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The downside of being an urban destination

Back when the city was creating the so-called North Shore, some of us groused about how isolated the new developments were from the traditional North Side. Separated by railroad tracks and dimly lit tunnels, it was as if the whole sports-and-entertainment complex had been designed  to shield visitors from the rest of us. Even the geographically dubious new name — rivers have banks, not shores — seemed like an effort to distance the area from nearby urban neighborhoods: You wouldn't want visitors to worry about encountering violent behavior and substance abuse in town, after all. 

Funny how things work out, isn't it? After this past weekend' s Kenny Chesney concert, quarantining the North Shore doesn't seem like such a bad idea. 

As you may have heard, Chesney drew more than 50,000 people to Heinz Field, many of whom spent hours tailgating on sun-baked parking lots for hours before the show even began. Not surprisingly, at least 10 large fights broke out, according to police spokeswoman Diane Richard; police carried out more than 70 arrests and Tased at least one person. 

Media accounts, meanwhile, made much of the trash Chesney's fans had left behind: a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review referred to the damage wrought by "Hurricane Kenny," while WPXI' s cameras captured an abandoned recliner, lying forlornly amid the refuse. ("We're not quite sure what that's about," anchor Jennifer Abernathy said in her best amused-newscaster voice.) Social media was shocked too, with a Facebook page calling for a ban on future Kenny Chesney concerts, among other online protests. On news sites, comments stereotyped Chesney fans as "white trash," and surmised that everyone involved must have come from, like, West Virginia. No real Pittsburgher would act this way, surely. 

Personally, I don' t think the socioeconomic status, or the ZIP code, of Kenny Chesney fans are the issue. Some of the trucks in the parking lots, not to mention the boats moored along the river, look like they cost far more than the down payment on my house. And the behavior wasn't that different from what we've seen on the streets of Oakland after a Super Bowl win, or Downtown during St. Patrick' s Day. Those people can' t all be from Morgantown.

The issue is the mindset you create by transforming whole swaths of your city into urban funzones — or "entertainment districts," as urban planners like to call them. Developing destinations like Heinz Field and PNC Park, we were told, would generate "vitality" and help with "youth retention." And it was supposed to be easy money: Many of the people such destinations attract leave as quickly as they came, so you don' t have to invest much in schools or other long-term capital. The problem, though, is that they don' t have much of a long-term investment in you, either. And some percentage of that crowd is guaranteed to act like morons.

And if you have to have urban funzones, the North Shore may be the best Pittsburgh can hope for — in part because of the very qualities that make it so problematic the rest of the year: its oceanic parking lots, its relative isolation from real neighborhoods, even the gentrifying name. At least when those Chesney fans got into fistfights, the people getting hurt were other Chesney fans. At least when they urinated in public, it was on each other' s pick-up trucks, not on some hapless retiree' s doorstep. 

Other neighborhoods are dealing with the excesses that come with being an entertainment district. Over on the South Side, a "Responsible Hospitality Initiative" is being tested as a model for balancing the needs of residents and business owners with the rampaging hordes of Carson Street. But maybe the Chesney concert provides another option: 

Instead of trying to rein in the frat boys of Carson Street, let them round themselves up, and concentrate themselves in areas far removed from where civilized folks dwell.  Put them in a nice, open area where there is nowhere to hide. Have lots of cops on hand. And if the revelers get out of line, take a page from the G-20 conference and hit them with the deafening siren of the LRAD. 

And if they happen to be fans of country music, you might even be doing them a favor. Along with everybody else.

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