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May 31, 2008 | Link to this story

Call Arnold Slick From Turtle Crick

Category: So-Called Radio Humor || By

I've mentioned before one of my favorite shows is the Canadian sitcom "Corner Gas."

The other day, I watched the Season 4 episode called "The Good Old Table Hockey Game," which incorporates "The Hockey Song" by the great folk singer Stompin' Tom Connors.

Well, then I listened to Mike Lange call Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and one thing led to another ...

Anyway, the tape-splicing elves at Tube City Omnimedia's World Headquarters were busy all night Friday and into Saturday morning.

Enjoy, if that's the word, but please credit the Almanac, and don't use it for commercial purposes:

"The Hockey Song" by Stompin' Tom Connors (with Mike Lange) MP3, 2.8MB (re-edited 7:30 p.m.)

Now I'm going to bed, and if I'm lucky, I'll dream happy thoughts about Gabrielle Miller.

And if I'm unlucky, I'll be dreaming of Stompin' Tom's lawyers.

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May 30, 2008 | Link to this story

Get Your Motor Running

Category: Events, News || By

Maybe you remember a shortlived sitcom in which Dan Aykroyd played a motorcycle-riding Episcopal priest.

(Don't feel bad if you don't --- nobody was watching.)

Well, Our Fair City has its very own "Soul Man" in the Rev. Dr. Jay Geisler, rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church at the corner of Walnut and Eighth streets, Downtown.

A dedicated motorcycle buff since his high school years in the North Hills, Geisler and St. Stephen's will hold their third-annual "Blessing of the Bikes" after this Sunday's 10 a.m. service.

"I'm actually putting back together my BMW 850," Geisler says. (He's painting the fuel tank right now.)

Geisler, of East Pittsburgh, says the service is designed to pay tribute to the bikers and also raise awareness of motorcycle safety among the general public.

He should know --- years ago, Geisler barely escaped serious injury when a woman didn't see him and his cycle and drove in front of him near Wexford.

Geisler flipped over the hood and walked away bruised and sore, but otherwise unscathed.

. . .

His first bike was a little Suzuki 185 that he used to commute back and forth to LaRoche College, and to his summer jobs at Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. plants in Aliquippa and on the South Side.

"I drove that all year around --- I even bought a fluorescent orange snowsuit to ride with," Geisler says. "I even customized it, chromed it out."

When he graduated, he upgraded to a BMW; that bike was sold when he entered the seminary.

Geisler bought his current bike when he got his first pastoral assignment. He's now been at St. Stephen's for five years, and has worked with parishioners to reintegrate the church into the surrounding Downtown and Third Ward neighborhoods.

. . .

Events like the motorcycle blessing help tie the church to the community; so does the new electronic sign on Walnut Street, which St. Stephen's uses to promote events and small businesses around the city.

"We're a church that realizes that your economic situation is as important as the spiritual situation," says Geisler, who notes that the future of St. Stephen's is inexorably tied to the survival of McKeesport.

"A lot of these churches have gotten elderly because the young people have moved away," he says. "There are abandoned churches all around us."

The pastor is also involved in community groups like the McKeesport Neighborhood Initiative, which is developing new, affordable houses for first-time homeowners. Geisler is a director of MNI.

"The people who pay taxes are the homeowners," he says. "What revitalizes an area is when people want to move in."

(It should be noted that Geisler is also an active leader in the Episcopalian Diocese of Pittsburgh; in fact, he's one of a number of clergy who have questioned a proposal by Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan to pull the diocese out of the Episcopal Church in the United States.)

. . .

Geisler has had the opportunity to move to greener pastures, but says he frankly feels called to the Mon Valley.

"My great-grandfather was an Irish immigrant who signed an 'X' for his name," he says. "My father was a steelworker his whole life ... it's one of the reason I've always worked in these milltowns.

"That's why I've been committed here. I didn't have the heart to leave Pittsburgh after all this time."

. . .

The blessing of motorcycles and their riders will be held following this Sunday's 10 a.m. service. St. Stephen's is located at the corner of Walnut Street and Eighth Avenue, near the main post office. Following the blessing, a caravan of bikes will head east to Route 30 and Ligonier. For more information, call (412) 664-9379.

. . .

In Other Business: A friend of mine from the Tribune-Review (I still have a few) says I was unduly harsh in my criticism of the recent Mon-Fayette Expressway forum, which I called a "pep rally" and a "publicity stunt."

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," he says. "Do you still need a good act of contrition?"

Actually, I owe a mea culpa or two myself. In all honesty, the stories written by all of the Trib Total Media papers were very fair and balanced, and took pains to quote critics of the MFX who attended the forum; I didn't detect any pro-highway bias.

Also, the Trib is not solely to blame for the selection of the panelists. The forum was co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association and the Pennsylvania Cable Network.

I apologize for smearing the reporters and editors involved, and in the spirit of this weekend's motorcycle blessing, I will meditate on Romans 3:23.

. . .

March for Peace Saturday: The Brother to Brother Leadership Forum will host a "March for Peace" tomorrow from Duquesne to McKeesport. The march will begin at 10 a.m. at the corner of Hoffman Boulevard and Duquesne Boulevard (near Kennywood Park) and end at Kennedy Park on Lysle Boulevard.

According to a spokesman, the march will "highlight the need for community reunification and dialogue around the issue of urban violence," which a press release calls "a scourge that plagues many of our communities."

Families who have been the victims of violent crimes are invited to attend, along with residents and elected and school officials.

The leadership forum is a community group created and run by African-American men from Allegheny County that's designed to organize positive community activities like mentoring programs. In March, it hosted a day-long forum at McKeesport Area High School called "All Guns Down: Jobs Not Jail," which attracted more than 400 participants.

For more information on the march, call Rashad Byrdsong at (412) 371-3689 or visit the Community Empowerment Association website.

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May 29, 2008 | Link to this story

Things Ain't What They Used to Be

Category: History, Mon Valley Miscellany || By

According to some people I know, that's what McKeesport used to look like.

The streets were filled with well-dressed people, the buildings were shiny, the grass was greener and the sidewalks were freshly scrubbed.

Or, to paraphrase something John Oliver said on The Daily Show, McKeesport in the "boom years" was the kind of place where "everyone whistles all the time and women's breasts (were) a lot pointier."

Now, here's a photo that was recently given to Tube City Online by a frequent reader of the Almanac:

That's the 500 block of Fifth Avenue, looking toward the Youghiogheny River, in roughly 1970. (I can date the picture from the "Shapp for Governor" sign in the background.)

Again, here's the myth:

And here's the reality:

That's West Fifth Avenue at Rebecca Street, before the ramp to 10th Ward was completed. For everyone who thinks West Fifth Avenue looks shabby now, let's face it --- it didn't look any better in the "good ol' days."

In fact, the Mon Valley never reminded anyone of the French Riviera or San Francisco. This has always been a rough-and-tumble, gritty area. (Notice I avoided using the word "hardscrabble.")

Sure, in the "old days" people had more money in their pockets, because it was easier to find a job in the mill. But to some extent, that's true almost everywhere. Good-paying, entry-level jobs have almost disappeared across the entire United States --- not just the Mon Valley.

We're also guilty of creating a mythology about the past.

We remember how much fun it was to ride the train to Pittsburgh. We don't remember how the trains used to create giant traffic jams Downtown all day.

We remember great stores like Cox's and Jaison's and Immel's. We don't remember walking past dumpy-looking storefronts to get to them:

To some extent, everyone's memories are skewed. We remember the good, not the bad. When we were kids, candy was cheaper, music was better and the Pirates won every game.

The truth is that the Pirates stunk through most of the '40s and '50s, a nickel candy bar would cost about 50 cents today, and our parents and grandparents always thought our music was noise.

The problem for the Mon Valley is that we get trapped by nostalgia. Instead of appreciating what we have, we complain that "McKeesport ain't what it used to be."

In fact, it was never what it used to be in our imaginations, when we were 10 or 15 or 19 years old.

The danger is that we stop trying to make the present better, because nothing we do can live up to the impossibly high standards of our imaginary past.

Don't get stuck pining for something that never was. Take pride in what we have.

Let's try to make our neighborhoods, churches or businesses a little bit better, not so they can look like they supposedly did 50 years ago, but so that we can enjoy them now.

So don't worry about "bringing the Mon Valley back." Worry about what it looks like going forward.

(This sugary homily was paid for by the Philanthropic Council to Make Things Nicer.)

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May 28, 2008 | Link to this story

Please, No More MFX Meetings

Category: Rants a.k.a. Commentary, The Mo-Fo Excessway || By

You may have noticed that I didn't go to the Mon-Fayette Expressway "town hall" at McKeesport Area High School last week.

I tried. Oh, Lordy, I tried. In case you haven't noticed, I'm doing independent half-baked guerrilla journalism at the Almanac, and covering events helps me maintain my street cred.

But I do have a real job (you don't think this pays my bills, do you?) and by the time I got done at work, I would have had to race to MAHS.

