It’s a muggy afternoon, and Mark Oleniacz is walking through the tall grass of "Frazier Farms" -- a small community garden adjoining a baseball diamond in the heart of South Oakland. He stops by his own plot, near the back fence.
“I had some garlic left over from last year, ‘cause actually I transplanted it, ‘cause I had that bed -- long story,” he says.
Tending to the garden and a nearby community orchard are just part of Oleniacz’s volunteer work with the South Oakland Neighborhood Group, or SONG, for the past five years. SONG also hosts a chess club and computer club for young Oaklanders, and helps distribute food to needy residents with 412 Food Rescue.
Oleniacz grew up in West Deer Township, but he’s called South Oakland home for the past 27 years, since his days as a University of Pittsburgh student, and, later, a Pitt employee. Walking down the street, he points out the childhood homes of some local heroes, including NFL quarterback Dan Marino, wrestling star Bruno Sammartino and artist Andy Warhol.
“And I only found out about two years ago that Andy Warhol’s backyard touches Dan Marino’s backyard,” Oleniacz says, pointing down a nearby street.
South Oakland -- the block of land south of the Boulevard of the Allies down to the Monongahela River -- once housed around 9,000 residents, but as of the 2010 Census, just about 3,000 people call the neighborhood home. Oleniacz says the history and diversity of South Oakland is part of why he never left.
“It’s been a major melting pot for a long time, and with the university, between grad students and foreign students coming in, it’s a very diverse mix of people,” Oleniacz says.
But the former Pitt student says the massive footprint of his alma mater sometimes causes people to overlook the many long-term residents, who Oleniacz says can get frustrated by college students nextdoor.
“South Oakland, it’s more residential [than North Oakland]," he says. "It was much more residential when I bought in 27 years ago, but we’re still about half -- long term residential versus students.”
That’s another big part of why he started volunteering with SONG when it was formed five years ago. He says he wants to engage with Pitt students and maintain a balance between college renters and permanent Oaklanders.
Oleniacz says the university and its students have been more helpful in this regard in recent years, between its PittServes student volunteer group and university-sponsored meet-and-greets.
“For the last couple years in particular, they’ve thrown a lot of block parties to just kind of introduce the students to the neighbors and vice-versa, and just get that conversation going, ‘cause it’s a lot harder to have a loud party when you know you have an 80-year-old neighbor,” Oleniacz says.
Oleniacz says one conversation in particular gave him hope that SONG is helping students become more mindful of their South Oakland neighbors.
“She was a student, but she considered herself a resident. I know when I went to Pitt, it was just a place to live. I didn’t really consider myself a resident," Oleniacz says. "But I thought, ‘That’s a really great attitude, philosophy to have where you are,’ and that’s what we’re kind of trying to re-instill.”