There's something special about the South Hills. Well, of course, that's obvious. But I have good reasons for saying so.
When I had a news office on the South Side, old Mrs. Pankowski would ask if I could drive her "over to Pittsburgh" from our block on Sarah Street. Mind you, she then was standing about one mile from the Allegheny County Courthouse.
"Over to Pittsburgh" was her reference to the old ways, when the home community meant everything. Old Mrs. P. didn't think of herself as living in Pittsburgh but as living "on" the South Side.
Did you know there's an official South Side song?
When I first moved to Sarah Street, the geezers at McCann's, who'd been thrown out of work at the mill, taught it to me:
"There do I work,
there do I get my pay
South Side, Pittsburgh,
If you want to jazz it up with tasteless ethnic dialect, sing “verk” for “work” and “Peetesborg” for Pittsburgh.
For long-time residents, the South Hills traditionally has been the greenest part of town—huge forested parks; lush, ritzy country clubs; big cemeteries and memorial parks; the County Fair, and goofy little streams like Glass Run and Streets Run meandering through steep wooded hills down to the Mon'.
Yet, in the old days—the really old days—the southern communities were among the most industrialized (and hence, polluted), embracing coal mines, foundries, glass works, distilleries, and of course, behemoth steel works along the river and the belching railroads and tow boats that supported them.
For instance, look no farther than the West Mifflin slag heap, now the site of Century III Mall. In sheer mass and volume, it's one of the largest things ever constructed by human beings. Yet, nobody set out to "build" it; it's really nothing but thrown-away industrial waste.
Who, today, remembers that "Pittsburgh Airport" was, for decades, in West Mifflin? It was a place where magnificent four-prop, tri-tail Lockheed Constellations swooped out of the sky from exotic destinations. Yet, the gigantic airport still is there, unseen and unheralded along Lebanon Church Road, known today as the Allegheny County Airport and home to thriving private aviation businesses.
The South Hills also was home to the cream of the area's gangsters and crooked politicians back in the day. Ripepi, Mazzei, Bazzano, Grosso, Romanelli all lorded over the inner-city Pittsburgh and Harrisburg-State Capital rackets from their lush compounds nestled throughout the South Hills.
But I digress again. There are few things more tedious in journalism than some curmudgeon like me rhapsodizing about the way things used to be. I know that. We call it "the past" because it has "passed"—and isn't coming back.
Today's South Hills is a really big and diverse place, and you can't generalize too much about it, except to say that "it" lies south of the Mon'. But you can generalize a bit more and say that it's a fine place to be "from" (as we say in these parts), and it's a grand place to live.
There are more trees than there are people, and more grass than there is concrete.
It's a vast, well-diversified region of fine communities each finding its own way, with or without connection to the metropolis across the Mon' to the north. Each community is distinct. Hills and valleys will do that to a region.
It's a place where people truly care about the important things—their homes and families. They take care of their schools and their relatives.
Clearly, the South Hills is in at least its second iteration in the post-industrial era—maybe even its third—as corridors like Route 51 and Lebanon Church and Library roads continue to be Monroeville-ized by fast food, Wal-Marts, dollar stores and tanning salons every few feet.
But that's an economic wrinkle that will correct itself with time. As long as we have South Park, we'll be fine.
Where else in Pittsburgh—or anywhere in the world, for that matter—can you exchange stares with a surly American bison (all 12 feet and 2,800 pounds of him) at the Game Preserve and then stroll down the hill to the Fairgrounds for a free concert with Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers?