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July 30, 2007 | Link to this story

Development Opportunity on Beacon Street

Category: History || By



The fate of one of the city's oldest surviving places of worship is in the hands of an Italian "playboy millionaire" best known for squiring actress Anne Hathaway around Hollywood --- and for being sued by Penguins owner Ron Burkle.

The former St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Magyar Church on Beacon Street was purchased in January by a limited-liability corporation controlled by Raffaello Follieri, whose family's close ties with the Vatican have enabled him to purchase hundreds of closed churches across the United States.

St. Stephen's Parish merged with St. Pius V Parish in 1994; the church was permanently closed five years ago this month after the death of longtime pastor Rev. Stephen Kato. (Additional photos are available in Tube City Online's photo gallery.)

St. Stephen's was one of 10 closed churches that companies with ties to Follieri purchased from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2007. Another was St. Nicholas along Route 28 in Pittsburgh, the nation's first Croatian Catholic church. The St. Nicholas acquisition may make it difficult or impossible for former parishioners to preserve the structure for use as a national Croatian-American heritage center.

. . .

Church Sales Nationwide: The Follieri Group is buying properties from dioceses to "renovate them" and "convert them to new uses" including housing or commercial businesses, according to a 2006 article in the National Catholic Reporter. The St. Stephen's property includes the sanctuary, erected in 1899; the neighboring school, built in 1931; a single-family house that served as the rectory; and three smaller out-buildings.

The exact value of the sale isn't clear from county real-estate records available online. The county's website lists only a "multi-parcel sale" to Follieri by the Diocese for $60,000.

It's not evident if Follieri paid $60,000 for each of the six parcels, or in total, but RealSTATs, the Pittsburgh-based company that tracks real-estate sales in Allegheny County, lists only one sale on Beacon Street to Follieri's company.

If Follieri paid only $60,000 for the entire complex, it was a bargain. Tax records assess the property's value at $237,600, including $194,600 for the church. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Church purchases by Follieri have helped some declining inner-city areas. In Atlantic City, N.J., Follieri's purchase of a church and school that were vacant for 20 years have cleared the way for the property to be redeveloped as housing for casino workers, according to NCR. .

. . .

Controversy: But Follieri's redevelopment plans for local churches have also been controversial. In Philadelphia, the former Transfiguration Church was supposed to be renovated for use as an arts and cultural center, while housing was slated for neighboring land.

It hasn't materialized, and according to a June 12, 2006 article in the Philadelphia Daily News (not online) neighbors say the Follieri Group is letting the property fall into disrepair.

Follieri's business methods are also attracting scrutiny. One of his early American backers in the church redevelopment was Burkle, a Los Angeles billionaire who invested $105 million in the venture in 2005, and who also owns the Penguins along with Mario Lemieux.

In April, one of Burkle's companies sued Follieri in Delaware, accusing the Follieri group of "willfully and systemically misappropriating" $1.3 million for his own use, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Gossip columnists have tittered over allegations that Follieri spent the money to finance his own lifestyle, including a penthouse apartment in Manhattan and five-star hotels and restaurants for himself and Hathaway, who had star roles in the movies The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada.

. . .

Influence Peddling?: More than a few critics also question whether the Follieri Group has used undue influence on the Vatican to purchase properties below market value. Andrea Sodano is a vice president of the Follieri Group; according to NCR, he's also the nephew of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State from 1991 to 2006, and dean of the College of Cardinals.

As one commenter noted on a blog maintained by Domenico Bettinelli, editor of Catholic World Report, "If this business endeavor involved Donald Trump and not Princes of the Church, words like influence peddling, arm-twisting and kick-backs would be bandied about." Follieri has denied that, saying that the younger Sodano is a merely an engineer who works on the technical side of the company.

It's not just Follieri's church redevelopment scheme that's raised eyebrows. According to the New York Post, a non-profit foundation controlled by Follieri is marketing a discount prescription plan.

Instead of distributing 5 million cards last year as it promised, it passed out only 300,000. The Follieri Foundation also promised to make grants for Catholic education, senior housing and day care. The Post says the Foundation had not made a single grant in those areas as of June 2007.

And one of Follieri's companies is marketing a special Visa credit card that's supposed to contribute 1 percent of the user's purchases to a Church missionary society. No money has yet been donated, the Post says.

. . .

Buyer Wanted: Where does all of this leave St. Stephen's? Pittsburgh commercial real-estate broker Grubb & Ellis is listing the complex for $225,000. An ad on the company's website says it would be ideally suited for "group living, personal care, institution, school or day care." (PDF)

Though zoned for residential use, the property adjoins a commercial district along Evans Avenue and is only a half-block from the campus of UPMC McKeesport Hospital. Presumably it could be rezoned.

Churches in the City of Pittsburgh have been reused for restaurants and bed-and-breakfast style inns; McKeesport's location along the Youghiogheny River Trail would seem to make a bed-and-breakfast for hikers and bikers feasible, and the nearby hospital would also provide some customers.

Unfortunately, no one has shown any interest in doing something like that in McKeesport.

It also seems that the school could be reused as a personal care facility or day care facility, but the church building is problematic without extensive renovations. Most developers would be happier to tear it down.

In the meantime, according to the signs there's a "development opportunity" on Beacon Street, adjacent to a major hospital, next to public transportation, near the McKees' Point Marina and the Yough River Trail.

Maybe someone will buy it and make the city (and Anne Hathaway's boyfriend) very happy.

. . .

(Tip o' the Tube City hard hat to Alert Reader John M., who first informed me that St. Stephen's had been sold.)



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July 27, 2007 | Link to this story

Valley Hotel Serves Beer, Spirits

Category: History, News || By

When Chuck Corby takes the stage at the Valley Hotel near Clairton tomorrow night, some people say a few of his listeners won't touch a drop of alcohol.

They're not tee-totalers. They're the ghosts that supposedly haunt the halls of the longtime landmark in Jefferson Hills Borough, along Route 837 at Coal Valley Road. Bartenders swear that small items left behind the counter disappear for hours or days at a time, only to reappear when they're least expected, while Jo Ellen Oggier, one of the hotel's co-owners, says she's heard footsteps and seen glowing lights.

