“What is this place?” “What happens in there?” Sarah Johnston hears these questions quite a bit as director of the South Side Market House, a grand 100-year-old red brick building just off East Carson Street.
The Market House has served as a grocery, a youth center and now a City of Pittsburgh-run senior center. This Saturday, the public is invited to stop by to learn what happens at the Market House and to celebrate the building’s centennial. The indoor/outdoor block party will feature live bands, ethnic foods, a health fair, kids’ corner and more.
“That kind of facility contributed in a very substantial way to the overall feel of a community,” says famed coroner Cyril Wecht. He crossed the river to play basketball here when growing up in the lower Hill District. The Market House, he says, “provided something that was sorely needed and which regrettably seemed to pass from the scene in later years.”
Many of the South Side residents who visit the Market House now have lived in the neighborhood through good times and bad. Today, seniors have mostly been priced out — or have aged out — of the trendy bars, yoga studios and boutiques that sprung up along East Carson Street. And several of the churches where people used to congregate have been closed.
A number of the people who come here today are those who played basketball and table tennis decades ago. Now, amid the changes and challenges of life, they’ve found themselves connected to a community center that helps with housing and lunch. Some continue to use the basketball court — but there are also lower-impact activities like ceramics, bingo and pool. The stories of the people and the center are a testament to perseverance and connection through community.
Senior Patti Pitulski continues to visit the Market House after coming here since childhood. She has a particularly poignant memory of the Market House.
“We did not have a telephone in 1946,” she says. “My sister and I came to the Market House with my aunt and received a phone call that my mother had a baby boy.”
Pitulski’s eyes well up with tears as she tells the story, since that memory is now bittersweet — she is still grieving the recent loss of her brother. Pitulski’s days at the Market House were otherwise joyful, filled with playing table tennis with her sister and friends in the winter, after spending summers on a nearby playground.
“I still stay in touch with people that I knew here from 50 years ago,” Pitulski says.
On a recent day, Suzy McKain-Fallon was sitting in the basketball court while her husband, Michael, shot hoops. In the 1960s, McKain-Fallon played on one of the first area girls’ basketball teams to practice on this same court — a team from St. John the Evangelist elementary school.
“We didn’t want to be cheerleaders, so we started a team,” she says. “We just thought, ‘Who wants to be a cheerleader?’”
Sometimes McKain-Fallon still dribbles and shoots here.
Eighty-year-old Georgia Boehm volunteers at the center, serving as vice president of its advisory council. She remembers coming to the Market House with her mom to shop in the days when live beef cattle were brought to the basement for butchering.
“I like to be involved,” she says. “I volunteer a lot. Sometimes I get told I do too much. But that’s just the way I am.”
Charlie Mathews, who is homeless after several years without work, has found his place at the center, too. Although he isn’t old enough to enjoy the facility as a senior, he volunteers there — serving food and moving tables.
“I get happy when I help people and see the smile on their faces and know that it helped them out and it meant something to them,” he says.
Lots of people come to the center for a free hot lunch, but the center fills other needs, including access to a neighborhood legal association.
“I even have people call me to get phone numbers since they don’t have a phone book,” the Market House’s Johnston says.
The center’s participation has dropped off in recent years — bingo games might draw 40 people instead of 160. Lately, Johnston has seen more of a need for food and assistance among people in the 50-plus age group who are seeking a place to spend their mornings and afternoons. So the center is considering extending its offerings to that audience.
“I have watched people age gracefully and not so gracefully, and it’s very much connected with how much they interact and use the center,” Johnston says.
Media producers Reid Carter and Heather McClain contributed to this story.