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Filed Under: default || By jt3y

March 30, 2006 | Link to this story

25 Years Ago Today

Category: default || By jt3y

Alert Reader Jonathan, proprietor of The Conversation, reminds me that today is the 25th anniversary of the day that President Reagan was shot. He also passed along a link to a retrospective in The Washington Post that includes video of the shooting: "I'm sure (you've) seen better footage than this, in which you get a good look at the agent who opened the door turning his body to face the shooter. That still gets to me."

Jonathan's referring to the fact that the Secret Service agent --- as trained --- put himself directly in the path of danger to save the President's life. How many of us would so quickly lay down our life for someone else's? Probably not many.

March 30, 1981, was a memorable day for residents of Our Fair City for other reasons. That afternoon, one of the largest fires the valley had seen since the 1976 blaze Downtown broke out at the Steelmet plant under the old 15th Avenue Bridge.

The Steelmet plant was built as the McKeesport Tin Plate Company at the turn of the 20th century, and by the 1920s, ranked as one of the world's leading producers of tin-plated steel, which was used for (among other things) canned goods. It also made McKeesport businessman Edwin Crawford one of the wealthiest people in Pennsylvania.

But Crawford wasn't investing any of the profits back into the firm to modernize its products, and bigger steel companies were turning out better and cheaper tinplate. The Depression soon knocked the pins out from under McKeesport Tin Plate, and when Crawford died Sept. 11, 1936 (leaving an estate of $1.5 million, about $20 million by today's standards), the company was already in decline.

In 1937, the company merged with one of its subsidiaries, National Can Co. The following year, it reported a net loss of $679,000, and that December, officials it demanded that employees take a steep wage cut; they went out on strike, instead, closing the mill for much of 1939. Though it reopened, by 1940, it was moribund.

The plant was taken over for defense work (I think by Jones & Laughlin) during World War II. Kelsey-Hayes purchased it after the war to stamp out automobile wheels. Eventually, it fell into the hands of Steelmet, a metal recycling company that specialized in expensive alloys.

In 1981, despite the rapid decline of the steel industry in the Mon Valley, Steelmet was one of the few metal handling firms that were still hiring. Then came the fire.

If I recall correctly, someone using a torch ignited a pile of titanium shavings. The blaze jumped to the roof of one of the old tinplate buildings and soon, much of the complex was on fire.

I remember this because my dad was working for Steelmet at the time as a purchasing agent. I was watching TV after school --- cartoons, on Channel 53, I think, because I seem to remember Ted Sohier breaking in with a bulletin about Reagan's shooting.

My grandparents were visiting that Monday evening. When they came in the house, my grandmother said something like, "Oh, it's so terrible."

I said, "Yes! The president was shot! The president was shot!"

She said, "No, your daddy's work is on fire."

Indeed it was. The smoke was visible for miles around. Though Steelmet (which had other facilities around the United States) eventually reopened, the Port Vue plant never really seemed to recover from the blaze, and the damage to the buildings was evident for years to come. Steelmet filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1983, and dad and many of Steelmet's other employees were eventually laid off.

There is a happy ending of sorts; the company was sold to a German firm, ELG Haniel Metals, which invested millions of dollars to renovate the plant, much to the astonishment of us who had watched it decline over the years.

The McKeesport plant also houses the U.S. headquarters for the firm, which has locations in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Louisville, Ky., and Mobile, Ala. Today, the old tinplate mill is probably in better shape than at any time since Edwin Crawford's death.

Meanwhile, Dad went back to college, got his teaching certificate, and has spent the last two decades as an educator. So, Reagan recovered, the tinplate mill recovered, and our family recovered.

Andrew Carnegie used to say, "All is well since all grows better." While I don't always share the Old Scot's optimism about life, I can appreciate the sentiment. Eventually, traumatic events get put into their proper perspective, and things are rarely as tragic or catastrophic as they seem at the time.

Even James Brady, Reagan's press secretary, who was permanently disabled in the shooting, has retained a positive outlook on life, according to the Post. He and his wife are retired on the Delaware shore, visit with their friends and adult son frequently, and are still proud of being able, in the wake of Reagan's shooting, to get legislation passed that requires criminal background checks for people buying handguns.

"When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade," Jim Brady says. "I have several stands around here."



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March 29, 2006 | Link to this story

A Little of This, A Little of That

Category: default || By jt3y

A sad note today: My deepest sympathies to the family of Frank Striffler, the McKeesport funeral director and entrepreneur, who died Sunday after an illness. There was a fine obituary in Monday's News (it doesn't seem to be online), while Francine Garrone wrote a obituary for the Tribune-Review.

Mr. Striffler was a regular fixture around town, and absolutely did not fit the stereotypical Hollywood ideal of a funeral director. Where popular culture depicts morticians as dour, unhappy, dark people, Mr. Striffler --- in my experiences --- was outgoing, friendly and funny.

Nothing illustrates that better, perhaps, than Frank Striffler's favorite color, a joyous green hue that has long been the trademark of his company's funeral homes, hearses and limousines, and even his own wardrobe.

I know that some people found his sense of showmanship off-putting, but I found him charming, with a talent for putting grieving families and friends at ease. After all, if you're coming from a Judeo-Christian tradition, then a funeral isn't a time to be sad, is it? And even if you don't believe in an afterlife, shouldn't a funeral be a time to celebrate the life of the deceased, as well as mourn their loss?

Mr. Striffler also should be commended for long being a supporter of charitable organizations in the Mon-Yough area and a booster of civic activities in and around Our Fair City.

A funeral Mass is to be held tomorrow morning at St. Martin de Porres Parish, St. Peter's Church, with interment to follow in North Versailles Township. Requeiscat in pace, Mr. Striffler.

...

When in the name of Frank Lloyd Wrong did that massive shed go up along Walnut Street in Christy Park? I saw it for the first time the other evening.

It's next to an auto repair shop north of 30th Street. I assume it's going to be used for car repairs, but for a split second, I thought they might be opening an airport, and that it was going to be used as a hangar. Egad.

...

Are you bugged by that automated voice that now answers "directory assistance" calls for Verizon? So was Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post. So are Verizon's operators.

As it turns out, the voice belongs to a real person named Darby Bailey, and the Boston Globe interviewed her about two years ago. (They wouldn't let her talk to Weingarten, who just demolishes the system and the company that sells it, as he often does.)

In that Globe story, by the way, a Verizon spokesman claimed that the system only fails when callers give it incorrect information: "You know, garbage in, garbage out ... People don't have good information."

Good plan. Blame your customers.

Out of the dozen times I've dealt with Verizon's automated directory assistance, I've only got the computer to give me a correct answer once. I felt like a child who had finally learned to use the potty when it happened.

I've been tempted to say really rude things to the computer prompts, or else to talk in nonsense words. But since Weingarten reports that actual human beings do listen to those calls, I'm glad I don't, I suppose.



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March 27, 2006 | Link to this story

It's Hard Out Here For a íPort

Category: default || By jt3y

Our Fair City (or as we like to call it, "Paris on the Mon") continues to be the center of a media circus, as national reporters hash and rehash the same facts about the Tanya Kach case.

(Warning: If Geraldo Rivera shows up at the Eat'n Park on Lysle Boulevard, watch him carefully. I hear he's a lousy tipper, and he never takes a clean plate when he goes back to the salad bar.)

No new details have emerged, though everyone seems to have had the same reaction to a magistrate's decision to set bond for the man accused of holding her hostage at a phenomenally low 10 percent of $2,000.

And that reaction can be summed up by the legal term, qualis coeunt, or "what the f---?"