Thankfully, most of the visitors at the Valley Hotel are of the corporeal variety --- they're just looking for a cold beer and some conversation, as they have for at least a century.

. . .



How old is the hotel? Oggier, who purchased the business three years ago with her fiancé, William "Duel" Deemer, says she's heard it dates to the 1860s, and the rough-hewn sandstone walls in the basement look like they're from the 19th century.

But it's not listed on a 1900 map of Jefferson and Mifflin townships, even though surrounding buildings appear. Historian and photographer John Barna, who accompanied me on a recent visit, suspects the present bar and hotel were built after 1900 on the foundation of an older roadhouse.

The property has a colorful, if checkered, past. Erected by the Granger family of Scotland, who emigrated to the area in the mid-19th century, the hotel served passengers of the Pittsburgh, Virginia & Charleston Railroad, miners who worked the nearby coal veins, and crews of the riverboats that plied the Monongahela between Brownsville and the Ohio River.

According to Barna, at one time a ferry boat plied the river between Glassport and a nearby boat landing; tethered to a cable from one bank to another, it was pulled along by horses on the shore.

Oggier isn't sure how the Hotel Granger survived Prohibition, but she's been told by older residents that the bar was converted into a grocery store. Frankly, she thinks harder refreshments were sold, too, if you knew who to ask, and there are also rumors that the sleeping rooms upstairs were used for paid entertainment by the "world's oldest profession." (No, not farming.)

New England Road originally passed to the east of the hotel, but a road-improvement project sometime before World War II relocated the highway to the west, and the hotel's entrance shifted from the front to the back.

Improvements to state Route 837 and the opening of U.S. Steel's Irvin Works in 1937 provided the Valley Hotel with a steady stream of thirsty and tired truck-driving customers, but the development of "sleeper cabs" for tractor-trailers limited the traffic, and eventually it developed a reputation as a biker hangout.

Deemer and Oggier have told seedier former customers they're no longer welcome. They're cleaning up the rest of the hotel, too, removing layers of plaster, paneling and lath added by previous owners during at least two remodeling projects, one in the 1960s and another following a fire in the 1970s.

One regret is the loss of the original bar, which was torn out in the 1960s. "They probably cut it up for firewood," Oggier says. "It almost makes me want to cry."

Several of the sleeping rooms were unused for years; Oggier found a neatly-folded blanket on one bed that had sat in the same place so long it had gone yellow with age. Those are being renovated, too, and though truckers, railroad workers and tourists are welcome to stay, many tenants wind up being people who need a room but can't afford three months' rent for an apartment.

. . .

Most of the action these days is on the first floor, where the bar is friendly and comfortable, and the beer is cold. The newest addition is the well-lit stage, elevated behind the bar so that everyone in the small dining room gets an up-close and personal view.

Oggier and Deemer kept construction hidden from regular patrons until the stage was finished, then crews worked all night to demolish a wall and unveil the performance area for the next day.

Fridays are "open mike nights," when area bands are invited to try out; the Valley Hotel is booking professional acts on Saturdays. Deemer, a bassist and guitarist of some notoriety around the Mon Valley, is known to take the stage too, using one of his collection of guitars.

As for the ghosts? Volunteer investigators from the Pittsburgh Paranormal Society spent a night there recently. According to their report, the hotel is "definitely haunted," and they contend that a mirror threw itself onto the floor and shattered during their visit.

Barna and I didn't see any ghosts --- perhaps spirits aren't impressed by freelance journalists/historians and didn't think we were worth their time --- but we did enjoy the visit. And while we didn't get a chance to have any food, the Valley Hotel does have a kitchen with "bar food" --- burgers, fries, wings and other specials.

If you're down around Clairton or Dravosburg, you might want to scare up some friends and visit. Maybe the Valley Hotel will become your regular haunt.

. . .

The Valley Hotel will hold a motorcycle "fun run" to benefit the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Free Care Fund on Sunday, Aug. 26, beginning at 10 a.m. and concluding at Clairton Park, Pavilion No. 2, where there will be concerts by Chuck Corby & Quiet Storm, Three-Hour Tour, and the Warehouse Blues Band. There will be food, beer and prizes. People who don't own motorcycles are welcome to attend the concerts, too. Tickets are $20 per person or $30 for couples. Register at the bar, 1004 New England Road, Jefferson Hills, (412) 233-9800.

To Do This Weekend: Chuck Corby at the Valley Hotel, Saturday night. (See above.)



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July 23, 2007 | Link to this story

Thrills! Chills! Spills!

Category: default || By jt3y

©2007 Jason Togyer / Tube City Almanac

From David Whipkey's story in Saturday's Daily News:

North Versailles Twp. resident Gary Rosenbayger said he feels like he is living in another country.

"I went to bed last night in America," he said during Thursday's town hall meeting at East Allegheny High School auditorium. "But today, I woke up in a communist country."

. . .

East McKeesport Council President Ross Cianflone said he believes the transfer of Duquesne students to East Allegheny is only the beginning of additional school closings.

"I could see Clairton kids end up going to Thomas Jefferson, or Jeannette (students going) to another school," he said.

North Versailles Twp. Commissioner A.J. Matarazzo said he believes there is a simple reason for Duquesne's fiscal woes.

"If those people in Duquesne would have paid their taxes, we wouldn't be here today," he said.

. . .

North Versailles Twp. resident Sydney Matthews said she knows of many Duquesne students who are high academic achievers and said they all should be given a chance.

"Just give it a chance, if they're going to pay their way," she said as some in the audience booed. "Don't boo me. I listened to you. I didn't disrespect you."

Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher and North Versailles Twp. resident Harold Grant said the school children from Duquesne are the real victims.

"Stop trying to blame these kids," he said.


Check out Ms Matthews and Mr. Grant with their logic, reason and civility. How quaint!

. . .

Elsewhere: Pittsblog and Subdivided We Stand weigh in.

There's more light and less heat from Dan Majors and my old friend and cow-orker, Joe Smydo, in the Post-Gazette, including the news that West Mifflin and East Allegheny will receive $10,000 for each student they enroll; about 75 percent of the nearly 200 displaced Duquesne students will go to West Mifflin.

