Police, inspectors step up presence on South Side

First weekend crackdown results in 19 arrests, numerous citations


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Here's what Peter and Michele Margittai want you to know about living in the South Side: It is not the place you think it is.

For a dozen years, the couple has lived in a cozy, three-story brick house on South 15th Street, a block-and-a-half north of East Carson Street. They have raised their two adorably precocious children -- 7-year-old Nico and 11-year-old Sophia -- here. They know the shopkeepers, the mailman and most of the neighbors on this dense block of homes by name.

The South Side was the only neighborhood where they could live a friendly urban existence, one in which school, work and other amenities could be found within walking distance.

"By and large, it's great ... How many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh can you walk to all of these things?" she said, sitting in her living room with Nico on her lap. It was Friday at 9 p.m.

For them, the area has taken on a sort of Jekyll and Hyde existence. Friday and Saturday nights, certain holidays and successful playoff runs can bring an influx of bar patrons and correspondingly, noise, vandalism, salty language and public urination to their beloved block.

"The bad thing about the South Side is there's bars down the street and it keeps me up," said Nico. He suggested the family move up the hill to Arlington, which is closer to the baseball field and further from the "ruckus."

"Other times of the day, the South Side is just an old, stable, safe neighborhood," Ms. Margittai said.

The South Side problem

For years, the city has attempted to deal with the South Side problem -- a challenge loosely defined as the residual effects from the record-breaking density of bars that line East Carson Street. It encompasses everything from alcohol-fueled nuisances that anger residents -- trash, vomit, noise, urination and vandalism -- to crimes police have linked to the bars, or patrons made vulnerable by too much to drink: sexual assaults, street robberies, fights and traffic accidents.

Last year, at the behest of Councilman Bruce Kraus, the city contracted with the Responsible Hospitality Institute, a California-based group that helps cities deal with problems in entertainment districts. The result of their work was the Pittsburgh Sociable City Plan which offered a comprehensive solution -- touching on everything from zoning to transportation to policing.

Spurred by a frightening police-involved shooting that took place in the midst of a crowd last weekend, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced a plan to crack down on the South Side by flooding the corridor with police, firefighters and building inspectors during peak problem hours on Fridays and Saturdays.

He said it was the first step to implementing the broader strategy recommended by RHI.

"What we think is most appropriate is to bring the order to the South Side and from there begin to implement transportation initiatives and other sorts of things [of] the RHI study," he said, standing on South Ninth Street early Saturday morning near the city's command post trailer. "We're going to spend what we need to spend to take care of the problem."

As temperatures hovered around freezing, six teams -- each consisting of at least one police officer, firefighter and building inspector -- hit several establishments on and around East Carson Street. The mayor said two dozen additional police officers -- on foot and in police vehicles -- were also added.

Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, was on hand Friday night into Saturday morning on private security detail at S-Bar. Standing in the sleek nightclub at the close of the night, he said he believed the saturation patrol -- if it's sustained -- could have a lasting impact.

"That's the boots-on-the-ground approach that you have to have in an entertainment district," he said.

On Saturday, the mayor announced the results of the blitz -- 19 arrests, 94 traffic citations, 42 towed vehicles and 14 non-traffic citations -- in the four hours between 10:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m.

But in other circles, there was skepticism that its impact would endure after the police left. Mr. Margittai, for example, believes the problem lies with liquor laws that allowed this density of bars in the first place.

Despite the varying opinions, the consensus was clear: Something must be done.

10:30 p.m. Piper's Pub:

Cortney Buchanan, a veteran bartender at Piper's Pub, describes himself as "the hammy center of attention," a man who knows many of his customers by name.

On Friday night, it was unusually slow, even accounting for the weather. He says he worries all the talk about the saturation patrol scared off patrons.

Piper's prides itself for being different from other South Side establishments, a place that does most of its business in food, not drinks and, for the most part, caters to a more subdued crowd.

And Mr. Buchanan, to some degree, prides himself in being a different kind of bartender. He says he's not afraid to refuse to serve someone who's already had too much.

"It's our duty to make sure they're not overserved," he said, regardless of their protestations. "I can stand people being mad at me for five minutes."

That night, he miffed a neatly dressed customer when he refused to serve him two beers at once. The man left after finishing half a beer.

But the problems, he believes, run deeper. It might not just be about the bartenders or the alcohol. It might be about retraining patrons to be accountable even when police aren't watching.

"It's almost as if we need to change people's attitudes, which is going to take a lot more than putting a bunch of cops on every corner," he said.

11:30 p.m. Jimmy D's:

In front of the club, young patrons wind through a line of doormen -- one collects money, another checks identification and another -- because they've been warned of a crackdown on occupancy permit violations Saturday night -- keeps a headcount with a counter.

A young woman employed by the club approaches passers-by, advertising: "Two dollar drinks!"

Upstairs, the music is so deafening it rattles your bones. People crowd the dance floor, some dancing gleefully, some craning their necks to surveil. A security guard is perched on a railing.

At a quarter to midnight, a young woman -- fashionably dressed in skinny jeans and a bright pink top -- draws the attention of security. She is half-conscious and unable to walk. Limp as a rag doll, she is propped up by a muscled security guard, who slips his arm around her back and half-carries her down the stairs.

She's left outside, where she crumples onto the sidewalk against a storefront with a friend. Doormen keep an eye on her as the friend attempts to call for a cab -- a difficult, if not impossible proposition in the city at that hour.

As she gets up and attempts to amble away, teetering dangerously in heeled boots, a Pittsburgh police officer working a security detail on this block attempts to block her path.

"You don't want to get in trouble," he tells her.

"I don't want to get in trouble," she coos back, and flashes him a sleepy smile. She attempts to push him.

"Well then don't push a cop," he says.

A dearth of transportation was one problem highlighted in the RHI report, which linked it, predictably, to impaired driving, but also to other crimes, like sexual assaults and robberies.

The officer says there's not a lot of options for patrons like the young woman passed out on the sidewalk. Buses stop running long before the bars close and cabs, when they're available, sometimes won't take them.

"They don't want throw-up in their car," he says. "You can't really blame them, but how do we get them home?"

Shortly before 1 a.m. outside of The Smiling Moose:

The mayor is standing on the rowdy East Carson Street corridor conferring with a team of firefighters, police officers and building inspectors when a thin man with wide black discs inlaid in his earlobes yells out.

"Hey Luke, do you like Slayer?!"

The mayor, puzzled, departs after a few minutes. In their starch black uniforms, the officers, firefighters and inspectors are conspicuous on this block.

Over the next 45 minutes, the team hits several establishments where they're met with nervousness by some bar owners and managers and curiosity by patrons.

At Kopy's Bar, tucked away on South 12th Street, the team and the entourage of media nearly outnumber the patrons themselves, who snapped pictures with cellphone cameras. At Rumshakers, the uniformed men thread their way through a crowded dance floor to check back exits.

They count patrons, check lighting and egresses and chat with bar managers.

They're under instructions to "dump" a bar if it appears to be over capacity -- that is evacuate it and count the occupants as they leave to see if the bar is in compliance.

They never had to.

The night ends with a flurry of activity near South 11th and East Carson streets, where a man is cuffed on the ground next to his car after a report of a fight.

Two dozen officers and seven police cars swarm the scene. The man's car is searched and a few minutes later, he's uncuffed and allowed to leave.

As the hour approaches 2:30 a.m., East Carson Street is mostly empty. There's little traffic except for a queue of street cleaners, lined up to wash away the remnants of the night. Once again, it's quiet.

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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