That's right. If the suspect had scraped up $200, he could have been free to go to Olympia Shopping Center and say goodbye to the Giant Eagle. District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. convinced the court to hold him for a couple more days until a new bond hearing could be set.

According to the Post-Gazette, the magistrate, District Judge Tom Miller of White Oak, defended the bond, "saying the suspect has ties to the community, a job, a home, no prior criminal record and other indications of stability."

Yes, the suspect certainly had a stable address and home life for the past 10 years. After all, the police are accusing him of holding someone against their will at the same location for most of a decade.

(Note to self: Don't get any speeding tickets while driving through White Oak, because I think I've just lost my case.)

I take it back --- there were some new details, notably the reports that a hairdresser is wanted for questioning. Police believe she may have altered the victim's appearance in an attempt to conceal her identity.

You know, if giving girls bad haircuts is a crime, then most of the beauticians in the Mon Valley should be under arrest. Those convicted of committing "mall hair" should be sentenced to life without parole.

Oh, and what are those national writers scribbling about Our Fair City? Well, we made the front page of the New York Daily News: "The decade-long disappearance of a woman who resurfaced this week after running away as a 14-year-old has baffled cops and neighbors in her gritty western Pennsylvania town. ... Some residents in the steel-mill town are anxious to learn more."

"Steel-mill town"? Yeah, we wish. The economy would be better.

For 20 years, image consultants, branding experts, chamber of commerce nattering nabobs and assorted other yobbos have been spending money (a lot of it from the taxpayers) to change perceptions of the Pittsburgh region.

Nice use of public funds. Real effective. They might as well have taken the money out in cash and buried it, in hopes a dollar-bill tree might sprout.

Why, just once, can't we make the national news for something good?

  • "Fountain of Youth Discovered in Grandview; Elderly Woman Was Using It As Bird Bath."


  • "Report: Harrison Village Built Over Gold Mine, Residents To Divvy Up Proceeds."


  • "McKeesport Man Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Converting Stupid Pittsburgh Image Rebranding Efforts Into Fuel; Studies Are 'Rich in Manure,' He Says."


What do we get instead? Funeral directors who keep fetal remains in their garages (yes, that's in the news again this week) instead of cremating them properly, and ding-a-lings who microwave, well, ding-a-lings at GetGo. And now, school security guards accused of taking students hostage.

If nothing else, maybe we'll get a nice Lifetime Movie Event out of this. Maybe they'll film it in town, and some local people will get work.

Our luck, they'll make the damned thing in Canada.



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March 24, 2006 | Link to this story

Cheapie Strip Malls Are Shopping For Trouble

Category: default || By jt3y

Time was that when you wanted to build a shopping center, you had to make sure there was at least one "anchor tenant" before anyone would loan you the money. Typically, developers tried to get at least one, maybe two, supermarkets; a drug store; and a variety store or department store.

The region's first large regional shopping center --- Miracle Mile on William Penn Highway in Monroeville --- followed the pattern, which persisted into the '90s when Oak Park Mall opened in White Oak with a Shop 'n Save, a Thrift Drugs and a Busy Beaver as anchors.

But lately --- say, the last five years or so --- I'm noticing a new trend: Small "speculative" strip malls. These things are popping up all over the area like mushrooms after a spring rain.

The newest is on Route 48 (Jacks Run Road) in North Versailles Township, not far from East Allegheny High School. There's also one on East Eighth Avenue in Munhall, across from the Tri-Boro Credit Union, and another is about to be built on the old Reliance Steel property in the 11th Ward.

I call them "speculative" because many of them seem to be built without anchor tenants in the hopes of attracting speciality shops and small retailers, and they typically seem to sit empty for a few months before someone --- usually a dollar store --- moves in.

The other tenants tend to be wig parlors, nail salons, cell-phone dealers and other third-tier retailers. No offense intended to the people who run those, but when your biggest neighbor is "Dollar Tree," you're not exactly competing with Neiman-Marcus.

For the most part, these shopping centers seem to be cheaply built on oddly-shaped lots. Within a few years, I suspect they're going to be eyesores and will stand mostly empty, but by then, the banks and developers who threw them up will have made their money back.

I also suspect they're partly responsible for the decline of three of the area's retail hubs --- Century III Mall in West Mifflin; Olympia Shopping Center, straddling Versailles' border with the city; and the former Norwin Shopping Center in North Huntingdon. (Mammoth Wal-Marts in North Versailles, West Mifflin and --- soon --- North Huntingdon are undoubtedly having an impact as well.)

In short, we have way too much cheap retail space for our population, and the bottom is falling out.

I'm not much of a shopper, and wasn't a mall rat in high school, so I don't often get to Century III. But I was there in January and was shocked at the number of empty storefronts.

From all appearances, Century III is on the short slide to oblivion that ends with the parking lot being used for a flea market, a la Greengate and Eastland malls.

I'd estimate 30 percent of the aisle "frontage" between the anchor tenants in Century III is now vacant. Of the remaining occupied space, much is occupied by dollar stores and other discounters.

Last week, the Trib reported that Century III's owners are selling the mall, which makes me suspect that long-term forecasts show that its prospects are bleak.

Olympia Shopping Center, which opened in the late 1950s, has looked pretty good until fairly recently, when the Ames discount chain collapsed, leaving a big empty building (the old Zayre's --- remember the giant neon letters on its roof?) behind.

Then, Scozio's, which operated the Shop 'n Save in the plaza (along with the one at Oak Park, about two miles away), closed the store and reopened it as a "Save-a-Lot."

This week, Pat Cloonan of The Daily News reported that Scozio's plans to convert its Oak Park store to a Giant Eagle. At the same time, according to rumors, the Giant Eagle in Olympia will close. Merchants and Versailles residents are petitioning Giant Eagle to keep the store open.

A small ray of sunshine (or, with apologies to Oliver, is it "starshine"?) has come to Olympia with the news that Tri-Star Ford is buying the old Ames building and turning it into a car dealership.

But car dealers don't generate the kind of steady traffic that a shopping center needs to thrive. Supermarkets make good anchors for shopping centers, after all, because most families visit a supermarket at least once a week. Once they're in the shopping center, they're likely to stop at the other stores. The loss of the Giant Eagle would be a heavy blow for Olympia --- the Save-a-Lot has its partisans, but it's no substitute for a name-brand supermarket.

I'm of the considered opinion that the American economy in general has become too dependent on retailing. I also think that all of the retailing that has sprung up in Pleasant Hills, West Mifflin, White Oak, North Versailles, et al, is not sustainable, and those empty stores in Norwin, Olympia and Century III are the early warning signs.

If and when the economy hits a recession, I think we're going to be polluted with empty, decaying strip malls.

Let's hope that the powers that be --- the people who invest in real estate and the municipal planners who are trying to attract development --- are seeing the same thing. Folks, please --- we don't need any more retail development. Please don't try to bring any more.

Otherwise, the Mon-Yough area is cruising for a business collapse that will be as ugly in some ways as the closure of National-Duquesne Works, Homestead Works and other steel plants in the 1980s.

...

To Do This Weekend: On that cheerful note, let's eat, drink and be merry! Tonight, Dave Iglar plays the Large Hotel, Route 51. Call (412) 384-9950 ... Tomorrow, championship hockey returns to the Mellon Arena, no thanks to those flightless waterfowl. Instead, the Eagles of my alma mater will be playing Quaker Valley High School in the Penguin Cup for the seventh straight year. Face-off is 1 p.m. (Tip o' the Tube City hard hat to Alert Reader Marky). ... McKeesport Symphony Orchestra presents "Close-Up Encounters," 7:30 p.m. Saturday at McKeesport Area High School, Eden Park Boulevard. The concert features a "meet the artist" reception. Call (412) 664-2854 ... Stewartsville Lions Club holds a pancake breakfast and craft show from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Penn's Woods Civic Center on Colonial Manor Road, North Huntingdon. Just don't mix 'em up and pour maple syrup on someone's knick-knacks, because we all know how painful that can be. Call (412) 751-4308.