They also report on what sounds like acknowledgment of the inevitable by West Mifflin School Board President Joe Donis: "It is now a law and we will abide by the law, and we'll make sure everyone gets an education and everyone is safe who goes to our school. We'll do the best we can."

'Zat so? Paging Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross ... I think we're finally in Stage 4 of the grief process, heading toward Stage 5.

I only wish we had reached this point without all of the sturm und drang.

. . .

If Irony Were Strawberries: I've been doing some research on Edwin R. Crawford, the millionaire industrialist and philanthropist who died in 1936.

Over the weekend I learned that Crawford, whose brother served five terms as mayor of Duquesne, sat on both the Duquesne City School Board and on a "State Commission to Study the Consolidation of Local Government."

Laugh? I thought my pants would never dry. More than 70 years later, we're no closer to consolidating any of the local governments.

Crawford was a rock-ribbed, flinty-eyed, tight-fisted Republican businessman who merged his own McKeesport Tin Plate Co. into National Can. He'd have no sentimentality toward keeping any local school district open that was inefficient or uncompetitive.

I doubt I would agree with many of Crawford's attitudes toward labor, but we could use a few entrepreneurs and leaders like him around these parts again.



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July 20, 2007 | Link to this story

Selected Short Subjects

Category: default || By jt3y

Deep items from a shallow mind:

. . .

Duquesne High School Booster Club: This couldn't have come at a better or worse time, depending on your perspective:

Two juveniles face multiple charges after a stabbing outside a convenience store in Duquesne. Police said two groups were fighting Tuesday night on Grant Street.

Lariia Sloan, 39, who works at a nearby convenience store tried to break up the fight. Sloan was stabbed in the back. She is expected to make a full recovery.

The suspects are being held in a juvenile detention center and face multiple charges, including aggravated assault and criminal conspiracy.
(WPXI-TV)


. . .

Thank You Sir, May We Have Another?: Wal-Mart has confirmed what's been known for at least 10 years --- it's building another store on the old Lincoln Hills Country Club property in North Huntingdon.

To ease the pain on the nearby downtown Irwin business district, they're donating $2,500 to the borough's "Main Street Redevelopment" project, reports Pat Cloonan in the Daily News.

Based on Wal-Mart's $11.3 billion 2006 profit from 6,600 stores, that works out to about two minutes' worth of sales at a single Wal-Mart store. I sure hope they can spare it.

I'm not sure how much that $2,500 will represent in terms of unemployment checks for people laid off from other Norwin-area businesses, but my advice to Irwin is, don't spend it all in one place.

. . .

On The Road Again: Friend of the Almanac and Mon-Yough area historian Brian Butko has a new book out, written with his wife, Sarah. Judy Laurinatis has the details in the Post-Gazette.

. . .

Life is a Rock: About 300 people attended last weekend's "McKeesport: Past and Present" reunion at Harrison Village, according to the P-G.

. . .

Oh, Really?: Chris Briem of Null Space calls the Tube City Almanac "inimitable." Yeah, but so were the Hindenberg and Le Petomaine. As another flaming gasbag, we fit right in.

. . .

Hooray For Hollywood: In entertainment news, Mark Evanier came to Pittsburgh and found it that it isn't so bad. Good thing, too, because I would have hated to see the wrath of the usual civic-boosters descend upon him. At least Mayor Opie "Luke" Ravenstahl didn't bug him while he was in town.

Meanwhile, Radar confirms rumors that Bob Barker is a bit of a jerk. (The secret of his $100 pocket? He wasn't wearing underpants. OK, I made that up.)

. . .

To Do This Weekend: Pittsburgh Area Jitterbug Club has dancing at the Palisades, Fifth Avenue at Water Street, at 8 p.m. Saturday. Call (412) 366-2138. ... McKeesport Summer Concert Series presents the Beatles tribute band "Come Together," 7 p.m. Sunday, Renzie Park bandshell.



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July 18, 2007 | Link to this story

Come See Our Rust!

Category: default || By jt3y

We have a nationally famous tourist attraction in our midst.

It isn't the arboretum in Renzie Park, or the marina, or the Palisades or the Viking Lounge, where Governor Rendell once ate his weight in pierogies. I'm not even talking about Kennywood. (I said "nationally" famous. Kennywood is the one and only roller-coaster capital of the world.)

No, it's the old Fort Pitt Steel Casting Co. on 25th Avenue in Christy Park, also known as that giant lump of rust covered in poison ivy and "jagger" bushes next to the bike trail.

Google keeps emailing me "blog alerts" for sets of photos taken inside the abandoned foundry. Poorly secured and left largely intact since closing in the mid-1980s, Fort Pitt has become a mecca for urban explorers --- people who look around inside vacated industrial and commercial structures.

Unlike "midnight plumbers" --- thieves who break into empty buildings to steal the wire and copper pipes --- most urban explorers don't take anything but photographs. And unlike graffiti "artists" (for whom I have little patience) and vandals who destroy things indiscriminately, they don't cause damage. It's industrial archeology --- but instead of documenting things 200 or more years in the past, they're looking at our recent history.

That doesn't make what urban explorers do legal (it's still trespassing and unlawful entry) but arguably they mean no harm. Whether it's smart to be tramping around inside old factories full of rusty metal, broken glass, and grease pits is left to you to decide.

Anyway, as one of the remaining abandoned steel plants in the Mon-Yough area not torn down, Fort Pitt is exerting an almost magnetic attraction on visitors, some of whom are quite talented photographers. Here's a portfolio of Fort Pitt photos from Mon City native Brian J. Krummel (who also got inside the old Eastland Cinemas before they were demolished); here's another collection from an anonymous group of explorers taken just last month.

. . .

I'm kind of ambivalent about these pictures. On the one hand, I'm glad someone cares about these places. And as a kid who was too young to get inside most of the mills around here before they closed, it's fascinating to finally look behind the scenes.

On the other hand, I get depressed looking at the personal effects people have left behind. Every steel-toed boot, coffee cup, or calendar once belonged to someone who was laid off and out of work for months or years.