Besides, I just couldn't muster what Jeff Kay would call "a single dingle" of enthusiasm over the idea of listening to the same old talking heads make the same old talking points.

Maybe I'm a weak man, but I just can't listen any more.

. . .

I went to my first MFX "information session" at First Presbyterian Church in Duquesne during the summer of my sophomore year of high school. That was almost 20 years ago.

Nothing much has changed since then, except that my mullet has become a comb-over.

In case you missed the coverage in the Tribune-Review, the Daily News, and the Gateway weeklies, here were the panelists:

  • Joe Kirk, executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council, which basically exists to plump for the Mon-Fayette Expressway;

  • Andy Quinn, director of community relations of Kennywood, who has been an MFX backer for at least a decade;

  • Chad Amond, president of the Monroeville Area Chamber of Commerce, which wants the MFX as a bypass around the Squirrel Hill Tunnels; and

  • Joe Markosek, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, who represents Monroeville, and who also wants the MFX as a bypass around the Squirrel Hill Tunnels.

The panel also included Joseph Brimmeier, CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. (Well, gee, he's certainly an impartial expert!)

That wasn't a town meeting. It was a pep rally.

Shame on the "Trib Total Media" newspapers (including the Daily News) for presenting this manufactured publicity stunt as if it was really a "forum" for discussion.

. . .

The arguments of MFX supporters are starting to become more and more strident, like those of the far-left and far-right in this country. If you disagree with any of President Bush's policies, the right calls you unpatriotic; if you agree with any of them, the left calls you a fascist.

Similarly, Mon-Fayette boosters like to deride opponents of the highways as "elitists" and "environmentalists."

Well, if living next to Bettis and driving a big V-8 powered yacht to work every day makes me an "elitist" and an "environmentalist," then paint me green and call me Tim Robbins.

. . .

Here's the thing: As longtime readers (both of you) know, I have really tried to warm up to the MFX.

But I resent being told that there are no possible drawbacks to an expressway that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can't afford to build, and can't afford to maintain once it's built.

I'm also tired of being told that the MFX is the only redevelopment solution for the Mon Valley.

Dozens of metropolitan areas are in terrible shape despite having expressways and beltways.

Have you driven through Youngstown lately? Expressways didn't do anything to keep industry and population from fleeing the Ohio Valley.

. . .

Some MFX backers point to the "success" of Cranberry Township and Southpointe as evidence that an expressway breeds development.

First, I'm not convinced that big sprawling shopping plazas are sustainable in the long-term when gasoline is topping four dollars a gallon.

Second, Butler and Washington counties offered virgin, untouched farmland for development. It's a lot cheaper to plow up farmland than to rehabilitate old millsites, like the ones in the Mon Valley.

After all, if expressways were great at spurring redevelopment of brownfields, then Washington, Pa., would be a boom town --- it's at the intersection of two interstates.

. . .

Well, I worked in Washington, and parts of it look just as bad as the worst parts of McKeesport and Duquesne.

Or, take a ride up the Beaver Valley Expressway --- a Turnpike Commission owned-and-operated toll road, like the MFX. I don't see very much development in former mill towns like Monaca, New Brighton and Ambridge.

Hell, I-70 is adjacent to Monessen and Charleroi! What has I-70 done for Monessen? Nothing.

. . .

Expressways are not a magic solution to the Mon Valley's woes. Unfortunately for us, the powers that be haven't tried to come up with any other solutions, because they've wasted the last 20 years talking about this expressway.

Yes, despite squandering thousands of hours and millions of dollars, they have almost nothing to show for their effort except an endless series of town meetings and some very expensive blueprints.

And after 20 years of supposedly working diligently on the section of the MFX that's supposed to be built inside Allegheny County, they still have no idea how to pay for it.

. . .

MFX proponents, here's my personal plea:

Please don't hold any more Mon-Fayette Expressway forums, town halls, information sessions, public meetings, comment periods, open houses, coffee klatches, bake sales, interpretative dances or orgies.

If you haven't convinced us after 20 years, you're not going to convince us now. And if you don't really want to hear dissenting opinions, then you're wasting our time and yours.

Either come up with a way to pay for the damned thing, or --- for the sake of all of us and the Mon Valley that I love --- shut up and move on.

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May 27, 2008 | Link to this story

On My Mind

Category: Mon Valley Miscellany || By

Did you know that if you stop reading your email, checking other peoples' websites, and reading blogs and newsgroups for several days, the world continues to turn?

It's true. So I unplugged for a couple of days. Your indulgence is appreciated.

. . .

Police Shooting in Pittsburgh: A reader emailed me privately to ask why there haven't been any protests yet over Friday's fatal shooting by Pittsburgh police of a man armed with a butcher knife.

After all, he says, several groups protested the May 6 shooting of Justin Jackson up in Mt. Oliver as an example of police brutality.

OK, OK, I realize he's being sarcastic, and while I feel the quicksand rising around my ankles, I'm going to respond anyway.

First, if the cops approach you for any reason and you pull out a weapon --- whether it's a gun (as in the Mt. Oliver shooting) or a knife (in Oakland) --- expect to get shot.

And if a cop shoots you, they're going to shoot to kill. That's what they're trained to do.

So whether Jackson shot at a person, a police dog, the ground or the air, police were going to shoot back, and they were justified in doing so.

But Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper did himself and the force no favors by over and over again equating the life of the police dog who was killed to the life of a human.

I've known enough human police officers with canine partners to understand that the dogs are members of the force, and I also know they hold their K-9 partners in serious regard. I also understand why police officers treat canine officers with that level of respect --- they trust those dogs to defend their own lives.

Unfortunately, that distinction is bound to be lost on the grieving family and friends of the man who was shot --- even if the police officer who shot him was acting properly, and even if the man was clearly in the wrong.

Put yourself in the place of the man's family. Even if he had a criminal record, would you think his life was less important than a dog's?

(By the way, anyone who knows how human police officers treat canine officers also knows that they would have never shot the dog themselves, as Jackson's family and others have alleged. The accusation is ridiculous.)

Furthermore, you'd have to be pretty tone deaf not realize that police dogs have a different connotation to many African-Americans --- especially those old enough to remember the 1960s --- than they do to whites or other ethnic groups. (The man shot in Mt. Oliver was African-American.)

Add all of these factors together, and it becomes apparent why the Mt. Oliver shooting became a natural flashpoint for protests, while the shooting in Oakland is unlikely to generate the same anger from anyone in the community.

I'm not blaming the police, but the aftermath of the Mt. Oliver incident could have been handled more sensitively.

. . .

Kennywood Dispute Settled: In case you missed it, West Mifflin council has approved a settlement with Kennywood that ends the amusement park's lawsuit against the borough.

As Pat Cloonan reported in the Daily News, the borough will lower its amusement tax rate, while Kennywood will pay less than half of what West Mifflin was demanding.

Let's hope that as West Mifflin goes forward, it starts applying the amusement tax evenly and fairly to all businesses and organizations subject to collection.

After all, Kennywood may have agreed to settle the case in order to make sure that its pending sale to the Spanish company Parques Reunidos went through without complications. (The sale is expected to close June 3.)

The settlement doesn't mean that West Mifflin's selective enforcement of the amusement tax was right. It wasn't. Almost inarguably it was unconstitutional.

And for those of you who think, "Well, Kennywood's rich, they could have paid the tax," that's not the point. Remember: All West Mifflin taxpayers, including Kennywood, deserve equal protection under the law.

If a big corporation like Kennywood can have its rights trampled, there would be nothing to stop a borough, city or township from stepping on much smaller taxpayers. Maybe even you.

. . .

And Finally: North Irwin Borough Council is trying to figure out who owns the town's municipal building, according to the Post-Gazette.

There apparently is some confusion over whether the deed is legally held by the borough, or the borough's sewerage authority.

One of the councilmen is quoted in Norm Vargo's story as worrying that having "two secretaries, a tax collector and police using the same office space" could lead to "confidential information of taxpayers" being shared.

Have you ever been to North Irwin? There are 879 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. I'm guessing that there is no "confidential information" in North Irwin, because everyone probably knows everyone else's business to begin with.

Second, North Irwin is literally 0.2 square miles in area --- about five blocks wide. It's almost completely surrounded by North Huntingdon Township!

The question isn't "who owns town hall?" The question is, "Why is there a North Irwin, and why is it employing 'two secretaries, a tax collector and police'?" What a waste of money!

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May 26, 2008 | Link to this story

To Remember

Category: Events || By

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

--- Lt. Col. John McCrae MD, Canadian Expeditionary Force (1872-1918)

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May 22, 2008 | Link to this story

Mansfield Bridge Cleanup Slated; Street Paving Must Wait

Category: News || By

You've heard the story about Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody? You know, Everybody thought it was Somebody's job, Anybody could have done it, and Nobody did it.

Everybody --- or at least three local governmental bodies --- shares responsibility for the approach ramps to the W.D. Mansfield Memorial Bridge, but City Administrator Dennis Pittman acknowledges that Nobody's been taking care of them.