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March 23, 2006 | Link to this story

Stranger Than Fiction

Category: default || By jt3y

Another day, another weird news story to send folks at 201 Lysle Blvd. reaching for their Maalox. Yesterday, Our Fair City made national and international headlines again with the news that a 24-year-old woman who went missing as a 14-year-old in 1996 had been located not far from the neighborhood where she grew up.

She told police she'd been locked in a house on Soles Street for most of the last 10 years, held captive by a security guard at her former elementary school, Cornell.

According to published and broadcast reports, police learned of the case when she confided in the owner of the former UDF store on Versailles Avenue that she had been going under an assumed name for a decade, and was, in fact, reported missing as a teen-ager. She told the man that she was frightened for her safety.

The owner called police; the cops arrested the security guard and charged him what the Post-Gazette euphemistically calls "a variety of sex crimes." (The Tribune-Review reports that the charges are statutory sexual assault and three counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.)

But he hasn't been charged with kidnapping ... at least yet. (The security guard's attorney says the girl wasn't held against her will.)

Picksberg's TV news yackers reported the story as a "miracle." According to news accounts, the woman has told police that she lived in the security guard's house along with his elderly parents and his son, now in his early 20s, but they never knew she was there.

She spent much of the time locked in a bedroom, according to news accounts. Other members of his family weren't allowed to open the door; sometimes, she had to use a bucket as a toilet.

In a very thorough account in the Tribune-Review, Jill King Greenwood writes that the victim secretly dated the security guard as a girl and decided to move in with him in the hopes they would eventually marry. She agreed to keep their dalliance --- and even the fact that she was living with him --- a secret from his parents until he decided to tell them.

Writes Greenwood: "She was allowed to watch television and listen to the radio, but only with headphones so his parents wouldn't hear. She tiptoed around the room. (The suspect) made her memorize which floorboards creaked."

I guess I was incredulous when I first heard the reports. I mean, how can someone be locked in a house for 10 years with three other people without them being aware of it? Wouldn't they hear strange noises or notice food missing? When she got a chance to leave the house 10 months ago, why didn't she run for safety?

But for what it's worth, county police believe her story, and I know that truth is stranger than fiction. I also know that mental abuse --- particularly of a young person --- can be quite damaging.

Someone whose elder, "protector" and ostensible love interest began playing mind games with her --- telling her that she was worthless and forgotten --- would develop a twisted self-image and world view. If the news accounts and police reports are accurate, then it's not surprising that she would have felt powerless to help herself.

In any event, I am happy that this young lady is back home with her family, and that after 10 years, they know that she's still alive and safe. I pray that soon, she'll have her life back on track, and that her emotional scars will heal.

I also hope that the media circus that is going to revolve around this case for at least a few weeks doesn't cause more damage.

Because I have a strong hunch that all of the facts have yet to be revealed, and that this story is likely to become either clearer or stranger in the days and weeks to come. In any case, folks concerned about the city's image (including your humble correspondent) should probably stock up on that Maalox.



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March 20, 2006 | Link to this story

Skating on Thin Ice

Category: default || By jt3y

News Item:


PITTSBURGH, March 20 --- Two separate power outages at the Mellon Arena combined to delay last night's game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs for about 45 minutes.


Penguins President and CEO Ken Sawyer said it isn't the first time that power outages have struck the 44-year-old facility. "My first thought was, we need a new arena," he said during a hastily-called press conference.


The crowd of more than 15,000 fans apparently thought the same thing. Many began chanting, "new arena, new arena," during the blackout.


The Penguins took the opportunity to show a video on the "Jumbotron" scoreboard that promotes their plan to build a new arena, if they and a casino operator are awarded the license for a new slot-machine parlor. (Tribune-Review, Post-Gazette)


...


PITTSBURGH, April 8 --- Penguins President and CEO Ken Sawyer revealed today that the wastebaskets in the men's room near Gate D at Mellon Arena are "filled to nearly the top."

What's more, Sawyer said, the paper towel dispensers in the aging, 44-year-old arena are "dangerously close to running out."

"We're starting to see that red ink line down the one side of the roll," Sawyer said. "If we lose that, then people will be forced to wipe their damp hands on their pants."

He and other Penguins officials repeated their call for the arena to be replaced with a new, modern facility with additional luxury boxes, "empty waste baskets and more paper towels."

...

PITTSBURGH, April 15 --- The Pittsburgh Penguins today announced that no more half-and-half remains in the break room at the team's marketing office.

At a hastily called press conference, Penguins President and CEO Ken Sawyer told reporters that attempts to replace the liquid --- a mixture of whole milk and cream --- with powdered non-dairy sweetener would be "unproductive."

"One of the reasons we use half-and-half and not 'Coffee-Mate' or 'Cremora' is that it cools, as well as lightens, the coffee," Sawyer said.

He and other Penguins officials said the lack of appropriate coffee-creaming liquids were yet another sign that the decrepit 44-year-old Mellon Arena must be replaced.

...

SEWICKLEY, May 20 --- Pittsburgh Penguins President and CEO Ken Sawyer announced today that the team must purchase a new company car for him because the old one, in his words, "no longer meets my needs."

"The ash trays are full," he said, during a hastily-called press conference at an Audi dealership in Sewickley. "I don't smoke, but I do throw little bits of paper, gum wrappers, peanut shells, and things like that into them."

Sawyer said the full ash trays were yet another sign that his aging, three-year-old Audi Q7 "must be replaced."

He and other team officials are hoping that the Penguins will be awarded a casino slots license to fund the purchase of a new SUV, along with a replacement for the filthy, sewage-strewn 44-year-old Mellon Arena.

...

TORONTO, June 5 --- During a hastily-called press conference at the office of a Toronto pediatrician, Pittsburgh Penguins President and CEO Ken Sawyer announced that he was calling on his brother and sister-and-law to trade in his rapidly-aging 5-year-old nephew, Skip.

Sawyer said he made the "reluctant" decision after Skip came down with what doctors at the clinic called "a runny nose."

"There is no known estimate for when, if ever, Skip's nose will stop dripping," Sawyer said. "While we have enjoyed Skip over the years, it is time to replace him with a child who will not be wiping his nose on his sleeves all of the time."

Penguins officials are hopeful that the team will be awarded a slots license to pay for the adoption of a new child; as well as a replacement for the doomed 44-year-old Mellon Arena. The team says the arena was built over an ancient Indian burial mound and must be destroyed to quiet the tortured screams of spirits from the great beyond.



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March 17, 2006 | Link to this story

They Gave Us Those Nice, Bright Colors

Category: default || By jt3y

Another Downtown retail store recently closed, or so it would appear. Photographics Supply Inc. had been selling camera equipment and film in the city since 1963, and it's where I bought my first real camera, with my first real paycheck (from Kennywood) as a teen-ager.

If this has been covered already in any of the newspapers, I apologize, but I hadn't seen it. I noticed a week or two ago that the building, located next to the former Helmstadter's Department Store on Fifth Avenue, is up for sale, the website is down, and the phones are disconnected. I sent email to two people formerly associated with the store, but I haven't gotten a response yet.

