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Pittsburgh's South Side, Resurrected

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.

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.

Curt Sell is using the concentrated beam of sunlight to fuse shards of colored glass in a large tray. He tells me he's depicting the third temptation of Christ. The ugly factory behind him, the 1889 Duquesne Brewery, is actually his home. In 1991, it became the Brew House, with spaces carved for galleries, apartments and performances; it's a cooperative where two dozen residents exchange volunteer time for breaks on rent.

"The first time I walked in here, it was one big, dark space with lots of territories and tons of junk. Metal artists were welding and grinding," remembers Tom Sarver, 31, who stages the annual Black Sheep Puppet Festival in the Brew House's huge, chilly theater. As Sarver talks, I'm distracted by a lithe woman in tights who methodically seizes a theater drape, shimmies 20 feet above our heads and turns upside down. The acrobat is Erin Carey, 25, a performer with the Zany Umbrella Circus. The troupe, with its own circus band, needs the expansive space to rehearse its next show. "It's either this or my parents' tree," Carey says.

"We leave the door open. Anyone who's walking down the street can come in and watch," says Benjamin Sota, the circus's 25-year-old founder. "The hodgepodge of the South Side makes it receptive to us -- a circus is a hodgepodge, too."

"I like the mix. It's vibrant and gritty," agrees Texas transplant Val Cox, 52. The painter uses a nearby 1860s wagon shop as his home and studio. An in-line skater, he often ends the day with a workout on the riverfront trail, three blocks away. "Come out with us. We'll teach you how to go fast!" he says. I promise to try.

Back on East Carson, waiters are sweeping in front of sidewalk tables, and the thump of guitar amps promises the usual busy night for clubs and restaurants. Hard-rock venues here, such as the Smiling Moose, Lava Lounge and the Rex, have been joined by events such as Soulcialism. The monthly raves blast rare Motown platters at the tattered White Eagle, another fraternal lodge.

I turn the corner and climb the stoop at Dish, an upscale bistro that offers Mediterranean specialties. When I reemerge after dinner, East Carson Street has turned into a boardwalk. Tides of dressed-up young women and dressed-down young men surge and flirt. Bass notes throb from open car windows in a long line of traffic. A freight train screeches past. I decide to get off the street before the zombies come back. A starry night promises a clear tomorrow for a workout.

The neighborhood's volume has been turned to mute in the morning. Even the river is moving slowly. Following Cox's suggestion, I strap on skates to try the trail. The recreation path alongside the Mon offers an easy six-mile tour (other links stretch by the Ohio and Allegheny).

I blade to its eastern end, passing water-bikers and kayakers launching from Riverfront Park at 18th Street. A single twig freezes my right skate, and I pitch forward awkwardly. As I jerk upright, avoiding disaster, I glimpse my shadow stretching along the path: an alarmingly realistic and stiff-armed zombie, lunging contentedly along the South Side.

Christine H. O'Toole last wrote for Travel about York, England.

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