A light-pole knocked down in a traffic accident a year ago is still in the middle of the sidewalk; a directional sign at the end of the bridge has fallen over; dirt and debris has collected in the gutters.

That's going to change, Pittman tells the Almanac.

"You're not the only one who sees it --- I see it every day, you see it every day," Pittman says. "It's a portal to the city ... I will guarantee that the kids on our summer crew will clean it up this summer, but that's a band-aid approach, and I don't want a band-aid."

. . .

His remarks came in response to questions from the Almanac about a letter to the editor in Tuesday night's Daily News.

The letter from 10th Ward resident Terri Gorick asked the city to do something about the "blight" along West Fifth Avenue, one of the main entrances to McKeesport from West Mifflin and Pittsburgh.

PennDOT traffic studies completed in 2006 indicate that about 13,000 people use the Mansfield Bridge daily, while about 19,000 people daily use at least part of West Fifth Avenue.

"Keep pushing to make McKeesport 'the place to rebuild,' but first, how about fixing the disgusting sight coming off of the W.D. Mansfield Memorial Bridge --- a major artery into our town," Gorick wrote.

"Signs falling down, major, major potholes and trolley tracks showing through the streets," she continued. "Trolley tracks --- please!"

Gorick's phone number is unlisted and attempts by the Almanac to reach her were not successful.

. . .

The Mansfield Bridge, which is maintained by the county, is a four-lane structure built in 1949 and 1951 that connects the city and Glassport with Dravosburg.

It's slated for a complete makeover in 2009, including new deck, repairs to the superstructure and paint.

The county in November 2005 retained the engineering firm Michael Baker Jr. Co. to oversee the work, estimated to cost $25 million.

But responsibility for the approach ramps is shared by Glassport and the city, says Joe Olczak, Allegheny County director of public works.

"According to the (state Public Utility Commission) the sidewalks, railings, light poles and the ramps would be maintained by McKeesport," he tells the Almanac in an email.

Olczak says he will ask the city about replacement of the light pole.

Pittman says city crews have temporarily filled potholes on the approach ramps, and he vows to talk with Twin Rivers Council of Government and the South Hills Area Council of Government about sweeping the ramps on a monthly basis.

McKeesport and Glassport are members of the Twin Rivers COG, while Dravosburg belongs to SHACOG. Both COGs operate street-sweeping equipment.

"Maybe we need to split the duties between the COGs," Pittman says. "Maybe we trade off months. Maybe Twin Rivers does it one month, and South Hills does it the next month, and the county puts in (some money) ... maybe no one has ever thought about it, and if (Gorick) has triggered it, she deserves a pat on the back."

. . .

Click to download PennDOT mapsRepaving West Fifth Avenue is a stickier problem. The street was last repaved in 1998.

A preliminary estimate put the cost of laying new blacktop at $750,000, Pittman says.

That's three times the city's annual paving budget. Pulling out the trolley tracks --- which have been unused since 1963 --- would add another half-million dollars to the project.

"There is a sincere effort underway to address it," Pittman says. "We've looked at it, and (state) Rep. Bill Kortz and (state) Sen. Sean Logan are looking at it."

The city's hope is that some agency --- such as the state --- will provide money to help underwrite the cost of the repairs.

West Fifth Avenue is a major thoroughfare used by city residents as well as people who live in Port Vue, Glassport and Liberty. But there is no interest from the county or state in taking over responsibility for the road, Pittman says.

"Believe me, we've tried to give it away," he says.

The city's best hope is that planning for the reconstruction of West Fifth Avenue will begin later this year, and that repaving will get underway next spring, Pittman says, though he notes a new crop of potholes will have grown by then.

"We've patched the potholes already and we're going to get the potholes patched," he says. "By then, the screaming (for repaving the street) will be louder, but a solution will be in sight."

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May 21, 2008 | Link to this story

Briefly Noted

Category: History, News || By

A few newsworthy items of local interest:

. . .

Meeting Tonight in Clairton: It may be too late by the time you read this, but Neil Bhaerman of Clean Water Action notes that a public meeting will be held tonight at 7 at the Clairton Municipal Building to discuss planned environmental upgrades to U.S. Steel's Clairton Works.

My apologies for not getting this item posted sooner. (Sometimes the hamster falls out of the little wheel in my brain.)

Bhaerman says that CWA has helped to create a new group called Residents for a Clean and Healthy (REACH) Mon Valley.

"REACH Mon Valley is a grassroots community group that works to improve air quality and hold local industry accountable to environmental standards," he says. "As you covered on May 5, pollution from the Clairton coke works is a serious issue. They have had a poor history of environmental compliance recently but will soon be embarking on a $1 billion series of upgrades to the plant."

If you miss this event (again, my apologies), REACH Mon Valley is holding its next meeting at 7 p.m. June 18 at the Elrama Volunteer Fire Department on Route 837.

And Bhaerman points out that there will be a public hearing on U.S. Steel's request for a permit to conduct its demolition and construction work in Clairton; that's set for 6:30 p.m. June 5 at the Clairton Municipal Building.

If you're interested in speaking at the hearing, Bhaerman suggests that you call him at (412) 765-3053, extension 202.

. . .

Young Marine Honored: Alert Reader Mike Mauer sends along this photo taken at last night's West Mifflin Borough Council meeting. It shows Charles Krebs (right), commander of the borough's Veterans of Foreign Wars Intrepid Post 914, presenting a certificate of recognition to Marine Lance Cpl. Adam J. Elliott.

Elliott, Mike says, is a 2006 graduate of West Mifflin Area Senior High School, and the son of Scott and Donna Elliott. He recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.

. . .

Name That Park: Pop-culture historian and Mon Valley native Brian Butko needs your help, so put on your thinking cap.

Butko --- who you probably know from his books about the Isaly Dairy chain and the Lincoln Highway --- is trying to find the location of a Hungarian picnic grove known as "Kossuth Park."

It was named for Louis Kossuth, a hero of the doomed 19th century movement to create an independent Hungarian state, free of influence from the Austrians and Russians.

The Hapsburgs and Czar Nicholas were able to crush the Hungarian independence movement, and Kossuth was exiled from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He never returned, spending the remainder of his life in England, Italy and Turkey.

Kossuth's exile only increased his fame, and he was revered by many Hungarians, particularly Protestants and immigrants to the Americas. In the 1850s, he became only the second foreign statesman (after the Marquis de Lafayette) to receive an official invitation to visit the United States, and he traveled the country, where he was hailed as "the Hungarian George Washington."

His fiery speeches against slavery enraged Southerners, while his support of mixed marriages earned him the condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Anyway, that's the background. Butko, who also edits the magazine of the Sen. John Heinz History Center, Western Pennsylvania History, just published a story about Kossuth, who visited Pittsburgh in 1852.

That prompted one of his co-workers to mention that he remembers a park or a grove in McKeesport called Kossuth Park.

"He thought it was near Route 48, and it sounded like it could have been near White Oak Park," Butko says. "Any of this sound the least bit familiar?"

Well, the Free Hungarian Reformed Church used to maintain a picnic grove along Long Run Road behind the present-day site of the Stratwood Banquet Hall (the former Lemon Tree Restaurant), but I asked around, and no one seems to remember it being called "Kossuth Park."

. . .

By The Way: According to the New York Times of Jan. 23, 1852, Kossuth didn't make it to McKeesport, but he did travel to Pittsburgh through the present-day east suburbs ... by sleigh!

"Kossuth was quite ill last evening and this morning, but nevertheless decided to come on," the newspaper reported. "The General Committee of Citizens, several members of the Pittsburg press, and many others, were waiting at Wilkinsburg --- seven miles out --- to escort the guest to the city."

A delegation from the state legislature was also traveling with Kossuth.

The Times a few days later called Kossuth's speech at the Masonic Hall in Pittsburgh "the greatest fete which has ever taken place in this city" and was "frequently interrupted" by "hearty outbursts of applause."

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May 20, 2008 | Link to this story

Day-o, Day-o, Dayton Comes, and I'm Glad to Be Home

Category: Pointless Digressions, Radio Geekery || By

The portable toilets are being sucked clean, the crews are sweeping up the leftover cheese cups and hot dog wrappers, and the great geek-out known as Dayton Hamvention, the world's largest gathering of bath-deprived, socially-inept electronics freaks, is finally over.

OK. I keed, I keed. Some of the people do bathe.

Anyway, I just got back from my ... (counts on fingers) ... eighth-annual trip to Hamvention. Sponsored by the Dayton Amateur Radio Association, Hamvention is billed as the biggest convention for radio and computer buffs in the world, and I don't doubt that.

Each year at Hamvention, just about every major electronics hobby company (along with a lot of minor ones) is there to show off samples of their latest equipment. Some of the stuff they have on sale frankly would require a second mortgage on my house. On the other hand, prices in the outdoor flea market --- which takes up three entire parking lots --- start at "free" and go up from there.

