What happened to Pittsburgh’s nightclub scene? It's complicated | Pittsburgh City Paper

What happened to Pittsburgh’s nightclub scene? It's complicated

click to enlarge What happened to Pittsburgh’s nightclub scene? It's complicated
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Belvedere's Ultra-Dive

A common refrain in Pittsburgh these days is that nothing is open late anymore. Gone are the days of 24-hour diners, hedonistic nightlife, and after-hours clubs — to hear many tell it, they've been replaced by bank branches, uptight coffee shops, and craft breweries that close at 10.

Xavier Thomas, Pittsburgh City Paper's Best Local Photographer in 2017 in part for his vivid shots of local nightlife, remembers when "everybody was trying to get to the clubs in Pittsburgh." He grew up in Uniontown and remembers when Station Square, the South Side, and the Strip were a regional draw.

"Nightlife used to be so popping that they had to have an under-21 club, [Club Zoo]," he tells City Paper. "To go from that to nothing, that is ridiculous."

To be clear, this isn't just a Pittsburgh issue. New York and Chicago have likewise seen clubs decline in recent years; COVID-19 put many clubs facing economic headwinds permanently out of business across the globe. Changing habits means the way people party is no longer the same as it was when thousands packed venues like Metropol or Xtaza.

Still, in Pittsburgh, the decline of club-oriented nightlife mirrors local concerns about gentrification, racism, and the city's shifting identity.

The Golden Age

Pittsburgh has boasted a huge variety of nightclubs and music venues over the years. The Crawford Grill and Syria Mosque are among the best-known — the Crawford hosted a who's who of jazz legends in the years after World War II, while Syria Mosque brought international superstars through the ’Burgh, eventually achieving immortality through the Allman Brothers' live album of the same name.

Both of these venues' sites are now parking lots. Still, they coexisted with other venues that carried their legacy through the dog days of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when the city was in economic decline and many locals were pulling up stakes for the suburbs.

Perhaps most notable among this era's venues was the Electric Banana. Morphing from a go-go bar into a punk rock venue, the Oakland-based business played host to punk legends including Black Flag and the Misfits, up-and-comers such as the Goo Goo Dolls, and numerous local punk acts. The Banana held this role until closing in 1999 to refashion itself as an Italian restaurant.

Meanwhile, the death of passenger rail cleared the way for Station Square to emerge as a nightlife destination in 1976. Using the old Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad freight facilities and terminal building, the mixed-use destination soon became home to several nightclubs, including Chauncy's, which began a 20-year run in the development in 1984, and Matrix, CP's Best Dance Club in 2006.

Were the late ’90s and early aughts a golden age of sorts for Pittsburgh nightlife? That largely depends on whom you ask.
click to enlarge What happened to Pittsburgh’s nightclub scene? It's complicated
Photo: Courtesy of Xavier Thomas/Art Like Us
A party at the Enclave
Tom Glover, co-owner of Abjuration Brew Co. in Stowe Township, worked at Metropol in the late ’90s before moving to Club Laga in Oakland at the turn of the Millennium — he remembers the motley group of employees included "Special Forces Rangers, bankers… and your standard food service worker degenerates." He keeps in touch with many Laga alumni through a group chat and recalls the club's layout intimately.

Laga's heyday ended in 2004 with its conversion to apartments. While The Upstage, a remnant of the club, survived, that, too, was shut down after a fatal accident in which a woman fell through a window. "They had put a foam insert before they fixed the window the next day," Glover recalls. "She just literally got into an argument with her boyfriend and died. It's horrible."

Despite such incidents, Glover remembers that era of clubbing as welcoming, inclusive, and rowdy. "Every bar I worked at — Metropol, Laga, the Palace of Greensburg … these were safe havens for a lot of people," he says. "One of the things that brings these places such endearment is they were good to everyone, and it didn't matter who you were."

Metropol and companion club Rosebud were sold in 2002 and ultimately closed, but that wasn't the end of nightlife on the Strip. Thomas has fond memories of Xtaza, which occupied the same building on Smallman as Metropol.

"I shot some of my favorite artists there like Fabolous, Cardi B, Young Dolph," he remembers. "The club was so big that if you and your friends couldn't read text messages or hear them on the phone, you couldn't find them." Like Glover, Thomas remembers Xtaza, as well as neighboring clubs, as inclusive spaces where dress clubs were relatively less strict.
click to enlarge What happened to Pittsburgh’s nightclub scene? It's complicated
Photo: Courtesy of Xavier Thomas/Art Like Us
Cardi B at Xtaza in 2017
The Smallman Street building that once housed Xtaza is now home to an Argentine restaurant and the self-driving car company Aurora. Like the rest of the Strip and Station Square, most of the big nightlife spots in repurposed spaces are gone — they've been replaced by restaurants, breweries, and boutiques. Bar Marco now serves wine and Italian fare in the former fire station where Firehouse Lounge, a lively, multi-level club, once resided. The church building formerly occupied by Altar Bar is once again a church. It's a sign both of how Pittsburgh has changed and how people party differently in 2023.

Changing habits

Instead of nightclubs, many Pittsburghers now cut loose at organized parties like Hot Mass and Jellyfish or follow DJ residencies at places like Cobra in Bloomfield. Chris Copen, the owner of Bottlerocket Social Hall in Allentown, says "there's been a move toward parties instead of clubs," in part because people don't go out to meet new people, and because event promotion has shifted. He says it's gotten expensive to stage shows and compete with behemoths like Live Nation, which now runs several larger venues in the region.

"Touring music went from supporting the album to, you know, the album is to support the tour," Copen says. He also highlights the way themed nights such as Taylor Swift dance parties have taken over ( Thomas and Glover likewise mentioned Taylor Swift nights unprompted as an example of the new way nightlife works). In essence, he says, people don't go out just to go out as they did in the pre-dating-app era, a sentiment Glover echoes.

