New Orleans has Bourbon Street. Memphis has Beale Street. Chicago has Rush and Division. Austin has 6th Street. And Pittsburgh has East Carson Street.
If you don’t already know, I bet you can guess what each of these has in common. They are all iconic streets in major cities, known primarily for being hedonistic pleasure spots. Booze, music, vomit in the streets—anything can and does go on these storied stretches of pavement. While East Carson Street might not have the national name recognition of some of its more high-flying friends, locals know that on any given weekend it can rival all of them.
There is a long-running movement to change that perception, as well as the reality, that helped build up East Carson Street’s image as a party palace. As long as there has been a circus-like atmosphere to the South Side, there has been those who loathe it and the impact it’s had on South Side as a residential neighborhood.
Settled (as so many Pittsburgh neighborhoods were) by German and Eastern European immigrants who came here to work in steel and other heavy industries, South Side has its roots firmly in the working class. The influx of younger professionals and college students, added to the inpouring of visitors to frequent the bars and restaurants of South Sides, and clashes are bound to occur.
In order to address those issues, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Pittsburgh City Councilman Bruce Kraus, who represents the South Side, launched a comprehensive study to research and make suggestions on some of the neighborhood’s most pressing problems. The result is the East Carson Street Business District Strategy. According to the Executive Summary of the report, it “was guided by a project team, which consisted of representatives from the South Side Community Council, South Side Chamber of Commerce, South Side Development Review Committee, South Side Neighborhood Plan Committee, the URA, the Department of City Planning, the Mayor’s Office, the Nighttime Economy Office, and Councilman Kraus’ office.”
The results of the project showed a few dominant themes throughout: South Siders are proud of their walkability and their eclectic business district, they would like to see more specialty-type stores (butchers, wine stores, etc), parking sucks, East Carson Street is dirty, and they’re sick of being thought of as the Jersey Shore of Pittsburgh. Tackling any of these is a tall order, much less addressing all of them, but a few of them have already improved.
Take crime, for instance. Not that long ago the South Side was one of the worst neighborhoods when it came to crime rates, which can often come with being a hard-drinking destination. They have very quickly been able to get those numbers down, thanks in large part to an increase in walking police patrols, and the installation of street cameras, installed by District Attorney Zappala’s office.
Amy Schrempf, who is running for CIty Council District 3, which encompasses the South Side, thinks they’ve been a huge help in driving down crime.
“Zappala’s cameras are on East Carson Street, and they are watching all the time. People know that and act accordingly. It’s been an easy solution for us to take back our streets.”
The DA’s office has also gotten positive feedback. According to Mike Manko, spokesperson for Zappala, “Our office has received significant positive feedback from the business owners and District Attorney Zappala remains encouraged by the impact of the cameras, not only proactively to reduce crime, but also their bearing on the solve rate of criminal activity in one of the city’s most vibrant areas and their effectiveness in aiding investigations and prosecutions.”
Another reported outcome of the East Carson Street Business District Strategy was the desire for enhanced fitness and wellness options in the community, a box that many can say has now been ticked. Of course there is the giant L.A. Fitness at South Side Works, but tucked back on Mary Street, there is a community of health-oriented businesses popping up. Anchored by Ascend, an indoor rock-climbing gym, and flanked by CrossFit Athletics and Iron City Circus Works, this little triangle of businesses consider themselves the health epicenter of the South Side.
Iron City Circus Arts was drawn to the history and eclectic beat of the city when they decided to move their shop from Brentwood to the Brew House in June of 2017.
Built in 1899, the Brew House started off life as the Duquesne Brewing Company. It operated as a brewery until 1972, and then sat empty until the late 80’s, when it became a home and work space for local artists. They officially organized a few years later, becoming the Brew House Association, and eventually purchased the building.
Co-owner Kelsey Keller credits the space itself for some of the creative vibes her students create.
“The space is absolutely perfect. We’ve had so many people say that there is a magic about this space. I think its the history, that so many artists have lived in this space and created in this space.”
Iron City Circus Arts teaches people how to do, well, circus arts. Offering classes like aerial silks, acrobatics and trapeze to people of all ages and skill sets, Kelsey and Jenly (Deiter, co-owner) work to impart their love of the arts to their students.
“I wanted to pursue dancing, but my mom said no, you need to get a real job. So I went to school and then I went to grad school, and I was working in a lab and dancing with a company at night, and through them I found aerial arts. And it was like, ‘oh! This is what I’m meant to do.’ So, when I graduated with my PhD in biophysics, I ran away with the circus,” Keller says.
It’s that eclectic background and story that make them such a perfect fit for the South Side. And as for how they feel about their neighborhood?
“We love the South Side. We are a little tiny Mecca of people who love to get physical. We are so glad to be close to the city, and the people that live in this community are so anxious to try something new, and not every community is like that. That’s why we’ve been able to thrive, because of where we are.”
The next circus brewing in the South Side might very well be the primary race for City Council District 3. The seat is currently held by Council President Bruce Kraus, who has served the District since 2008. While he is facing some challengers, he stands by his record serving the citizens of the South Side. One of the biggest issues that remains unsolved in the area is parking, though Kraus said progress has been made.
“Our focus has been on mobility and efficiently moving people in a city that operates 24/7/365. That has a number of different components from encouraging rideshare programs, providing parking for residents and visitors, and increasing public transportation. We’ve made progress in increasing the mobility of the city and I’m excited to see it continue.”
One of his competitors in the race, Amy Schrempf, agrees to disagree.
“Parking is always going to be an issue, but there are so many potential solutions that aren’t even being looked at. Converting vacant lots, expanding permits to vacant lots—you have to be willing to think outside of the box to solve this issue.”
Ken Wolfe, the former Chief of Staff for Kraus, is also running, ensuring that the primary, which is usually a pretty staid affair, could well become, well, a circus. Or at the very least a carnival.
The odds of every bar leaving East Carson Street en masse are slim to none. But the residents don’t want that. South Side is a place to go to drink, yes. But you can also go there to eat, to shop, to work out, to enjoy green spaces, and yes, to live. South Side is standing up, loud and proud, and shouting that they will not be defined by their reputation, or by preconceived notions. They are proud to be eclectic, and while they work to solve some of their community issues, Pittsburgh hopes that their core never changes.