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June 29, 2008 | Link to this story

He Already Had the Mustache

Category: Cartoons || By

(c) 2008 Jason Togyer/Tube City Almanac

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June 27, 2008 | Link to this story

Tick, Tick, Tick

Category: Events, History, Rants a.k.a. Commentary || By

I wasn't able to attend this week's hearing on the city's proposal to demolish several buildings --- including the Penn-McKee Hotel and the old Eagles lodge --- but from talking to witnesses, it sounds like things were pretty contentious regarding the latter building.

My sources tell the Almanac that Henry Russell Jr. of MHI Inc., the listed owner of the Eagles since 1991, and city solicitor Jason Elash exchanged sharp words over the building's condition.

Maryann Huk of the McKeesport Preservation Society reportedly testified that she has nominated both structures for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, but no property owner testified on behalf of the Penn-McKee.

Meanwhile, someone recently accused me of being "unsympathetic" to preservation efforts in the city.

If you've been reading the Almanac for a while, you know that I am absolutely unsympathetic to anyone who wants to preserve McKeesport history. I also foreclose on orphanages and tie widows to train tracks while twirling the ends of my mustache and cackling.

No, gentle reader, I am not unsympathetic, but I'm also not an idiot. Everyone wants to preserve the Hitzrot house and the Penn-McKee, but none of the responsible parties have made any tangible moves.

City council still has to vote on whether to demolish these buildings, possibly at its meeting next Wednesday. Then the contracts will have to go to bid.

That means that the clock is running, but time hasn't run out.

If the people who want to save these structures are serious, they will immediately start raising money, hire engineering and legal help, and apply for the appropriate permits.

Or, they will turn the buildings over to someone who can afford to save them, and who is willing to jump through the proper legal hoops.

But if they fail to act, and the buildings fall down or are demolished, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

. . .

Almanac file photoMeanwhile: The Italian millionaire who owns St. Stephen's Hungarian Church on Beacon Street is in jail.

As the Almanac reported last July, St. Stephen's and several other Catholic churches in the Diocese of Pittsburgh were sold to a company controlled by Raffaello Follieri, a playboy whose family has close ties to the Vatican.

Well, federal officials in New York arrested Follieri on Tuesday and charged him with fraud and money laundering.

In other words, another historic building in McKeesport is apparently owned by someone with no means of repairing or marketing it.

That's just swell.

How long before St. Stephen's falls into disrepair, and the city starts making plans to demolish it? I say two years.

. . .

To Do This Weekend: Amateur radio operators from around the world will participating in annual "Field Day" exercises, including members of the city's Two Rivers Amateur Radio Club. They'll be up along Carpenter Lane in White Oak Park, near the water tower.

McKees Point Marina, Water Street at Fifth Avenue, will host a free concert by the classic rock/country group Steeltown from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday. All ages are welcome; organizers recommend bringing a blanket or lawn chair. Call (412) 678-6979 for more information.

Chuck Blasko's Vogues will perform at the Renziehausen Park bandshell at 7 p.m. Sunday as part of the city's free summer concert series. Call (412) 675-5068.

Finally, Animal Friends hosts a rabies clinic for dogs and cats three months of age and older at city Fire Station No. 2, Eden Park Boulevard, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday. Cost is $10; all dogs must be on leashes, and cats in carriers. Call (412) 847-7076.

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June 26, 2008 | Link to this story

See Also 'Sleep, Deprivation of'

Category: Pointless Digressions || By

When you read a non-fiction book, do you ever wonder who has to compile the index?

I sure wondered. It turns out that it's usually the author, and he has about a week to do it.

And there may be easier ways to do it, but a scratch pad and pencils worked for me.

(Yawn.) I need a nap.

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June 25, 2008 | Link to this story

New Owners Seek Tenants For People's Building

Category: Local Businesses, News || By

A New York City couple making their first venture into commercial real estate has purchased one of the city's best-known landmarks.

Lin and Lily Lum of Brooklyn have purchased the former People's Union Bank Building, Downtown, from the mortgage company that foreclosed on the property earlier this year.

Terms of the sale were not disclosed, though the 102-year-old skyscraper now known as The People's Building was expected to sell for more than $400,000.

The Lums, who both hold engineering degrees from SUNY-Stony Brook, also own two brownstone townhouses in Brooklyn, according to New York City deed records.

But this is the couple's first foray into owning a commercial property, and their first purchase outside of New York.

Naturalized U.S. citizens, the Lums are natives of Guangdong (formerly Canton) province, China. Lily Lum works for New York City's Health & Hospitals Corporation, while Lin Lum is a computer programmer for a major investment bank.

Reached by phone at her New York office this week, Lily Lum told the Almanac she and her husband were looking for an investment opportunity when they saw the People's Building listed on the Internet.

"We didn't know anything about the building," she said. "It was a surprise. It had a wonderful history. We liked the history of it."

For most of its history, the building's upper floors were home to doctors, lawyers and other professionals. The Lums would like to attract the same kind of tenants; Lily Lum said she doesn't want to rent the building to just anyone.

The local property manager hired by the mortgage company has been retained and will stay on-site, Lum said.

It's not the first building Downtown to be sold to an East Coast investor. The building at 224 Fifth Ave. that once housed Byer's Children's Shop and Gala Jewelers was purchased several years ago by a Connecticut man.

Lum said the couple's first tasks will be to repair the damaged sidewalk along Walnut Street, wash the exterior of the first and second floors, repair the hot and cold water systems inside, and improve air circulation in the mezzanine and old banking hall.

"We are also looking to see if the city can help us --- if there's any way we can cooperate" to find tenants, she said. "Some of the people have already come to talk to us."

Potential tenants interested in renting space in the People's Building should contact Lily Lum at (646) 296-5347, or

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June 24, 2008 | Link to this story

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Category: Hardscrabble Mon Valley Watch, Mon Valley Miscellany, Rants a.k.a. Commentary || By

Almanac photo/Jason Togyer

It's about time that Downtown finally got its own lighthouse. Too many ocean liners have foundered on the shoals of the Youghiogheny.

Next, someone needs to stop those sirens in Dravosburg from luring sailors to their deaths.

I keed, I keed. Actually, the lighthouse, funded by private donations, was erected at the McKees Point Marina on Water Street in memory of the late city councilman and Mayor Joe Bendel.

Bendel was among the people who had the vision and foresight to push for the marina's construction, over strenuous objections from some residents and political rivals.

The lighthouse is a little bit incongruous, to be sure --- what's next, lobster traps? --- but it sure does look neat.

Almanac photo/Jason Togyer

It's odd to think that the marina was a controversial idea. There were many people who objected on principle --- they thought any recreational opportunities should be handled by the private sector.

That's true enough, except that no one in the private sector was doing anything to develop the city's riverfront.