And you literally do meet electronics buffs of all ages, from all over the world; I talked to guys (yeah, mostly guys) from Germany, the UK, Japan and Australia. (Not too many people from sub-Saharan Africa attend. I guess dropping four bills on a trip to the U.S. to gawk at ham radio equipment isn't a good idea when you're trying to scrape up enough for food today.)

. . .

Almanac Readers are Everywhere: So I'm pursuing the books on sale at the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) booth when I literally do a double-take.

There, on the back of a new book called World War II Radio Heroes: Letters of Compassion is an endorsement from Tube City Almanac reader and contributor Donn Nemchick!

Written by Pittsburgh-area counselor and behavioral psychologist Lisa Spahr, it's the story of her grandfather, who was held captive in a German POW camp, and the ham radio buffs who monitored overseas propaganda broadcasts to send news of POWs back to U.S. families. Needless to say, I bought the book, and you should, too.

Hey, Nemchick! I gotta drive four hours to find out about this? Sheesh.

. . .

Things Are Tough All Over: Everyone seems to agree that attendance at Hamvention this year was way down, but apparently, no one yet is saying by how much. In the past, annual paid attendance at Hamvention was said to run 20,000 to 30,000 people; one educated guess I saw pegged attendance this year at more like 14,000.

What accounts for the dramatic decrease? I blame the generally aging population of ham radio buffs, combined with record-high gasoline prices ... and prices were actually about 10 to 15 cents higher in Ohio than they are around Pittsburgh.

It's not easy to solve the second problem. As for the first problem, the ARRL, the U.S.'s biggest lobbying group for ham radio, issued a press release on Saturday urging ham radio buffs to embrace new technology as a way to attract people to the hobby:

(ARRL President Joel Harrison) noted that many hams attribute their affinity to "Amateur" Radio as launching their professional careers in radio engineering, satellite communications, computer science and wireless communications.

"This is less about defining a new course for Amateur Radio, but simply recognizing a course that has always been a precept of radio amateurs and the ARRL," he said. Referring to the federal rules and regulations for Amateur Radio, Harrison explained that one of the defining principles of the Service's very creation by the government is the amateur's proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.

Embracing technology is fine. I just wish more of my fellow hobbyists would also embrace dieting and soap.

. . .

Dayton: Buckle on the Rust Belt: Dayton might be the only major metropolitan area in the Midwest that makes the Mon Valley look good by comparison. You can drive for blocks and blocks and find nothing but boarded-up buildings, check-cashing stores and pawnshops.

For instance: Hamvention is held at the Hara Arena, a privately owned convention center and sports complex celebrating its 50th anniversary. The nearest major intersection is state Route 49 and Shiloh Springs Road. There are shopping centers on every corner.

Almost every store in those shopping centers was closed.

When the administration says that the economy is "resilient" and "strong," I really have to wonder which economy they're talking about.

Of course, it doesn't help a visitor's impressions of Dayton that Hara Arena is a fetid dump that's seen no major improvements since the 1980s. The buildings are rundown, ugly and confusing to navigate. And those are the complex's good points.

. . .

On the Road Again: I think I've said this before, but it bears repeating: Dayton and Cincinnati are crisscrossed by major interstate highways and served by excellent limited-access beltways.

But the highways haven't stopped people and businesses from leaving southwestern Ohio, and I've seen precious little development (other than retail stores) along those beltways over the years.

The backers of the Mon-Fayette Expressway believe that it will spur the revitalization of the Mon Valley, and yet there's not much evidence that highway construction helped stave off economic collapse in Dayton.

(For that matter, there are few cities in America with more freeways than the Motor City, and Detroit is no one's idea of a boomtown.)

If you go to the MFX meeting tomorrow night at McKeesport Area High School, you might keep that in mind.

. . .

Two Cheers for PennDOT: On the other hand, Pennsylvania's interstate highways --- at least to my untrained eyes --- look a lot better than Ohio's. The grass is cut, the shoulders are free of debris, and things just generally seem to be maintained better here.

Yep, I never thought I'd say anything nice about PennDOT, but it has to be said.

PennDOT's highway budget was about $4.3 billion last year, which is similar to Ohio's highway budget of about $4.2 billion.

On the other hand, Pennsylvania maintains about 40,500 miles of highway, while Ohio maintains about 49,000, so maybe they're getting more for their money.

. . .

I Am a Fossil: I usually take a camera with me to Hamvention.

But I didn't take my new digital camera; instead, as usual, I grabbed my trusty Canon AE-1 and an ancient Konica III once owned by my friend Larry Slaugh.

Geez. From the comments I got, you would have thought I was wearing a suit of armor and riding a horse:
  • "Do those things work?" (No, modern photons can't enter their old-fashioned lenses.)

  • "Can you still get film for them?" (Yes, it's on loan from the Smithsonian.)

  • "Are you actually taking pictures with those?" (No, I'm using them to store my sarcasm pills.)

I've never gotten those kinds of comments before. And although I can understand getting those reactions from people about the Konica (it's a 1958 camera), the Canon's not that old.

The fact is that no one ... but no one ... other than me was carrying a film camera, as far as I could tell. Hamvention always attracts a few camera dealers, and second-hand conventional (i.e., film) Canon and Nikon SLRs that would have sold for hundreds of dollars a few years ago were going for $25 or $50.

One guy manning the Radio Society of Great Britain's booth was really tickled to see my Canon AE-1, and we wound up gabbing about cameras for some time. He says plain old 35mm film is difficult to find in the UK now; at least eight stores in his hometown were carrying it a few years ago, but only one sells it today.

Well, I'm still buying mine at Walgreen's, and it's like $10 for four rolls. I gave my card and told him to email me; I'll send him a CARE package if he needs it. That's the ham way. Or maybe it's the cowboy way; I get those confused.

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May 19, 2008 | Link to this story

Back in a Flash

Category: General Nonsense, Pointless Digressions || By

I've been out of town for several days and just returned home late Sunday night. Normal service will resume shortly. Did you miss me? Did you notice? Do you care?

Never mind, I'd rather not know the answers.

. . .

As a public service, I've been asked to mention that there has been a rash of vandalism incidents up in Christy Park. Several homes --- apparently mostly vacant ones --- have been broken into and trashed.

If you live in the area, keep an eye on the neighborhood and call the cops if you notice something suspicious.

Not to make light, but I came home to a house that was trashed, too. Not by the burglars, but by the slob who lives here (namely me). If burglars did break in and wreck the place, I'm not sure I could tell the difference.

. . .

In other news, the Tribune-Review and its sister papers (including the great, not-so-gray lady of 409 Walnut St.) are hosting what's billed as a "town hall meeting" at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the auditorium of McKeesport Area High School to discuss the Mon-Fayette Expressway.

Panelists include Joe Kirk, executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council, which boosts the construction of the expressway; state Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, chairman of the governor's transportation committee; Andrew Quinn, director of community relations for Kennywood and a strong supporter of the expressway; Chad Amond, president of the Monroeville Chamber of Commerce and another expressway backer; and Joe Brimmeier, executive director of the state Turnpike Commission.

I don't mean to imply that the panel is a little bit biased, but to paraphrase Gene Weingarten: Asking these guys if you need a new expressway is like asking your kid if you need a puppy.

The chances are 100 percent that every single panelist is going to enthusiastically back the MFX, which begs the question: Why even host the discussion? It's not a debate, it's a pep rally.

Anyway, with the price of gas nearing $4 a gallon (premium hi-test is already over $4 in the Mon-Yough area), I think these folks ought to be challenged on whether building a new highway is sustainable, let alone desirable.

Perhaps the $3 billion they're trying to raise would be better spent on improvements to the network of surface roads in the Mon Valley: Route 837 through Homestead, Whitaker, West Mifflin and Duquesne; Lysle Boulevard in the city; Lebanon Church Road in Dravosburg and West Mifflin; Braddock Avenue in Braddock and Rankin.

All of those roads are already served by public transit. Widening them, adding new sidewalks and bike lanes, creating pull-off areas for buses, and timing the traffic lights to reduce congestion would provide immediate benefits to the surrounding neighborhoods.

It also wouldn't saddle the state with additional new, expensive infrastructure that would need to be maintained.

I suspect that Braddock Mayor John Fetterman (an outspoken opponent of the expressway) would rather have a four-lane, tree-lined boulevard (like Ardmore Boulevard) going through Braddock than a highway zipping over Braddock.

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I hear the washing machine calling my name. My vacation socks aren't going to wash themselves ... although judging by the smell of them, they may be able to march to the laundry on their own.

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May 15, 2008 | Link to this story

Art Group Marks 50th With Free Exhibit

Category: Events, News || By

The city that gave the world Duane Michals (but not, despite rumors, Andy Warhol) is still nurturing artists.

And some of the most active artists from the Mon-Yough area get a chance to display their talents to the public this weekend when the McKeesport Art Group holds its annual exhibition at Jacob Woll Pavilion in Renziehausen Park.

