Peeking across the river at Downtown is the largest neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh, the North Side. Perhaps neighborhood is the wrong term. The North Side is comprised of 14 distinct neighborhoods, all of whom have decided to throw their resources together under one umbrella.
The wide-ranging North Side is home to some of Pittsburgh’s most iconic landmarks, Heinz Field, PNC Park, Rivers Casino, The Andy Warhol Museum—as well as some of the more off-the-beaten- path, quirky places in the city. Both have worked to forge the identity of the North Side, along with the strong-minded people, some might say characters, who call the place home.
“We have a bird zoo,” says Cody Walters, North Side resident, Main Street Director for the North Side Leadership Conference and founder of Deutschtown Music Festival. “Who has a bird zoo?”
The North Side also comes complete with its own bigfoot, the Deutschtown Sasquatch. What started as an inside joke between friends, taking photos of a sasquatch action figure out and about at different North Side locations and posting them to social media, quickly took on a larger life of its own. The sasquatch got its own Facebook page and started to become North Side famous. But, it didn’t stop there.
A Facebook page became a bar crawl theme, and the bar crawl theme became an idea for a mural. Pittsburgh-based artist Jeremy Raymer got involved, and of course a local resident volunteered the side of a house for it, and viola. Giant Deutschtown Sasquatch. (Raymer also painted the North Side’s most visible mural, the 40-foot Roberto Clemente adorning the side of Verdetto’s, overlooking 279.)
The Sasquatch is by no means the only colorful spot in the North Side. Just a few blocks away is a psychedelic riot of public art known as Randyland. Started in 1995 by Randy Gilson, Randyland has, over the years, become one of the most beloved, and one of the most photographed, landmarks in the city. If you haven’t gotten a selfie at the free-to-get-in manifestation of Gilson’s dedication to spreading happiness, have you even been to Pittsburgh?
The North Side is also the proud home of the oldest bartender and the smallest bar in the state of Pennsylvania, mere blocks away from each other. George Martin is going to be 91 next month, and he’s been slinging drinks at Elk’s Lodge 339 for over 45 years. Last year, for his 90th birthday, they celebrated with a 90 Drinks for 90 Years event. The mastermind of the event, Mark Fatla, isn’t just an Elk member; he’s also the Executive Director of the North Side Leadership Conference (NLC). The NLC is the city’s only multi-neighborhood community development corporation, which is a very North Side of it.
Fatla is a Friday night staple at the Elk’s. He brings his accordian every week and keeps George company as he tends bar. “[The 90 Drinks event] came up because he said he was working on his birthday. I said, ‘well, if you’re going to be here anyway, let’s make something out of that,’” said Fatla, as he straps on his accordian.
And if someone knows how to make something happen, it’s Fatla. He has been a North Side resident since 1984, and executive director of NSLC for many years. Over the years, he’s gleaned some pretty good insights into the North Side and how to work with the people who live and work there.
“The North Side is different than other neighborhoods. We have more than our share of characters, but importantly, we don’t hide them on the back porch. We put them right on the front porch where everyone can see them. George here is a good example. We are going to make sure that everyone gets a chance to meet him at least once a year. He’ll be out on the front porch.”
Fatla goes on to break down characters into different categories. “North Side has always been blessed with a parade of characters. Pick any category. In politics it was Tom Murphy, a former seminarian who jogs, to Darlene Harris today. If Darlene Harris ain’t a character, I don’t know who the hell is. In art, for god sakes, Andy freaking Warhol. He didn’t just redefine art, he made everyone question, what is art?”
“Sports? We got Art Rooney Sr., the cigar-chomping, horse-race-betting owner of an NFL team. He was such a character they wrote a one man play about him. Who’s our most prominent business man over here? Gus. The ice ball guy. Our best known business person is an 80 some year old man selling ice balls in the park. Whatever category you pick, we have our characters. We embrace our characters.” He pauses to pick up his accordion and play a quick ditty.
If you exit the Elks and walk about three blocks down Pressely Street, you will happen upon The Priory Hotel. The Priory was once just that, a Priory for Benedictine monks. Originally slated for demolition to make way for the 279 feeder, the building was saved when PENNDot finally came to their senses and realized that maybe they didn’t need to tear down historical landmarks to build their road. The Graf family purchased the building at auction and lovingly restored it to its current splendor.
Tucked inside, to the left of the lobby, is the smallest bar in the state of Pennsylvania, Monk’s Bar. With only 14 seats, the warm and cozy spot is perfect for sipping the elaborate craft cocktails they’re serving up. If you’re lucky, Rachel the bartender will tempt you with warm pastries from the Priory Bakery. Fatla’s been known to make the short walk down, and on occasion, take his accordian.
Perhaps after a full day of taking selfies at the many Instagram-worthy locations of the North Side, and full of pastries and cocktails, you are feeling like supporting local art. Well, you are in luck. North Side has everything from The Mattress Factory to City of Asylum, to the New Hazlett Theater.
The New Hazlett Theater is now the primary tenant in the the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, the second Carnegie library opened in America and first Carnegie Music Hall ever opened. The theater’s signature program is their Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series.
CSA helps identify and cultivate local Pittsburgh artists, using the program to not just give them a platform to perform, but to also give them access to marketing and general business support, ensuring their success long after the curtain falls on their run at New Hazlett. There are three works remaining in the season, a long-form story about letting go of shame and being queer and vulnerable, an immersive dance experience, and a work about a dystopian future in which all animals are now extinct and they dress a human up as a dog to be their pet and spiritual leader.
There is an amazing variety of talent and artistic vision right here in our backyard – our program provides the necessary resources for those ambitious ideas to be explored, refined and showcased. – Bill Rodgers, Programming Director for the CSA
Johnny Angel and the Halos are playing there February 9th. Johnny, you won’t be shocked to find out, is from the North Side.
Fatla puts down his accordian. “The folks in these neighborhoods have been working on them and polishing them and strengthening them for all these years, and we are starting to reap the benefit from all the work done in the vineyard. You have these beautiful historic districts, a growing restaurant scene, more live music than any other part of the city,” his voice trails off as he looks over his glasses at his songbook.
“It’s a beautiful time to be here. Whether you live here, visit here, do business here…I don’t know about yinz, but I walk to the ballgames.”