Station Square, a marina and entertainment complex, brackets the South Side neighborhood's western end. Above is the renovated Bessemer Court in Station Square.
Station Square, a marina and entertainment complex, brackets the South Side neighborhood's western end. Above is the renovated Bessemer Court in Station Square.
Station Square

Pittsburgh's South Side, Resurrected

TRAsouthside. Pittsburgh, PA. Undated handout photo. South Side Works, on the 34-acre site of the old Jones & Laughlin mill, has brought national retailers to the eastern end of the neighborhood. Credit: Development Design Group
TRAsouthside. Pittsburgh, PA. Undated handout photo. South Side Works, on the 34-acre site of the old Jones & Laughlin mill, has brought national retailers to the eastern end of the neighborhood. Credit: Development Design Group (Development Design Group)

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By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 29, 2006

As the rain began and the evening winds shivered across the Monongahela River, the zombies appeared.

Stiff, bloody and pale, they massed along East Carson Street. Three hundred pairs of sunken eyes found a Prussian-accented aristocrat with a bullhorn in an arched tavern doorway who ordered them forward on a recent chilly Friday evening: "Begin . . . shambling!"

With a low moan, the crowd lurched slowly into character during Pittsburgh's first Zombie Walk. As they moved west, some stumbled into the One Stop Hookah Shop or stared into the Silver Eye photo gallery. Others pawed the plate-glass windows at Nakama, where sushi eaters dropped their chopsticks. A few shuffled, trying not to laugh, toward the retro Rex Theatre, where the walk culminated at a local TV horror-show taping.

East Carson, a flat 30 blocks on Pittsburgh's South Side, was an appropriate setting for a mass tribute to secondhand bodies: This riverfront neighborhood has come back to life, too.

Fans of George Romero's 1968 horror classic "Night of the Living Dead," perhaps the city's most famous contribution to cinema, flock to the neighborhood's 70 bars and restaurants. Nineteenth-century churches have turned condo, factories house gritty lofts, ethnic clubhouses blare Northern Soul instead of Slovenian folk, and steel-mill sites sprout sleek shops.

At its peak, the South Side was home to nearly 40,000 immigrants who walked to jobs in steel mills along the river. That industry and population collapsed in the 1970s, but the feel of old Europe lingers. Onion-domed churches, brick facades and staircases that spiral uphill crowd together on the southern bank of the Mon.

Artists seeking low rents and large spaces discovered the area 15 years ago, when City Theatre revamped a Bingham Street church. Now, long-retired millworkers have made friends with new hipster neighbors. Locals describe the district as having both kinds of blue hair, for grannies and Goths. About 10,000 Pittsburghers call "Sahside" home; more flood in on weekends.

The Zombie Walk, which took place last month in Pittsburgh's South Side, is an homage to
The Zombie Walk, which took place last month in Pittsburgh's South Side, is an homage to "Night of the Living Dead."
Signs of gentrification bookend the district. The SouthSide Works development, on the 34-acre site of the old Jones and Laughlin steel mill, has brought national retailers to the eastern end of the neighborhood. Station Square, a marina and entertainment complex, brackets its western end. The South Side's redevelopment started on the level riverfront, called the Flats; now "For Sale" signs are creeping up the Slopes, as the adjoining hillside is dubbed.

"It's history wrapped in Insul-brick," Brad Palmisiano jokes of his neighborhood. The 27-year-old architectural engineer is restoring a century-old home on the Slopes, overlooking East Carson Street. A Shop-Vac rests in his grand dining room, and his kitchen is missing some of its ceiling.

"The clock face is lit!" Palmisiano says, pointing proudly to an eye-level church steeple down the block. The former St. Michael the Archangel Church is now a condo building called the Angel's Arms, and its 1861 tower again has a working clock. Opposite Palmisiano's home, an American Legion hall was renovated into a showplace with three cliff-side decks, sidewalk planters and a $250,000 price tag. The street's first white-tablecloth restaurant has opened down the block. UUBU 6 is a play on the name tiled above its door: W.B.U. 6 was the Workingmen's Beneficial Union.

Palmisiano's heading down the hill to East Carson. He says a wings-and-beer night is calling him. I follow as far as Mary Street, where a rusty-looking factory sulks on the corner.

Out front, a blackboard-size magnifying lens is set up in front of a table, and something's sizzling. What looks like an urban barbecue turns out to be art.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company
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