By the way, I don't know anyone, except non-McKeesporters, who called it "Photographics Supply." It seems like all of the shutterbugs in the Mon Valley that I know called it by its old name, "Brenner's."

I suppose I haven't been as good a customer as I could have been, since I haven't been taking a lot of pictures lately, nor have I bought any camera equipment (a few Polaroids at the flea market doesn't count), but I stopped in a couple of times a year for film. Most of the time I hung around to drool on the equipment and leave greasy nose-prints on the display cases.

While I don't know for sure the reasons for its closing, I suspect it's a victim of the same trends that have claimed several of my favorite camera shops: Digital photography and one-hour drug store processing. Fotoshop in Squirrel Hill and Loreski's in Monroeville succumbed some time ago, as did the Foto Hut in Oakland, near my office.

And, of course, small businesses sometimes just close when the owners decide to retire --- I can't blame someone for deciding to get some peace and quiet.

I haven't gone digital yet, though I have used a digital camera at work. I'm a little uncomfortable with the long-term storage issues. I've been taking photos since I was 10 or 11 years old, and after 20 years, I'm starting to get quite a collection of Mon Valley landmarks, among other subjects. But they're all prints and negatives, which will be retrievable for hundreds of years, barring fire, flood or other damage.

Try reading a computer disk from 20 years ago --- or even 10. Do we have any guarantee that CD-ROMs will still be good 20 years from now?

But for snapshots and casual one-time use pictures, digital photography is fantastic, and the advantages are obvious. What's more convenient than being able to snap a high-quality picture and immediately preview it? Then, at your leisure, you can print, email or upload them as many times as you want.

Even many (if not all) commercial photographers are working with digital cameras, and turning out excellent work. So it's no wonder that the conventional film business is tanking (no pun intended) and taking the high-end camera stores with it.

And make no mistake about it --- Photographics Supply dealt in high-end equipment, not the Brownie Instamatic kind of crap that I use (though they never treated me like the rank amateur that I am), and several of their employees were accomplished photographers themselves.

Still, Photographics Supply was doing a lot of industrial and commercial business in enlargers, papers, lamps and other expensive equipment, and I had some hope they would be around for a while. I guess that isn't the case.

Sic transit gloria McKeesport, and au revoir, Photographics Supply (nee Brenner's): For those who ran the store for all of those years, may your futures be bright and properly exposed, and may your film and paper stay cool and dry. If the weather holds out, I'll snap a few rolls of Kodacolor this weekend in your honor.

...

In other news: Penn State McKeesport Campus and its sister campuses in Beaver and New Kensington had a combined economic impact of more than $160 million in the region in 2003. So says Penn State President Graham Spanier. About 2,200 students are enrolled at the three campuses.

...

Since Pitt is in the NCAA men's basketball playoffs tonight, it's only right that I provide a link to Pitt's fight songs. And since West Virginia is also in the playoffs, it's only right that I link to WVU's fight song as well.

...

To Do This Weekend: McKeesport Little Theater, 1614 Coursin St. near Carnegie Library, presents "I Hate Hamlet" by Paul Rudnick, 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call (412) 673-1100 ... Steel Valley Rotary Club holds its sixth-annual Big Band Dinner Dance at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Westwood Country Club (formerly Duquesne Golf Club) in West Mifflin. Cost is $30. Call (412) 464-1772. ... The 22-and-7 McKeesport Area High School boys' basketball team plays Schenley High School in the state quarterfinals tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. at Duquesne University's A.J. Palumbo Center.



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March 16, 2006 | Link to this story

Asking Questions About This and That

Category: default || By jt3y

A while ago, I wrote about Regis Possino, the California businessman behind the company that now owns The People's Building, Downtown. A reader (name withheld) writes:

His investments usually have a strong overseas connection. He's smart, experienced and very well-connected. It's unlikely that your city lawyers are a match for him. Make sure the city knows the score. Good luck. By the way, nice job covering the story.


A little birdie told the Almanac recently that city hall is well aware of Mr. Possino's controversial history. Possino's detractors allege that he's been linked to a number of companies involved in questionable trades, or which have been accused of artificially boosting their stock prices.

For instance, through a private investment banking firm called "Corporate Financial Enterprises, Inc." Possino owned 45 percent of a corporation called The Hartcourt Companies Inc. Last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission won a $1.2 million judgment against Hartcourt. The SEC alleges that Hartcourt officers issued a series of false and misleading press releases while Yang was selling stock into the market. During the period in which Hartcourt issued the press releases, its stock price rose from $1.27 to $4.50, a 254 (percent) increase."

Note that Mr. Possino is not named in any of the SEC filings, and he was not accused of wrong-doing. Also note that it's not illegal to invest in a company that doesn't make money --- sometimes, investments fail. I have no way of knowing if any of the allegations being made are true.

But I still think someone needs to be asking Mr. Possino some hard questions about his ownership of a Downtown landmark --- and I also think someone needs to be asking some hard questions of the former members of the city Redevelopment Authority who sold this local asset in the first place.

The hard question I'm asking, however, is of the local reporters (print and TV) who were so quick to run to Our Fair City when some clown microwaved a fake penis in a convenience store directly across the street from the People's Building.

How come you're not so quick to pick up on this story?

...

The People's Building, by the way, is now completely empty. I will be interested to see how long it remains that way. Seeing this century-old skyscraper completely dark for the first-time ever is a depressing sight, and without occupants, it's only a matter of time before it starts to fall into disrepair.

Seeing some tenants --- or even just some efforts to renovate and market the building --- would go a long way toward instilling Mr. Possino's ownership group with credibility, and I would like nothing more than to see them succeed.

...

In other news, I'm still tracking local gasoline prices at the Mon-Yough Gas Gauge, and you may have noticed that I'm now calculating a weekly average and posting it on the Almanac.

For the most part, I've been conducting my surveys on Saturdays. But news reports today indicate that gas prices are taking a sharp upward turn in Western Pennsylvania and could hit $2.50 by the end of the week.

Last night, stations in the city were selling gasoline for between $2.27 and $2.35, but this morning I saw two stations in West Mifflin had raised their prices to $2.45; consequently, this week's average is likely to be out of date by the time you read this.

In any event, your reports are still needed. Leave 'em in the comments section of the Gas Gauge or email me at jtthreey at dementia dot org (replace the word "three" with the numeral).

...

In happier news, my former Standard Observer colleague Marge Wertz had a very nice Sunday magazine centerpiece in the Tribune-Review a few weeks ago that I've been remiss in not mentioning. Mea culpa.

Marge wrote a beautiful roundup of cultural, educational and civic opportunities in the city, with spotlights on Mon Valley Educational Consortium, McKeesport Little Theater, McKeesport Symphony Orchestra, and Carnegie Free Library of McKeesport, among other organizations. It's as nice a piece of coverage on the city as I've seen in a while.

...

Also, I didn't realize that Mayor Brewster's seven-point action plan for the city is available for download from its website (PDF reader required) until I stumbled over it recently on my way to something else.

Highlights include economic development (Brewster cites two new businesses, Huckenstein Mechanical Services and Canady Technologies, which are locating in the RIDC Industrial Park, along with a new shopping center on the old Reliance Steel property); residential development (notably the houses being renovated in the Waters plan section, and development of the "Nottingham Estates" housing plan in the Eden Park area of the city); removal of 300 blighted homes and commercial structures; $3 million in infrastructure, including new sidewalks in the Third Ward and new sewage lines; and increased enforcement of narcotics laws.

City-based Coker Construction, which is building those houses in "Nottingham Estates," is now the seventh-largest minority-owned firm in the Pittsburgh region, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times. Coker and Nottingham Estates were the subject of a flattering write-up in the New Pittsburgh Courier not long ago.



