Christmas lights on East Carson started with a man and a plan
In 1965, Wilbur Joseph, executive director of Brashear Association, hired a guy named Dick Wells to develop a program for teenagers at the United Way agency.
Mr. Wells, on a year’s leave from his job as an English teacher at Allderdice High School, contacted students at South, St. Casmir, St. Adalbert and St. Michael high schools and soon had a core group of young people eager to be a part of a new program that would benefit them and their peers.
One of the things the youth group said they wanted was a community festival to celebrate South Side’s teenagers and their accomplishments. Under Mr. Wells’ guidance, the kids planned and executed their own festival. Activities they included were a street dance outside of the Brashear Center and an art exhibit at the South Side Market House.
In subsequent years, the youth festival became the forerunner of what would be, many years later, the South Side Summer Street Spectacular.
But back to 1965.
With his youth group functioning, Mr. Wells looked around for another project to occupy his time. Fall was approaching, with the holiday season soon to arrive. From conversations with Carson Street businesspeople, he learned there were no plans for any community-wide holiday activities. The East Carson business district would be one of the few in the city with no uniform holiday decorative lights.
Mr. Wells soon learned there were a bunch of Christmas star pole lights languishing in a South Side warehouse. But with no active chamber of commerce, there was no one to mount a campaign to fund and erect the lights.
He knew Aaron Levinson, head of the Levinson Steel operation in South Side. He approached Mr. Levinson with the idea to light East Carson for the holidays, and the industrialist agreed to help fund a lighting program.
What’s more, he would back Mr. Wells in soliciting money from the other members of South Side’s “Big Four” industrial concerns: J&L Steel, Eichleay Corp. and Mackintosh Hemphill.
On his own, Mr. Wells began contacting retailers along the street, using the name “Bill Birdsong” because he was afraid the by-the-book executive director of Brashear would not approve of his youth worker spending so much time in the business community. His ruse worked for a while, until late one afternoon he heard a knock on the door of his apartment upstairs of a Carson Street optical shop.
When he opened the door, there stood Mr. Joseph and Nick Stone, an attorney with ties to the South Side and Brashear, in search of the elusive Birdsong. It’s hard to tell who was most surprised, Mr. Wells or his visitors.
Mr. Wells explained he believed the holiday lights would benefit not only the local businesses, but boost the spirits of South Side residents and shoppers as well. Mr. Joseph and Mr. Stone, perhaps reluctantly, agreed to let him continue his plans to see East Carson Street lit up for the Christmas season.
By early December, the lights were in place and continued to shine until after Orthodox Christmas in January. A serendipitous effect of the 1965 holiday lighting program contributed to the rebirth of the South Side Chamber of Commerce.
But that’s another story.
(Roberta Smith is the retired editor and publisher of the South Pittsburgh Reporter.)