On a summer Saturday night at the South Side’s Armstrong Field, six year old Halle stepped up to the dusty home plate in her pink party dress and pearls. Her aunts, uncles, and cousins awaited the ping of the wiffle ball bat, part of a family game to cap off a birthday party for her two year old cousin who lives nearby. Her hair ribbon fluttered behind her as she ran to first base, and the sun bobbed down past the playground and row homes beyond the outfield.
Later that night, catty-corner to the baseball diamond, a series of shots cut through the excited chatter and music of East Carson Street revelers. A young man ran along the streets bordering the park, leaving two trails of blood before collapsing nearby.
Summer saw multiple shootings on Pittsburgh’s South Side and the temporary closure of at least one major lounge because the neighborhood had become “unstable,” as Foxtail nightclub’s owners put it, at night.
Residents were angry and fearful of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bar customers began to change their habits, opting to leave the area early to avoid closing time conflicts, some deciding to spend their Saturday night in other places, like the North Shore.
The neighborhood also noticed efforts to improve public safety. Meanwhile longstanding community events such as the South Side Community Council’s seventh annual South Side Garden Tour and South Side Chamber of Commerce’s community potluck mixed with newer opportunities to gather like South Side Works’ Music on the Mon series. The neighborhood ends the summer a little tarnished but with hope for the future. An exploration:
On East Carson, ‘Business is just hurting’
In the 1900 block of East Carson, Benny Fierro’s pizza shop stays open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays – usually.
“We had to close early a couple of times because there was a shooting,” said employee Javier Moore.
A public safety measure implemented by the city has had an effect on business.
Sawhorses block parking lanes on Fridays and Saturdays along both sides of the stretch of East Carson that is most densely populated with bars. They are meant to improve traffic flow and emergency vehicle access.
Skylar N., who manages aspects of the tattoo shop Inspire Body Art on the 1700 block of East Carson, said the parking situation is impacting walk-in business and pushing people to the alleys and side streets. “That’s where the violence is occurring,” she said.
One day this summer, the tattoo shop — rated the No. 1 tattoo shop in the city in the Pittsburgh City Paper’s Best of Pittsburgh 2021 guide — was holding a “summer flash bash” on tattoos that drew a line of people stretching down the block from the early morning until late night. The sale, and the packed house of tattoo artists going nonstop on Red Bull and pizza, aimed to make up for the dip in walk-in sales they had since the start of the summer.
“Business is just hurting,” Skylar said.
Scenes from Inspire Body Art's tattoo flash bash: Samira Jackson, center left, 19, of Latrobe, laughs with her friend Andrew Lang, seated, 21, of Derry, towards the end of their day-long wait to be tattooed. “I personally love East Carson Street, I love being in the city at night,” said Samira, noting that she sees the street on the news a lot but says she feels “there’s more terrifying places in Pittsburgh.” (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Skylar's frustration with the block's safety is amplified by news reports listing the surrounding 1700 block of East Carson as a location for early morning fights and various shootings over the past year.
Down the street at South Side Barber Shop, barber Joceylyn Williams of Crafton locked up her shop as the crowds started to grow at the club across the street. She agreed that parking and the perception of violence has been a problem for businesses.
Williams, a mother of young children, said her children’s father worries about her closing up shop on the weekends. She said she knows how to handle herself but that the parking and towing situation on the weekends has made for some bad experiences for customers, including one of hers who parked across the street to pick up a sandwich at a neighboring shop and walked out to find his car towed.
“It’s just not fair,” said Williams. “The cars not being here, in my opinion, makes it easier for just standing around, loitering.”
She said she sees people who are apparently not yet of drinking age bringing their own cups to the streets and standing around along Carson or in the neighboring alleys and streets.
COVID: ‘Everybody had lost their mind’
The street's steady decline was exemplified by the cancellation of the once-popular South Side Summer Street Spectacular, according to City Councilman Bruce Kraus, who has represented the area since 2008 and was born and raised there.
“It became alcohol-saturated and extremely problematic,” he said of the festival. “Certain bars would sell out [of alcohol] completely. … Fifteen-year-olds would be carrying coolers full of beer.”
Kraus said it was sad to see the event end in 2004, as it was designed to be a community celebration much like Little Italy Days in Bloomfield.
“It had been such a wonderful event for so many years, but it had to go away,” he said.
When a proposal for a South Side casino lost out to the owners of the Rivers Casino on North Shore, it was the “start of the race to the bottom,” said Kraus.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, shuttering businesses and keeping residents inside. Once everything reopened and restrictions were lifted, the South Side started to see a shift, said Kraus.
“It was like everybody had lost their mind,” he said. “We saw crowds and behavior unlike anything that we had seen before. Generations had changed. Customers had changed.”
Running counter to the mayhem, though, are a series of efforts to improve public safety.
- Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said bars have started to use drivers license readers to see if customers have caused trouble at surrounding bars.
- PennDOT, after two and a half years, is wrapping up a $16.3 million investment into East Carson Street with improved safety measures such as new traffic signals, signage, crosswalks and cameras.
- The city of Pittsburgh now has a full-time team that cleans East Carson Street every day.
- Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration is reviving a process under which properties can be identified as “disruptive” and their owners fined, and has signaled that it could be applied to South Side.
- Police have been emphasizing their presence by putting up barricades and making themselves more prevalent along East Carson during high-volume periods.
“We provide officers and so forth to ensure safety there,” said Acting Police Chief Thomas Stangrecki. “So I think we are moving in a positive direction.
“If there’s other things that we can incorporate to help maintain that or even lessen any other future crimes from occurring, then we’ll look at those, too.”
A community working together
While police and other officials are focusing on a safer East Carson Street, others are working toward a more connected community.
SSCC President Barbara Rudiak said they host two small fundraisers, a flower sale in the spring and a pie sale in the fall. They also organized the seventh annual South Side Garden Tour in July.
During this event, it’s not uncommon for the community to help owners maintain gardens.
“Many residents will want to do something [like weed and plant] for the community,” said Rudiak.
All proceeds are funneled back into the gardens and green spaces in the South Side.
The event was on hold for a few years because of COVID-19, and with the loss of revenue, the council is now looking for different ways to raise funds, said Rudiak.
The council also aids in keeping the streets trash-free by having landlords speak to their residents and ensure they clean up their trash and keep the sidewalks clear.
Kraus noted trash clean-ups, funding, improved infrastructure and the addition of public safety cameras along his neighborhood's streets.
"There are so many positive things that are happening in the South Side," the councilman said.
This story was fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.