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March 15, 2006 | Link to this story

The Deadbeats on Route 30

Category: default || By jt3y

Take a good hard look at this: .

Can't make it out? Let me enlarge it: .

Still not sure what it is? Well, listen closely, and you'll hear soft, sad music: It's the world's smallest violin playing, "My Heart Bleeds For Hempfield Township."

Hempfield (which contrary to popular belief is not a stoner's paradise) has its knickers in a knot over a proposal in the state legislature that would impose a $100 per person fee on communities of more than 9,000 residents that rely on state police protection. State Reps. John Pallone of New Kensington and Jim Casorio of Irwin are backing the bill, and I say bully for them.

Yet here's a typical letter-to-the-editor from one of the overtaxed residents of Hempfield:

Don't we already provide funds through our local income and state taxes, toll road fees and car registrations? Don't forget about the huge amount of revenue generated by fines and citations issued within our townships and boroughs, many to folks who don't live in our communities. They are mostly commuting from areas like, say, um, New Kensington. I believe that is where you come from, Mr. Pallone, not Hempfield Township, where I and other hardworking, fed-up taxpayers live.


Hardworking? I'm sure the letter-writer is.

But he's also a welfare recipient, as far as I'm concerned, and he and his neighbors don't deserve the largesse. It's time to kick them off the state's dole.

With a population of 40,000 people, Hempfield is one of the largest municipalities in Westmoreland County. It has also developed into the retail and commercial hub of Westmoreland County. And yet it pays not a dime for police protection, over and above the state income taxes that all Pennsylvanians pay.

Take neighboring North Huntingdon Township, population 29,123. It pays about $2.9 million for police protection out of its $9 million budget, or 32 percent.

I couldn't quickly get exact figures for Murrysville, population 18,872, but according to a recent financial condition analysis, 39 percent of its budget went for police protection in 2003; Murrysville's fiscal 2006 budget is set at $7.8 million, so that would work out to $3 million.

From my reading of the Monroeville budget, it pays $8.4 million for police services (excluding crossing guards), or about 31 percent of its $27 million budget. Monroeville has a population of 29,349.

No doubt about it, police protection is expensive.

So why are the taxpayers of North Huntingdon, Murrysville, Monroeville, West Mifflin, Our Fair City, and hundreds of other smaller Pennsylvania communities subsidizing Hempfield Township, which is bristling with new residential and commercial development?

Former Hempfield Township supervisor Bob Regola, now a state representative, says it would create a "tremendous tax burden" on residents. Current supervisor Kim Ward estimates it will add 10 mills to the Hempfield property tax. I heard her on the radio with KDKA radio's Fred Honsberger the other day; he was tut-tutting and moaning about how those bureaucrats in Harrisburg keep raising taxes. We're overtaxed as it is, says Fred.

I'll drink to that. And one of the reasons we're overtaxed is that we have too many layers of government --- too many municipalities, too many school districts, too many municipal authorities. Too many legislators in Harrisburg, too.

But another reason is that some Pennsylvania municipalities keep their taxes artificially low, depending on the state for services that other municipalities provide for themselves.

Take a look at the property tax rates in some other Westmoreland County communities that do provide their own police protection. North Huntingdon's property tax rate is 12.55 mills, Greensburg's is 20, Murrysville's is 11.15, and Irwin's is 11 mills.

And Hempfield? A tax rate of a whopping 3 mills on a $9 million budget. Only about $1.3 million of the township's revenues are derived from property taxes; the largest share of income (nearly $2.8 million) is derived from earned income taxes.

If the neighboring communities of Murrysville and North Huntingdon are any example, I'd estimate it would cost Hempfield about $4 million to operate its own police department. That jibes well with the $100 per head fee that the Pallone bill would impose on communities like Hempfield.

Some communities (like Unity and Mt. Pleasant townships) are complaining that they don't have the tax base or the revenue to justify paying for state police service, starting their own police department, or contracting with a neighboring municipality for service.

Given that Irwin, with a population less than half of the limit in Pallone's bill, can afford police protection, I find that argument specious at best. If those communities are so financially strapped, then they'd better seek a merger with a neighboring municipality, or enter Act 47 distressed status.

The Pallone bill seems eminently fair from where I'm sitting, unless some of the elected officials in Hempfield can adequately explain why all of the new shopping plazas on Route 30 in Hempfield, and all of those new $200,000 to $1 million houses being built out along Route 819, require welfare payments from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the tune of $4 million a year.

Otherwise, I agree with Alan Wallace of the Gateway Newspaper chain, who wrote:

(Instead) of calculating potential tax increases, Hempfield officials (should) figure out just how much their residents have saved over the years because of the involuntary largesse that taxpayers elsewhere in Pennsylvania have bestowed on the township.


And when they have that figure, Hempfield officials ought to send out a couple of thank-you notes.


One should go to all those taxpayers elsewhere for subsidizing police services in the township for far too long. The other should go to Pallone for asking Hempfield just to start paying its fair share -- and not demanding the township repay those who've made its free ride possible.


The free ride has been fun for Hempfield, ever since the 1960s, when it began shifting from a rural community to a suburban community. But the ride has to stop --- now.



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March 13, 2006 | Link to this story

AAA? More Like C-Minus

Category: default || By jt3y

A few months ago I wrote about predatory tow-truck drivers, but mentioned that the local ones seemed to be fine. (The predatory ones seem to be a problem in Picksberg, as in other large cities.)

I just want to confirm that most of the local guys are, indeed, good guys. Early Sunday morning, on my way to my part-time gig, I hit something on the road that punctured a tire. (It almost always seems to be a snow tire that gets punctured, and I only get flats when it's raining or snowing.) I didn't realize the tire was going flat, though, until I got to work.

I tried to change it myself, only to learn that the scissors jack in the sleek, gray Mercury was, to use the technical term, "kaput." You see, I loaned it to someone a few months ago, who returned it saying, "I think I may have broken it." Well, when the jack now goes up at a 45-degree angle to the ground instead of 90-degrees, I'd say it's broken all right. It makes it hard to lift the car that way, too.

What else do I pay the motor club for if not to change flats in the rain early on a Sunday morning? Not much, it seems. First, the Triple-A sent the tow truck out to Forest Hills instead of North Versailles, where I was at.

This, by the way, despite my giving very specific instructions to the Triple-A operator referencing in great detail the intersection of Routes 48 and 30. Indeed, Triple-A called me back twice to confirm the directions ... and still sent the truck out to Ardmore Boulevard for reasons only known to them.

The driver --- from a towing company based in Our Fair City (I won't mention their name, but its initials are "C" and "D") --- arrived in a driving rainstorm and looked like a drowned rat by the time he was done. (In sympathy, I stood out in the rain with him. I had to dry my socks in the microwave when I was done, and my shoes are probably ruined.)

So, I just wanted to clarify for anyone who thought I disliked all wrecker truck drivers. Just the predatory ones.

Like the one at a Picksberg fast-food restaurant I visited recently. As soon as I pulled into the parking lot, he shot in behind me and sat behind my car, watching it, I guess in case I didn't come out right away. (Another truck from the same company was towing a nearby car.)

If you'll forgive a geek reference, there's a scene in the book The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the two main characters are being carried to what they think is certain death by a thuggish alien security guard.

One of them, Ford Prefect, finally asks the guard: "Do you really like this job?" Not as such, the guard replies, but he rather does like the uniforms, the shouting, and the stomping around.