The judged competition, which opens to the public tomorrow night, comes as the art group celebrates its 50th anniversary.

. . .

Current president Jan Catalogna, who recently retired from PNC Bank, says the group was founded in 1958 with help from one of McKeesport's favorite artists, the late Jeff Madden.

Madden, former art director of the G.C. Murphy Co., became famous for his paintings depicting McKeesport life in the 1950s through the '70s. Many of his prints still decorate the walls of homes and offices in the Mon Valley.

"Jeff was so popular in the city that a group of people who were interested in art got together and said, we should form a club," Catalogna said.

Like many of the art group's 40 members, Catalogna is a painter --- she works in acrylics and oils on canvas and on the blades of old saws, and many of her paintings depict wildlife.

But other members enter their photography, pen-and-ink or charcoal drawings, or sculpture.

At least one member, Dan Piesik, is a blacksmith, and another Ray Spisak, carves in wood using a chainsaw. Weather permitting, Spisak will be demonstrating the art of chainsaw carving on Saturday or Sunday.

. . .

A few members, like Ray Madden of North Braddock, worked in commercial art during their professional lives. Madden ("no relation to Jeff," he says, "but everybody asks that") designed and painted outdoor advertising displays and vehicles for clients such as Cott Beverage and General Nutrition Center.

You can also see his work on the outside of the Dorothy's Candies building in White Oak.

Madden, who works in oils, watercolors and pencils, doesn't have a favorite subject.

"All kinds of things catch my eye," he says. "I've painted in Arizona, including scenery and (portraits of) Indians, and I've painted landscapes around Pittsburgh."

The ages of participants in this weekend's show range from students at McKeesport Area High School --- who are exhibiting a series of theater-type posters --- to retirees like Catalogna's mother, Ruth Burton, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday.

"Mom liked to draw from the time she was in school, and she still has notebooks from her high school days," Catalogna says. Burton has two landscape paintings entered in the show.

Crafts --- including quilts --- are also on display.

Entries are judged in different classifications according to the skill level of the artist --- amateur, experienced or professional --- and paintings and other "flat" works are judged separately from three-dimensional art, like carving and sculpture.

This year's judge was Peg Panasiti of the Latrobe Art Center, who evaluated more than 130 works entered in this year's competition.

. . .

The exhibition opens to the public at 5 p.m. Friday. Awards will be distributed at 7 p.m., after brief remarks by city Mayor Jim Brewster.

Art group members will then host a free reception and buffet.

Admission is free, but selected artworks and crafts (including the theater posters made by MAHS students) will be for sale, and the art group will also sponsor a "Chinese auction."

Hours are from 12 to 8 p.m. Saturday and 12 to 6 p.m. Sunday.

The Jacob Woll Pavilion is located inside Renzie Park, just off University Drive near the entrance to Penn State Greater Allegheny campus.

For more information, call Catalogna at (412) 469-2710 or Madden at (412) 824-6646.

. . .

P.S.: By the way, I don't know much about art, but I know what I like. And the Tube City Tiger really likes this painting (at right) by Ray Spisak.

In fact, I think I heard him say it was "g-r-r-r-eat!"

Or maybe that was some other tiger.

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May 13, 2008 | Link to this story

The Shrill Voice of the People

Category: Sarcastic? Moi? || By

Sometimes commenting on local news is like shooting fish in a barrel:

. . .

All Fall Down: The building that collapsed on Sixth Avenue last week was owned by something called "Comfort Air Products Inc.," which according to the Daily News has not returned repeated calls seeking comment.

"Comfort Air Products" is actually the Edward L. Kemp Co. on West Fifth Avenue, which as the Almanac has reported before, owns many derelict or dilapidated buildings in the city, including, according to Allegheny County records, the Penn-McKee Hotel.

Kemp's advertising plays up its long heritage in McKeesport. It brags that the company has been "heating and cooling the Mon Valley since 1888."

But allowing buildings throughout the Downtown area to deteriorate --- and fall down --- doesn't do the city or the Mon Valley any good.

If you're installing or repairing an air conditioner this summer, and you call Kemp, ask them why they own so many buildings in the Mon Valley ... and also ask why you should spend your money with them instead of someone else.

No, McKeesport isn't a great market for real estate development, but it seems unlikely that (for instance) the Penn-McKee site --- one block from the marina and the Palisades, and next to the Jerome Avenue Bridge --- is completely unmarketable.

. . .

Les Taxis de la Médiocrité: A French company has acquired Allegheny County's principal taxi operator:

Veolia Transportation is the North American arm of Veolia Transport, based in Paris. Founded more than 150 years ago, Veolia operates cabs, buses, rail and maritime transportation services in 25 countries and employs more than 72,000. The North American unit does business in 18 U.S. states, including major markets such as Boston, Denver and Baltimore.

Pittsburgh Transportation, based in Manchester, is the county's largest privately held transportation group. It operates 685 cabs, limos and buses; employs more than 300 people; and engages 450 independent contractor/drivers. It also owns Peoples Cab, Express Shuttle, Embassy Coach/Limousine Service, Star Paratransit, PTG Charter Services and Freedom Coach.

There are several things to note here.

First, taxi service in Allegheny County is terrible. It's almost impossible to "hail" a cab in Pittsburgh, even at one of the hotels.

Instead, you have to call and make a reservation (usually with Yellow Cab, which has almost no competition), but they don't always show up, especially if you're not going someplace they want to go.

And forget about getting a cab from the Mon Valley, unless you're going to the airport. They won't come here. That's why illegal jitney services thrive in McKeesport (the big gathering spot is across from the Foodland at Fifth and Coursin) and other communities.

Because Yellow Cab already bites the wax tadpole, it's hard to imagine that their service is going to get any worse.

That's good news, because Veolia doesn't have a great track record around here. As the Almanac noted back in January, Veolia is the operator of the sewage treatment plant in Elizabeth Township, which has been dumping millions of gallons of untreated human waste into the Youghiogheny River.

In fact, officials from the Municipal Authority of the City of McKeesport are now in negotiations to take over sewage treatment in Elizabeth Township.

Maybe MACM should get ready to take over the taxi franchise, too. "Today the toilets, tomorrow the taxis! Viva McKeesport!"

. . .

Whatever Floats Your Train: Meanwhile, sewage isn't the only thing that goes down the drain. So does tax money. Last week, local high school students were given a tour of Maglev Inc.'s labs at the city's industrial park:
"Floating trains ... sounds like science fiction!" South Fayette High School sophomore Eric Wise declared when he and other gifted students visited Maglev Inc. facilities in McKeesport.

"Well, I saw the work with my own eyes," he said after touring the RIDC Park shop that holds the first 22-foot-long sections of guideway ever built in the United States for a magnetically-levitated, high-speed train line.

Sorry, kid, but it's still fiction. Despite millions of dollars of taxpayer money, Maglev Inc. has not produced as much as a kiddieland train at Kennywood. After more than a decade of "work," they don't have a single public demonstration site.

Worse, private money is exiting the magnetic-levitation business. While the kids were goggling at the Maglev dog-and-pony show, two of Germany's biggest manufacturing companies announced they were abandoning their own maglev efforts.

The partnership between ThyssenKrupp AG and Siemens AG has developed only one operational maglev train line, in Shanghai, China ... and those trains run 80 percent empty, according to the Asia Times.

Reports the newspaper: "Travelers often complain that the maglev train doesn't really drop them off anywhere convenient and they still have to take a taxi to their destinations."

When big companies can't make a technology successful and abandon its development, it's usually a sign that technology is not commercially viable.

Yet the U.S. Congress wants to invest another $90 million for "nationwide research and development of maglev technology."

Though McKeesport gets positive press from being affiliated with magnetic-levitation technology, there might be better places to spend $90 million in public money.

. . .

It Should Have Been Orange: Speaking of passengers not going anywhere, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has developed a new logo in response to a directive from Gov. Ed Rendell that all state agencies incorporate a keystone into their symbols.

The Almanac suggested a logo to PennDOT, but our idea (crossed shovels in a cluster of potholes) was completely ignored.

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May 12, 2008 | Link to this story

The Cranky Old Coot

Category: Pointless Digressions, Politics || By

A couple of political things are bugging me. Let me set up my soap-box here on the corner of Fifth and Walnut, hitch my pants up to my armpits, and say a few things:

. . .

First, for God's sake, stop forwarding Internet hoaxes. A friend just sent me a photo of Barack Obama supposedly holding a telephone upside down. The accompanying email said: "When you are faking a pose for a camera photo opportunity, at least you can get the phone turned in the right direction! And he wants to be President? Dumba--!"

Uh, yeah. Obama doesn't know how to talk on a telephone. And the person taking the picture also doesn't know how to use a telephone, and didn't notice that he was using it upside down. Right.

Doesn't anyone realize how stupid that sounds?

For crying out loud, it wasn't even a good photo-editing job, and when I searched Google for "obama" and "phone," the very first result was a discussion of the fact that the picture is a fake.

