The South Side of Pittsburgh.

The South Side of Pittsburgh used to be called Birmingham. That was the name of the village the city of Pittsburgh absorbed in 1872. A great majority of the buildings from the era are still standing and in full use today.

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(photo from Wikipedia.)

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(photo courtesy PA Trolley.org.)

If that horse trolley were a party limo/van full of drunk people, one would never know the difference.

The main thoroughfare, East Carson Street, is one of the largest Victorian main streets in the US. The LDC (South Side Local Development Company) stipulates that all new structures must achieve a specific look, in keeping with the existing buildings in the revitalized, historic district. The LDC is no arbitrary group of busybody bureaucrats; They brought the district back from the dungeon in the last 10 years. House sales increased over $75,000 on average and vacancy is under 10%. The numbers for the South Side have been so good that the LDC recently dissolved, stating their work had been done. South Side is a success story, especially with consideration to the plight of other industrial districts like Camden, NJ, or the more apples-to-apples Detroit. It is not a given that a city or district improves over time. Cities have an entropy of their own, and it takes careful, lucky planning for a district to thrive. Richard Florida’s Rise of the relative Class reported population loss in the city of Pittsburgh in 2000, and 2012 saw the first increase in 60 years. What are some of the businesses that got the South Side here?

Jack’s Bar is one South Side institution. Jack’s doesn’t cater to a specific demographic, and is always busy. Its decor is centered around hand drawn signs with hard-boiled catch phrases written on them, like, “This is not a beer belly, it’s a fuel tank for a sex machine.” They’ve had many of the same bartenders for at over 25 years. One gentleman who works in the back has suffered severe health problems and still works 2 nights a week with lost limbs. The bar back has had the same job for at least 15 years, which is rare, since that job is usually viewed as a transition to bar tending. Jack’s is a good place to get into a fight with a drunk person over a pool bet, played on a small “bar box” pool table. Or you could get kicked around by a biker “gang” which has partied at Jack’s every Sunday for years and years. It is more a loose collective of different gangs and solo gentlemen with a number of tough women thrown in there for laughs. Jack’s is the only bar on the street that serves hard-boiled eggs.

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Jack’s shares the block with an authentic Lebanese restaurant, Kasaab’s. Kasaab’s used to be on the corner of 10th, but the landlord was letting the building go to hell because he lived in Greece. The restaurant provides a good vegetarian alternative in the burger-heavy district. Kasaab’s also has an interesting mural of two men playing chess.

The South Side used to have three independent bookstores, Eljay’s, City Lights and Saint Elmo’s. Saint Elmo’s was a gay book store which closed, and Eljay’s moved. City Lights is what’s left, and good! The selection is epic and rare, and the upstairs is a curiosity: it has a miniature cafe where the owner and his wife serve you as if you were a guest in their home. Incidentally, I believe City Lights was the name of a Chaplin film, one in which he said he’d done his finest acting. It was when the cured blind woman remembered him. Anyway, the decline of the book stores can likely be correlated with the exodus of the “creative class” to Bloomfield and Lawrenceville.

Speaking of the creative class, it is The Beehive which started it all in Pittsburgh in 1990. It’s an eclectic coffeehouse where one could formerly play chess for uninterrupted hours. Now, ubiquitous laptops and iPads have undermined the Game of Kings in favor pursuits a little more instantly gratifying. The Beehive is still a node–as Kevin Lynch identified–everybody in town checks in regularly. Across the street is Slacker which used to be next door to the Beehive. If one were so inclined, Slacker is where one would purchase a bong or sex toys. They still have the sex toys, but they lost the right to sell bongs as the result of a vindictive lawsuit. The event also gave the former owner more gray hairs than you could shake a stick at. The new owner, his old friend, already had gray hairs, so he was cool. Below is an image of a sex toy/bong.

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There are a million tattoo parlors, if that’s your thing.

Mike and Tony’s is a gyro (pronounced with a hard G) shop which, like many of the South Side businesses, lacks self awareness in an awesome way. Together with Dee’s Cafe and O’Leary’s, Mike and Tony’s completes a one-block triumvirate of unpretentiousness. O’Leary’s is open during only the morning, and they’ll give you free food if you look like a bum but are friendly. Once.
Dee’s Cafe is a monolith with two bars in one and real pool tables. Even in a town of smoky bars, Dee’s is infamously smoky. If cities are the theater of our lives, Dee’s is Act I of the 30 year-old hipster. The “bar maids” have been working at Dee’s for 30 years. Their names are Nicki and Judi. Gerri retired because she was 85. Gerri disapproved of daytime drinking for men under 60, which was presumably associated with her perceiving them as lazy. She still fills in from time to time.
Here is a mosaic of Dee’s that a woman put into an art show held upstairs in 2011. The owner liked it so much, he bought it himself.

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(Above is a mural by artist Rick Bach. The numbers on the ball do not correspond to the traditional colors, but are an encoded date of the mural’s completion.)

Mario’s is sometimes referred to as a “douchebag bar,” but that is mainly by the people who don’t matter any more in this gentrified district. The South Side is now defined by a more mainstream kind of establishment. To its credit, Mario’s is beautiful and huge with stained glass windows of Pittsburgh sports teams on the East facing windows. It has a shot wheel, and a “Yard of Beer” glass, but one ought to pay mind to the fireman’s pole on the smoking side. They tried to move it since I slid down it from the balcony into a large crowd 8 years ago, but below is a picture depicting their failure.

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(A picture of a high school friend in a Santa suit sliding down said pole. Last week.)

Lava Lounge is interesting, because it looks like this and has good bands.

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Fathead’s has great sandwiches and a giant beer menu, and they were early players in that now old game. They also have a wall covered in pictures that feature people wearing their shirt all over the world. It’s actually really cool. And on the way to the restroom, unfortunately. here it is:

20131217-215327.jpgIt used to be just the one side.

I loved these places, but they are just bars. I wish these pictures were of jungles and deserts and the ocean, but they are not. Chris Hedges suggested that people are not measured by their consumerism, and I’m with him on that. At least the community leaders have been able to keep the district mostly family owned or independent businesses. That is one Herculean fight against city entropy. And even though the South Side can devolve into a drunken hellhole at times, it is a great success story, and a unique host of the Urban Drama.

Work Cited

Mumford, Lewis. “What is a City? “The City Reader .Eds. Richard T. Le Gates and Frederic Stout. New York: Routledge 1996. pp 90-100. Print

Florida, Richard. “The Rise of the Creative Class“. Washington Monthly. May 2002. Web

Lynch, Kevin. “The City Image and Its Elements”. The City Reader. Eds. Richard T. LeGates and Frederic Stout. New York: Routledge, 1996. pp. 499-509. Print

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