I feel like asking some of these predatory tow truck drivers, who spend their lives making motorists miserable, the same question. Do you really like the work? Or do you just get off on bullying people who can't fight back?

...

Speaking of Triple-A: Have you priced their services lately? I dropped Triple-A when I bought the sleek, gray Mercury, because it came with 24-hour Lincoln-Mercury roadside assistance.

Well, that ran out, and I had to find a new motor club. I wound up back at Triple-A, which socked me for $48 for the basic, entry level plan.

Now, I don't use AAA to book hotels or buy airline tickets, because they aren't that hot, in my experience, and it's simple to comparison shop those things on the Interweb. AAA's maps are fair to average. Their much-vaunted "TripTik" service amounts to highlighting Interstates with a magic marker, which you could train a monkey to do.

Thus, $48 for a towing insurance policy seems a little steep to me, especially when they can't tell Forest Hills and North Versailles apart.

So, if you decide to boycott AAA, you do have other options:


  • BP operates what used to be called the Amoco Torch Club, and it starts at $69 for what looks like a fairly limited range of services. I'm not certain about this, but it looks as if they only offer towing in certain areas. If there isn't one nearby, you're up the proverbial creek, and have to make your own arrangements (though they will reimburse you).


  • Cross Country Automotive Services (which, I think, runs "motor clubs" for several other agencies) has its own branded program called "Driver's Elite." Prices start at $55 per year.


  • General Motors has a motor club, and perhaps surprisingly, owners of non-GM cars can sign up, too. (A good thing, too, the way the sale of GM cars has tanked. They'd be sorely limiting their market otherwise.) They claim to offer unlimited towing and to cover an entire family for $50 a year. Anyone tried the GM club? If it's any good, the price seems right.


  • AARP has a motor club, for its members only. The price starts at $34 a year or $64 for a family. (You do not need to own a Buick Park Avenue or a Chrysler New Yorker to join, but a white belt and shoes, straw hat and a license plate that says "Ask Me About My Grandchildren" are not included.)


  • AARP's service is run by General Electric, which also has a motor club (not just for electric cars, ha ha ha). It starts at $79 a year, and again, benefits seem fairly limited. Like BP, if they don't have a towing provider where you're stranded, you have to make your own arrangements. (In fact, the website looks suspiciously like BP's, and I suspect they're operated by the same provider. They're also headquartered in the same place --- Carol Stream, Ill.)


  • Allstate Insurance has a club, and it starts at $48 a year. It doesn't look like you need to be an Allstate customer to join, either (though I'll bet you're deluged with offers for insurance after you sign up).


  • And Chevron has a motor club, too, but it's not available in Pennsylvania. Oh, so you're too good for us, eh? Well, who needs your gasoline, anyway?


...

I'd be interested to hear if any Almanac readers have experiences with any of these clubs. (Even AARP, because some days, I feel ready to join.) There is nothing I'd like better than to be able to tell AAA to "stuff it." (They're getting a little too big for their britches, if you ask me --- time was when you could go down to Market Street and talk to someone at the McKeesport Automobile Club, but now, you got to go out to some high-falutin' suburban office in a mall, by cracky. I am ready for AARP, come to think of it.)

On the other hand, given my experience with dumping Ma Bell in favor of a competitor, maybe I had just better fork over my AAA membership renewal next time and keep my fat yap shut.



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March 07, 2006 | Link to this story

Some Rob You With a Six-Gun

Category: default || By jt3y

Speaking of Mifflin Township (were we? sort of), its direct lineal successor made national news this week when a 74-year-old woman was charged with robbing the National City Bank branch inside the Shop 'n Save at Century Square.

Take a look at the pictures by the Tribune-Review's Andrew Russell and the Post-Gazette's V.W.H. Campbell Jr. No offense, and I say this with all due respect, but I wouldn't be surprised if the suspect was going to use the money for a new set of false teeth. I'm no cover model myself, but mercy.

...

Down in Morris Township, a rural community south of "little Washington" on I-79, Scott Beveridge writes in the Observer-Reporter that Consol, the former Consolidation Coal Co., based in Upper St. Clair, has purchased $18 million in property in Washington and Greene counties over the past three years. It intends to longwall mine the ground below, and since longwall mining invariably causes the land on the surface to collapse, Consol has decided it's cheaper to just buy any affected properties than to try and fix them.

In Morris, that's left the township studded with abandoned houses that are now being stripped of valuables and recyclables. One of the homes is a stately Victorian once owned by a prominent local family.

But the best is yet to come:

When completed over the next several years, the coal preparation plant will have the capacity to process 10 million tons of coal a year.


The plant will create a massive industrial complex in what was an otherwise sleepy country landscape, (township supervisor Scott) Finch said.


"It was a beautiful place," Finch said. "I know we can't stop it and the country needs the coal."


They call the people taking the plumbing and the siding and the mantelpieces from the houses "thieves." They call the coal operators "businessmen." Try to keep that straight, OK?

...

"And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County,
"Down by the Green River where Paradise lay.
"Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking:
"Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away."

--- John Prine, "Paradise"

...

Muhlenberg County's almost 500 miles from Prosperity, Pa., but somehow, it seems much closer.

...

And finally, remember when that dingbat columnist from Denver slagged off Picksberg, and all of the yobbos wrote him nasty letters?

The same thing happened in Baltimore to a columnist at The Sun, Susan Reimer, when she had the temerity to write nice things about Picksberg:

On Super Bowl Sunday, I wrote what I thought was a sweet, sweet Valentine to my hometown, Pittsburgh, which happened to have a football team in the big game that day.


I expected the same response from my readers that the column generated in me: I was weeping sentimental tears by the time I finished writing it. ...


"I hate to stomp on your hometown pride, but people who aren't from Pittsburgh think it's the armpit of America," wrote one reader.


And that was just the beginning. There were perhaps 50 e-mails waiting for me, and most of them advised me, in the most unpleasant terms, to go back where I came from.


"And take your pathetic family with you," read one.


Another reader warned that it was not smart of me to have my picture run with that column.


The problem? Pittsburgh is in the same football division with Baltimore's Ravens, and readers expected me to have switched allegiances when I switched my driver's license.


Nice to see that Charm City, U.S.A., hasn't lost its touch.

Come home to Western Pennsylvania, Susan. We'll be nice to you. We don't have good crab cakes, but we make a mean fried fish sammich.

You can probably get some cheap land soon down in Washington County, too, just as soon as the coal company's done grinding through the layers underneath.

Lots of people love Pittsburgh, but how many people get to live in an actual pit?

Sure, it will be several feet lower than the rest of the terrain, and the walls of your house will crack and shift all the time, and your utility lines may break on a regular basis, but what the hole, it's home!



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March 06, 2006 | Link to this story

Write If You Get Work

Category: default || By jt3y

Last week I popped for the new book about Homestead and Mifflin Township, titled, interestingly enough, Homestead and Mifflin Township.

Ivan Shreve Jr. over at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has highlighted yet another project that will cause me to part with two double sawbucks before the month is out. A company called First Generation Radio Archives has collected 20 episodes of the earliest work by offbeat radio comedians Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding.

Recorded on electrical transcription discs in the late 1940s, they are episodes of Bob and Ray's first series, "Matinee With Bob and Ray" (Elliott commented years later that if the word was called "Matinob" they'd have gone their entire careers being billed as "Ray and Bob"). Mostly improvised, they originally aired over WHDH radio in Boston as a time-filler before Red Sox baseball games.

Longtime staples in New York radio over WOR, WINS and WHN, Bob and Ray also had a daily 15-minute segment on CBS Radio, made regular appearances on the original "Today" show with Dave Garroway and on NBC's "Monitor," and hosted an NPR weekly show in the 1980s. Goulding, in poor health, died in 1990, and Elliott is retired in New England.