Chris Firman, who runs Enclave nightclub in the former Rex Theater space, concurs. "Before text messages and social media, you had to actually go out and socialize to meet people, whereas now, you can do that from the comfort of your own home on various online platforms," he tells CP. Streaming services have also replaced DJs as the way young people discover new music, he says.

Firman shares Copen's assessment that big promoters, high costs, and changing habits have affected Pittsburgh. "The days of eight to 10 big-room clubs operating four to six nights a week at volume are long gone," he says.

Copen points to another big factor driving the shift in Pittsburgh nightlife, stating “younger people don't drink nearly as much as they used to." Studies back this up — a bevy of publications have found that Gen Z prefers cannabis to booze and is much less inclined to binge drink. Copen says the non-alcoholic portion of Bottlerocket's drink menu is a big part of their business. Beer consumption has also fallen even as liquor sales rise.

"I used to go to the liquor store every three weeks. Now it’s every week," Marshall Riggs, owner of North Side mainstay Riggs Lounge, tells CP. But he says he has noticed beer sales dip, as well. "Some kids… order a Southern Tier and then spend the rest of the night drinking PBR. I’ve given up trying to understand it."

For the more traditional nightclubs, Copen and Thomas say bottle service and strict rules have become much more normalized. Thomas says this necessarily means more restrictions on who can afford to go clubbing and often comes paired with covertly racist dress codes. Cavo, for example, specifies "Absolutely NO Ball Caps, (Dress hats are the only acceptable headwear). No Sweatpants, No Jerseys, No Hoodies" and "no bad Attitudes" [sic].

When it comes to the nightlife nowadays, "you ain't allowed to dress like a Black person," Thomas quips. "You gotta wear a polo with a collar, a button-up, a T-shirt with some soccer club on it." He says Black partiers looking for the kind of atmosphere Xtaza once created are now shunted to scattered clubs in Pittsburgh's East End.
click to enlarge What happened to Pittsburgh’s nightclub scene? It's complicated
Photo: Courtesy of Xavier Thomas/Art Like Us
Hardo's Birthday Party
This racial element has been part of several clubs' closing over the past decade. Zen, a defunct Station Square spot, is the subject of a Facebook group called "I'm Tired of Being Racially Profiled at ZEN Social Club in Pittsburgh." Skybar, which sits above "party bar" Foxtail, closed after "a woman having a bottle inserted into her vagina in front of a crowd of shocked onlookers" made national news — though Foxtail has since reopened with a strict dress code in place, Skybar has not, citing a customer base its proprietors dubbed "problematic." Perhaps not coincidentally, many people in the "lewd" viral video were Black.

Elsewhere, Thomas says spots like Savoy, formerly owned by Steeler Chuck Sanders, who is Black, faced unfair Liquor Control Board scrutiny (CP reached out to Sanders for comment but did not hear back). He jokes that Pittsburgh is more amenable to white hipsters who "have a pointy mustache and wear a top hat" than its approximately 70,000 Black residents.

"The City of Pittsburgh won't allow Black music or Black entertainment to thrive in the city," Thomas tells CP. "I feel there are pros, but I feel like Pittsburgh is just not a place… for Black people to thrive in."

Party on

Copen says Bottlerocket, with its smaller capacity of around 200 patrons, is thriving with a combination of comedy, theme nights, and bands. He's grateful not to be in the thrall of Live Nation's merch cuts and calendar control.

"We book everything in-house completely ourselves, and that kind of insulates us from that," Copen tells CP. "I probably wouldn't do it if I wasn't 25 years old [with] nothing better to do."

Glover has refocused his efforts on making beer with his brewing partner, Dave Hallam, another club scene veteran who used to DJ during the rave heyday.

Thomas, for his part, now divides his time between Pittsburgh and Southern California. He continues to photograph celebrities and hopes the city can eventually learn to not be so "cliquey."
click to enlarge What happened to Pittsburgh’s nightclub scene? It's complicated
Photo: Courtesy of Xavier Thomas/Art Like Us
Cardi B at Xtaza in 2017
For those seeking a classic nightclub experience, Cavo, Enclave, and Foxtail still cater to that crowd, while Club VIP maintains a more hip-hop-centric vibe in Larimer. Theme parties are a regular feature at venues like Spirit, Belvedere's Ultra-Dive, and the Roxian Theatre.

That Jellyfish, a known queer-friendly dance party, has outgrown its original home at P Town Bar in Oakland, speaks to how Pittsburgh’s late night has also become intentionally more inclusive. What was once an industry dominated by white, male DJs now features noticeably more Black, LGBTQ, and women DJs, ranging from Arie Cole and DJ Femi to the Mostbeautifullest collective.

As partiers now chase their favorite DJs and theme nights, club owners have to consider non-dance events to attract crowds. Firman says Enclave, as well as other, similarly sized venues like The Goldmark and Flats on Carson, are planning events ranging from wrestling to bingo this winter. "We have a 550-person capacity, which places us in the sweet spot of a small- to midsize room that still has an intimate feel," he says.

Firman believes that "the golden age of true 'nightclubs' in Pittsburgh is behind us," a sentiment that applies to the Strip, where the hedonistic party scene has been replaced by expensive new housing and the family-friendly vibes of The Terminal. Station Square, also much quieter, has made efforts to reinvent itself, while Carson Street, still a party spot for young people on the weekends, adjusts to a post-pandemic reality.

Like the age of steel and ketchup, Pittsburgh's nightclub era is unlikely to return. In its place is a city of breweries, bars, and venues that, according to those who lived and worked during the city’s nightclub heyday, could learn a thing or two from the parties of the past.