South Side was genuine


March 13, 2012

This is in response to Virginia Carik's letter (S.S. still needs direction, March 6).

Ms. Carik writes, "In the early ‘80s, due to the loss of the steel industry, many areas in the Mon Valley were declared depressed." That's only partially accurate. South Side was never officially declared depressed. Besides, I think the term was distressed. But let's not quibble.

What separated South Side from its sister towns in the Mon Valley was a strong sense of community and a shared identity. You see, South Side used to be a neighborhood. We had churches and schools and multi-generational businesses that served multiple generations of families.

Was the neighborhood perfect? Heck no! It was gritty; it was frequently dirty. There were lots of bars, and there were lots of fights. Does anyone remember the "Friday Night Fights" at the Birmingham Inn? How about the anarchy at the after-hours clubs? 

But South Side was genuine and it was real. Where that blight on the urban landscape currently known as the SouthSide Works now stands was the historic South Side Works.

It's what we do to our shared and sometimes bloody history: We pervert it into a slogan on a slick shopping bag from some upscale retailer, conveniently forgetting all that has come before.

We see farther than our predecessors only because we stand on their shoulders. Let's remember that when we look at South Side in a broader historical context.

I don't recall boarded-up Carson Street businesses in the wake of steel's collapse. What I do remember is neighbor helping neighbor. This atmosphere and community setting provided the perfect incubator for businesses such as Carson Street's Le Pommier. I dare say such a boutique eatery, which at the time of its opening certainly did not cater to the needs of then-South Side residents, could not have flourished in Duquesne or in Braddock.

As the sad decade of the 1980s unfolded, gentrification took root in South Side, followed quickly by irresponsible absentee landlords renting former family homes to equally irresponsible college students, with neither group having a stake in South Side's long-term welfare. (That dynamic is playing out in my current neighbor, but that's a topic for a future letter.)

 Understandably, some South Siders cashed in, selling humble row houses for six-figure prices.

Churches closed, schools followed. National retailers squeezed out neighborhood institutions.

Now we have the squabble over the Neighborhood Improvement District. Let the carpetbaggers who have profited greatly from these changes foot the bill. It's only just.

As a former South Side resident (1960-92) and ex-steel worker (1978-83), I have firsthand knowledge of the good and not-so-good-old days. You can read all about it in my book Memory of Steel. But I left South Side all those years ago and wouldn't move back for all the pretzels at the Pretzel Shop.

 Ed Stankowski

Mount Washington


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