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South Side wins national preservation award

By Diana Nelson Jones,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, June 19, 2006

The South Side has received one of three national awards for transforming its economy while preserving its history.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the neighborhood, along with Dubuque, Iowa, and Roslindale Village, Mass., with an Urban Pioneer award at a recent Main Street conference in New Orleans.

All three winners were among the first seven Main Street designees when the program was established in 1985. About two decades earlier, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation had begun agitating for historic restoration for the South Side.

“We began to educate residents on the importance of what was under their aluminum siding and InsulBric,” said Cathy McCollom, chief programs officer with Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. “We held a lot of meetings and went door to door.”

Architect John Martine bought a building on Carson Street in 1974, one year after establishing his practice in Oakland, and lived above his office, across from the Birmingham Bridge. The South Side wasn’t languishing then. The chamber of commerce membership included Jones & Laughlin and U.S. Steel.

“But people were not flocking to the South Side, and it was an area people didn’t see as an investment,” said Mr. Martine. It had traditional merchants — a five-and-dime, clothing and appliance stores, bakeries — but by the late ’70s, artists and antiques shops started to appear, “to some extent what is happening in Lawrenceville today,” he said.

“Storefronts had undergone lots of remuddling,” he said, “with some very unsympathetic things done to the ground-floor facades” — garish signs, small windows. The chamber established a committee to campaign for facade restorations and the city authorized paying Mr. Martine $50 a building for historic renderings for merchants.

“We did get a number of people to fix up their storefronts at their own cost,” he said. In fact, merchants spent a collective $200,000, with which the chamber leveraged a matching grant from the city for streetscape improvements. The Birmingham mural at 12th Street, a mid-block parklet across from the post office and brick handicap ramps resulted, from 10th to 24th streets.

Mr. Martine then produced a booklet, “Streetfront and Storefront: A Planning Guide for East Carson Street,” a design and marketing tool, he said, “to get people to invest.”

New residents began teaming with longtime residents to form the Birmingham Union, which lasted about six years, “long enough to get things going.”

South Side Local Development Co. was established in 1982 to counteract the increasing number of vacant buildings in the twilight of steel and two years later won Carson Street a place on the National Register of Historic Places. The Main Street designation came the next year.

(Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at or 412-263-1626. )
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This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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