There was a bigger group of people who objected on the grounds that it was a waste of time.

"McKeesport's dead," they said. "Who would want to come to here?"

It was the same group of bellyachers who sits around complaining because there's no place to shop Downtown, but who never shopped Downtown when stores were open, or who complain about corruption, crime and taxes, but haven't lived in the Mon Valley since the Jakomas administration.

Almanac photo/Jason Togyer

Marina Manager Ray Dougherty told city council in May that just about everyone who had a slip in McKeesport last year has returned this year. (Although someone jokingly said to me the other day that even if they put their boat in the water, they might just have to sit at the dock, because they can't afford fuel.)

The answer to the question, "Who wants to come to McKeesport?" turns out to be "a lot of people," if you give them something worth coming for, if you behave professionally, and if you promote the city.

In general, the Mon Valley could use more "do'ers" who are planning for the future, and fewer "complainers" who talk about all of the things we've lost, but never try anything new.

Almanac photo/Jason Togyer

I don't have a boat myself, but ain't that a pretty sight?

If you sort of squint and block out the abandoned Penn-McKee Hotel, you could imagine you're up in the Allegheny National Forest, not in Downtown McKeesport.

And now for the ugly.

Almanac photo/Jason Togyer

Here comes the sun on Fifth Avenue, and the pigeons of McKeesport and winos drinking MD 20/20 out of paper bags both need a new place to sit.

So, farewell, then, to the remnants of one of the Mon Valley's worst-ever public works projects ... and that's saying a lot.

The concrete arches of the old Midtown Plaza Mall parking garage are finally down, and Fifth Avenue will be restored to two-way traffic later this year.

Almanac photo/Jason Togyer

Now, it's up to developer Barry Stein to rehabilitate the remaining section of the mall, rechristened the "Boulevard Shops," as in "Lysle."

There's been little progress since Subway, Jackson Hewitt, Pizza Hut and Dollar Bank relocated, but I'm told the ugly arches discouraged potential tenants, and I'm taking Stein at his word that everything else will get a makeover soon, too.

If it inspires some other property owners Downtown to remodel and market their buildings, it's all for the better.

It doesn't help, by the way, that every reporter who comes to the city feels it's necessary to mention that the Downtown area is "economically devastated" and "mostly abandoned."

(Gee, thanks, Moriah Balingit. We hadn't noticed. By the way, you left out "hardscrabble.")

No, we don't need a lighthouse as a warning beacon for boaters.

We need it to attract more "do'ers" and fewer doubters.

"Yes, we can," isn't just the motto of a political candidate, after all.

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Filed Under: Hardscrabble Mon Valley Watch, Mon Valley Miscellany, Rants a.k.a. Commentary | four comments | Link To This Entry | Add to Technorati Favorites

June 23, 2008 | Link to this story

Community Center New Goal For Bethlehem Church

Category: Events, News || By

Earlene Coleman (Tube City Almanac photo)

In a Downtown area that's lost many of its institutions, Bethlehem Baptist Church remains a refreshing outpost of stability.

For 119 years, the congregation has tended both to the spiritual and corporeal needs of the city.

Its newest project could be Bethlehem's biggest outreach project yet --- a community center and banquet hall Downtown that would serve both the church's 480 members and all residents of the McKeesport area.

The church is holding a golf outing this Friday at Youghiogheny Country Club, Elizabeth Township, to raise money. Tickets are on sale at the church's office on Walnut Street.

"Our next step is contacting an architect, to take what's in our hearts and put it totally down on paper," says the Rev. Earlene Coleman, Bethlehem's pastor for five years and a lifelong member of the church. "We're trying to take each step as God tells us, and we don't want to run ahead."

. . .

Community involvement is nothing new at Bethlehem, whose handsome sanctuary between Seventh and Eighth avenues has been a Downtown landmark for 24 years. ("We still think of it as 'the new church,' too," Coleman says, laughing.)

Bethlehem Baptist has a computer room where members and city residents can learn to use software packages like PowerPoint and Publisher, work on school projects or use the Internet, and until recently the church provided daycare for working parents. (When other daycare alternatives opened nearby, the church was able to discontinue the service.)

The church also has partnered with a congregation in Louisiana to collect clothing and other items for people still rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

And two years ago, Bethlehem launched "Project Reach" with the McKeesport Area School District. Four members of the church --- two men and two women --- each mentor 15 freshmen and sophomores from McKeesport Senior High School, monitoring their grades, helping them with homework and personal problems, and making sure they attend classes.

. . .

But the community center, conceived about a year ago, is one of the church's biggest projects yet, at least in terms of capital investment.

Coleman says several people in the church perceived the need for the facility almost at the same time.

"As I said to my building committee, 'I don't know why God wants this, but he wants a community center,'" she says. "As we keep moving along, more and more people share the vision that God is spreading, and this is something he wants to do in this community."

Besides a banquet-type hall, the center that Bethlehem Baptist envisions would also incorporate daily activities for families, children and senior citizens --- needs that the church's own building can't currently serve.

"I have 80 or 90 senior citizens in the church who are still living on their own and taking care of themselves, so they don't need 'day care,' but it would be nice if they had a place to go for fellowship, rather than sitting at home, alone, watching TV," Coleman says.

The church is also working with the McKeesport YMCA to see if fitness classes or other activities could use the facility, she says.

. . .

Although Bethlehem hasn't identified a location for the center, Coleman says it would be somewhere in the Downtown area.

YMCA Executive Director Dexter Hairston is on the planning committee, along with Mayor Jim Brewster, Michele Matuch of the McKeesport Hospital Foundation, and Rob Hammond, general manager of the Daily News and an executive at its parent company, Tribune-Review Publishing.

"We have some really wonderful people working on the committee," she says. "The community has really stepped up and gotten behind it."

Coleman has a renewed perspective on her pastoral work in the city after recently returning from a missionary trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, as she works toward an advanced degree from Pittsburgh's Harty Bible School.

. . .

Previous mission trips have taken Coleman and 23 other pastors to work with churches in Guyana and Jamaica.

There are strong similarities between pastoral work in the developing world and in the United States, she says: "We don't realize that a lot of the same things we do, they also do."

Yet Coleman was inspired by the ability of pastors in extremely poor communities to maintain a positive outlook and a "level of peace and joy."

"Though I don't have much, I'm not focusing on what I don't have," she says. "Even in ministry, we are very blessed in the United States."

. . .

For information about Friday's golf outing, call the church office at (412) 664-7272. Golf tickets cost $150 each or $500 for four people, and include dinner at the clubhouse. Tickets for dinner only cost $50.

In addition, the church will host a cruise on the Gateway Clipper on July 13 to raise money for the community center. Tickets are $51 per person and include dinner and oldies spun by a DJ. Call the church for reservations.

