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April 16, 2015

Connecting with the Community: Nightlife & the South Side


Michael Glass’s urban studies class not only creates community engagement for college students — sending them into a specific neighborhood to conduct social science research each semester — the course itself studies ways to improve community engagement for everyone.

Urban Studies 1300, required for urban studies majors, provided hands-on research experience on gentrification issues in Lawrenceville, for instance, in 2013. For fall 2014, the students focused on problems associated with nightlife in the South Side Flats.

The Flats is “highly associated with the nighttime economy, and over the past few decades that’s created a lot of tension with the neighbors,” Glass explains. “I’ve seen that having students out in the community makes a difference in [students’] ability to think about these neighborhoods and urban space in general.”

Over last fall term, students in Urban Studies 1300 first researched nighttime business survey results from other cities, then ventured into the Flats with iPads to conduct surveys at night in October. They analyzed survey answers in November and December, and in January Glass turned their final reports into an executive summary for Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus, who represents the Flats, and his chief of staff, a former urban studies student at Pitt. Kraus invited the students to speak to the full council.

On April 7, several members of the class outlined their recommendations in this public forum. “It benefits us and it benefits the community by getting more real information” for politicians and community groups to implement, Glass notes.


Faculty member Michael Glass

Faculty member Michael Glass

The students’ fieldwork examined three main questions:

• How does the South Side Flats cater to the needs of residents and visitors?

• What are the priorities and perceptions of South Side residents and visitors?

• What are the key opportunities and challenges created by the South Side Flats’ popularity as a nighttime destination?

Students conducted their street survey of pedestrians during nighttime business hours along East Carson Street and other main arteries of the Flats, getting 2,215 responses. These answers came mostly from younger residents (64.2 percent were ages 18-34) and similarly aged visitors (66.1 percent), from those who were predominantly white (75.3 percent), and from an equal number of men and women.

The results of the survey showed that:

• The neighborhood has a strong public identification with the nighttime economy.

• The problems in the South Side Flats have much in common with those experienced in other cities that depend on the nighttime economy.

• The neighborhood’s physical appearance influences the perceptions of visitors and residents.

• There is poor community pride because of the brief stay of many residents.

Students Amelia Thorne, left, and Emma Friedman interview South Side property owner Marie Rotando.

Students Amelia Thorne, left, and Emma Friedman interview South Side property owner Marie Rotando.

• The South Side is experienced differently depending on the gender of visitors and whether residents own or rent their residences.

Many students in the class themselves had patronized South Side bars and restaurants, and knew about the “challenges that the density of drinking establishments could create,” as Glass’s executive summary puts it: “anti-social behavior, the limited availability of after-hours transportation, safety problems for females and a negative perception of the neighborhood and students themselves.”

Surprisingly, the students found that the nighttime economy had been studied more in relation to European cities, with their differing layouts and histories, than for American cities, posing difficulty for an academic comparison between their findings and previous studies. But they concluded “from the international literature that 24-hour cities are generally beneficial to urban areas: While there are negatives that must be mitigated (traffic, disorderly behavior and antagonism between residents and visitors), these are offset by the vitality and growth that can occur with well-planned nightlife precincts,” according to Glass’s report.

Survey answers about quality of life on the South Side at night led students to a number of general recommendations: undertake better planning and management; improve public transportation, and educate visitors, including college students, on better ways to think about and experience the neighborhood.

Among the specific recommendations were to:

• Stagger the open hours of bars and restaurants to lessen the density of people leaving in the late night or early morning.

• Reduce the proportion of high-volume, vertical drinking establishments — bars with high turnover and people standing mainly to drink — and increase the lower-volume, horizontal drinking establishments — generally places with seating and food, where people linger longer and drink less.

• Foster cooperation between bar owners and other business owners.

• Provide more public restrooms.

• Encourage resident ownership and business diversification so that the area’s day- and nightlife mix better.

• Make the Flats’ businesses more welcoming to women.

• Create more links among short-term and long-term residents.

• Employ traffic-slowing strategies along East Carson Street to reduce pedestrian-automobile conflicts.

• Rethink the Port Authority bus routes to have buses moving from the South Side to Oakland at bar closing times.

• Institute mandatory seminars for university students about off-campus behavior and the nature of the communities that surround Oakland.

Overall, students in the class concluded that those who visit the Flats need to develop a greater sense of the neighborhood as a complete place to live, not just to visit. “Hopefully it will spur more linking between the neighborhood stakeholder groups,” Glass adds.

Through all of this work, he says, the course achieves its main goal of “making sure that student experiences in the classroom are engaging with the communities around them.”

—Marty Levine