913 East Carson, the sweet smell of incense wafts through the open front door of Nick's Imports. Two young women in tank tops, shorts and sandals stop to peruse imported merchandise displayed on sidewalk tables -- everything from African drums to Ethiopian and Indian bags to sterling silver jewelry.

Nearby, owner Nizar Sandi, 31, wears a mustache, shorts and an infectious smile as he sits on a stool. A native of Morocco who married a Pittsburgher, he hawked imported wares at 17th Street for a few years before moving into the storefront in 2000.

"I love the South Side," he says, beaming. "It reminds me of home -- lots of people outside. I like that. It's historic, unique, ethnic, a variety of cultures. It's like a little New York."

Don't just take Sandi's word for that. Ask Jane Bettenelli, 21, whose family moved from Irwin to New York when she was 8. A New York University student, she recently visited relatives in North Huntingdon and took the opportunity to go bar-hopping on the South Side one night and shop on another day.

Side by side on the South Side: Dressed in leather, chains and spikes, Mark Dobosh, 18, of Clairton calls himself a "mutt" and says he often haunts East Carson Street, where his look gets plenty of attention but acceptance, too.

"I think it's really eclectic, fun, energized. It reminds me of the Village," as in Greenwich Village, she said, after buying some clothes at Pittsburgh Jeans Company, 2222 East Carson.

Or ask Tracy Brigden, who moved to Pittsburgh from Manhattan's West Village last summer to take the position of artistic director at the City Theatre, which is housed in a former church on South 13th.

Earlier this year, she was among 400 people -- new and old residents and business owners -- who attended a SSLDC- and PNC Bank-sponsored get-together for South Side newcomers. Appropriately, it was held in a former industrial building on Jane Street that has been converted into a working art studio, J. Verno Studios.

Brigden compared the neighborhood to chic Brooklyn locales such as Williamsburg and Cobble Hill as a tattooed woman with brightly dyed hair stood in the dessert line behind a Brooks Brothers-attired Web site designer. Nearby, a fellow with callused hands and work boots recommended the bruschetta to a musician sporting dreadlocks.

"I never thought I'd like anywhere as much as where I came from, but this is pretty close," Brigden said. "And this is coming from a snooty New Yorker."

Transformation

But it wasn't magic or luck that brought about this 20-year transformation of the South Side from has-been to hotspot.

It was a lot of hard work, urban planning and risky decisions that have turned out to be beneficial, said Harris, who has been in her job for five years and who praised the work and foresight of the community leaders who went before her.

One of the smartest decisions was pursuing national and later local historic designations for the Carson Street corridor.

"In 1983, we were one of the first urban demonstration projects for the National Trust for Historic Preservation," she said. "We carved out a [historic] niche for East Carson Street."

Such districts of historic buildings were usually done for smaller towns, not sections of large cities such as Pittsburgh, but the gamble paid off for the South Side, winning it national attention.

Then, in 1992, Carson Street became a city historic district, which sets standards for renovations of buildings. "Having standards protected people's investments," Harris said. It's also easily accessible from Oakland and Downtown, she noted.

Creation of the South Side Summer Street Spectacular, the third-largest festival in the city (after the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the regatta) has helped bring non-South Siders to the neighborhood. This year's festival starts tomorrow .

Another smart move was SSLDC's decision to build new residential units, mostly owner-occupied but including a Columbus, Ohio, developer's soon-to-start construction of 270 rental units at 25th and Carson.

 
 
Festival Preview

Coors Light South Side Summer Street Spectacular

Dates: Tomorrow through next Sunday, July 14.

Activities: Tomorrow through Wednesday, carnival and main food court only. At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the UPMC Parade officially opens the spectacular. Thursday through next Sunday, browse the Citizens Bank Sidewalk Sale. There will be a children's area, and, for those 21 and over, bands performing on the Coors Light Main Stage.

Details: http://www.southsidepgh.com.

Related article

South Side's added attractions: new housing taking shape

   
 

"We needed a diversity of incomes," Harris said, adding some higher-income newcomers to what had been lower-income longtime residents, who often were elderly.

A public financial subsidy was needed for the developments in the early 1990s in order to make the housing affordable and attract new residents, but now the area has become so popular that no subsidies are needed for housing, Harris said.

Growing pains

Traffic congestion, parking problems, large crowds and noise have at times over the past two decades sparked the ire of some longtime residents.

Harris said some friction is inevitable when a neighborhood's dynamic changes so dramatically because the burgeoning commercial district needs so many visitors to survive.

Bu the majority of residents "understand it was either progress or die. A lot more voice has been given to critics than what they really represent."

As in any popular locale, parking remains thorny. Particularly on weekends, finding a space is sometimes akin to searching for El Dorado.

"Not a year goes by we don't try to find a new way to tackle parking," Harris said, "but I think Pittsburghers have a certain expectation about how close they like to park. It does remain a challenge for us but I will say it's not keeping people away."

