Cassandra Dixon and Don Berman are among the leaders of the new grassroots organization, SouthSideCAN. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

The South Side has a bad reputation. 

Over the past two years, violence on East Carson Street has kept the community in the media spotlight. Responses have been swift: new policing initiatives and the formation of the South Side Community Action Network (SouthSideCAN). Yet, the South Side continues to attract residents moving into rehabbed historic homes and lofts carved out of spacious old schools and churches. 

Do the events in the South Side portend bigger changes down the road? Is the South Side gentrifying?

In 2019, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition identified Pittsburgh as the 8th-most gentrified city in the U.S. based on percentages of eligible gentrifying neighborhoods from 2000-2013. Washington, D.C. led the list, followed by San Diego, New York City, Albuquerque and Atlanta. Pittsburgh ranked higher than San Francisco and Philadelphia. 

Analysts looked at changes in household incomes, house values and Black residential displacement by census tracts to determine gentrification rates. Pittsburgh neighborhoods singled out at the time as examples were Lawrenceville, East Liberty and parts of the North Side. 

Activists, economists and journalists tend to focus on the big changes in neighborhoods that are gentrifying: rising property values, demographic changes, new businesses and displacement. 

But there are other, more subtle, indicators that neighborhoods like the South Side Flats are poised to gentrify — or, that gentrification is already underway. Finding them is as simple as tuning into media accounts after a busy weekend on East Carson Street.

A shooting at the Carson City Saloon in July led to increased police patrols and enforcement along East Carson Street. The bar closed for the remainder of the summer and posted this notice on its door. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

One of the early signs that big changes may be on the horizon is neighborhood perception or, as social scientists call it, territorial stigma. That’s a fancy name for a simple concept: a bad reputation. 

University of California at Berkeley Sociologist Loic Wacquant coined the term. He defines it as “a blemish of place,” the perception that cities and neighborhoods are unsafe, unclean and in need of cleaning up. He and other analysts are interested in the responses that governments, real estate speculators and consumers have to a bad reputation. 

In cities around the world, gentrification is one outcome of those responses, which include stepped-up policing, public relations campaigns to rebrand neighborhoods, and large-scale redevelopment projects.

History of negative perceptions

The South Side’s bad rap didn’t materialize in the summer of 2022 with the spate of shootings that brought Mayor Ed Gainey down to East Carson Street to meet with residents and business owners. It didn’t begin in 1985 when LTV closed the South Side mill that many still call J&L. 

The blemish was already there in the 1960s when community groups embarked on an ambitious plan to upgrade the neighborhood in a program called “Operation Georgetown” (after the D.C. neighborhood) that contemporaries described as urban renewal minus the bulldozers. 

In fact, the South Side’s negative reputation was firmly affixed in the summer of 1937. 

That’s when South Hills real estate appraiser Gerald Born provided information to the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation that enabled the mortgage agency to redline the community. Born characterized the city’s “Carson St. Section” as a “very poor neighborhood,” citing industrial smoke, flooding and many people — Eastern European immigrants and African Americans among them — dubbed “undesirables.” 

Born wrote of the neighborhood, “A very spotty section with some fair property on some side streets.” Its trend towards future desirability: “downward.”

The people that Born and the agency characterized as undesirable were likely still living in the neighborhood three decades later when the steel mill closed. They were or their children and grandchildren were.

“You’d have three or four generations living in one block and they just stayed there. That’s what they wanted to do. They didn’t want to leave,” explains longtime real estate professional Don Carlson. 

Fixing the reputation in fits and starts

In 1983, the new South Side Local Development Corporation (SSLDC) hired Carlson as its first executive director. In the early 1980s, the city encouraged several neighborhoods to form community development corporations; SSLDC became the South Side’s. 

Carlson’s job was to attract businesses and improve the community’s image. 

He seized upon East Carson Street’s milelong inventory of historic buildings, many of them dating to the late 1800s. Under Carlson’s leadership, in 1984, Pittsburgh became one of seven cities in a new urban Main Streets program sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

Pittsburgh’s test site: East Carson Street.

The South Side’s approach to community and economic development got lots of buzz and investments. A string of bars and restaurants opened up around the same time, leading some observers to describe the changes as gentrification. 

About the same time that Carson went to work at the community development corporation, Mario’s opened in the 1500 block of East Carson. “This saloon/restaurant on the South Side falls into the currently popular ‘fern and fan’ category,” wrote a Pittsburgh Press food critic in 1983. 

Mario’s is the sole survivor of a surge of new upscale bars and restaurants that opened on East Carson Street during what many analysts call the area’s first gentrification wave. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

A year later, in 1984, Le Pommier opened in the 2100 block. “There was a time not too long ago when the thought of opening an elegant French restaurant on the Southside would seem a madman’s fantasy,” wrote the Post-Gazette. “After all, how could pricey, French cuisine compete in the pierogi capital of Pittsburgh?”

The newspaper’s implication was clear: The South Side was too lowbrow for a fancy French eatery. 

The South Side’s crime and blue-collar background hit newsstands around the nation in the summer of 1984 when The Wall Street Journal reported on the clash of cultures there. The owner of a shot-and-a-beer bar next to Le Pommier told the reporter, “The only French in his menu is the fries.”

SSLDC President Howard Berger pushed back against The Wall Street Journal piece and a subsequent Pittsburgh Press article that suggested a “yuppie takeover” of South Side. Yuppie takeover was a colloquialism for gentrification. 

“This false premise of bad feelings between long-time residents and others is very damaging,” Berger wrote in a Press letter to the editor.