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June 21, 2008 | Link to this story

Saturday Update

Category: Events, General Nonsense || By

Alert Reader Jeff wants to know why I haven't mentioned that tomorrow marks the 25th annual Greater Pittsburgh Soap Box Derby on Eden Park Boulevard.

Well, there's a very simple and logical explanation.

And just as soon as I think of it, I'll let you know.

The soap box derby gets underway at 9 a.m. tomorrow, and the finish line is near the "Voke." Expect traffic disruptions around Renzie Park for most of the morning.

As my former cow-orker and fellow Serra grad Brian Krasman noted a few years ago in the News, the city's soap box derby actually dates back to 1956, and it continued for the next 16 years under the sponsorship of Deveraux Chevrolet.

("Devie," incidentally, was originally located on Sixth Avenue Downtown, in the building currently used by Tube City Appliances, before it moved out to Eden Park Boulevard, in the showroom recently vacated by Tri-Star Ford.)

The derby is open to kids ages 8 to 17, and you can find a list of this year's contestants online.

. . .

Now, appropos of nothing, we bring you Joe Cocker singing "A Little Help From My Friends," with the lyrics helpfully annotated underneath. It might just be the highlight of your weekend.

(Tip o' the Tube City Hard Hat: Mark Evanier.)

And after you're done watching that, go watch this, and you will never be able to take Joe Cocker seriously, ever again.

Assuming you took him seriously in the first place, that is.

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June 20, 2008 | Link to this story

Random Friday

Category: General Nonsense, Pointless Digressions, Wild World of Sports, Radio Geekery || By

ABC Photo Lab just processed several rolls of film from my trip to Dayton last month (yes, I am a relic), which reminds me that while I was in Ohio, I got to see a baseball game at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park.

That's right: I have yet to set foot in PNC Park, but I have seen Cinci's. You may recall that I've also seen the Slippery Rock Sliders and I've seen the Washington Wild Things at least three times. Good Lord willing, I'll get to see the Altoona Curve this summer.

It's not that I don't like professional baseball. I love baseball. (Can't play it worth a darn. My lifetime batting average in the Liberty Borough Athletic Association was something like .002, and that's only because they don't assign negative numbers.)

But I'll be damned before I'll shell out $30, including parking and tickets, to watch the Pirates slide to the bottom of the standings every year. So I haven't seen a Pirates game in person since Three Rivers Stadium was torn down, and I haven't bought a single item of Pirates merchandise.

C'mon, they blew a six-run lead yesterday. They lost by double digits on Tuesday.

There's such a thing as rooting for your home team even when they're losing. After all, I'm a Serra High graduate. The whole concept of "winning games," let alone competing in playoffs, is still a novelty to most of our alumni.

Frankly, you should root for your home team when they're trying their best, but failing. But the Pirates aren't trying. Or, more specifically, the Pirates' ownership isn't trying.

You may wonder how the Nutting family sleeps at night. I say, "On a big pile of money."

They're pocketing money from the fans and the taxpayers, paying lip service to the idea of being competitive, and laughing all the way back to West Virginia, where they invest the profits in a chain of mediocre newspapers and contribute money to things like the "Oliver North for U.S. Senate Committee."

It's been 15 consecutive losing seasons, and they're working hard on No. 16, which would tie the all-time record by any professional sports team ... if you still consider what the Pirates are playing "professional" baseball.

The "P" on the caps doesn't stand for "Pittsburgh." It stands for "Painful," "Pitiful," or maybe just "Pathetic."

Give your money to the Nuttings. As for me, I'll drive to Altoona to see a baseball game, even with gas at four bucks a gallon.

Yeah, I'd almost rather see the sheiks of Saudi Arabia profit than the owners of the Pirates.

. . .

'This is Real ... This is 'Night Watch'': Last night, I was listening to a 1950s police detective interrogate a suspect caught with marijuana seeds and stems.

"How many roaches did you smoke?" he says. "Where do you usually go to get a blast?"

The dialogue could have come straight from Jack Webb and Dragnet, but this was a real detective in the Culver City, Calif., police department, who was recorded as part of a short-lived CBS Radio documentary series called "Night Watch."

The folks at First Generation Radio Archives have unearthed 20 rare episodes of the show and restored the audio.

Beginning in 1954, the Culver City police allowed a sound technician to ride along with an unmarked squad car and record their cases for later broadcast. If that sounds a little bit like the 1950s equivalent of "Cops," you're right.

But consider the difficulty of doing a show like this in the 1950s. The smallest portable tape recorders were the size of a suitcase; the engineer on "Night Watch," "police recorder" Don Reed, hid the microphone inside a flashlight casing.

I've uploaded the July 31, 1954 episode, "Boy, Go Home." It's 4.5 MB, even as an 8KHz MP3. I hope FGRA will forgive me; I wanted you to hear this thing as an enticement to buy the CDs.

It's not slam-bang exciting, but it is compelling.

It's also a little bit depressing. The calls you hear will be familiar to anyone who's a police officer today. There's a child neglect case, a battered woman who refuses to press charges against her spouse, and another battered woman who sets fire to her home to punish her husband.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

"Boy Go Home," from "Night Watch," CBS Radio, July 31, 1954
(4.5 MB, MP3)

. . .

A Little Decorum: My old cow-orker Scott Beveridge notes the newest trend in prom attire ... wearing a baseball cap with your tuxedo.

Egad. There was a time when people were proud to get a little bit dressed up. Even if your parents were poor mill hunkies, you tried to pretend that you had class.

At a funeral home the other night, I was fairly astonished to see someone in jeans and an untucked T-shirt ... and the jeans weren't even clean.

I don't want to go back to the days when women wore gloves and men wore a fedora to the beach, but "dressing up" for special occasions should be the rule, not the exception.

Baseball caps and tuxedos. Sweet sainted mother of Henry B. Klein!

. . .

To Do This Weekend: McKeesport City Fair continues tonight and Saturday from 6 to 11 p.m., with fireworks tomorrow at Helen Richey Field ... McKeesport Little Theater, 1614 Coursin St., presents two plays for children, "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp" and "Amy's Attic," at 7:30 p.m. today and tomorrow, and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Call (412) 673-1100 or visit the MLT website ... the U.S. Army Band performs in a free concert tonight at the bandshell at Renzie Park. Bring a blanket; the music starts at 7 p.m. ... Members of Firefighters Union Local 10 will be collecting money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association tomorrow at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Hartman Street in the East End. They need to raise $6,000, so bring some change!

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June 19, 2008 | Link to this story

Responsible Replies Are Welcome

Category: Rants a.k.a. Commentary || By

In the interest of fairness, I want to point out that an Alert Reader identifying himself only as "a concerned citizen of McKeesport" has posted a link to what he calls "videos of the first steps in the illegal taking and destruction of the Historic Hitzrot House in McKeesport, Pa."

You can go read my entire response if you want to, but I'll summarize it: Bull.