It also wasn't an original idea. Someone used the same joke against George W. Bush several years ago.

You might think that things like this don't make a difference. But they do. How many people think that Obama is a Muslim based on unattributed emails? Plenty of people in West Virginia, according to a story in the Financial Times.

(I'm personally trying to figure out how people are holding onto that stupid idea apparently at the same time that they're complaining about Obama's Christian pastor, who married him and baptized his children as Christians.)

For the love of Mike, if something seems too good to be true, check your facts first. And please, don't send me anything else about how Hillary Clinton is a Communist, or how John McCain had a daughter out of wedlock, or how certain oil companies are funding terrorists.

All of those emails are crap. Learn to use Google. It's your friend.

. . .

Second, several people have recently told me that they're not voting for anyone for president, because all of the candidates are the same, or because there are no good candidates.

Really? There are no good candidates?

  • One candidate is a decorated Vietnam War hero who spent five years in a prison camp, returned, and has served honorably in the U.S. Senate, where he's fought the White House and powerful lobbyists to ban the use of torture and regulate campaign financing.

  • Another candidate is a distinguished lawyer who has held her own against a 15-year-long smear campaign and was elected twice to the U.S. Senate, where she has battled long and hard for the causes she believes in, especially where it comes to women's rights.

  • The third candidate is the son of a single mother who lifted himself up from the streets, became a community organizer, labor activist and state senator, and has been a tireless critic of the war in Iraq and tax breaks for the wealthy, among other issues.

And out of those three candidates, you can't find one worth voting for?

Sorry, but in my opinion, these are three important and interesting Americans. You don't have to agree with every single position they hold to find something admirable about at least one of them.

Frankly, this is the first presidential election in my memory where you have a chance to vote for someone, instead of against the other person.

As for the charges that there are no substantial policy differences between the candidates, Sen. McCain thinks that the United States should have a permanent lasting presence in Iraq. Sen. Obama thinks we should start bringing U.S. troops home as soon as possible. Sen. Clinton would design a plan for bringing home U.S. troops in stages.

If you've got a son, daughter or friend serving in the Middle East right now, I'd say those are pretty big damned policy differences, no matter what side you're on.

McCain believes that the free market works best with minimal regulation, and that lowering taxes on corporations stimulates the economy. Obama and Clinton say that unregulated markets have the potential to hurt consumers, and that taxes on corporations have been lowered too drastically already.

Again, if you don't think those are substantial differences, I don't think you can tell the difference between Shinola and the other stuff.

Look, I'm as cynical as the next guy, especially if the next guy happens to be George Carlin or Dennis Miller.

But saying that "there are no good candidates" or "there are no differences between them" isn't cynical. It's just pure laziness.

My grandfather and great-grandfathers came over here in the bottom of leaky boats --- women were spit on in the 1910s --- African-Americans were shot at in the 1960s --- for the right to vote. To say that it's not worth voting or that there are no good candidates is shameful.

And yes, I have tried decaffeinated coffee. Why do you ask?

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May 10, 2008 | Link to this story

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Category: Cartoons || By

(c) 2008 Jason Togyer/Tube City Almanac

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May 09, 2008 | Link to this story

Fifth, Walnut Improvements Coming

Category: Events, News || By

The long-awaited renovation of Fifth Avenue is set to begin later this summer.

City Administrator Dennis Pittman says the $929,000 project --- which will include new sidewalks, traffic signals, street lights, and the restoration of Downtown's main commercial street to two-way traffic --- was delayed until the remaining concrete archways of the Midtown Plaza Mall were removed.

This week, city council awarded a contract for nearly $60,000 to MB&R Piping Co. to demolish those archways. Funding for the demolition was provided by the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).

The support beams are the last remaining part of the parking deck that once formed an overpass over Fifth Avenue, turning the already-narrow corridor into a tunnel. Work should be complete by June 30, Pittman says.

Fifth Avenue's reconstruction is being funded by the state's Home Town Streets initiative.

. . .

As for the failed Midtown Mall itself, Pittman says demolition of the interior is largely complete, and several potential tenants are interested in the space.

But leasing the space has been delayed because of the archways, he says.

Although the parking lot was demolished nearly five years ago, the concrete supports left behind were "a major deterrent," Pittman says.

Why? "Pigeons," he says. "They wait up there and get you."

(Pigeons! "PittGirl" is right!)

. . .

The Fifth Avenue work isn't the only improvement coming to a main street in the city.

City Clerk Patricia Williams announced that the DCED has awarded a $250,000 grant to install sidewalks along Walnut Street between the 15th Avenue Bridge and the Christy Park area.

Besides making it more convenient for people in the Third Ward to walk to Christy Park businesses (or vice versa), the sidewalks will add to the usability of the nearby biking-walking trail.

In other trail news: Council also gave its approval to convey more right-of-way for the segment of the trail between the McKees Point Marina and Duquesne.

The right-of-way will connect the former Union Railroad Bridge to the trail via Center Street, on the former National Works property.

. . .

Marshall Drive Extension: Work to extend Marshall Drive to Route 48 should get underway before the end of the year.

Mayor Jim Brewster said this week that the city is still waiting for a review to be completed by the state Department of Transportation. The contract will probably be awarded before the end of the year.

Extending Marshall Drive, which serves the Haler Heights area and Serra Catholic High School, will add a traffic-light controlled intersection.

Currently, the only access to Marshall Drive is via two blind intersections between Route 48 and Old Long Run Road; those intersections have been the scene of many accidents.

If the approval process isn't complete in time to get the work done before asphalt plants close for the winter, Brewster said, the paving may have to wait until Spring 2009.

While the state has awarded the city $800,000 to put toward the Marshall Drive project, the city will have to make up any funding difference between the grant and the final cost.

Besides the obvious safety improvements, completion of the extension will make vacant land near Tom Clark Chevrolet more marketable, Brewster said, noting that increased business tax revenue should offset any cost to the city.

"Sometimes people say, 'If you can't afford to fill my potholes, how can you extend Marshall Drive?'" he said. "These are two completely different pots of money."

. . .

To Do This Weekend: McKeesport Little Theater presents Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite," through May 18. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Dinner will be served before this Saturday's show, but reservations are required.

The MLT is located at 1614 Coursin St., near the Carnegie Library and Cornell Intermediate School. Call (412) 673-1100 or visit their website.

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May 08, 2008 | Link to this story

Mayor: Health Care Bill 'Obscene'

Category: News || By

Mayor Jim Brewster's new goal is to "fire Blue Cross-Blue Shield" as the city's health insurance carrier.

The pledge comes after Highmark, the Pittsburgh region's Blue Cross licensee and its dominant health care provider, raised the rate on one city plan by $620,000 --- nearly 84 percent.

According to city Controller Ray Malinchak, the increase amounts to approximately $16,000 for each of the 80 city hall, public works and other administrative employees covered under a collective bargaining agreement with Teamsters Local 205.

At last night's city council meeting, Brewster called the increase "obscene" and said that Highmark officials have declined to discuss their decision, except to say that the rates were increased because of an spike in the number of claims filed by people covered under the policy.

However, Highmark will not release the number or type of claims, the mayor said. "We already asked for it," he said. "We can't have it."

"It's a very emotional issue, because if you have children or you're elderly or you have health problems, you start to worry that you're going to lose" your coverage, Brewster said, "or you're going to have to pay a lot more out of your paycheck."

If passed directly along to city employees, the increased premium would cost each of them about $325 per week, he said.

. . .

The city learned of the increase when it was invoiced on Friday.

"I think it's a complete corporate embarrassment that (Highmark) did not even contact this city or this mayor and give us any advance warning," Brewster said. "Nothing."

Although the contract with the Teamsters has specified Blue Cross-Blue Shield coverage since at least 1994, Brewster said it allows the city to substitute an "equivalent or better" health insurance plan.

The mayor said he met this week with Local 205 President Bill Lickert and other union officials, and the Teamsters understand the city's need to shop for a less-expensive alternative.

Brewster has already scheduled a meeting with another health insurance carrier.

Highmark's "attitude is there aren't many other vendors out there," he said. "Maybe they don't think we're smart enough (to find one). They say, 'Well, Mr. Mayor, just raise taxes.'

"Well, we're not going to raise taxes," Brewster said. "We'll give them a little taste of McKeesport competitiveness."

. . .

Councilor Paul Shelly asked Brewster if the city could purchase health insurance jointly with other governmental entities --- for instance, neighboring communities --- and increase the risk pool to save money.

Brewster said the city is investigating the legal implications, but that he's already approached the McKeesport Housing Authority and the McKeesport Area School District.

The city is also considering a complaint to the state Insurance Commissioner.

. . .

The health insurance increase wasn't the only unexpected bill handed to city councilors last night.

By a 6-0 vote, they also awarded an emergency $42,000 contract to Patterson Home Improvements to repair the roof at the former municipal building on Lysle Boulevard.