I remember touring Carrie Furnaces in Rankin about 12 years ago with an officially sanctioned group and coming home completely and utterly miserable. It brought back a flood of unhappy childhood memories of unemployment checks and government cheese.

The Fort Pitt photos hit me particularly hard, because my dad worked at Fort Pitt from 1972 until a strike in 1978, the same year my brother was born and the year after my parents had bought their first house, committing them to a 30-year mortgage. Then the conglomerate that owned Fort Pitt announced at the end of the year that rather than negotiate, it was closing the plant permanently.

Christmases in the Mon Valley in the late '70s and early '80s were freaking holly-jolly ho-ho-ho laugh riots, let me tell you. My stomach is knotting up just thinking about it.

. . .

After looking at the different Fort Pitt photos, I tried searching the web for information about Fort Pitt Steel Casting Co. or Condec Corp., the company that owned it. Other than a few citations in legal documents, and various galleries of Fort Pitt ruins, I found almost nothing.

That's wrong. Too many people devoted their lives to places like Fort Pitt to have them be forgotten --- or remembered only for their declines.

So I've finally started something I wanted to do a long time ago. I'm going to document the history of the steel mills and steel industry around McKeesport. (I used to have some articles about steelmaking on Tube City Online, but they were so short and thin that I took them down, and never put them back.)

Obviously, the big kahuna is National Works, and I haven't even figured out how I'm going to tackle that monster. Instead, I'm going to start small, and I've started with a history of Fort Pitt Steel Casting Co.

It kicks off the new Steel Heritage section of tubecityonline.com. I'm going to try to add something at least once a week, but be patient.

Think of it this way: Now you get to visit the Mon Valley's old mills without needing a tetanus shot or a time machine.



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July 17, 2007 | Link to this story

Here We Grow Again!

Category: default || By jt3y



A 1972 Yellow Pages ad for Ed Sigmund Moving ... not Sigmund Transfer, which has been a McKeesport institution since 1910. Ed Sigmund Moving was a separate company; I suspect that Ed Sigmund was a member of the same family and struck out on his own.

By the way, I swear that Ed Sigmund Moving had a pink truck. In fact, I can remember ads in the newspaper and phone book saying "Look for our big, pink truck." Can anyone confirm that, or have years of Stoney's consumption finally killed my few remaining brain cells?

Anyway, all of this is a complicated way of saying that the transition to the new URL at tubecityonline.com is underway. There are still a few bugs in the system, and for now, all content is being mirrored on the Dementia server. We'll get it worked out eventually.

Make sure to visit tomorrow for a big announcement about another cockamamie project exciting feature that I'll be developing at Tube City Online in the months ahead. It includes some new, exclusive content.

Please try to hold your excitement in check.



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July 16, 2007 | Link to this story

New Director Starts Work

Category: default || By jt3y

Michelle Wardle is excited about her new job as executive director of the McKeesport Heritage Center.

"The volunteers here have done a great job, and my goal is to keep that momentum going," says Wardle, who will oversee day-to-day operations of the historical society, genealogy library and museum in the city's Renziehausen Park. She was hired by the Heritage Center's board of directors and will ultimately report to them. Wardle's first day on the job was Tuesday.

A native of Schenectady, N.Y., Wardle holds a master's in public history from Kent State University in Ohio and previously served as curator of the Kelso House Museum in Brimfield, Ohio, and as a archivist at the Sandusky, Ohio, public library.

The Kelso House is a very different museum from the McKeesport Heritage Center, she says, mainly because Brimfield is a very different type of community from McKeesport. Where Brimfield was a rural farming town before becoming a de facto suburb of the Akron, Canton and Youngstown metropolitan areas, McKeesport has been urbanized since the 19th century, and its story is one of rapid industrialization, not agriculture.

Nevertheless, Wardle says, local historical societies and museums have some things in common, no matter where they're located. "You have to pick stories you can illustrate with what you have in your collection," she says.

Created in the early 1980s and initially located in one room of Penn State Greater Allegheny Campus' J. Clarence Kelly Library, the Heritage Center has grown fairly rapidly since moving to a new building near the Renzie rose garden. It currently functions as an official repository for historic city and school district documents, U.S. Census and cemetery records, and thousands of other items ranging from a scale model of the U.S. Steel National Works to bottle caps from Menzie Dairy Co.

A large assembly room was added a few years ago for receptions, classes and other events, while another wing surrounds and protects the city's first schoolhouse, built Downtown in 1832 and moved to Renzie Park in the 1950s. More than 700 people from across the United States are currently members.

Besides city history, the Heritage Center also collects material related to all of the Mon-Yough communities that adjoin the McKeesport Area School District.

Wardle moved to the Pittsburgh area nearly two years ago when her husband Matt took a job at the corporate headquarters of Dick's Sporting Goods. They have a 1-year-old son, Scott.

Her initial tasks --- after becoming more acquainted with Center's operations and people --- will include organizing and cataloging the collection, much of which is not yet in a searchable database or index.

In addition, Wardle's also focused on storing and preserving archival documents and historic items in the collection. And she's looking forward to working with volunteers on the Heritage Center's educational and cultural programming, which now includes an ongoing series of workshops on genealogy. "Community outreach is important," Wardle says.

Right now, a handful of volunteers is indexing and databasing the Heritage Center's collection, but Wardle says more help is needed. If you can help or would like to join the Heritage Center, call (412) 678-1832 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, or 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

. . .

Full Disclosure: The Heritage Center administered a grant from the G.C. Murphy Co. Foundation that has paid for some travel and research expenses related to the forthcoming G.C. Murphy Co. book.

. . .

In Other Business: In case you missed it, Donna Pfister of the Tribune-Review had a great profile last Sunday of the three mayors of the Steel Valley communities, Homestead's Betty Esper, Munhall's Ray Bodnar, and West Homestead's John Dindak.

You couldn't ask for three people who cared more about their communities than this trio. Frankly, they're all characters, too.

One thing jumped out of the story, though:

"The Homestead Carnegie Library is in Munhall. Homestead Park, where 9,000 people live, is in Munhall. Homestead Cemetery is in Munhall," Bodnar said. "The tail wags the dog half the time."


