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South Side and the Monongahela Valley

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Pittsburgh's South Side, occupying an extensive floodplain on the south bank of the Monongahela River across from the Golden Triangle, offers a completely different visual experience from the glitz of the downtown skyline or the flashy new sports stadia and office parks of Pittsburgh's North Side on the opposite bank of the Allegheny River.

An old Revolutionary-era farm turned workhouse, South Side was first named Birmingham, in the obvious hope that industry would flourish here as it had in Birmingham, England. The town was settled around 1810, and reached its peak population of some 45,000 around World War I. By then, E. Carson Street, its main spine, stretched for almost two miles with a continuous line of stores and apartments. Today, broken in only a few spots, E. Carson remains a fascinating thorough-fare. Streets could be laid in a more regimented manner over this floodplain than in most of Pittsburgh, which made it the most cohesive of the city's neighborhoods. This physical cohesion was then augmented by ethnic links (first Germans, then Poles, then immigrants from eastern and southern Europe) and an expressive architectural and visual collectivity.

The attraction of South Side was work, in a multitude of jobs in its glassworks, ironworks, foundries, and crucibles (critical components of iron making), that may be the perfect metaphor for this district of modest houses and ethnic churches and clubs. The Jones and Laughlin (J&L) steelworks was the biggest draw. Everything east of the Birmingham Bridge and the entire opposite shore from the Birmingham to the Glenwood bridges was occupied by J&L sheds and blast furnaces until the mid-1980s, when the economy and steelmaking fortunes changed.

A mill district such as South Side was effectively a company town that was devastated by the closing of the glasshouses and steelworks; by the 1980s and 1990s, its population had dropped to slightly more than 10,000, compared to double that in World War II. An eventual economic upturn came in the 1990s, not from any revival of industry but from the South Side's hundreds of lively nineteenth-century storefronts. Bars turned into gourmet restaurants, and mom-and-pop food shops resurfaced as antique stores, clothing boutiques, and nightclubs. Up on the slopes, there was a parallel move to rehab the wooden workers' homes into affordable housing for singles and young families. Today, South Side's economic troubles are not entirely behind it, but it has emerged as the undisputed entertainment center of Pittsburgh, and moved from just preserving its architecture to expanding it in vigorous new housing by the river and office and retail complexes at both ends of the restored Hot Metal Bridge (see AL44).

South Side was always a microcosm of the Monongahela River valley. Its rise foretold the later expansion of mill towns upriver, such as Homestead, Braddock, Duquesne, McKeesport, and Turtle Creek. Similarly, its fall announced their eventual fall, too, as metals processing was outsourced from Pittsburgh overseas. Those were the true company towns, and they lack South Side's diversification and nearness to the metropolis. Here and there one sees revitalization, particularly in historic preservation, but the new dawn for all of the Monongahela Valley mill towns remains elusive.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Lu Donnelly et al.

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