Although city offices have moved to the old McKeesport National Bank building at Fifth and Sinclair streets, the 1959 structure at Lysle and Market still houses the police and fire stations.

Police and fire personnel are expected to move in a few years to a new regional courthouse and public safety building on Walnut Street in the Third Ward.

Malinchak and Councilor Darryl Segina questioned where the city was going to find the money for the roof repairs.

Brewster said at least three tenants --- state Sen. Sean Logan, the Regional Chamber Alliance, and the Twin Rivers Council of Governments --- have asked about leasing offices in the Lysle Boulevard structure.

The rental income would more than offset the cost of the repairs, the mayor said.

"The alternative to not doing this is continued damage," Brewster said, which would make it impossible to sell or lease the building.

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May 07, 2008 | Link to this story

Radical Cleric in Our Midst

Category: Politics || By

I don't want to discuss the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his relationship to Barack Obama, which has been beaten to death by talk radio and cable TV news.

But according to stories coming out of Indiana, about half of the people who voted against Obama in the Democratic primary say that Wright's controversial remarks --- especially the sermon where he said "God damn America" --- were an important factor in their decision.

Exit polls in Pennsylvania, where white Catholics went overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, indicate that many voters here were also offended by Wright's remarks.

Well, hang onto your hats. You'll only read this at Tube City Almanac.

By accident, I have unearthed similar radical sermons by a local Catholic priest who has been endorsed and praised over the years by many politicians and community leaders, including several mayors of Pittsburgh, state Rep. Dave Levdansky of Elizabeth, Andrew "Lefty" Palm of the United Steel Workers of America, and Duquesne University Chancellor John Murray.

And I demand to know why these people haven't denounced this left-wing anti-American zealot the way that Barack Obama was forced to denounce Wright.

Here's what this local priest said about the Iraq war:

What have we to be proud of? Licking a nation of 19 million people and a tired army that had not mastered modern military science? Its real soldiers were outnumbered three or four to one.

That was not a war but a punitive expedition against an outmatched foe. But it pleased George Bush, who likes the idea of being a "war" president a la FDR and Wilson, and our war-like people for the most part enjoy the excitement and pumped up tension of war, especially one against a tin-horn "strong" man.

Remember, we have never tasted firsthand here at home the horror of a modern war.

It sounds to me like this radical pastor is bashing our troops in a time of war --- and saying that America should be attacked as punishment! He's also an elitist who considers average, working-class Americans "war-like."

And I want to point out again that some of our most prominent local officials have praised this man. Appalling!

Worse yet, when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he received the enthusiastic endorsement of this priest. Why didn't Clinton reject his endorsement? I think we have a right to know.

Here's some more of this priest's dangerous thinking:
Seers in the White House are relieved that, according to public opinion polls, the American people are not bothered by the overkilling of Iraqis.

If the polls are correct, we Americans are not a good people, but are heartless and selfish. Now the God who, the self-same polls assure us, we believe in ... will surely punish us and our children severely. It will go much worse for us that we believe in Him and actually do much in His name which we invoke ad nauseam.

But I hope against hope that the polls are wrong because I love my country. I fear for her soul ... Are we really that evil?

He considers Americans "heartless" and "selfish" and "evil," and predicts that God is going to punish us. By the standards of commentators for talk radio, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and major American newspapers, this so-called "holy man" is a dangerous un-American leftist.

Unfortunately, no one in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is able to punish him!

You see, he died two years ago.

Those passages were written by the late Msgr. Charles Owen Rice. Both were published in that well-known radical newspaper, the Pittsburgh Catholic.

The first is from March 8, 1991, and the second is from April 12, 1991.

No, I don't really think Pittsburgh's legendary "labor priest" was a dangerous radical. In fact, I think he was a great and brave spiritual leader.

I also find it funny that when Msgr. Rice wrote those things in the bishop's official newspaper, read by more than 100,000 local Catholics, few people batted an eye.

Now, many Catholics (and I am one) are claiming that they voted against Obama because of things his pastor said --- which frankly aren't all that different from Rice's comments.

It makes me wonder if a lot of people who voted against Obama are using Jeremiah Wright as an excuse.

I can't possibly speak for Rice, but I strongly suspect that if the monsignor were alive today, he'd be telling those people to find some other excuse.

Or more likely, counseling all of us to examine our consciences carefully.


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May 06, 2008 | Link to this story

Despite Challenges, City YMCA Endures

Category: News || By

(Almanac photo)

The next few months could determine the future of McKeesport's 120-year-old YMCA.

But one thing is for certain --- like the mission commander in the movie "Apollo 13," YMCA Executive Director Dexter Hairston says "failure is not an option."

In fact, he does more than say it. Hairston's got it posted in one of the upstairs classrooms used by the McKeesport Y's Teen LEAD empowerment program.

Hairston and others are awaiting the results of a report commissioned by the national board of the YMCA examining the challenges facing the local institution, including long-term debt, an aging building, and a depressed market.

. . .

One problem the McKeesport Y doesn't suffer is a lack of local interest. In fact, the YMCA, located in a landmark building Downtown on Sinclair Street, remains a vital community asset.

It currently serves more than 5,000 people annually in various education and wellness programs, including 1,100 regular members who primarily use the fitness center, swimming pool, indoor running track, handball court and gymnasium.

The McKeesport Y also operates Camp T. Frank Soles, a 263-acre facility near Seven Springs, as well as two educational outreach centers at the city's public housing communities, Crawford Village and Harrison Village.

Hairston came to the YMCA in 2001 to oversee the Teen LEAD program.

He was named executive director last year after what current and former McKeesport YMCA board members privately tell Tube City Almanac was a period of lackluster oversight and leadership. They claim that partnerships with other local institutions were ignored, maintenance was deferred and fundraising was conducted informally or not at all, leading the McKeesport YMCA to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

New finance director Fred Vey Jr., who came to the McKeesport Y in March after working in development for LaRoche College and other institutions, is in charge of straightening out the books.

. . .

This month, the McKeesport Y is trying to raise $30,000 in contributions for long-needed capital improvements. Board members and staff are meeting in person with potential donors to plead their case. They're hoping for individual donations of $1,000 and up.

Hairston admits that $30,000 is a modest goal, but says it was necessary to keep initial expectations low; the campaign is the first concerted fundraising effort by the McKeesport Y in several years.

"We're trying to have as many face-to-face meetings as possible," he says. Next week, staff, volunteers and board members will meet to discuss their progress and start planning for next year.

. . .

The Y's mission has traditionally included athletics --- besides its fitness center, it sponsors basketball, swimming and dek hockey teams --- but one of the most crucial programs it currently offers might be its variety free homework help, tutoring, teen counseling and leadership seminars.

The programs are designed to encourage McKeesport kids to aspire to a life off the streets and following a career and life path of their choice.

"We make a big deal out of bringing in outsiders to talk about healthy decision making," Hairston says. "We want to make sure that kids see as many different faces doing positive things as they can."

McKeesport is a "sports-crazy town," he says. "Everyone wants to be the next NFL player. But playing football or basketball should be a path to getting a college education. You've got to have a plan B or even a plan C."

Students who have participated in the Y's leadership programs have gone on to nearly all of the region's colleges, Hairston says.

. . .

One traditional function that endures in McKeesport despite being dropped by most other YMCAs is low-cost housing. Although almost all YMCAs once offered sleeping rooms and small apartments, the city's Y is one of only three in Allegheny County, and a handful in Pennsylvania, that still allow overnight stays.

Most of the McKeesport Y's 87 upstairs rooms are now occupied by people with physical disabilities, mental illness, or severely limited incomes. The residential program is self-supporting and funded in part through local and federal subsidies.

"It was the original concept of the YMCA, and we still get people who want to stay overnight" while they travel, Hairston says.

But the residents aren't a good fit with the people (many of them children) who use the Y's other programs.

"It's not a good operational mix," Hairston says. "We are looking at ways to separate the residential program."

. . .

One way to keep fitness buffs and residents from bumping into each other might be for the YMCA to move the fitness and educational programs out of its historic 86-year-old building to another site in the city.

Though many members love the atmosphere, maintenance costs are steep and the entire building is in need of expensive repairs and improvements, Vey says.

"How much longer can we continue to occupy this building if we want to continue to grow?" Hairston says.

Another way for the McKeesport Y to grow, unfortunately, might be for it to surrender its independence.

. . .

McKeesport's board members are currently considering a plan to merge the Y into the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, which absorbed the East Suburban YMCA in Wilmerding several years ago.

In fact, the McKeesport and Sewickley Ys are the only independent YMCAs left in Allegheny County --- and the Sewickley area's economic status is drastically different from the Mon-Yough area's, to put it mildly.

A merger would give the McKeesport YMCA access to marketing and personnel resources that it can't match on its own, Hairston says.

"They're a big metropolitan YMCA, and they have a strongly recognized organization throughout the area," he says.

The Greater Pittsburgh YMCA is already lending management expertise to the McKeesport YMCA, and with the help of the national YMCA, a group of management students recently fanned out through the Mon-Yough area to interview residents and help the McKeesport board set a direction for the institution.