Yes, Bodnar's jealous of the attention that Homestead gets. You wonder why West Mifflin is upset about accepting Duquesne students in its high school? Homestead and Munhall are still maintaining their "rivalry" 36 years after the school districts merged! Good grief!

Here's a good question that wasn't asked by Pfister: Since these three communities blend together, why isn't there a city or township of "Homestead-Munhall" by now that includes all three? Don't hold your breath waiting for an answer.



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July 12, 2007 | Link to this story

Don't Take It To The Bank

Category: default || By jt3y

A friend of mine insists on carrying nothing but $50 bills. He thinks he's Rich Uncle Pennybags.

Naturally, when he reimbursed me for some expenses from our recent trip to Dayton, I wound up with two $50 bills, which no one wants to accept in payment. And I'm absent-minded; losing a $5 bill is one thing, but losing a $50 is quite another.

So on my lunch break one day this week, I went across the street to a branch of a Monroeville-based institution that I will refer to as "Farkbail Stank." "Could I have this changed to something smaller, please?" I asked.

"We don't make change for people who don't have accounts," he said. "It's our policy."

"You've got to be kidding me," I said.

"Would you like to open an account here?" he asked.

"Maybe," I said, "if you make change I'll think about it. Otherwise, no, never."

I walked out with two $20 bills, one $10 bill, and a cloud of dark, muttered imprecations.

. . .

When did banks decide that their mission is to make life as unpleasant as possible?

When I was a kid during the Reagan administration, it was a treat to go to the office of Union National Bank of Pittsburgh a few blocks from my house. I'd put in my birthday or Christmas money, and they'd stamp my passbook and give me a lollipop. I felt Very Grown Up.

The idea was that the bank would turn me into a loyal customer, and some day, when I was old enough to drive, shave, and go deeply into debt, they'd be able to sell me other products.

The bank office is now a Family Dollar, and I don't know if little kids are still welcome to open passbook savings accounts. There are probably minimum balance requirements that make it prohibitive. Anyway, considering how much time banks spend intimidating adults, I doubt children are welcome.

When a cow-orker or friend has a baby, I buy the child a U.S. Savings Bond. I figure that when the bond matures, the kid will be the right age to want to spend the money on something. For years, this was straightforward, but the last time I tried, one bank (a large New England-based thrift I will call "Shitizens Frank") refused to sell me a bond, because I wasn't a depositor.

That's right: They refused to sell me a United States savings bond.

If these policies are designed to encourage people to become a customer, I'm afraid it had the opposite effect: If "Shitizens" was the last bank on the planet, I'd give my money to a homeless guy.

. . .

Some of these outfits screw you even if you've never heard of them. I got a letter this week from a bank in Florida. It turns out they own a check-clearing service --- if you write a check, their company makes sure you have sufficient money.

The letter informed me "they were recently victimized" by an employee who stole 2.2 million accounts. Mine happens to be among them. While they have "no indication" any fraud has occurred (yet), they suggest I "might" want to change my account numbers and put a fraud alert on my credit reports.

At my expense, of course.

Rest assured, the form letter said, they are "taking steps to make sure we are not victimized again."

If they're the victims, why does my rectum hurt?

. . .

Being a long-time customer of a bank doesn't protect you from pain. When my bank was a savings and loan, most services were free and the tellers were helpful (while in college, I made a dog's breakfast of my checking account --- and I can remember an employee at the Homestead office sitting down with me to straighten out the mess).

Now, everything costs money. It bugged me when they stopped sending back canceled checks, but I was assured I could still order a copy at any time, for free. They recently instituted a $5 "research fee" for each canceled check.

Since the IRS now demands that taxpayers have "proof" of charitable contributions like church offerings, ordering canceled checks gets costly in a hurry --- I know someone who was audited and spent $800 getting copies of canceled checks from the bank.

I also have a line of credit with this bank. It used to be tied to the prime rate, but recently they yanked it up to 12.99 percent APR. That's more than my credit card. When I complained to a loan officer, he suggested I pay off the bank with the credit card.

Or maybe I should pull everything out of that rotten fershlugginer bank, which I will be doing this summer.

. . .

The problem is, where do I go? I've had pleasant dealings over the years with Compass Federal Savings Bank in Wilmerding, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend them. But they only have one office and they don't offer online or telephone banking, so they're not terribly convenient unless you live in North Versailles or "the Valley."

I have several friends in management at large banks. I asked one of them if I should go to his institution. He frankly suggested I would be better off at a credit union.

Like Compass Bank, limited convenience is a problem with most credit unions. (I see that Parkview Community FCU, located over near Renzie Park, has online banking now.) Still, if going to a credit union keeps me from getting smacked around a couple of times a month by one bank or another, I may put up with any inconvenience.

Come to think of it, where did Rich Uncle Pennybags do his banking? He always seems happy.

Maybe I'll look for a bank somewhere between Ventnor Avenue and Marvin Gardens. I just hope they haven't built a hotel there instead.



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July 10, 2007 | Link to this story

A Song, Again (Naturally)

Category: default || By jt3y

If you were around 35 years ago this week and had a radio tuned to "Solid Rock'n Gold" WIXZ (1360) or "Musicradio" KQV (1410), you were hearing this song a lot.

It's a song that some people consider one of the worst pop songs of all time.

I'm talking about Gilbert O'Sullivan's immortal classic, "Alone Again (Naturally)."

I've had it stuck in my head for days. A listener requested it last Sunday night and I played it, and while I wouldn't say it's a favorite, it's really not that bad. In fact, it's pretty damned good. In 2004 a reviewer for the BBC called it "a nugget of three-minute perfection," and O'Sullivan (that was his real last name; his manager dubbed him "Gilbert") really does pack more details and emotion into the record than some novelists fit into a whole book.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the song (I envy you), the singer has just been left at the altar by his fianceé and is being pitied by the people who came to the wedding:

Left standing in the lurch,
At a church with people saying:
"My God, that's tough, she stood him up
No point in us remaining.
We may as well go home."
As I did, on my own:
Alone, again (naturally)


He goes onto run through all of the other "hearts broken in this world," wrapping up with his parents:

I remember I cried when my father died,
Never wishing to hide the tears.
And at 65 years old,
My mother (God rest her soul)
Couldn't understand why the only man
She had ever loved had been taken.
Despite encouragement from me,
No words were ever spoken.
And when she passed away,
I cried and cried all day:
Alone, again (naturally).


