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Shedding light on darker days

By Kim Lyons
Monday, July 17, 2006

Sitting at JP’s Cafe on East Carson Street, author and historian Stuart Boehmig paints a picture of the South Side as it was 100 years ago.

“If you sat here in 1906, you would have heard four or five different languages and seen easily that many styles of dress,” Boehmig says, gesturing toward the SouthSide Works. “But the air was so filthy and polluted from the steel mill, you could barely see the sun.”

Photos from Boehmig’s book, “Pittsburgh’s South Side” show smokestacks from the fiery steel mill that dominated the end of East Carson Street, near the Hot Metal Bridge. Its modern-day occupant is SouthSide Works.

During the course of his research, Boehmig found no photographs of mansions or large houses on the South Side. “Virtually all the buildings were the same,” he said. “It was an even playing field, and everyone was equal.”

Anyone who made any money, Boehmig said, moved away.

The first immigrants arrived on the South Side near the turn of the 19th century. They were from Eastern Europe, followed by Irish, Scots and English, Boehmig says. The first of the neighborhood’s industries was glass, then came the J & L steel mill.

“The noise of the blast furnaces was like a rocket taking off,” Boehmig said. “It completely dominated the street. I remember it as a kid. It was unbelievable.”

Eileen Zaidel, 80, has lived on the South Side most of her life and remembers the steel mill — and the noise. Her husband, Stanley, is the son of Polish immigrants, but most of her family was born in Pittsburgh, Zaidel added.

The Zaidels live on 15th Street, right near the high-end South Side Lofts. “They’re very nice,” she says.

But the changes to the South Side haven’t all been good, Zaidel said.

“It’s so, so different now,” she said. “There’s a new generation, of course, and I think they’re spoiling it a little bit — too many bars.”

Steel was an industry that most believed would thrive well into the future, so its rapid decline in the 1970s and ’80s hit the South Side hard, Boehmig said.

He finds it very unusual that a neighborhood that lost its industry did not become a desolate wasteland, as it could have, but retained its vitality.

“It speaks to the values of the people that lived here — they literally built America,” he says. “They respected hard work and worked hard for what they got. I think that attitude still exists here.”

Traces of the South Side’s first residents remain: Sarah, Sidney, Muriel, Josephine and Jane streets are named for relatives of founder John Ormsby.

Cathy McCollom, of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, says one big reason the South Side stayed mostly blue collar was its basic housing stock.

“While the mill was open, workers needed to live nearby,” she said. “When the Flats became too crowded, the inclines made it possible for people to live up on the Slopes. But it was almost all workers.”

But as the steel industry began its downward spiral, the South Side was not considered a particularly desirable place to live, Boehmig and McCollom agreed.

People who lived there stayed after the steel mill closed, Boehmig said. But wealthy people weren’t clamoring to move in and build bigger houses on the South Side. That left the neighborhood’s architecture intact, McCollom said.

“Sometimes, poverty can be a friend of preservation,” she said.

Leaving the Victorian, Italianate, Romanesque and other structures intact gave new developers a foundation on which to build.

One particularly successful renovation, Boehmig says, was Nakama Japanese Steak House at 1611 E. Carson St. The American Renaissance-style building was constructed around 1900. According to Pittsburgh History and Landmarks, the building housed the Lorch Brothers Store, which was destroyed by fire in April 1901.

The four-story building retains much of its original appearance, and the Pittsburgh City Historic Review Commission gave the owners a preservation award in 2005.

A $3 million project is under way on the upper floors of the building, which is planned as a boutique hotel. It’s slated to open in 2007.

Fat Head’s restaurant at 1805-07 E. Carson is another modern-day business in an historic location. German immigrant and “Squire of the South Side” John Henry Sorg constructed the building in 1874. He lived in its upper stories and ran his insurance and real estate business from the storefront.

The restaurant has been in the building since 1992, and its renovation retains many of the Italianate features of the original structure, according to Pittsburgh History and Landmarks.

E. Carson Street boasts the longest contiguous stretch of Victorian buildings in the country, McCollom said. “And for all the changes, the South Side has never lost its neighborhood feel.”

South Side noteworthy

1758: Pittsburgh is founded and named for British Prime Minister William Pitt

1763: King George III gives Major John Ormsby 3,000 acres of land, which later become the South Side.

1811: Ormsby’s son-in-law, Nathaniel Bedford, lays out Birmingham, now the South Side Flats.

1872: The Flats become part of the City of Pittsburgh

1854: Benjamin Franklin Jones and James Laughlin open the American Iron Works, which later becomes J&L Steel. By the 1940s the plant covers 100 acres.

1909: The South Side Branch of the Carnegie Library opens, and 10,000 people visit during the first week.

1968: LTV buys J&L Steel, which still employs 8,000 people.

1986: The LTV plant closes.

Source: Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation

Kim Lyons can be reached at or (412) 320-7922.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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