"What are we going to look like in two or five years? Do we want to go in more of a wellness direction and do less with our programs, or vice versa?" Hairston says. "We're making decisions based on the facts, and listening to the community."

. . .

Donations to the YMCA of McKeesport may be made via the United Way of Allegheny County (you must specify donor code 112) or sent to 523 Sinclair St., McKeesport, PA 15132.

The Y's offerings include health, fitness and swimming classes, and programs aerobics, aquatics, camping, family and youth development. Its facilities include a pool, gym, fitness center, weight room, aerobics/dance studio, handball/racquetball court, indoor running track, sauna/steam room, whirlpool/jacuzzi, and meeting facilities. Call (412) 664-9168.

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May 05, 2008 | Link to this story

Smog Gets in Your Eyes

Category: Mon Valley Miscellany || By

In case you missed it, last week the American Lung Association named Pittsburgh the "sootiest city" in the United States, surpassing Southern California.

(Los Angeles is still the champ in overall air pollution, so we have some work to do if we want to catch up. Get out there and run those lawnmowers, people!)

And it's all because of the air monitoring station in Liberty Borough, which sniffs the smoggy air drifting across the river from Clairton ... specifically, from U.S. Steel's Clairton Works.

First, a note about Clairton Works is in order. Although it's owned by U.S. Steel, it's not a "steel mill." It no longer makes steel, but still makes "coke."

We're not talking about the stuff you put in rum. This coke is highly concentrated coal used to fuel industrial furnaces.

To make coke, they heat coal to extremely high temperatures and burn away the impurities. Many of these impurities can be captured and reused to make chemicals, coatings, paints and gases, but others escape into the atmosphere, and they can be pretty foul.

. . .

Growing up in Liberty, I always took the pollution from Clairton Works in stride, even though a mentor of mine was heavily involved in the Group Against Smog and Pollution, which has campaigned against Clairton Works for years.

I couldn't quite share his outrage at the smog and smell from across the river. I'm enough of a McKeesport kid to know that smoke = jobs = money. About the time that the skies cleared in the Mon Valley, we all started eating a lot of government cheese.

Plus, the stuff that now comes out of Clairton Works is nothing like it was even 20 years ago. The hillside along Glassport-Elizabeth Road used to be completely brown and barren. It's now lush and green.

In addition, U.S. Steel has committed to investing a billion dollars in Clairton Works over the next decade, which should greatly reduce the amount of pollution. (It's not all altruistic. U.S. Steel stands to profit by capturing as many of the coal byproducts as possible --- there's gold in them there chemicals.)

Besides, if I was really freaked out about the environment, I probably wouldn't now live next to Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory. (If the coke gas doesn't get me, the radiation will.)

. . .

On the other hand, when I was a kid in Liberty Borough, I often woke up in the summertime, when the windows were open, to find my bedroom literally full of haze from Clairton Works. It was sulfurous and rank.

I also developed asthma and bad allergies as a kid, and I still have them. I have no proof that Clairton Works was responsible (my grandfather had asthma, too, and he grew up in Indiana County) but sometimes I wonder.

My best friend's dad worked at Jones & Laughlin's now-closed coke plant in Hazelwood. If you remember what Second Avenue was like in the summertime, when that plant was going full blast, you can only imagine what the conditions were like inside.

In fact, the output from the coke plant was strong enough to peel the chrome from the bumpers of his dad's Buick LeSabre. His dad died young, too --- at about the same time the Hazelwood plant closed.

Again, I have no proof that his death was related to 30 years of breathing that smoke and soot, but if the pollution could strip the bumpers of a Buick, it couldn't have been good for your insides.

. . .

We all like the advantages of modern life, and plastics, quick-drying paints, medicines and pharmaceuticals all come from coal derivatives.

(It's not a stretch to say that something you're using right now probably contains chemicals that were captured in Clairton. There are only a handful of American coke plants, and Clairton Works is one of the largest in the world.)

Plus, we need the high-paying, blue-collar jobs that Clairton Works and coal-mining provide.

But we also need clean air, so I can't work up outrage like the editorial board of the Tribune-Review, which last week attacked the American Lung Association for "ecological malpractice."

"This is the same kind of nonsensical selective 'science' that has led to global warming hysteria and proposals for economy-killing 'solutions,'" huffed the newspaper.

That's one of the dumber things ever printed on a newspaper editorial page, which is really saying something. You can almost hear them going "harrumph!" and pounding their canes on the table.

By the way, proving that newspapers hold no monopoly on stupid, here's the Pittsburgh Today blog complaining that the Mon Valley isn't "Pittsburgh," and that Pittsburgh shouldn't be blamed for Clairton's pollution: "If ALA wants to use the air quality readings at the Liberty Monitor (sic) to rank something as #1 in the country, it should rank the Mon Valley as #1, not 'Pittsburgh.'"

Isn't that convenient? When the City of Pittsburgh wants Allegheny County taxpayers to bail them out, we're all part of "Pittsburgh," and should embrace government consolidation.

When the Mon Valley's got pollution, we're on our own.

. . .

I guess what I'm saying is that life needs a balance. U.S. Steel didn't clean up the output from the Clairton Works in the 1970s and '80s because they thought it was the right thing to do.

They did it because GASP, the Lung Association, the Sierra Club and other groups lobbied the government for tighter clean-air standards, and the Environmental Protection Agency sat on U.S. Steel until they complied.

But if we want vinyl seat covers and plastic toys and nail polish and spray paint and medical products ... oh, and steel ... we need to refine coal into coke, and that's going to create pollution.

Personally, I'd rather have the jobs in the Mon-Yough area instead of the third world, so pouting and stomping our feet about the big, bad coke plant isn't helpful.

But railing against environmentalists (for what the Trib calls "agenda-biased ecocratic pronouncements") isn't helpful, either.

. . .

It would be nice if people on the left and the right would occasionally get off of their pedestals and remember that life comes with certain trade-offs. No one holds the moral high ground exclusively or forever.

Instead, zealots on both sides just blow a bunch of hot air.

And as everyone knows, hot air doesn't do anything except make smog worse.

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May 04, 2008 | Link to this story

On a Clear Day, You Can See Glassport

Category: Cartoons, Mon Valley Miscellany || By

(c) 2008 Jason Togyer/Tube City Almanac

Let's face it, if it wasn't the recipient of a lot of Clairton Works pollution, Liberty Borough wouldn't have any claim to fame.

Except for being the birthplace of former NHTSA administrator and one-time presidential candidate Jerry Curry.

Oh, and the former chief executive officer of NationsBank, William H. Dougherty Jr., also was from Liberty.

And you all know who Jerry Curry and William H. Dougherty are, right?

Like I said, Liberty Borough has few claims to fame ... and unfortunately, sucking wind from Clairton happens to be one of them.

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May 02, 2008 | Link to this story

Briefly Noted

Category: Events, General Nonsense || By

Alert Reader Bob asks: "I know you've publicized it before -- but could you kindly republish the info regarding how and when one might listen to your (radio) show?"

Well, if you were in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., our nation's capital, you could go to the National Zoo ...

Oh, sorry, that's how to see a komodo dragon, the world's largest living lizard.

If you were in the vicinity of Oakland, or anywhere that Carnegie Mellon's WRCT-FM (88.3) can be heard, you could listen from 12 noon to 2 p.m. Saturdays, following the "Saturday Light Brigade."

If you're out of range of WRCT's massive flamethrowing 1,750-watt directional signal (it's not for beans in the Mon Valley, because it's aimed west), you can also listen online at

You also could listen to WKHB (620) in Irwin on Sunday evenings at 7:15 p.m. ... following the "Scriptural Rosary."

Yep, it's one heck of a lead-in I've got on WKHB. Most Sundays, my audience consists of literally dozens of shut-ins, along with a handful of elderly people who think it's still WHJB in Greensburg. ("Can I speak to Nellie King? What time's the farm report on? Do you have the score of the Hempfield game?")

. . .

In Other News: A few items of interest from Penn State McKeesport Lower Fox Chapel:

  • Chancellor Curtiss E. Porter will confer degrees on 43 students at Penn State Greater Allegheny's spring commencement beginning at 11 a.m. May 17 in the Wunderley Gymnasium. Diplomas will be awarded in a number of areas, including business, communications, applied psychology and information sciences and technology. More at

  • The Penn State Greater Allegheny women's softball team has qualified for the PSUAC playoffs. It is the first time in school history that the team has made the postseason tournament. The Lady Lions finished fourth in the conference with a record of 11-7 and an overall record of 13-19. The team only had two wins all of last season. Get the details here.

. . .

To Do This Weekend: McKeesport Little Theater presents Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite," through May 18. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Dinner will be served before the May 10 show, but reservations are required.

The MLT is located at 1614 Coursin St., near the Carnegie Library and Cornell Intermediate School. Call (412) 673-1100 or visit their website.

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