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South Side bar owners, city police taking steps to improve safety along East Carson Street

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

While recent violent incidents in Pittsburgh’s South Side led one bar to temporarily close its doors, other business owners are taking a different route to advocate for change in the neighborhood.

“How can we make an improvement and what can we tangibly do?” wondered John DeMauro, whose gastropub Urban Tap sits along East Carson Street between 12th and 13th Streets.

But he wasn’t alone in contemplating what responsibility business owners have to their neighborhood. So DeMauro got together with nine other businesses and formed the South Side Hospitality Partnership.

In addition to Urban Tap, the partnership includes The Flats on Carson, Mario’s South Side Saloon, Jack’s Bar, Smokin’ Joe’s Saloon, Twelve Whiskey Barbecue, Finn McCools, Jimmy D’s, Sultry F&B and Enclave.

DeMauro said the group was formally established about a month ago amid a few chaotic weekends in the neighborhood. The group shares the belief that business owners have a role to play in improving the experience along East Carson Street.

“We have to hold ourselves accountable,” he said. “We have to make sure that the businesses are operating properly.”

The partnership began drafting guidelines for how they should operate and explored new security and service worker training to better detect fake IDs or when someone has been over-served. They established a shared ID system so that when a bar patron is banned from one business in the partnership, they’re banned from the other businesses too.

More recently, the partnership began posting security footage on a shared app to let each other know what’s going on in real time. After meeting with the city, DeMauro said city police agreed to monitor the app.

Also keeping a close eye on the security app is Don Berman with the South Side Community Action Network. He decided to take an active role in community organizing after a string of violent incidents plagued the South Side last year.

Berman’s group began hosting monthly “neighbor nights” earlier this year at the Market House to encourage residents to get involved. While public safety — and the role of city government in providing that — is a hot topic at these meetings, people also meet about litter, beautification projects and other neighborhood matters.

Berman said, while there can be disagreements about how to improve the neighborhood, he’s been encouraged by the participation of residents and business owners.

“We're all looking to achieve the same thing,” he said.

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Dedicated police unit

One thing residents and business owners do agree on is a desire for more police in the area. At a meeting last summer, community members in the packed room begged officials with the Gainey administration to bring back a police unit dedicated to the East Carson Street business corridor.

More than a year later, those residents are getting their wish.

According to Public Safety officials, a small unit began patrols Thursday. Officers on the unit will work the beat from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. Thursday through Sunday.

“They will be out there, [to] engage with the community and the patrons and the bar owners,” said Lee Schmidt, the city’s director of Public Safety. Schmidt said the unit will work alongside other Zone 3 officers on patrol.

In addition to the new unit, city police will be joined by officers from the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office provided support to police last weekend when police issued dozens of citations for things like disorderly conduct, open containers, public drunkenness, public urination, and small amounts of marijuana.

According to Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police, officers also made two felony arrests and one misdemeanor arrest.

Schmidt said the city plans to continue to partner with the sheriff’s office for “at least a month” in the South Side.

“It’s all based on the need and how we see things go,” he said.

DeMauro is cautiously optimistic about the additional police presence. But he stressed consistency is the key to keeping things in order. He hopes a dedicated unit will create more continuity than when the city pulls officers from other zones to help out.

“Those partners can work more so in unison and have a good understanding of exactly what's going on,” he said.

Data shows this summer has been less violent

Although unruly crowds and violence have received much attention from the media, Pittsburgh Police data shows there have been fewer shootings and calls for shots fired this summer compared to last year.

According to data provided to WESA, between May 1 and July 18, 2023, there were two shootings — one of which was fatal — and 16 calls for shots fired in the South Side Flats. During the same timeframe in 2022, there were six shootings — none of which were fatal — and 25 calls for shots fired.

But South Side City Councilor Bruce Kraus warned that summer is not yet over and said July and August “are traditionally the worst months of the year,” for violence along East Carson Street.

Kraus argues more should be done about so-called “problem bars,” where crowds spill out in the early morning hours and congregate outside.

“What we're talking about is two or three problematic operators within about three or four blocks of East Carson Street. That is not the [entire] South Side,” said Kraus.

Though there have been fewer shootings, DeMauro said, with fewer police in the area since the pandemic, there has been an increase in open containers, drug use and what he believes to be underage drinking.

At times, he said, people congregate in the street for the night without entering any local businesses.

“People understand that they're kind of able to do what they would like to do on East Carson Street,” DeMauro said. “There has to be some sort of citations or consequences to actions that we've allowed to perpetuate on the street.”

Reputation problem

DeMauro estimated that the street became a venue of its own shortly after pandemic restrictions were lifted in 2020. He said the issue was made worse after some bars hosted underage nights, attracting younger people to the neighborhood who can’t get into most bars.

According to DeMauro, the underage nights happened “at a period of time whenever people are desperate to get out of the house and the amount of people coming down [was] higher than normal.”

Since then, the neighborhood grew more chaotic. But that’s something that adding police may not change.

“We’re trying to restore safety, but we're also trying to restore reputation,” DeMauro said. “So it can't just end there.”

DeMauro and the rest of the South Side Hospitality Partnership plan to keep working together to meet with residents and city officials about what else business owners can do.

“That's really the power that we have right now, and we have to continue to do that,” DeMauro said. “As long as people continue to meet, continue to talk and work together … We will start trending upward.”

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.