On another front, bar patrons using side streets and residents' yards as outdoor restrooms became so chronic in 1994 that residents and shop owners complained to police. The problem was alleviated when officers, on the orders of police brass, started charging violators with open lewdness -- a third-degree misdemeanor.

Likewise, noise problems seem to have dissipated. Virginia Carik, a resident for 55 years and an SSLDC board member, said she doesn't notice them any more.

That view was echoed by Scott Niederberger, 26, who rented on the South Side for two years before buying a South 14th Street house with his brother in 2000.

"It's a bad perception. People think there's a bunch of kids running around on the weekend but it's quiet for the most part," said Niederberger, a MetLife sales rep who works in Wexford.

Side by side

The "O's" in the sign for O'Leary's Donuts, 1421 East Carson, are shaped like -- what else? -- pink-glazed donuts. Inside on a recent sunny weekday afternoon three men sit inside at the counter and enjoy each other's company.

"It's a social thing," Joseph James Smith, 49, explains of his visits to the South Side from his Arlington Heights home. "I come down, get coffee, go to the bank, pay bills, stop in here."

"The South Side is a good place to relax," chimes in Nicholas Kapotas, 69, of White Oak, a retired teacher and football and wrestling coach at both Canon-McMillan and McKeesport high schools. "It's safe at night. People can walk the streets. Everything you want is right here."

"Freedom of choice," Smith agrees. "And there's lots of good people around. That's what makes it nice. It's like a melting pot."

That coming together can be found on the streets and in the businesses, such as the Carson Street Deli at 17th and East Carson. Customers who have noshed on corned beef, hummus, roasted peppers and other deli offerings have included professionals and punk rockers, little old ladies and Bruce Springsteen, pro athletes and bikers.

"It's just a good vibe," says owner Fred Shaheen, who saw the diversity of people and businesses 10 years ago and jumped right in.

Brian Davis feels it, too. Four years ago, he bought the Pickle Barrel, a diner now in its 34th year at 1301 East Carson that's decorated with school lunch boxes from the 1960s and '70s. As waitresses Renae Beck and Samantha Hamill busily work the grill and serve burgers and steak salads, Davis notes that his clientele changes upon the time of day.

"In the morning, until 11 a.m., I get senior citizens who come by to socialize. At lunch, I get the business people. And at night, I get the people from the bars.

"And the people with blue and red hair," he added, chuckling. "And the vampires."

Ask just about anyone familiar with the South Side, and they'll say the key to its vibrancy is that it evolved around but didn't displace a working-class, ethnic neighborhood.

"That's the beauty of the whole area," said John Lewis, co-owner of Bruschetta's, which opened in 1996 and then expanded to a building next door and a patio next to that. "There's something here that can't be created.

"The North Shore will turn out really nice but you can't manufacture what we have here."

That view was shared by Pittsburgh Assistant Police Chief William Mullen, who worked as commander of the South Side Station from 1992 to 1996, during which time he ordered the public-urination crackdown.

Just a few blocks from the bustling South Side business district, Jennifer Zekas of Mount Washington and Jim Patterson of Carrick cuddle while preparing for a party at the South 14th Street home of Adam Seewald, right.

"A lot of people have been living there their entire lives and they keep the neighborhood up. It's a neighborhood in the truest sense of the word," Mullen said.

"And it's not only the variety of people there, but they're nice people. It was a pleasure to work there. It was one of my favorite duty locations."

Mullen, who now heads the police bureau's Investigations Branch, noted the low crime rate -- "It's so safe there you don't feel threatened" -- and the success of the annual Coors Light South Side Summer Street Spectacular.

"Who else has a festival like that?" he said.

Last year, it drew an estimated 150,000 people. Among them was Mullen, who took his former college roommate, a school principal visiting from Kirkfield, Ontario, Canada.

"He just e-mailed me and asked if we could go back to the festival. He said the people there were really genuine, that it was the greatest time he's ever had."

Party time

On the sidewalk outside a home on South 14th Street, an impromptu get-together for four is taking place. The young men and women munch on taco chips, sip beer and listen to music in the sizzling mid-afternoon sunshine, priming for a party that will be held there that weekday night.

The occasion? "I wanted to throw one," shrugged resident Adam Seewald, 27.

Shirtless and tattooed, his friend, Jim Patterson, 24, says he's from Carrick "but I consider myself from the South Side because I'm down here every night."

His grandmother used to own an old neighborhood bar in the 1800 block of East Carson but sold it. It's been rehabbed and is now called Casey's Draft House. Patterson had been among the crowd there the preceding night.

He shakes his head at what might have been.

"If only I had been old enough and she had sold it to me. I'd be looking good right now."

Today, that's easy to see. Twenty years ago, who knew?


Post-Gazette staff writers Tom Barnes and Dan Gigler contributed to this article.

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