The present owners of the Hitzrot House have owned it since 1991, according to the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds:

  • That's 17 years that families of patients at Kane Regional Center and parishioners of the churches Downtown have had to pass that building.

  • It's 17 years that Willig Funeral Home, Hunter-Edmundson-Striffler, and other businesses have had to entice customers to pass that building.

  • It's 17 years that residents of Harrison Village have wondered if the building might fall on someone, or if a child would get hurt inside.

  • It's 17 years that surrounding property owners have watched the value of their businesses or homes decline.

Who speaks for the rights of those people?

Alert Reader, I understand your emotions and your frustration, but I'm not buying it. Your anger is misplaced.

. . .

In Other Business: Prosecutors have dropped all charges filed against a local boxer in connection with a shooting at Nigro's Restaurant, according to the Tribune-Review.

Four of the five victims testified at a preliminary hearing that he didn't shoot them, but it took prosecutors more than a week to finally drop the charges.

It reminds me of the Ray Donovan case. Donovan, U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Reagan, was indicted by a New York prosecutor in 1981 and spent the next six years fighting a corruption investigation.

Finally, after a 1987 trial at which Donovan's attorneys called no witnesses, jurors acquitted Donovan on all charges.

"Give me back my reputation!" he yelled at the prosecutor. "Where do I go to get my reputation back?"

It seems to me that if four of the shooting victims were adamant that the accused shooter was innocent, then someone really screwed up.

As for the poor guy who spent two weeks in the slammer on $500,000 bail for a crime someone else apparently committed --- where does he go to get his reputation back?

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June 18, 2008 | Link to this story

Coke Works Hearing Set Thursday

Category: Local Businesses, News || By

ThyssenKrupp AG photo

A hearing on U.S. Steel's plans to upgrade the Clairton Works is slated for 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Clairton Municipal Building on Ravensburg Boulevard.

The Allegheny County Health Department's Air Quality Division must give its consent to the $1 billion project to replace three old coke batteries with one newer facility.

Neil Bhaerman, a program organizer for Clean Water Action, says the environmental advocacy group is pushing the Health Department to do a more thorough examination of the work that U.S. Steel is planning.

In addition, the group wants the county to get more data on the coke works in Germany that the Clairton plant's new equipment will be modeled after.

"I'm glad they're putting the investment into the coke works in Clairton, and I'm glad they're making coke, but they need to be doing it as cleanly as possible," Bhaerman says.

"That's why it's going to be really important what the Health Department puts into the permit," he says. "We're not opposing the new batteries. We just want to make sure that they use the best technology."

. . .

U.S. Steel and its predecessors have been making coke in Clairton for more than a century.

Used to fuel furnaces and boilers, coke is created when coal is heated to burn off impurities. Cooking the coal releases gases and soot; some of the gases are captured to create chemicals used in paints, glues, plastics and solvents, but others escape into the air.

The Clairton Works is the largest coke-making plant in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Despite modernization projects throughout the 1980s and '90s, the plant has also been blamed by the American Lung Association and other groups with causing abnormally high levels of air pollution in the Mon Valley.

The Lung Association in April called the Pittsburgh region the "sootiest" metropolitan area in the nation based on air pollution readings taken in Liberty Borough, directly opposite Clairton.

U.S. Steel argues that the new batteries being installed at Clairton will be more efficient and emit radically lower levels of soot and gases.

. . .

The technology was pioneered by the German steelmaking giant ThyssenKrupp AG at a new coke plant built in Duisburg, Germany, in 2002.

The plant replaced a 100-year-old facility that ThyssenKrupp says had generated complaints from residents about pollution.

"Demands for the coke-oven plant's closure became more and more insistent," the company reports in a book about the works.

Duisburg is located in Germany's Essen region, which remains a steel center comparable to the Mon Valley during the 20th century.

. . .

Click to visit Google MapsEngineers for ThyssenKrupp, which needed to continue making coke to fuel its nearby mills, designed a plant with fewer but larger ovens, which theoretically should provide fewer places for gases and soot to escape.

According to the company, environmental controls at the Schwelgern plant allow air pressure inside each coke oven to be individually adjusted. Each oven remains under negative pressure --- suction --- to prevent coke gas from leaking out.

Pressure is automatically lowered before the oven doors are open, which ThyssenKrupp claims "almost entirely" prevents emissions from the doors.

In addition, the hot coke is cooled with water, rather than by exposure to air, to meet strict German air quality standards.

. . .

Although U.S. Steel and county Health Department
officials both contend that the upgrades will dramatically reduce pollution from the Clairton Works, Bhaerman claims that pictures of the Schwelgern plant provided by German activists show "incredibly dirty emissions."

The county Health Department in March sent its own representatives to Duisburg to examine the coke plant, but Bhaerman argues their inspection was not extensive enough to spot any pattern of environmental problems.

"The Health Department really should have examined the application from that plant and their inspection records," he says. "It might be the best (technology) but there might also be problems they haven't examined without really going through all of the records of that plant."

. . .

The Allegheny County Health Department is still accepting comments via email at Details of the proposed upgrades can also be downloaded from the department's website. Click the links in the upper right-hand column under the headline, "Air Quality Permits in Public Comment."

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June 17, 2008 | Link to this story

City Fair Opens Today; Good Neighbor Day Tomorrow

Category: Events || By

Cheryl Cotter photoWith gas prices above $4 a gallon in most of the Mon-Yough area, there's no better time to look for low-bucks entertainment that's not too far to drive.

So there's no better time for the annual McKeesport City Fair, which kicks off at 6 tonight at Helen Richey Field in Renziehausen Park along Eden Park Boulevard.

It's the seventh year for the five day celebration of the start of summer. Events continue nightly from 6 to 11 p.m. and wrap up Saturday, naturally, with fireworks (after all, we are in western Pennsylvania).

Admission and parking are free.

According to Patti Bosnak, vice president of the city Recreation Board, more than a dozen rides will be operated by LAM Enterprises, owned by Lloyd Serfas of Greenock, Elizabeth Township.

"They try to have something different every year," Bosnak says.

Cheryl Cotter photoRide-all-night price is $12 per person, per evening, she says. Games and souvenir stands will also be manned.

Food will include traditional treats such as funnel cake, cotton candy, french fries with toppings, corn dogs and fresh lemonade. In addition, local restaurants will also have booths at the fair; Mama Pepino's will be selling pizza and gyros, Farmer's Pride Poultry will have chicken-on-a-stick, halushki, hot dogs and hot sausage, and Dell's Dessert Hut will have ice cream.

The city Recreation Board has tried to fill some of the void left when the Mon-Yough Riverfront Entertainment Committee, or MYREC, disbanded several years ago.

Besides Bosnak, members include president Ron Melocchi, Jennifer Shields, Tammy Toth, Cheryl Cotter, Cyndi James and Chuck Jarrell.

