I have always been fascinated with the South Side of Pittsburgh, a place that is as colorful and diverse as the people that live there. I remember going to the Beehive to get coffee with friends while still in high school and thinking it would be a ‘cool’ place to live (except for dealing with the drunk people peeing and puking on your property).
Over the past few years, the South Side has changed considerably, to say nothing about the past decades. I am not just talking about a new bar or dance club opening up—there’s been the dismantling of the glass and steel industries, the newly created shopping plaza, and also the new bike trail.
The South Side has a long and rich history. In 1763, King George III of England offered John Ormsby nearly 2,400 acres along the bank of the Monongahela River. This was payment for Ormsby’s service during the French and Indian War.
The land would be divided into four subsequent boroughs: South Pittsburgh, Birmingham, East Birmingham, and Ormsby. The boroughs were annexed to the City of Pittsburgh in 1872.
In the early 1800’s the South Side helped establish Pittsburgh’s reputation as the “Workshop of the World.” There were 76 glass factories in the South Side alone; then in 1854 Benjamin Franklin Jones and James Laughlin became business partners and formed the American Iron Works.
During the latter part of the 1800’s there was a surge of immigrants who came to work the South Side mills from Germany, Ireland, Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, and the Slavic nations. The immigrants went on to build their own schools and churches, where they could continue their native customs and speak their native languages. I think that this diversity is what makes the South Side such a unique place to visit, as many of these places are still in existence today.
Recently, I talked with a few people that have either lived or still live in the South Side. I found their stories indicative of the rich and diverse community that the South Side continues to be today.
Curtis Schmitt was born and raised (until the age of 16) in the South Side, and his father worked at J&L Steel. Mr. Schmitt claims that, in his eyes, the decline of the steel mill was the biggest tragedy to hit the South Side. Children and families could walk and up and down Carson Street with little to no trouble. Not that you cannot do these things now, but depending on the time of day you go down to the South Side, you are either weaving in and out of shoppers or inebriated people. Mr. Schmitt also stated that you just felt like you knew everyone—he knew all of the people that he went to school with and you’d walk down the street and would know the people you ran into. Also, according to Mr. Schmitt, the South Side was not divided into the Slopes and Flats while he was growing up there. You simply said what street you lived on and people just knew it was the South Side.
Sean Soisson, (a man in his late 20’s or early 30’s) has lived in the South Side for over three years now. Sean moved to the South Side not because of the history, bars, or location, but because he needed a cheap place to stay and his friends had room. He moved to the area called by the locals as ‘The Hollow’ which is the back most area of the flats. It isn’t your typical South Side flat area—“its hidden, quiet, and generally friendly,” Sean says, “I am close with many of my neighbors, but it definitely took a little while for them to warm up to me. It’s a nice mix of elderly people whose families have been there since the first houses were built.”
One of the many benefits of living in the South Side for Sean is that it is close to his work in Oakland. His band performs at many of the bars located on Carson Street and he likes how everything is close—the groceries, the bars, the coffee shops, etc. However, like many that live in the area, he too dreads the Friday and Saturday night mayhem of trying to navigate throughout the neighborhood, or finding intoxicated people vandalizing your car or urinating on your property. Sean even noted that one night while going back to his house, he saw a fairly expensive car pull over and a man get out, open both doors of his car (as if to create some sort of barrier around him) and urinate right in the middle of Sarah Street as other cars drove past him as if nothing was happening.
I also chatted with Stacy Piscitelli. She and her husband moved to the South Side in 1996 and don’t plan on moving. Piscitelli told me that several factors made them lean towards the South Side—close proximity to work, the historic buildings and homes, and the overall electricity the neighborhood has. The Piscitellis love walking out their door and going to the shops and restaurants, the movie theater, or the South Side Square to catch a band. Being able to walk to the post office or grocery store is also a plus.
While some things may have changed over the decades, apparently the neighborhood feel is still there—as Mrs. Piscitelli states, “Walking our dogs we have met and become friends with many of our neighbors throughout the area.” She is afraid, however, that the increase in rental properties will eventually drive down the value of the homes in the area.
Legacy and Evolution
While all of the heavy industry is now gone from the South Side, the legacy that remains is a vibrant neighborhood, rich in ethnic charm and Victorian homes and businesses. It is because of people just like Curtis, Sean, and Stacy.
What I learned through these interviews is this: the South Side of Pittsburgh is a place that draws people in. Whether you go to the South Side Street Spectacular, or want to get a cold cider from Piper’s, sandwiches from McCoy’s, relive the past in the Groovy store, or just have a night of drinking and dancing at any one of the bars that line Carson, there is a certain energy that fills this part of Pittsburgh. Some stay for a short visit. Others never leave.
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Nicole Sebula is an editor at The New Yinzer. When not editing TNY, Nicole works full time at the University of Pittsburgh. Nicole published her first book My Crazy Life and is now trying to figure out subject matter for a possible second book.