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South Side More Than Just a Drinking Destination, But Problems Persist, Say Pitt Students

Pittsburgh’s South Side often gets a bad reputation as merely a drinking destination for rowdy college kids, but residents say the historic neighborhood’s more wholesome aspects often get overlooked.

That’s according to a presentation made to City Council Tuesday afternoon by students from the University of Pittsburgh’s Urban Studies program.

“Media attention disproportionately focuses on crime and bad behavior of visitors, despite the dozens of responsible business owners and hundreds of proud residents that live in the area,” said Lauren Rowland, one of five students who presented the semester-long research project on behalf of their classmates.

Students set out to identify challenges facing South Side residents and businesses through interviews, data analysis, surveys and observation, but said neither the problems nor the solutions are unique to Pittsburgh. As people increasingly move back into city centers from suburbs, cities across the country are facing similar obstacles.

One of those obstacles is, admittedly, the prevalence of binge drinking, or what student David Leyden called “vertical drinking,” and described as simply “drinking to get drunk.”  

Classmate Daniel Barie said his experience as an Uber driver on the weekends suggests that such behavior is not limited to college students, though they often bear the brunt of the blame. He said it is common for young people in their 20s to view their drinking habits as a “badge of honor.”

“They regale each other with stories of how drunk they were last weekend or last night,” Barie said. “It’s something to brag about rather than to conceal.”

In contrast to “vertical drinking,” “horizontal drinking” is more oriented around food and atmosphere rather than alcohol itself. Leyden said businesses should encourage this more responsible type of alcohol consumption, which he believes would draw a more diverse group of people to the South Side nightlife.

“What we really want to underscore is to let better business prevail,” Leyden said. “Bars … have been instrumental in revitalization of cities everywhere, and that’s also true on the South Side, but to have those bars better serve different kinds of people as opposed to one certain demographic of people.”

The students also found that women feel significantly less safe going out on the South Side than men do, and in some cases, sexual harassment was both expected and excused. Student Nick Goodfellow attributed that to a “hetero-normative, hyper-masculine” atmosphere that encourages binge drinking and casual hook-ups. Goodfellow said a female bartender he interviewed said she did not believe safety was a top priority for many business owners.

“Her primary concern was that the desire for profit trumps safety concerns in many of these venues, and the incidents that did occur were often viewed as expected hazards en route to getting the most profit for the night,” Goodfellow said.

Students hypothesized that the needs of businesses on the South Side too often outweighed the needs or residents, and set out to discover whether residents were actively participating in community meetings and events. While more than 50 percent of South Side homeowners reported participating in civic organizations and community groups, the same was not true of renters.

“What we found with renters is that most of them have never attended a meeting, and even more of them have never heard about those meetings or events,” said Chloe Dean. “Less than 10 percent of people are either seldom attending or always attending those meetings. That was a big difference that we found.”

The two-hour discussion with members of City Council ultimately led to more questions than answers, but Council President Bruce Kraus was eager to continue the conversation. He requested that the students next present their research project to Mayor Bill Peduto and other members of the administration, particularly those involved with public safety.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.