Board members coordinate fair activities with city Parks and Recreation Director Jim Brown, Bosnak says.

. . .

Good Neighbor Day: The city fair isn't the only event underway in the city this week. The annual "Good Neighbor Day" celebration will be underway tomorrow on Fifth Avenue, Downtown, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Owners of local businesses and representatives from local non-profit agencies will be on hand with free giveaways and to answer questions.

. . .

(Almanac photo)

Oil Company Brought to Its Knees: Last week I mentioned that the Fueland store on Lebanon Church Road in Dravosburg had been among the first local self-service gas stations to go above $4 per gallon.

Well, get a load of this. After I posted that picture, they dropped back to $3.979.

Behold the awesome power of the Tube City Almanac! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

Say, you don't think it has anything to do with the fact that the 7-Eleven on West Fifth Avenue stayed under $4, do you?

Nah, it's got to be this crummy website.

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June 16, 2008 | Link to this story

The Hitzrot Just Keeps On Coming

Category: Events, History || By

Courtesy John BarnaHave you read enough about the old Eagles lodge on Market Street? Well, tough.

The city's best historian, John Barna, notes that the Fraternal Order of Eagles didn't buy the building until 1911, and that it was built as the home of Dr. Henry W. Hitzrot in 1892.

He also sent along this photo of Dr. Hitzrot and another picture showing the house "in its heyday."

"What the hell is a heyday any how?" John wants to know. "I can't remember if I ever had one!"

I don't know what a heyday is either, and I don't think I've ever had one. But if they need oil to make them, then I'm sure the price of heydays has gone up.

. . .

Speaking of inflation, John also dug up an article from the Nov. 7, 1892, issue of the Daily News, which calls the Hitzrot mansion "one of the finest homes in Pennsylvania" and says that construction cost $50,000 --- that's better than $1.1 million by current standards.

"The most pleasing feature of this splendid edifice is that nearly all the work was done by McKeesporters, and the majority of the materials are of home make, reflecting the highest credit on local builders," noted the unnamed writer, who went on to describe the interior in detail:

Passing through the wide, deep doorway, the visitor enters the reception hall; on the right is a large stone fireplace, extending to the ceiling, and built from an Egyptian design.

The staircase is wide, is of easy ascent and splendidly carved. A silver chandelier diffuses a subdued light, and the room is decorated with works of art, paintings and statuary, and the walls in this as in the other apartments, are covered with leather of exquisite design and of a different shade in each room.

To the left is a parlor, furnished in white and gold, light shades predominate and the decorations are simple, yet elegant. Back of this is the drawing room.

The dining room is finished in hard wood, beautiful china closets, large plate glass mirrors; a rich chandelier adorns the centre, and appropriate works of art are found on the walls.

So far, it all sounds just like your house, right? Leather-covered walls, chandeliers and statues in every room? Life was good for the Hitzrots.

. . .

Courtesy John BarnaThe News' story continues with a description of the kitchen, which the paper reports was so elegantly furnished that if "it were not for the large range and silver hot water boiler it would be difficult to determine that it was a kitchen":
On the second floor are bedrooms and Mrs. Hitzrot's boudoir or sewing room. The bath room is simply elegant, tiled floor and walls, silver fittings, and decorated in a rich manner. The furnishings of the apartments on the second floor are in harmony with the luxury that is found on the first floor.

The third floor of the Hitzrot mansion contained servants' quarters, a ballroom and a billiard room, while the basement held another stove "on which to boil clothes" and a pantry for storing vegetables and canned goods:
One is impressed with the large number of small closets, drawers in all parts of the house to store clothes, household utensils and food products, making even the kitchen and basement present a neat appearance.

The heating apparatus is most complete. Pure air is secured from the outside of the house, heated in the furnace and then distributed through the building. The ventilation for sanitary arrangements are very complete, and the pure air found in the house is very noticeable. All water passes through a large filter in the basement, which renders it quite pure.

That's what you call "The Howard Hanna Sunday Showcase of Homes," 19th century style.

. . .

The article's description makes it clear why the building cost the equivalent of $1.1 million to construct, and also why historic preservationists would like to save the building.

But whether it can escape a wrecking ball in its current dilapidated condition is questionable. It's also anyone's guess as to whether any of the fine details described by the News in 1892 still survive.

As I think I've mentioned before, my grandfather was a member of the Eagles, and I can remember visiting the lodge when I was but a wee tadpole, but my memories of the inside are pretty dim. I also seem to recall that the first floor had been extensively remodeled.

. . .

More details of the Hitzrot family come from a 1915 book called The Genealogical and Personal History of Western Pennsylvania by John W. Jordan.

Jordan writes that Hitzrot was "a highly educated and skillful physician" who emigrated from Cassel, Prussia, to Johnstown, Pa., to work for the Cambria Iron Works.

After several years apparently spent as a bookkeeper and secretary, Hitzrot enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Baltimore, where he earned his medical degree, then pursued further study at Johns Hopkins before returning to McKeesport.

"He rose rapidly in public favor and gained a satisfactory practice," which the book notes "became very large and lucrative."

Hitzrot had three children; one by his first wife, Priscilla, who died before 1896, and two by his second wife, Agnes Haler Hitzrot.

Agnes Haler was the daughter of Louis C. Haler, who owned a farm in Versailles Township --- in what's now known as the Haler Heights section of the city.

. . .

Meanwhile, while looking for information about Dr. Hitzrot, I stumbled over the website for something called "Preservation McKeesport," which appears to be a group that evolved from the Historical Society of McKeesport. Unfortunately, there don't appear to have been any updates made since 2006.

If anyone from Preservation McKeesport wants to touch base with me, I'm interested to hear what you're up to!

. . .

In a Related Story: Although McKeesport Heritage Center doesn't do building preservation, it does preserve the genealogical and commercial records of the Mon-Yough area at its archives and library in Renziehausen Park.

Michelle Wardle, director of the Heritage Center, recently emailed me to note that they finally have a website. Point your peepers at

This Saturday, the Heritage Center will be running a program for children about the history of trolleys and streetcars; Barb Kearns-Jones of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum is the featured speaker.

A program at 10 a.m. is targeted to pre-schoolers, while another at 1 p.m. is geared toward grammar-school pupils. The event is free; call (412) 678-1832.

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June 13, 2008 | Link to this story

'Preservation' is My Middle Name

Category: Mon Valley Miscellany, Rants a.k.a. Commentary || By

First things first. I was quoted last night in a Daily News editorial about WEDO (810). It's the second time I've been mentioned in the News in a week.

Both times, they used my middle initial, "P," which I've never used in my entire life.

I don't really mind, but I'm not sure why they're using it.

