South Side, East Carson Street hubs for eclectic retailers and night life

Michael Ringling | May 31, 2012    

Pittsburgh’s South Side has two faces: During the day, it provides a charming shopping… Pittsburgh’s South Side has two faces: During the day, it provides a charming shopping experience, and during the evening, people crowd the streets for a fun night out.

Once the center of the Pittsburgh steel industry, South Side has transformed into a bustling neighborhood with a seemingly endless number of shops, restaurants and bars. The area is primarily comprised of local shops with large chains woven throughout the neighborhood, and its location just over the river from Oakland across the Hot Metal and Birmingham bridges makes it easily accessible by bus, bike or foot.

Meg Procter, a junior majoring in natural sciences, goes to South Side at least three times a semester to shop and enjoy the area. She said she and her friends go to South Side because of the many advantages it has over Oakland.

“Oakland to walk around and shop is not the ideal place,” Procter said about the lack of shopping opportunities. “If we go shopping, we usually go to South Side.”

One store that Procter particularly likes is Goodwill, a thrift store located on East Carson Street that sells used items for low prices. She said Goodwill is “one of the main reasons to go” to South Side.

But Procter doesn’t limit herself to purchasing resold items. She often frequents SouthSide Works, an area located off East Carson Street around 27th Street that is home to big-name retail stores such as Urban Outfitters, Claire’s, Kay Jewelers and Forever 21.

And SouthSide Works isn’t just an area for clothing and jewelry. It’s also a good place for an upscale dinner and a movie date. The SouthSide Works Cinema, along with the Cheesecake Factory, bd’s Mongolian Grill and other fine restaurants are all located in the area. And sometimes there are concerts and other free events located around the music stage in the center of SouthSide Works.

Continuing down Carson Street, students will find a multitude of shops filled with almost anything — from a life-size Yoda figurine to hundreds of cigars.

For the musically inclined, South Side has a number of shops for both listeners and musicians alike.

Dave’s Music Mine, located at 1210 East Carson St., has walls lined with CDs, cassettes and vinyl records. The store’s been a part of South Side since its May 2000 relocation from Oakland.

Dave Whaley, an employee of Dave’s Music Mine — but not the Dave who owns it — said the store has a lot to offer over chain music dealers. For one, Dave will make special orders if a patron is looking for something in particular.

“We are able to get a lot of stuff you wouldn’t find somewhere else,” Whaley said. “We have a lot of stuff that other places won’t have just because we’ve been in the business for so long.”

Just across the street, at 1305 East Carson St., is Pittsburgh Guitars, a store lined with more than 250 guitars. The owner and proprietor, John Bechtold, worked in the store for 10 years before purchasing it from the previous owner last year. He said the store is more of a place to hang out and talk about music than just a business.

“When you come to our store, we aren’t going to try and sell you something,” Bechtold said. “We like talking music.”

Many famous musicians have passed through the store, and Bechtold said Kurt Cobain, the deceased frontman of Nirvana, once bought a guitar there. The store doesn’t advertise, so many of the prices are lower than other stores. Bechtold said if the store advertised, it would have to set its prices according to the manufacturer’s limitations.

But for those not interested in shopping, South Side is also a place for nightlife.

Carson Street is packed with bars of all shapes and sizes, and they are not just for those older than 21. Some places, such as Hookah Bookah and Sphinx Cafe, offer hookahs for tobacco smoking to those students older than 18.

For the older crowd, the number of bars along the mile-long stretch of East Carson makes South Side a top choice for people looking to celebrate their 21st birthday.

Pat Walling, 25, a resident of South Side for three years, enjoys the atmosphere of South Side, particularly after 7 p.m. He said that for someone looking for something to do, South Side is the place to go.

“You can find a dive bar if you want to relax or you can go out and get crazy,” Walling said. “[South Side] caters to whatever you want.”

Of course, the influx of bars has also made it a center for criticism. After a few years and complaints from South Side residents, Councilman Bruce Kraus has been examining the revelry that’s giving the neighborhood a bad name because of overflowing trash and crime traced back to intoxicated people.

In April, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl joined Kraus to forge a partnership with Responsible Hospitality Institute, a nonprofit consultant group known for helping cities manage safe and lively hospitality districts. Under the contract with the city, RHI will conduct a nine-month study to examine the effects of Pittsburgh’s nightlife in three neighborhoods — South Side, Downtown and Lawrenceville.

Recently, representatives from various organizations voted to create a Neighborhood Improvement District that would involve imposing a special tax on residents in the South Side to pay for litter cleanup, safety patrols and other services.

The hope for the effort is to create a pleasurable experience for everyone during the day and night.

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