("Everyone wants to know if it's and autobiographical song," O'Sullivan said. "Well, the fact of the matter is, I didn't know my father very well, and he wasn't a good father anyway. He didn't treat my mother very well.")

I know it seems like a terribly depressing song, but there's a tongue-in-cheek quality to either the lyrics or the way O'Sullivan delivers them, or possibly both.

Some how we know that O'Sullivan isn't really going to "throw himself off" a building, and he knows he's wallowing in self-pity. But we all occasionally get into a mood where we sit and feel sorry for ourselves.

As the Beeb's unnamed reviewer says, "It sounds sickly and self-indulgent, but Gilbert's skill was using humour and the sweetest melodies to make us swallow the bitterest pills."

The melody really is sweet. The record suffers a little bit from the heavy production that plagues a lot of 1970s pop --- the overdubbed strings, the reverb on O'Sullivan's voice --- but even that's not enough to wreck the pleasantness of the chord changes. Together with the unconventional internal rhymes of the lyrics ("I remember I cried when my father died," or "Couldn't understand why the only man") it's a catchy song.

And man, did it catch on. "Alone Again (Naturally)" was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic (O'Sullivan was Irish); while I don't have any WIXZ charts, according to Jeff Roteman's KQV website, it was the number 1 song on KQV for three straight weeks, finally displaced in the last week of August by Argent's "Hold Your Head Up."

Where "Alone Again (Naturally)" is subtle and novel and creative, "Hold Your Head Up" is about as clever and sensitive as a brick in the face. What a letdown!

At some point, it became fashionable among the rock cognoscenti to dismiss songs like "Alone Again (Naturally)" as "the crap that killed AM radio." But if it hadn't been written in 1972, and if Ben Folds or Wilco or some other favorite of the alt-rock crowd released it today, it would be getting heavy airplay on WYEP-FM and anywhere else pretentious music snobs gather. Pretty soon Volkswagen would have a commercial with "Alone Again (Naturally)" on the soundtrack.

But I digress.

This has nothing particularly to do with the Mon-Yough area, but after all of the heavy, serious topics that have infested the Almanac lately, I thought we needed something light. (Like a song about death and abandonment.)

Besides, it's been stuck in my head for more than a week, and I thought you deserved to live with it for a while.

Pulling stunts like this is why I'm alone, again. (Naturally.)



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July 09, 2007 | Link to this story

School Days, School Days

Category: default || By jt3y

The river of crocodile tears being cried by certain state legislators and politicians over the fate of Duquesne High School is truly moving. The outpouring of grief reminds me of the words of the great Tom Lehrer:

It's fun to eulogize / The people you despise / As long as you don't let 'em in your schools.


Under state law, if a public high school closes, the next nearest high school is obligated to accept the students. Normally, that would be West Mifflin. To prevent the district from being overwhelmed by an influx of new students, the state Education Department proposed a compromise that would have divided Duquesne students between East Allegheny and West Mifflin.

But new state Rep. Bill Kortz lobbied fellow legislators to reject that request, and they did, unanimously ... which is amazing since they can't even get a budget passed on time.

Although Kortz isn't a career politician, he must be a quick learner, because his behavior last week was Grade-A pandering. The state shouldn't be allowed to "bulldoze" Duquesne High School, Kortz said. He and others want the state to keep Duquesne High open; West Mifflin would then allow Duquesne students to take certain classes at the larger school.

Some how, I suspect this proposal wasn't designed to "save" Duquesne High School; it was made to keep Duquesne students out of the neighboring districts. Duquesne parents have seen right through it.

Denise Washington, whose son Malik is a senior in the fall, told the Tribune-Review: "How would that work? Would they bus them back and forth? Would they have first period at West Mifflin, second period at Duquesne and third period at West Mifflin?"

Mrs. Washington says her son doesn't want to go to West Mifflin anyway "because school officials and students there have made it clear Duquesne students are not welcome." I can't say I blame him.

. . .

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking. The new school year is less than two months away, and Duquesne High students still don't know what's going to happen.

Why haven't more people taken up their cause?

Where are local church pastors, for instance? Does anything that's happened so far seem "Christian" to you?

Where are the Pittsburgh newspapers? There's been hardly a peep out of the Post-Gazette's editorial board; I haven't seen anything from the Trib editorial page.

And where (Lord help me) are local bloggers? They're written nothing about the situation (Mark Rauterkus is a notable and welcome exception).

On the other hand, every time Pittsburgh Mayor Opie "Luke" Ravenstahl blows his nose, someone bangs out 3,000 words. Don't worry about Opie. He got a great education at a private high school and an expensive private liberal arts college. He may need to be "schooled," but his education is complete.

That's not the case for the students of Duquesne High School.

. . .

Maybe if we close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears, someone else will come up with a solution. Maybe the state will reopen Duquesne High School. Maybe a charter school will open. Maybe the "problems" will go away.

These aren't "problems," they're young men and women who need an education. These aren't problems, they're people who deserve access to opportunities that everyone else takes for granted.

This parochialism and separatism defines everything that's wrong with Western Pennsylvania. We need to invest our energies in working together, not in finding new loopholes to keep us apart.

For now, everyone seems to be turning their backs on Duquesne High School's students.

It's about time someone stood up for them.



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July 05, 2007 | Link to this story

Sic Transit Gloria Transit

Category: default || By jt3y

Erstwhile Almanac contributor Officer Jim notes that a number of newspapers, commenting on the Port Authority's ongoing disintegration, have argued that the transit agency should be dissolved. The Tribune-Review and its more cultured cousin, the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, have been among the loudest and most vocal proponents of privatizing PAT.