Personally, I've always thought it's a little silly to use your middle initial unless there's a chance you're going to be confused with someone else ("Joe L. Brown" vs. "Joe E. Brown").

And in case you're wondering, the "P" stands for "Pennypacker."

. . .

Someone emailed me privately to ask if the Penn-McKee Hotel and the Eagles lodge are as bad as city officials say they are.

"Towns love to knock down such places," he said. "I just stayed at a hotel on the square of Abbottstown, out past Gettysburg --- another town with a pretty small potential market, but they've fixed it up beautifully.

"'Boutique hotel' seems an apt description --- about 10 rooms, all the old wood and fixtures restored, but in a modern way that my family would love it, i.e. it doesn't feel 'old.'

"A little restaurant downstairs plus a bar and nice porch make it an amazing place. I'm sure during the restoration people said, 'it's crumbling plus who would want to stay in this town?' but I'm glad they hung in there --- it takes vision."

Well, yeah, it does, and vision's been in admittedly short supply in the Mon Valley for a long time.

But a couple of issues spring to mind.

. . .

First, the Eagles is pretty far gone. I'm no engineer, and I don't play one on TV, but when the roof of a old building begins falling in, and the walls begin visibly shifting, it's not long before it's going to collapse.

And that's where the Eagles stands right now ... and I use "stands" in the loosest possible sense.

Could the Eagles be saved? In the sense that you can "save" anything by throwing enough money at the problem, yes.

However, because of the way buildings like the Eagles were constructed, you would essentially have to dismantle the building, erect a steel frame inside, and rebuild the exterior walls.

I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that project would probably cost $2 million, and you'd essentially no longer have a historic structure. It would just resemble the old building on the outside.

And what would you do with it then?

I don't want to discourage anyone from investing that kind of money in a labor of love, but it would be hard to justify on a strictly cost-benefit basis.

. . .

That brings us to the Penn-McKee. As Jim Armstrong points out, the building is steel-frame construction with concrete floors. I've seen the construction photos; the exterior brick walls don't provide structural support.

Given the amount of water and insect damage the building likely has after more than 20 years of being vacant, you'd have to gut it. But it's imminently usable, for now.

Oh, and don't worry about the "historic value." The Penn-McKee was never an elegant hotel; it was the Motel 6 of the 1920s. After the Sheraton Motor Inn opened on Lysle Boulevard, it turned into a flophouse.

The Penn-McKee is in a highly-visible location, one block from the marina and the Palisades, with an adjacent parking lot, and a city-owned lot across the street.

When the Great Allegheny Trail is completed through Downtown, it will pass almost under the hotel's windows.

Maybe I'm wrong, but in my opinion, the failure to redevelop the hotel after all of these years suggests a lack of will rather than a lack of opportunity.

. . .

One serious problem is that McKeesport doesn't have any organized historical preservation group:

McKeesport doesn't have any rich families nearby, and it's too far from Pittsburgh, so if we're going to do anything, we're on our own.

At one point, a group calling itself the "Historical Society of McKeesport" was trying to save some houses on Shaw Avenue's "Millionaire's Row," but I don't know whatever became of them.

I keep hearing from residents of McKeesport and the surrounding boroughs, "isn't it a shame" that buildings like the Penn-McKee and the Eagles are decaying.

Well, if you want to save them, you'd better take matters into your own hands. McKeesporters have always been self-reliant. Let's not sit around waiting for someone else to rescue us.

And if you want to start a preservation group, I'm happy to spread the word here.

Or my name isn't Jason Pewterschmidt Togyer.

. . .

Two New Blogs: I recently discovered two new news blogs of local interest:
  • Steel Valley Matters is sponsored by the Steel Valley Enterprise Zone, Steel Valley Chamber of Commerce and Homestead Borough.

  • SA Weekly is operated by students from South Allegheny High School

Stop by and tell 'em Jason Pangborn Togyer sent you.

. . .

And Finally: From the National Politics Desk, an absolutely devastating takedown of Michelle Malkin and Fox News by John Scalzi. It's very partisan, but very funny.

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June 12, 2008 | Link to this story

Penn-McKee, Eagles Lodge Face Demolition

Category: News || By

Two historic buildings Downtown have an imminent date with the wrecking ball.

And although one of them has a potential savior, the other one is probably too far gone.

The Penn-McKee Hotel on Fifth Avenue at Strawberry Alley and the former Eagles lodge at Market and Seventh streets are on a list of condemned buildings slated for demolition by the city.

A hearing on all the buildings has been set for 10 a.m. June 24 in city council chambers at the old municipal building, 201 Lysle Blvd.

. . .

City Building Inspector Chris House says that the collapse of two buildings Downtown in the past month --- one on Sixth Avenue, the other on Walnut Street --- offers proof that officials can't wait forever for property owners to rehabilitate dangerous structures.

"It's just a matter of luck that someone hasn't been killed," House says. "Unfortunately, the City of McKeesport is the one who's going to have to take responsibility for someone else's property in order to maintain public welfare."

House says the old Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie 285 is in danger of collapse.

"There's not a structural engineer in the world who would say that building is now salvageable," he says.

A few years ago, House says, the roof on a concrete-block addition at the back of the lodge fell down, but the original structure remained intact.

. . .

That original part of the lodge is a stone mansion that was built in the 1880s as the home of a prominent city doctor, and it was listed two years ago as one of the state's "Top 10 Opportunities" by a historic preservation group.

Since then, parts of the mansion's roof have caved in, and portions of the exterior walls have collapsed.

The driveway of the neighboring building has been closed to traffic for safety reasons.

"It was possible that it could have been salvaged, but the owner didn't maintain it," House says.

. . .

County records list a non-profit group called the Museum Hair Institute as the legal owner of the Eagles lodge, and indicate that the property taxes have not been paid in several years.

Published reports in 2005 said that MHI was going to create a museum of barbering and hairstyling in the lodge. The museum never materialized.

According to the state Corporation Bureau, the principal officer of MHI is Henry Russell Jr. of Shaw Avenue in the city. Russell's phone number is unlisted and he could not be reached for comment.

. . .

The Penn-McKee Hotel has a more confusing provenance. County deed records indicate that tax bills are being sent to the offices of Edward L. Kemp Co. on West Fifth Avenue.

But the building is in the name of a corporation called See Bee Inc., and Jim Armstrong of White Oak says the corporation was donated to him several years ago.

Armstrong, a graphic designer and commercial artist who also heads a Christian music ministry called Voice of the Bride, wants to turn the hotel into a small-business incubator and a center for the performing arts.

The hotel, built in the 1920s, was the site of the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Both men were freshmen congressmen when they traveled to the city in 1947 to discuss the Taft-Hartley Act.

Used as a residential hotel for low-income and transient residents in its final years, the upper floors closed in 1985. Several offices and stores on the first floor remained open for a few more years.

. . .