If it bleeds it leads … to gentrification

Fast-forward to 2023 and stories about South Side violence are saturating local media. The articles and other visible changes along the East Carson Street corridor include large numbers of unhoused people camping in the doorways of vacant storefronts competing with messages of impending upgrades to the neighborhood. 

In July, Pittsburgh Magazine touted the neighborhood’s desirability evident in new loft conversions. Doors Open Pittsburgh hosted a South Side neighborhood event in September and there are plans by Walnut Capital to demolish the former South Side Hospital (later, UPMC) for new upscale housing.

The same mixed messages appeared in Lawrenceville, East Liberty and the North Side just before redevelopment projects and infusions of new people and capital arrived. Just before those neighborhoods gentrified. 

There’s no doubt that violent crime is a part of life in the South Side. A Sept. 17 shooting left one man injured and two bullet holes in a van parked one block off East Carson Street. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Academics point to territorial stigmatization as an important precursor that paves the way for gentrification. A bad reputation drives property values down making it easier for investors to snatch up properties on the cheap and convert them into high-end residential and commercial spaces. 

Public policies like closing homeless shelters and increases in policing only accelerate negative neighborhood perceptions and create changes on the ground. 

Tilman Schwarze teaches criminology at the University of Glasgow. He has studied territorial stigma in Chicago and exurban Charlotte, North Carolina. 

“Territorial stigma provides some of the groundwork, the justification almost, for urban redevelopment,” Schwarze said from his home in the U.K. “When you have communities that have been framed over years and decades in these languages where the only things that are talked about are crime and violence, it provides some of the basis then for capital influx.”

Stigma is a powerful force. It can lead to businesses leaving commercial corridors like the ice cream boutique Fudge Farm did in 2022. And, it can keep consumers and homebuyers away. South Side’s bad reputation for being a violent place is driven by the media, say longtime residents and business owners. Reporting by the Trib earlier this year found that the reputation isn’t warranted: Violent crime, in fact, isn’t getting worse on the South Side.

A KDKA news crew interviews people in July at South 18th and East Carson streets for a story about increased police patrols. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

In July, I followed playwright Tami Dixon as she interviewed people along East Carson Street. Two days later, in the space where she interviewed arts entrepreneur Autumn Annan, a KDKA news crew was stopping passersby to ask about the city’s new policing efforts there.

Annan says that the South Side has its problems, just like any other urban neighborhood. She blames the media, though, for much of the area’s image problems. 

“I think that has to do with the power of the media,” Annan says. “When you are in charge of putting out something for people to look at and see every day, you have a greater ability to put whatever image on.”

South Side Barber Shop owner John “JC” Caputo agrees. His video cameras catch a lot of the incidents that make their way into press reports. 

“I feel like the media just focuses on the violence,” he says between haircuts in his shop. “I feel like the media’s a big part of this.”

Caputo has been on East Carson Street since 2011 and he’s seen a lot of changes. He described many instances over the past few years that highlight the neighborhood’s positive attributes. These include fundraising campaigns for disadvantaged people, providing free haircuts, and looking out for the neighborhood’s dog population. He recounted one episode where a large piece of plate glass fell from the façade of a neighboring building. Within minutes he and other shop owners were out sweeping the broken glass from the street and sidewalks.

SouthSideCAN is following in the footsteps of the South Side Local Development Corporation. (which shut down in 2012) and other local groups that have sought to repair the South Side’s image problems. 

“The story that typically hits the news is the negative one about the terrible thing that happened,” says SouthSideCAN member Cassandra Dixon. She has lived in the Flats for 14 years. Dixon was late to an August interview because she bumped into a TV news crew on East Carson.

Don Berman, a six-year resident, thinks there’s promise in reviving the Main Street manager model that was in place during South Side Local Development Corp.’s existence. “If the SSLDC had remained in force, or if it had become replaced by another organization, we probably wouldn’t be having these conversations right now,” Berman explains.

Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group Executive Director Ernie Hogan sees what’s happening in the South Side, especially the Flats, as a clear sign that gentrification is happening. And, he adds, it’s not something new there. 

Hogan points to the 1980s wave that first brought foodies and late-night revelers to East Carson Street. 

“Because in the ’80s and early ’90s, there was a fair amount of activity in the South Side to try to figure out how to change Carson Street,” Hogan says. “In a lot of ways, South Side was probably one of the first neighborhoods to really gentrify, to be followed, then, by East Liberty.”

Lawrenceville, Hogan says, followed in East Liberty’s footsteps.

He also agrees that territorial stigma and media reports that focus on crime and other negative attributes are indicators that a new gentrification wave might be coming to the South Side. 

It’s hard to say whether the recent spate of negative press has affected the South Side’s real estate market. 

“It’s not that simple. There are many factors [affecting South Side] real estate. We are still suffering from Covid and its effects on retail. Today’s interest rates are a big factor also. Negative press never helps,” says Carlson, who founded the Carlson & Associates real estate firm. 

The barrage of negative reports can keep people away from the South Side and it can be a displacement pressure. People fed up with the actual and perceived conditions will leave, Hogan explains. That, like being priced out of a neighborhood, Hogan sees as a form of displacement.

Gentrification is a public policy issue that is related to zoning policies, housing policies, policing, code enforcement and taxation. In his 2017 book, “How to Kill a City,” writer Peter Moskowitz eloquently describes these policy failures as essential precursors in gentrifying neighborhoods. 

Hogan concurs. He sees shifts in public policy as the solution to avoiding displacement, one of the most harmful side effects of neighborhood upgrading.

Can the South Side’s future embody the positive changes that happened in East Liberty and Lawrenceville without becoming a chapter in the next gentrification study? Time will tell.

David S. Rotenstein is a historian, folklorist, and award-winning freelance writer. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and he writes about urban history, race, and the history of organized crime in Pittsburgh.