I'm not arguing that the Port Authority is perfect --- or even sustainable. But I don't think privatization is a magic cure-all. In fact, even if private companies wanted to take over the Port Authority (I'm not convinced they do), it's not clear that we'd save any money or get better service.

In 1993, the British government privatized British Railways.

Private Eye and other British magazines have documented the aftermath; while some things have improved (there are more trains being run), efficiency and reliability have gone down, and government subsidies to the private operators (adjusted for inflation) are more than double what the government paid to operate British Railways.

Under those conditions, privatization starts to sound a lot like corporate welfare, and not a good deal for Allegheny County or Pennsylvania taxpayers.

. . .

Port Authority was not created in a vacuum, or because local government wanted to muscle private companies out of the transit business, as the Trib has claimed.

Public transit in Allegheny County was run by private enterprise until 1964. For the most part, it was a mess, and private companies wanted out.

By the early 1960s, the biggest transit operator in the county, Pittsburgh Railways, was perpetually flirting with bankruptcy and was dropping bus and trolley routes on a regular basis. Other, smaller companies like Penn Transit in McKeesport, Ridge Lines in Port Vue, or Bamford Motor Coach in Homestead ran local inter-community service with varying degrees of success.

Some bus companies kept ridership high by keeping fares low; that prevented them from investing any money in maintenance or improvements. A few provided good service, but others were lousy, with buses that ran on no published timetables. Each had different fare structures and policies. There was some coordination of schedules and stops between different companies, but it was a hit-and-miss proposition.

Many of these transit companies started as shoe-string operations, and when automobiles became cheap in the 1920s, their already thin profit margins began to erode. West Penn Railways, a subsidiary of West Penn Power, dropped its McKeesport service way back in 1938.

I don't work for a fancy think-tank, but it sure sounds like private companies didn't necessarily do a good job running public transit in Western Pennsylvania.

. . .

Transit works best in densely packed metropolitan areas. Arguably much of Allegheny County has never been heavily developed; even in the glory days of the steel industry, urban areas like McKeesport and Clairton were separated by rural or "ruburbian" communities like Lincoln Borough and Mifflin Township (now West Mifflin borough). After World War II, the growth of suburbs like North Versailles and Pleasant Hills only spread people out even further.

But there are a few places where transit might truly make a profit --- the corridor from Squirrel Hill to Downtown Pittsburgh, for instance, is consistently busy.

The creation of Port Authority allowed profitable, heavily-traveled routes to subsidize less-traveled, money-losing routes. As a public agency, Port Authority also was able to issue municipal bonds, unlike privately-run transit companies.

. . .

Remember The Public Good?: If some bus routes have low ridership, why not discontinue them and just keep the profitable routes? Well, there's something called "the public good."

There are people in North Versailles or Glassport or Jefferson Hills who can't afford a car and need the bus to get to work, shopping, church and other activities. Telling them "move someplace else" isn't much of an option. Many are on fixed incomes and can't afford to move.

The Trib's editorial board has argued on more than one occasion that it would be cheaper to give them free cars than to subsidize public transit. Maybe they're being facetious; I sure hope so.

If someone can't afford to buy a car, they can't afford the upkeep, either; even if they could, we'd be dumping thousands of additional cars onto local roads, which requires more police, roads, and maintenance personnel. That only shifts the tax burden from one part of the public sector to another. (Never mind the environmental impact those cars would create.)

On the other hand, if you cancel the buses without any alternative, a lot of people are going to wind back up on unemployment or welfare. Again, we just shift the tax burden around; we don't reduce it.

Finally, I seriously doubt that any private company would want to take over bus service to Glassport or Clairton without hefty public subsidies to support the operations. Once again, that doesn't solve the transit funding problem --- it just moves the money around.

. . .

Start Over: Arguably, Port Authority needs to be ripped apart and put back together from scratch:

  • Too many routes follow old pre-1964 transit lines; many, like the 56C from McKeesport to Pittsburgh, even bear their old Pittsburgh Railways route numbers. We all know that the population centers have shifted over the last 40 years. Transit routes haven't shifted enough to follow them.


  • Too many buses still go through Downtown Pittsburgh. Why should someone who wants to go from Coraopolis to Ross Park Mall have to change buses in the Golden Triangle? This outdated way of thinking makes trips that should take 30 minutes stretch to an hour or more.


  • Too many buses stop at the county lines. Communities like McMurray in Washington County, Hempfield in Westmoreland County, and Cranberry in Butler County were rural when Port Authority was created. Now they're de facto suburbs of Pittsburgh. We need an inter-county transit agency --- or at least one that's able to go further across county lines.


  • Too many employees are making too much money. Everyone blames the drivers, and they are among the top paid in the country, according to the Post-Gazette. But who OK'd those salaries? Port Authority executives, who are getting richer much faster: The P-G notes that Port Authority pays health and dental insurance as well as a monthly $5,200 pension to one former CEO who is also collecting a half-million dollars in compensation from his current job. Another former CEO collects $8,500 per month from PAT while working as a vice president at a multi-national corporation.


  • The blame for those salaries and retirement plans falls solely on the Port Authority's board of directors, which was appointed by Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and his predecessor, Jim Roddey; the appointments were confirmed by Allegheny County Council. Allegheny County politicians created the problems; frankly, it's not fair for them to now point their fingers at the state. (Admittedly, I'm not holding my breath waiting for them to accept responsibility.)


. . .

Reconstruct, Not Demolish: I don't know how you clean up Port Authority piecemeal. I think it would be easier to start over with a fresh sheet of paper, tear up all of the existing transit routes and employment contracts, and design a new system from the ground up.

Rationalizing the Port Authority's operations requires politics to be removed from the process. It also requires people with a fresh outlook who don't drag along 40 years of history or their own biases and constituencies. Bringing in a private company to redesign the Port Authority makes a lot of sense for those reasons.

Outsourcing office functions and maintenance makes sense, too, if it's guaranteed to be cheaper. I can even see contracting with private companies to run certain routes --- transit authorities in neighboring counties do that with seemingly no ill effects; Westmoreland actually added more service in 1999.

But anyone who just says "privatize the Port Authority!" and "allow competition!" clearly hasn't spent any time looking at the issues or the history. Things are a lot more complicated than that.