Armstrong says the Penn-McKee is generally sound. "The building is concrete and steel," he says. "A number of years ago, some bricks fell off in the alley. There was kind of a speakeasy thing built on the roof, and it finally fell down. The rest of the building is completely solid."

House disagrees. He notes that damage caused by an arsonist several years ago is still evident on the outside of the building, and that windows are broken and missing on the upper floors.

"I think it's a foregone conclusion that this thing is going to have to be demolished," House says. "The longer you let it sit and don't maintain it, the worse it's going to get."

Armstrong says his efforts to repair and reopen the Penn-McKee were stymied after he lost his job. Two potential investors also backed out.

He estimates it would cost "a couple of hundred thousand dollars" to start renovating the building, and $1.5 million to restore the entire structure for occupancy.

. . .

The hotel is in a highly visible location, one block from the McKees Point Marina and the Palisades Ballroom, and visible from Lysle Boulevard and the Jerome Avenue Bridge.

The Youghiogheny River hiking-biking trail, which is about to be completed through the city's Downtown, will pass almost underneath the hotel's windows.

Yet Armstrong says he doesn't know if anyone would want to buy the Penn-McKee if he tried to sell it.

"I don't know what kind of a market there is for that," he says, adding that in his opinion, city officials discourage people from investing Downtown: "Part of it is you get taxed to death when they're not doing a whole lot for you but hassling you."

. . .

House says the city isn't "hassling" Armstrong or other property owners, but does want them to take responsibility.

"We're not even sure who the (legal) owner is right now," he says. "There's been a lot of skirting the issue by previous owners. We're having trouble finding any records of sales. And there's been no maintenance or initiative to repair the building."

Any demolition charges will be assessed against the legal owners of the buildings, House says, and the city will use all legal means necessary to recover its costs.

As for the suggestion that selling the Penn-McKee is impossible, he says "there's always a solution" that doesn't involve letting a building rot until it falls down.

"It's really a sad situation that someone would let it deteriorate," House says.

. . .

Armstrong says that anyone interested in investing in the Penn-McKee Hotel's restoration can contact him at (412) 726-8210 or

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June 11, 2008 | Link to this story

On the Lighter Side

Category: So-Called Radio Humor || By

Gee, things have been so serious around here lately, it seems like it's time to lighten things up with a little humor.

But instead, I'll pass along some content from my lousy radio show.

Incidentally, I unearthed the ad at right (from 1972) while getting ready to do the story a few days ago about the motorcycle blessing at St. Stephen's Church. Don't try looking for the Harley dealership; it's long gone.

I don't remember it at all, and my best guesstimate is that the dealership was located at the city side of the old 15th Avenue Bridge. I seem to recall a used car dealership there in the 1980s.

I also don't think this dealer was related to Heritage Harley-Davidson, which was on Lysle Boulevard (in the former Leonatti Bros. Honda dealership) before moving up to West Mifflin. Your clarifications are much appreciated.

And now, without further adieu:

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June 10, 2008 | Link to this story

Ministry's Store Sparks Council Questions

Category: Local Businesses, News || By

Image via Google! Maps

If you've been Downtown on Walnut Street, you've probably noticed Voice of Vision Outreach Ministries' used furniture store in the building that previously housed Progressive Music Co. (and many years before that, Baehr Brothers Studebaker).

It's a bargain-hunter's paradise inside, with two floors of antique and not-so-antique furniture, including dressers, dining-room sets, coffee and end tables, chairs, sofas and beds.

Business is good enough that the Voice of Vision store is about to begin warehousing some of its overstock in a building near UPMC McKeesport hospital.

That sparked a debate at city council last week over whether the ministry, which is a registered tax-deductible charity, is abusing its status at the expense of for-profit businesses.

"There's no way they conform with zoning regulations," Councilman Darryl Segina alleged, asking whether the store's presence Downtown hurt R & J Furniture, which closed its store at Sixth and Market streets a few years ago.

"We should know if this business is registered in the city, we should know if their taxes are being paid," Segina said. "These are legitimate questions that should be answered."

. . .

At issue was Voice of Vision's request for a zoning variance to use a vacant two-story building at 1502 Lysle Blvd. to store excess furniture.

State and county records indicate that the building is owned by the same Elizabeth Township family that also owns the building where Barrier Protection Services and Cornerstone Day Care are located --- the former Schulhof Tire store at Lysle and Locust.

Council approved the variance by a 5-1 vote (with Segina dissenting and Councilwoman Loretta Diggs absent due to illness), but only after Council President Regis McLaughlin directed Solicitor Jason Elash to find out if Voice of Vision was complying with city fire codes and tax ordinances.

Sheryl Cross, an administrative assistant to Voice of Vision founder the Rev. Dr. Calvin Green, said after the meeting that she's been working with the ministry for about six months to straighten out bookkeeping problems and make sure the organization is complying with local, state and federal regulations.

"Rev. Green was reluctant to turn over some of the information at times," Cross said.

But she added that the pastor is not trying to evade any laws or hurt any for-profit businesses.

Cross said Green has been hurt in the past by volunteers who offered to "help" at the store, only to "help" themselves to money or merchandise. "He wants to be 'submissive to authority,'" she said, in line with Jesus' admonition that his followers "render unto Caesar" taxes and follow the law.

Segina was quick to add that "there is no question" about Green's character, and that his concerns only involved the store, which is operated under a separate corporate charter from the neighboring Voice of Vision Outreach church.

. . .

Besides direct sales to the public, Cross said the store donates used furniture or sells it at below-market rates to low-income families or people recovering from floods and fires.

Proceeds from the store support Voice of Vision Outreach and are used to fund programs administered by other community organizations and overseen by the state Department of Public Welfare, Allegheny County and other agencies, Cross said.

The store currently has two paid employees, and she said they are paying wage taxes, though according to city officials it is exempt from mercantile tax.

Mayor Jim Brewster defended Green. "He's a good man, and I think in the past some of the dotting of the 'I's' and crossing of the 'T's' hasn't happened," he said.

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June 09, 2008 | Link to this story

Correction, Not Perfection

Category: News || By

On June 4, the Almanac noted --- as police and the media were reporting --- that a city man had been accused and charged in connection with a shooting at Nigro's Restaurant in North Versailles Township.

As an Almanac reader has correctly pointed out, four of the five victims of that shooting testified at a preliminary hearing that the man charged, Tyrone Watson, did not shoot them.

"One hundred percent -- Mr. Watson is not the person who shot me," former Steelers defensive back Russell Stuvaints testified, according to the Tribune-Review. "I feel bad he was framed."

"Why would someone who was shot come in and say (Watson) didn't do it?" Stuvaints asked, according to WPXI-TV.

As of the last published reports, the county had not dropped the charges, but in light of the testimony of the four victims, the Almanac sincerely apologizes for repeating any incorrect information. My intention was to talk about gun violence, not to spread rumors.