Bob and Ray are an acquired taste --- they didn't go for punchlines and jokes, you either get their absurd take on life, or you think they're idiotic --- but those of us who've acquired it can't get enough. (Of all people, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann has one of the largest private collections of Bob and Ray recordings, and others who counted Bob and Ray among their big inspirations include the original cast of "Saturday Night Live," Stan Freberg, David Letterman, Kurt Vonnegut and Garrison Keillor. How's that for an eclectic group of fans?)

Incidentally, over the years, Bob Elliott has collaborated with public radio producer Larry Josephson on a series of "best of" Bob and Ray collections. You can order those at www.bobandray.com. I've got a bunch of them, and they're very well done.

While Larry has released a couple of the WHDH "Matinee" shows on his collections, the ones being released by First Generation don't appear to include those. That's good news and bad news ... the good news is that I won't be buying duplicates of things I already have. The bad news is that I'm almost compelled now to purchase the damned things!

And the even worse news: First Generation is claiming that this is only "volume one," meaning, presumably, that there are many more volumes to go.

Egad. Anyone have a winning Powerball ticket they'd like to share?



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March 03, 2006 | Link to this story

A Fool And His Money

Category: default || By jt3y

I was walking down Fifth Avenue in Oakland when I spotted a display of paperback books in the window of Jay's Bookstall. Smack in the middle was one called Homestead and Mifflin Township by Jim Hartman.

"No wonder I never have any money," I said to Jay Dantry as I wrote the check a few moments later.

"But here you are in Oakland, and you have your charm," he replied.

"Yeah, but I won't get very far on that," I said.

Printed in cooperation with the Homestead and Mifflin Township Historical Society, Homestead is the latest in a series of paperback picture books from a company called Arcadia Publishing. Most of them deal with small-town life and consist of public-domain or archive images; past volumes have covered Greensburg, Beaver Falls, Monessen, Duquesne, Jeannette and Wilmerding.

The company seems to hook up with a historical society, and in return for printing these books (which are admittedly of limited interest), asks for local cooperation in reprinting the old photos and postcards.

If I have a quibble with these books, it's that they're obviously done on a very limited budget, and the photo reproduction suffers. The usual format is to break the books up into chapters dealingwith themes or specific groups of buildings --- the Homestead book, for instance, has one chapter devoted to stores, another to the mills, another to churches and schools. Each chapter of an Arcadia book usually has a paragraph or two on the opening page; each of the following pages then has two photos with long explanatory captions.

But there's no real writing, per se --- the only historical information comes from the captions. And the photos lean heavily toward static photos of buildings or landscapes; there aren't many of people. So, while they're fun and somewhat educational to look at, they're hardly a substitute for a real, in-depth history of a community.

On the other hand, without Arcadia, it's unlikely that anyone would put out a reasonably priced book of old photos of Jeannette or Duquesne, so as the man says, you takes what you can gets. (An aside: Model train buffs, artists, community and high school drama clubs, and others who need reference books about life in "the good old days" should snap these things up. They are an invaluable source of great pictures of how things looked in the early 20th century.)

I guess what I'm saying is that these Arcadia books could be more, but they're nice for what they are.

All this being said, how's the Homestead book? Pretty good. Actually, as the title implies, the scope is pretty broad, covering all of the communities that made up Mifflin Township when Allegheny County was first erected in the late 18th century. That includes Homestead, Munhall, West Homestead, West Mifflin, Whitaker, Duquesne, Dravosburg and Clairton, so it's a pretty good swath of the Mon-Yough area. Most of the photos are from roughly 1900 to 1940, and the lion's share are of public buildings and shopping areas, though there are a few of residential neighborhoods.

And though the format of these Arcadia books restricts the writer to mainly long photo captions, Hartman packs as much detail and information into them as he can. You didn't know that Homestead had a department store called "Hutson's," did you? Or that Levine Brothers Hardware in that same borough was once an F.W. Woolworth 5-and-10? Or that the old bridge between Reynoldton (now Our Fair City's 10th Ward) and Dravosburg was once considered the highest trolley viaduct in the world?

I found a few boo-boos. One photo of a saloon is labeled as having been taken "in the 1920s," but since Prohibition was on, it's unlikely that any operating taverns were having their photos taken. I suspect the photo is actually from the 'teens. These are minor, and few, and don't detract from the overall value of the project.

And I could nitpick some of the photo choices, though I understand the tight budget and schedule under which these books are produced.

All in all, Homestead and Mifflin Township is a worthy little addition to your history library. Act now, while Jay has a bunch left, and he's liable to show you the one about Oakland, and the one about the Pitt Panthers basketball team, and the one about the Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh, and you're liable to walk out with a lighter checkbook.

(Or, if you prefer to shop from home, perhaps because you're anti-social, click here to get the book from Amazon. A portion of the sale --- a tiny fraction --- benefits li'l ol' me.)
...

To Do This Weekend: It's championship basketball weekend, and the Mon-Yough area is right in the thick of things! Tonight at 5, the Serra Catholic High School girls' basketball team (23-3) takes on the Monessen Greyhounds (17-10) at the Palumbo Center for the WPIAL Class A title. Then, at 7, it's a Route 837 showdown for the WPIAL Class-A boys' basketball championship when the Clairton Bears (19-4) take on the Duquesne Dukes (17-10). (There is no truth to the rumor that the winner of this matchup will replace the 3-and-23 Duquesne University team next year.) ... Meanwhile, the McKeesport Tigers' boys basketball team (20-9) plays Caketown High (22-5) for the WPIAL Quad-A championship at the Petersen Events Center in Oakland tomorrow. Tipoff is at 9 p.m. ... Don't like hooprock? Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville presents "Seussical: The Musical" tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call (724) 327-5456. ... McKeesport Little Theater, 1614 Coursin St. near Manor Avenue, presents "I Hate Hamlet," a comedy by Paul Rudnick, tonight and tomorrow night at 8 and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call (412) 673-1100.



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March 02, 2006 | Link to this story

Drop Off The Key, Lee

Category: default || By jt3y

For several years, the Port Authority (the most misleadingly named government agency other than the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which doesn't sell any of those things) has been trying to "spruce up" its bus fleet by painting them with the names of famous local residents (including McKeesport's Clifford Ball), advertising slogans, or colorful abstract designs.

Now, some people would prefer they spruce up the buses by, say, busting the pinheads who carve and scrawl graffiti all over the seats. Still, decking out the exteriors is one place to start, I guess.

The other day, I saw one of those articulated motorcoaches (what the Brits call a "bendy bus") with this message painted on the side:

That big shiny bus

Is really no riddle

But it sure is odd

How it bends in the middle


As far as I know, this is the first time the Port Authority has painted poetry (well, doggerel) on the sides of its buses. It turns out the Post-Gazette had a story about this in January. Spokesman and former co-worker Bob Grove says the rhymes are patterned after the old Burma-Shave signs.

Since PAT is currently facing yet another budget crisis, I realize it may be difficult for the agency to pay for these little rhymes and verses. So I thought I'd contribute a few, pro bono. That's the kind of public-spirited guy I am.

To save some money,

I gave PAT a whirl,

But the bumpy ride home

Always makes me hurl.


It isn't a treat,

To ride a 61C,

Because the back seat,

Always smells like ... urine.


Did you hear the North Shore

Is getting the "T"?

I guess millionaire ballplayers

Are more important than we.


The Mon Valley asked for light-rail;

They got a busway instead.

