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South Side business owners, residents call neighborhood 'lawless,' ask for more police

Dan McSwiggen, manager of Cambod-Ican Kitchen, speaks at a community meeting Tuesday night at the South Side Market House.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Dan McSwiggen, manager of Cambod-Ican Kitchen, speaks at a community meeting Tuesday night at the South Side Market House.

Mayor Ed Gainey joined public safety officials and other city leaders to talk about crime with residents and business owners in the city’s South Side Tuesday. The meeting comes as the city is working to find solutions for a rise in crime in the neighborhood, primarily along East Carson Street.

Gainey visited the South Side during the early morning hours on Saturday and Sunday. “It was important ... to come down to the South Side to talk with residents and see what is happening on East Carson St.,” the mayor tweeted early Saturday. “This visit was important as we continue to build out Pittsburgh’s plan for peace to ensure that everyone is safe in our city.”

But on Tuesday some business owners said they worried Gainey, whose visit was publicized beforehand and featured a visible police presence, didn’t get a realistic picture of the problems on East Carson Street.

“We really appreciate it. ... But you really did not see what it’s actually like on South Side,” said Brian Vetere, owner of Carson City Saloon. “Come and really see what it’s like.”

Gainey pledged Tuesday he will continue to visit the neighborhood and reiterated his commitment to public safety. But he also warned the South Side’s problems can’t be resolved overnight.

“This is 20 years in the making,” Gainey said. “This is not going to be something that is solved tomorrow.”

Tensions have risen among residents and business owners who say gun violence, home invasions, property damage and other crimes have sharply increased in recent years. Earlier this month, back-to-back shootings took place within two blocks of each other.

A crowd packed the South Side Market House, and more than 200 people tuned into the meeting online Tuesday. Gainey remarked that it was the strongest showing for a community meeting he had ever experienced.

About two dozen residents and business owners spoke over the course of three hours. Many blamed the violence on underage individuals who drink and take drugs on the street and loiter in nearby parking lots.

Business owners suggested curfews for teenagers, stricter enforcement of laws that bar underage drinking, and an ordinance to ban loitering in the neighborhood. Some suggested gun-control measures to keep weapons out of the South Side. Many claimed police officers have been held back by city leaders from effectively managing the crowds.

Several speakers referenced Fudge Farm’s recent departure from the neighborhood as a grim sign of what’s to come. The business cited recent gun violence as the reason it moved to downsize and close its South Side location.

“Just please save us,” said Christie Neff, owner of Twelve Whiskey Barbecue. “South Side is not like the Strip District. We can’t demolish it and start over again. But if we stand back and don’t do anything about what’s going on outside ... you’re going to eventually deteriorate all of the businesses that actually give their all in South Side.”

Residents also spoke of an exodus from the neighborhood if things don’t change.

“Forget about the business district: You’re going to lose people that live here,” said Jerry Morosco, a long-time South Side resident. He argued officials have focused their efforts entirely on East Carson Street, while crime pours over into residential areas too.

“We’ve made it too easy, and frankly comfortable, for anyone to break the law in our neighborhood,” said Cassandra Dixon, a resident and landlord in the South Side. She said consistent parking violations and hit-and-runs go unpunished in the area. “And now we’re seeing shootings weekly.”

"Mayor, you cannot allow this lawlessness behavior to continue. You unfortunately inherited this mess and we’re counting on you to fix it as soon as possible,” said Lynn Gable, a long-time South Side resident.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
"Mayor, you cannot allow this lawlessness behavior to continue. You unfortunately inherited this mess and we’re counting on you to fix it as soon as possible,” said Lynn Gable, a long-time South Side resident.

Many speakers cheered an increased police presence last weekend, and called for a continued, consistent showing from the department.

“When police are walking on foot, that really deters everything,” argued Brittany Houser, who owns Soul and Sea restaurant. “As long as that presence is there, I feel like we don’t have to impose curfews.”

Business owners also called on police to stay active later. Dan McSwiggen, manager of Cambod-Ican Kitchen, claimed many officers leave shortly after 2 a.m. “An hour and a half later, here comes the drive-by shooters. Shot out our front glass,” McSwiggen said. A Cambod-Ican employee was wounded in a shooting earlier this month.

According to police, last weekend officers issued four citations, three misdemeanor arrests, two felony arrests on warrants, a felony arrest for gun charges and gave out 25 warnings. Pittsburgh Police had help from county and state officers last weekend due to a number of public events happening at the same time.

According to Assistant Chief Linda Barone, Pittsburgh plans to dedicate more of its own officers to the neighborhood. “We’ve seen it work in other areas, where saturating an area with all of our resources really tamed the activity,” Barone said. “So we’re hopeful for that in the South Side.”

Redirecting officers to areas where crime is more likely is one of the key tenets of Mayor Gainey’s new policing strategy. So is a call for residents and business owners to work with the city to improve the safety of neighborhoods. Gainey refuted the suggestion that his administration is preventing officers from doing their jobs.

“No one has handcuffed the police. It’s not about that,” Gainey said. “I need everybody ... 'cause the only way we can create a Pittsburgh pathway to prosperity is if we’re working together."

According to Zone 3 Commander John Fisher, police will continue to block off the parking lane along East Carson Street on weekends to allow officers to better maneuver through the area. The strategy has so far replaced last year’s move to limit East Carson Street to one outbound lane only, which allowed officers to use the other lane to travel the stretch of the neighborhood with the most activity. Business owners spoke out against the move, arguing
it negatively impacted business.

Fisher said that the outbound-only strategy was effective, but he’s optimistic about the department’s new approach.

“Thus far, I like what I’ve seen, capturing those areas. It seemed to quiet things down,” he said. “I think it’s going to be effective.”

Another measure supported by city leaders is a resurrection of the city's disruptive properties
program, which fines property owners who are cited more than three times in one year. Officials said they planned to begin enforcing the program soon.

Apart from public safety measures, people spoke about the need for a cultural shift in the neighborhood and called for more entertainment options to keep young people away from bars and nightclubs.

City Councilor Bruce Kraus, who has represented the area for more than a decade, noted that many of the South Side’s problems are concentrated in a six-block stretch of East Carson Street, and don’t reflect the community overall. Kraus pinned the blame on seven establishments but declined to name them.

“When people think of South Side, they think solely of liquor licenses and bars,” Kraus said. “It is not an accurate representation of who we are.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.