Sense of Civic Duty Governs i Pittsburgh's Flats

THE South Side Flats occupies that scoop of Pittsburgh along the southern bank of the Monongahela River, from the river's last westward bend to the Smithfield Bridge.

Across the bridge lies downtown Pittsburgh. A mile west, the Monongahela disgorges into the Ohio River. Generations of immigrants came to the Flats to scratch out a living cheek-by-jowl with the steel mills that belched gray ash and yellow smoke.

When the mills closed decades ago, many people left. But the neighborhood has survived and, with it, the twin ethics of good citizenship and voting. In the last presidential election, only one out of two eligible voters turned out nationally. Here, four out of five registered voters did.

The figures are not strictly comparable. Of registered Americans in the last election, 70.6 percent actually voted. The problem is that many people eligible to vote don't bother to register. The South Side Flats doesn't have that problem.

Exactly why is hard to explain. Demographics and geography contribute. So does the neighborhood's cohesiveness.

Walk down narrow, busy East Carson Street, past the Ukrainian Home and the Iron and Glass Bank, to the Pickle Barrel - "Where S. Side Meets and Eats." Customers greet one another by name. Old men sit near the window, waiting for a familiar face. One waves to a small boy walking with his mother.

"You've got to understand. Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods," says Sam Arkin, who doesn't live in South Side Flats but who has observed it for years from his auto-parts store down the street.

"You have a high rate of people who are indigenous to the area," adds Mark Zabierek, a local lobbyist in Pittsburgh. "They're second- and third-generation Americans for whom voting - participation in the system - is a rite."

"The reason we vote is that we are American and that's what you're supposed to do," says Josephine Miller, waiting for her husband to finish his pool game at the senior center.

m upset with both parties," adds Independent Tony Fabio, a retired postal worker who wears an American flag pinned to his cap. "They're out for themselves, I think. They're not for the people."

Does Mr. Fabio vote?

"Absolutely! I never miss!" he says.

There are generic ways to determine a community's turnout. The older, the more educated, and the wealthier people are, the more likely they are to vote, says Patrick Stroh, a political science professor at Carnegie Mellon University here in Pittsburgh.

Party identification is also important, says Robert Friedrich, a professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Strong Democrats and strong Republicans vote more often than independents, he calculates from University of Michigan figures.

The South Side Flats has some of the typical ingredients for high voter turnout. It's an old community. The median age here was 51 in 1980 and has probably risen as the neighborhood has continued to lose population (1990 Census figures are not yet available).

The neighborhood's population is almost entirely white - with less than 4 percent minority. Race still makes a difference in voter turnout, although less than in the past, Professor Friedrich says.

In the 1988 presidential election, 72 percent of registered white voters turned out compared to an average 55 percent for nonwhite groups, according to voter surveys by the University of Michigan.

Here in Ward 17, the turnout was 77.4 percent. (Ward 17 includes the western half of the South Side Flats and the South Side Slopes.)

"We have a very strong fabric in the South Side," says Gene Ricciardi, a Pittsburgh city councilman who represents the South Side Flats and the South Side Slopes. "We have high concentrations of ethnic groups, which really have retained their ethnicity. They tend to use that mechanism of voting."

In other ways, though, South Side Flats cuts across the grain of districts with high voter turnout.

Most of its population lives modestly on fixed incomes, yet it votes nearly as often as the wealthiest segment of the American population. Nationally, some 85 percent of the top fifth of the population in terms of family income voted in 1988, according to University of Michigan data.

By contrast, only 47 percent of the lowest fifth turned out nationally.

The Flats is not a bastion of higher learning, either. In 1980, only 43 percent of its population had graduated from high school and less than 1 percent had four years or more of college, according to the United States Census Bureau. That was far lower than Allegheny County. But Ward 17 equaled the county's turnout in 1988 and beat by more than eight percentage points the national average of voters with at least some high-school education.

So what makes this neighborhood turn out?

Councilman Ricciardi credits a strong sense of community, woven by social groups and church organizations. The area has its own weekly newspaper, the South Pittsburgh Reporter. The local Democratic committee has taken up community causes as well as political activities, Ricciardi says.

Geography also plays a role. In a neighborhood where one can walk the streets and look into people's living rooms, personal contacts are important.

"They would see me coming, because I was the committeewoman, and say: 'Oh-oh, Irene's coming. Better go vote, says Irene Wojciechowicz, a former Pittsburgh committeewoman.

It's not clear whether the Flats can keep up its strong voting habit. Young people have begun to move into the area to be close to their downtown jobs or to set up boutiques along Carson Street.

This gradual gentrification could lead to a decline in turnout. Only 44 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in the last presidential election, according to the University of Michigan.

Even among older voters here, deepening cynicism could dampen participation.

"The savings-and-loan thing really turned a lot of people off," Fabio says. "I think the reason people vote around here is that they want to throw the bums out.... But they never manage," he adds, with just a hint of a chuckle.

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