That's PAT's way of saying:

"Poor folks, drop dead."


PAT boasts of public transit,

But it's just idle talk,

And if this is their service,

You might as well walk.


...

Meanwhile, it's been a while since the Tube City Almanac carried an installment of that long-running, long-annoying feature ... IN THE MON VALLEY, GOOD GOVERNMENT ... IS ON THE MARCH!

(Cue "March of Time" music.)

Dateline: Pleasant Hills! And this time, the GOOD GOVERNMENT ... ON THE MARCH! spotlight strikes The Honorable Mary Grace Boyle, catching her, unfortunately, on the back as she leaves what appears to have become her former courtroom.

We say "appears," because as Mike Bucsko reports in the Post-Gazette, neither court officials nor Governor Rendell's office received so much as a Hallmark card, a "Post-It" note, or a bouquet of dead flowers before Judge Boyle announced she was quitting.

Judge Boyle was re-elected last year to another six-year term, so her abrupt decision to step down less than four months later may seem a bit odd.

Ah, but her election was a bit of a sticky deal, as it turns out; she's been accused of using her county-paid office staff to work on her campaign. This, as countless other political figures can attest, is a no-no. The state Judicial Conduct Board is supposedly investigating, and can impose sanctions even if she resigns her judicial commission --- as she apparently intends to.

Perhaps folks might be inclined to overlook a little electioneering in the office, but I suspect a lot of plaintiffs and defendants are less likely to overlook a backlog of thousands of cases, some of them dating back to the 1990s, that were unfinished.

In many cases, fines and fees that were supposed to be submitted to the county or state weren't sent along; in other cases, defendants who were found not guilty never had their fines and fees returned. The statute of limitations has expired on many of the cases. Some $170,000 is still sitting in an escrow account at a branch bank near the district judge's office.

Well, as Gladstone said, justice delayed is justice denied ... and apparently, the people of Jefferson Hills, Pleasant Hills and South Park shall be denied a justice ... at least until the governor appoints someone to fill Judge Boyle's seat pending the next municipal election.

Over the years, I've been privileged to meet many district justices and magistrates (no, not as a defendant). Some of them were wry and world-weary, others were hard-nosed and no-nonsense.

Most of them weren't lawyers, but I have found most of them conscientious and competent, despite (or maybe because of) their lack of formal law school training, and dedicated to adjudicating cases fairly and swiftly.

Yet it would be impossible to measure their professionalism if there wasn't something to compare it against. Luckily, every so often, an incident arises that makes us appreciate our hard-working justices even more! The Almanac salutes those who throw good local government into sharp contrast with the alternative!

And until next time, remember: IN THE MON VALLEY, GOOD GOVERNMENT ... IS ON THE MARCH!

(Music: Up and out)



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March 01, 2006 | Link to this story

It Makes Your Breath Leak Out

Category: default || By jt3y

When I started in newspapers at the princely sum of $285 per week, one of my duties as the night police reporter/photographer/phone answerer/getter of the copy desk's lunches was to write obituaries.

Occasionally, this involved writing the obituary of a prominent or interesting person. I once wrote an obit for a woman who had played the piano at the Holiday Inn in North Strabane for 25 years; her best-known claim to fame, however, was being hit in the head by a Roberto Clemente foul ball during the 1971 World Series. Her family and friends were delighted that the newspaper had memorialized her life with a little feature story; my biggest regret was that I didn't get to meet her while she was alive.

Usually, however, the subjects of "feature obituaries" were considerably more average --- former mayors or city councilmen.

And if we weren't writing a "feature," then obituaries followed a very rigid format:

John Q. Public, 89, of Canton Township, died Friday at Washington Hospital after a brief illness. He was born May 17, 1916, in Burgettstown, the son of John X. and Jane Doe Public. He was retired as a millwright for Jessop Steel and served in the U.S. Army in Germany during World War II. Mr. Public was a member of Immaculate Conception Church, the Washington Elks, and VFW Post 927. He is survived by his wife, the former Susan Customer; two sons, John Q. II and Steven, both of Washington; a daughter, Jane Jones of Canonsburg; seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday at the Warco-Falvo Funeral Home, Washington. A Mass of Christian burial will be held 10 a.m. Monday at Immaculate Conception Church, the Rev. Pius Clergy officiating, with interment to follow at Washington Cemetery.


It is a little creepy how easily the format still sticks with me, but I must have typed hundreds of those.

Some rules were drummed into my head the very first week; I am fortunate the night city editor didn't use a pica pole to literally drum them into my head:

  1. People "die." They do not "pass away," "go home to be with the Lord," or get "carried away by the angels."


  2. Those over the age of 75 do not die "suddenly" or "unexpectedly."


  3. We will list a spouse or a "beloved companion." We will not list both.


  4. We will list direct blood relatives. We will not list anyone more distant than a niece or nephew, so no matter how close they were to their second cousin, twice-removed, he or she ain't getting into the obit.


  5. We care if they were a member of the Elks, Lions, volunteer fire department, Christian Mothers, Eastern Star, etc. We do not care that they played bingo every Tuesday night at Holy Cross.


Deviations from this format brought wounded howls of protest from the city desk. One night, early in my rookie career, a funeral director insisted that we list a 101-year-old woman as having "died unexpectedly." He harangued me, pleaded with me, wheedled and cajoled --- insisting that the family wanted it this way, and that I would only compound their grief by refusing --- until I relented.

I dutifully filed the obit and 20 minutes later, an editor on the desk exploded. "What the hell is this (bad word)! 'Unexpectedly!' The (very bad word) was one-hundred-and-(very, very bad word)-one years old, for (name of diety) sake!"

I was directed to call the funeral director back, and tell him, no, I was wrong, we would not be doing that, and if he didn't like it, he could take his obituaries and shove them up his (bad word).

As I found out when I called back, he knew that it wouldn't work. He just wanted to see if he could slip it past the new guy.

That was a lesson you don't learn in college.

Anyway, the newspaper could turn down certain language because it ran obituaries as a public service --- it didn't charge a fee. We also had "paid death notices" that ran as classified advertising, but those were printed in much smaller type, and even those had restrictions, most having to do with good taste.

Well, in this era of declining newspaper revenue, more and more papers are running paid obituaries --- they look like news stories, but are written and submitted by the families, who can put whatever they want into them.

A year or two ago, maybe longer, the Daily News went this route. And since then, no one in the Mon-Yough area has "died." They've "gone home to be with the Lord," "been carried to Heaven by the angels," "been reunited with their beloved (wife, husband, dog) in God's Eternal Glory," and for all I know, someone has probably "joined the bleedin' choir invisible" by now.

Ah, but I have yet to see a death notice as tasteless as the one below. Apparently, it's been making the rounds for a few months, and I have verified that the thing is real --- it's not an urban legend. Also, apparently, the newspaper where it ran --- the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer, owned, incidentally, by the family of Kevin McClatchy --- was deluged with complaints and has tightened the rules on paid obits since then.

I guess the family thought it was "funny." Well, here's a tip for those of you who may be saddled with the distasteful task of writing an obituary for a loved one: People clip these out and save them forever. Not everyone wants them to be "funny."

And even if it seems "funny" now, it won't seem "funny" 50 years from now, when your son or daughter pulls it from the family bible to show their son or daughter. They'll just think you were a dork. So show some restraint.

Anyway, the obit for Mrs. Dorothy Gibson Cully, aged 86, follows at the "continue" link. I'll give you just two highlights: She died after "all of her breath leaked out," while her father died with an apple in his mouth and his head in the oven.

Could I make that up? No, I could not.

(more)

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