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July 04, 2007 | Link to this story

Independence Day

Category: default || By jt3y



There's live music today at the Renzie Park bandshell, starting at noon, and the fireworks go off at sundown. Bring a lawn chair or a blanket.

Before the fireworks and after the hot dogs, you may want to read the story behind John Trumbull's 1817 painting "The Declaration of Independence."

Or read a meditation on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence by E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.

And keep an eye out for tigers wearing powdered wigs.



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July 03, 2007 | Link to this story

Station Break

Category: default || By jt3y



You're watching Tube City Almanac. Portions of today's broadcast are electronically transcribed for reproduction at this more convenient time.

We'll be back after these brief commercial messages:



. . .

"Gee, Dad, why is the picture so funny looking?"

"Well, son, back in Uncle Jason's day, people used to watch TV that was broadcast through the air, and received with an antenna, not with cable. And sometimes it would get blurry, or there would be what they called 'ghosts' in the picture."

"Didn't the digital signal processing take care of that?"

"No, because they didn't have digital TV."

"Aw, come on."

"It's true. They also had to get up and go to the TV set when they wanted to change the channel."

"Oh, man, I almost believed you. Nice try, dad. Go to the TV ... I guess the TV stations used to go off at night, too."

"Er ... Never mind."



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July 02, 2007 | Link to this story

Wilmerding Was Wobbed ... But It Can Still Win

Category: default || By jt3y

UPDATE: Hooray! I just saw Bonnijean Adams' story in today's Daily News ... it looks like Wilmerding is on the right track!

Wilmerding Renewed Inc. is going to put its own museum in the Castle, and the planning is already underway. That makes part of this Almanac obsolete, but I'm glad!

Visit WRI's website if you'd like to contact them and help.

. . .

The board of directors of the George Westinghouse Foundation last week voted to move the George Westinghouse Museum from the historic "Castle" in Wilmerding to the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh History Center in the Strip District.

It leaves the "Castle" --- the former Westinghouse Air Brake Co. general office building, where Westinghouse himself once had an office --- without its most important tenant, and Wilmerding without its only "touristy" attraction.

Stories in the Tribune-Review and Post-Gazette focused on the positives for the History Center. Only Bonnijean Adams' story in last week's Daily News mentioned the impact to Wilmerding, where community activists like Henry Slaczka fought hard to keep the museum.

It's a bitter disappointment for a proud and close-knit town.

From a cold-blooded business perspective, the move makes sense --- hundreds of people visited Wilmerding each year to see the Westinghouse collection, but hundreds of thousands of people are visiting the History Center already.

On the other hand, the Westinghouse materials are arguably going to be lost in the History Center. They're one tiny drop in a big bucket.

And the Westinghouse Museum meant a lot more in a little community like Wilmerding than it ever will to Pittsburgh's Strip District.

. . .

This is the second thumb-in-the-eye that a Westinghouse-related entity has given the Turtle Creek Valley this year. The more important one was Westinghouse Electric's decision to close its Churchill and Monroeville offices and relocate to Cranberry Township.

(Editor's note: No thought was ever given to, say, Keystone Commons in East Pittsburgh. You know, where there are all of those empty buildings that used to be Westinghouse's headquarters?)


The name "Westinghouse Valley" is becoming more and more inappropriate. Westinghouse has turned its back on the "Valley." It's time for the "Valley" to shake Westinghouse's dirt off of its feet, and walk away.

. . .

There is a solution, if Wilmerding is willing to consider it. I was in State College, Pa., on Friday and had some time to kill on the way back, so I drove through Tyrone, Altoona and Bedford. Just off the main street in Tyrone (population 5,500) I came across the old railroad station, which has been converted into a local history museum.



Tyrone was a busy stop on the Pennsylvania Railroad and home to a big Westvaco paper mill. The mill is still there, but it's locally owned and makes mostly recycled products now.

The railroad tracks are still there, though (it's Norfolk Southern's main Philadelphia-Pittsburgh route), and Tyrone has created a park at the museum for train buffs to sit and watch the trains go past. There are two cabooses (cabeese?) parked nearby as well.

. . .

You know, Wilmerding is on the very same railroad track, and is the headquarters of one of the world's largest manufacturers of railroad equipment, Wabtec (formerly Westinghouse Air Brake Co.).

I also suspect that train buffs are willing to drive a lot further for their hobby than people who are interested in Westinghouse's history. And the Pennsylvania Railroad has a large and active group of aficionados around the world.

. . .

Wilmerding has a golden opportunity to create its own tourist attraction and showcase a great little Mon-Yough area town.

There is no train museum in Pittsburgh as far as I know. Wilmerding should capitalize on its WABCO ties and the busy Norfolk Southern tracks.

Down at the railroad tracks, it should create a parklet for trainwatchers, just like Tyrone has done. (Other cities, like Rochelle and Homewood, Ill., also have created dedicated parks just for people to watch trains.)

All of those visitors are going to need snacks and drinks and film, and they're going to want something to visit when they're tired of train watching. So Wilmerding should put a local history museum into the Westinghouse Castle, along with at least one room devoted specifically to the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad. (I'll bet the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society would help.)

I'll also wager that a lot of past and present residents of the Turtle Creek Valley have high school yearbooks, old photos, pop bottles from Wilmerding Botting Co., artifacts from WABCO and Union Switch & Signal, and other items they'd love to display.

. . .

The lobby of the museum should be devoted to "selling" the Turtle Creek Valley to visitors and potential investors. Here's a golden opportunity for the Regional Business Alliance, the East Allegheny Business Association and other groups to show off.

Above all, they'd better have a gift shop stocked with Wilmerding stuff as well as Pennsylvania Railroad T-shirts, books, bumper stickers, toys and videos. It's a fundraising opportunity too good to pass up.

It would be a nice gesture, too, for the Heinz History Center to loan or make copies of any material it has related to Wilmerding, Turtle Creek, and Monroeville.

This may be a short-term loss, but it's also a chance for the community to put a "W" in the "win" column --- and make it stand for "Wilmerding," not "Westinghouse."



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