Walkabout: The Glazing Pot led South Side's decades-long renewal as arts community

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The "closed permanently" sign on the door of The Glazing Pot signals the end of an era that Chuck Nogal and his business partner helped create when they opened the South Side storefront in 1972.

At the time they opened at 1302 E. Carson St., the neighborhood's main drag had 65 vacant storefronts from 20th Street to the 10th Street Bridge, Mr. Nogal, 84, recalls. In a former Isaly's, he and Jim Hasley paid cheap rent to translate their ceramics hobby into a business -- holding classes so that others could make ceramics.

And they were onto something.

"We had so many people we had to buy the building," he said. "We had doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs and housewives coming in" for classes.

It's normal to ascribe the progress we see to the hard work of people today, but back when Pittsburgh was still hemorrhaging jobs and population, before the average person had a sense of what the neighborhood or the city's future might be, a few key advocates began setting the stage.

One was Charlie Samaha, a steelworker "who had an artistic side and a foresight," said architect Gerald Morosco, whose office is at 1016 E. Carson.

After The Glazing Pot opened, Mr. Samaha began filling storefronts he had bought with arts-related entrepreneurs and antique dealers. He formed the South Side Arts and Crafts Association to promote them.

"Charlie was a fearless advocate for the South Side," said architect John Martine, who was on the South Side Chamber of Commerce in those early years.

"Charlie would sweep in front of stores and put a bill in the doors for people to donate to the South Side Arts and Crafts Association," Mr. Morosco said.

"Charlie was a big character to push this place," said Mr. Nogal, who grew up in that part of the South Side, which was the village of Birmingham before Pittsburgh annexed it. He began working at age 12 as a stock boy at a dry goods store.

Back then, you didn't need to leave the neighborhood "for anything you wanted or needed," he said, "but there were a lot of bars then, too." The clientele were "guys who worked in the steel mills."

The Glazing Pot was supposed to have been a weekend and evening sideline. Mr. Nogal was an assistant store manager for Gimbels in South Hills Village. Ms. Hasley was an accountant for a food service company.

After renting for a year, Mr. Nogal left Gimbels to devote all his time to The Glazing Pot. The business began to drop off in the mid-1990s, he said, attributing that in part to the allure of cheaper pottery from countries including China.

East Carson itself may be linear, but its history seems to be circular.

Like when Mr. Nogal was a kid and the night sidewalks were crowded with people taking walks, the street is alive again, albeit a bit rowdier.

Mostly, he said, the transformation has been "wonderful, wonderful."

The early arts association gave rise to East Carson's Main Street designation, which was followed by East Carson's listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. It became a city historic district in 1992.

Artists, photographers, graphic designers, gallery owners and architects continue to find a home in old Birmingham. A new iteration of the South Side Arts and Crafts Association is even planned to represent them.

East Carson Street has almost no vacancies, just as when Mr. Nogal was a boy. You can once again get almost everything you need in the neighborhood, where Mr. Nogal still lives surrounded "by young people," he said.

Mr. Nogal is retiring in part because his business partner died in September and because he no longer can lift much weight. In liquidating his stock, he is giving much away to groups that work with the elderly and disabled in ceramics therapy.

"It was a wonderful thing we did to open this store to hobbyists," he said. "Many people became our friends."

As for the transition of The Glazing Pot and the 2 1/2-story building it has lived in for 41 years, it isn't likely to sit vacant for long, and what it becomes may surprise nobody.

"Whoever buys my building," Mr. Nogal said, "will probably turn it into a saloon."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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