Love letter to South Oakland

Living in South Oakland gave me two fake teeth.

The incident happened my second full weekend as a student at the University of Pittsburgh. It was early September 1992, and a small group of freshman stumbled back from a series of South Oakland apartment parties about 3 a.m. A car full of drunk ladies drove by on Bouquet Street and nearly swerved into us as they tooted and hollered. (What can I say? We were a good-looking group.)

We were also a naive posse. I came from the mountain town of Somerset. Another hailed from Erie. There was a fellow from Silver Spring, Md., a guy from Scottdale and his roommate from near Williamsport. None of us were particularly street smart, and we certainly had no idea that, in the early 1990s, parts of Oakland were beyond unsafe to peruse.

“Ha ha, suckers!”

That’s what the guy from Erie yelled at the passing car full of women. I was trailing behind the other four, and, on the other side of Bouquet Street were three guys looking for trouble.

“What you say?” The shortest one yelled. Pretty sure they heard, “Ha ha, you f@!!ers.”

No sooner had I looked up than my four “friends” had taken off and I was surrounded by the trio. They bullied me against a wall outside David Lawrence Hall and the shortest guy threw a forearm into my mouth. The trio all lunged at me and, somehow, I saw an opening and sprinted away across Forbes Avenue without looking for traffic and up the stairs into the Towers Lobby.

The adrenaline was pumping, and I felt an overwhelming sense of relief getting inside that lobby, where another day later that school year I’d have an O pizza knocked out of my grasp by a Pitt football player on crutches. But, back on track, that’s when a much kinder Panthers football player I’d been a room down the hall from during freshman orientation stopped me.

“Dude, your mouth is bleeding,” he said.

I took my arm and wiped it across my mouth. There was a lot of blood. At the same time, my tongue touched the back of my bottom row of teeth. One was missing. (The other would fall out years later while covering a high school football game – a direct result of that forearm blow from my freshman year.)

It’s the type of experience that could sway many to seek refuge on a campus a little less busy. For a guy from Somerset, that could mean maybe Frostburg State or Pitt-Johnstown or even Millersville.

Not this guy.

Pitt was it for me. It still is. It always will be. Once South Oakland sets its claws into you, it never lets go.

And, no matter how far removed I am from being a college student, South Oakland – from Bouquet to Atwood to Ward to Dan Marino Field off Parkview Avenue, will be home. It’s hard to say South Oakland is where I finally grew up, as my actions there weren’t usually responsible, but it’s impact was significant and strong.

Sure, Pitt’s campus lacks white-picket fences and expansive stone buildings. Students must hustle across busy four-lane heavily traveled roads. Take away the Cathedral Lawn and there aren’t many patches of grass. Walking the streets late at night can be dangerous, though police helped clean South Oakland up considerably over the years. (Those fancy North Oakland residents rarely had much to worry about.)  And there’s no doubt the area is more corporate today than it was 20 years ago. Gone are landmarks like Zelda’s, C.J. Barney’s, The Attic, Upstage, Telaropa, Miami Subs, Roy Rogers in the basement of the Cathedral and Calico’s and some great apartments near campus that were demolished and turned into university housing. Pitt Stadium gave way to the Pete, though many of us believe that’s a significant upgrade.

What Pitt lacks in landscapes it more than makes up for in grit and character. Oakland is the land of Mike Ditka, Jonas Salk, Andy Warhol, Anti-Flag and DeJuan Blair. People don’t choose Pitt because of a sports team or the ideal campus community. Pitt is chosen because it’s a great institution. It overflows with diversity and blends into its urban setting.  It offers culture, music, arts, entertainment and the best porches/balconies in Western Pennsylvania. It bustles with energy. It’s alive 24/7. It bursts with pride. It wreaks of stale beer every Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning.

In other words, South Oakland’s the perfect place.

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