My policy is to correct any errors as soon as I'm told about them. The June 4 entry at the Almanac has been updated with the new information.

In the meantime, something is seriously wrong with that case. Justice needs to be done for both the people who were shot --- and the man who was accused.

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June 09, 2008 | Link to this story

Sweet Sainted Mother of Henry Ford

Category: History, The Blacktop Jungle || By

Well, I figured that four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline was going to hit the Mon-Yough area sooner or later. (I paid $3.999 in Whitaker on Saturday. G'wan, guess which gas station. You have your choice of one.)

Yet this was still provided a nasty little surprise when I was driving home from work Sunday night. I grabbed my chest, Fred Sanford-style, and said, "This is the big one, 'Lisbeth! I'm comin'!"

Right about now, I'm wondering if Ford has made any progress on that hybrid version of the Grand Marquis. Probably not.

Actually, the car I'm kind of coveting is the five-speed stickshift Mercury Milan. The car seems to get good reviews for performance and quality, and I like the looks, too. (I'd like a two-door version --- a la the Toyota Solara and Honda Accord --- even better. Please, Ford?)

Of course, I've never actually owned a new car, and since I'm still a writer, the chances of me being able to afford a new one are somewhere between slim and none.

I was waiting for Ed McMahon to finally deliver my check from that publishers' sweepstakes dealie, but it turns out that Ed has troubles of his own, so now I've got to wait until they're five years old and hitting the used car lots.

By then, unfortunately, gasoline might be six dollars a gallon and the Turnpike Commission will still be "10 years away" from completing the Mo-Fo Excessway.

I wonder if I should get to work on the Fred Flintstone version of my present car. A couple more Pennsylvania winters ought to take care of the floor quite nicely. Yabba-dabba-doo!

. . .

S.S. McKeesport: Yes, that was me in your Sunday Post-Gazette, writing about the S.S. McKeesport.

My story was just a sidebar to a larger story about the USS Pittsburgh written by Chris Briem, who's trying to rally support for bringing a World War II-vintage LST to Pittsburgh. As he notes, many warships were constructed around our rivers --- especially at Dravo Corp.'s shipyards on Neville Island.

Although the Mon-Yough area was a hub for building riverboats, especially before World War II, I don't know that any U.S. Navy craft were ever built in McKeesport or Elizabeth during the 20th century.

If they were, it would have been at Elizabeth Marine Ways, I suppose.

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June 08, 2008 | Link to this story

Briefly Noted

Category: News || By

At right, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers welder Jim Connelly and maintenance worker Lee Barnhart remove concrete around one of the turnbuckles at the Braddock Locks and Dam.

The Corps temporarily closed the main lock chamber at the Braddock dam on May 30 after inspection crews discovered a crack in part of a hinge on the main gate.

A smaller lock remained open while repairs were made. The work was completed last Sunday.

Located 11 miles south of Pittsburgh, the Braddock Locks and Dam ensures year-round commercial shipping on the Monongahela River by maintaining the pool through McKeesport down to the locks and dam at Elizabeth.

The Braddock facility was constructed from 1902-06 and reconstructed in the 1950s. More than 6,200 boats, including 3,800 coal tugs and other commercial boats, pass through the lock each year. A replacement dam is currently being constructed.

. . .

Midtown Tunnel Coming Down: The final remnants of the Midtown Plaza tunnel over Fifth Avenue will be demolished this week.

City Public Works Director Nick Shermenti said Fifth Avenue between Locust and Sinclair streets will be closed until at least Friday --- and possibly until next week --- while several concrete arches are torn down.

The arches once supported a parking deck that crossed Fifth Avenue. Each arch will be cut into five pieces and lowered to the ground, Shermenti said.

The sections each weigh an average of 100 tons, he said.

Removal of the arches will enable the city to begin the long-awaited reconstruction of Fifth Avenue, which will include restoring Downtown's main commercial street to two-way traffic.

In an unrelated story, Shermenti told city council that a contractor this week will start replacing the roof on the former municipal building at 201 Lysle Blvd.

Though the city's administrative offices have moved to the old McKeesport National Bank at Fifth and Sinclair, the 201 Lysle building is still used by the police and fire departments.

City officials say that several organizations have expressed an interest in renting space at 201 Lysle, including the Twin Rivers Council of Governments and the Regional Chamber Alliance, but the poor condition of the roof has been a roadblock to leasing the structure.

. . .

News From Penn State: Two honor students at Penn State's campus in the city --- Erick Froede Jr., an engineering major from Budd Lake, N.J., and Anthony Palocaren Sr., an engineering major from West Mifflin --- are trying to determine how much energy is being lost through the windows of one of the classroom buildings.

Using a thermal camera, the students and engineering instructor Eric Lipsky are measuring heat loss at the Frable Building.

The students hope to provide the university with a cost-benefit analysis of replacing the windows versus continuing to pay the existing heating and cooling bills.

Details are available at Penn State's website.

In other news, the G.C. Murphy Co. Foundation has donated an additional $50,000 to a scholarship fund at the McKeesport-based Greater Allegheny Campus.

The scholarship assists Penn State students who are the descendants of G.C. Murphy Co. employees or who live in communities where the retailer once had stores.

"Thanks to this generous grant, the number of scholarship awards will increase in future," said Pat Quinn Winter, director of development, in a prepared statement. "We're very grateful to the foundation for recognizing the needs of our students."

Finally: Penn State will hold "Kids' College" on the McKeesport campus from July 7 through 18 for local pupils in grades four through eight.

The one-week camps offer activities in areas like robotics, cooking, criminal justice, math, photography and music.

For more information, call (412) 675-9040 or download the brochure (PDF) from the campus' website.

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June 06, 2008 | Link to this story

Trib Scouts Property in City; WEDO For Sale

Category: Local Businesses, News || By

The parent company of the Tribune-Review and a string of suburban papers could build a $75 million printing plant in the city.

Several informed sources have told the Almanac that executives from the Tribune-Review Publishing Co., which last year purchased the Daily News, have been scouting locations for a new printing facility.

Both the city and sites near Monroeville have reportedly been under consideration, those sources said.

The proposed plant would replace the presses at the McKeesport paper as well as those at the Valley Independent in Monessen and the Monroeville-based Gateway Newspapers, which include the Norwin Star and Woodland Area Progress.

According to reports, Mayor Jim Brewster also recently gave the Trib's publisher, businessman/philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife, a tour of the city.

Tim Schooley of the Pittsburgh Business Times has confirmed the rumors and put both the Trib and the city on the record.

Trib CEO Ralph Martin tells Schooley the company has maxed out its printing operations and has been forced to turn down commercial printing jobs.

Besides its own newspapers, the company also prints USA Today, the Pittsburgh Catholic, the New Pittsburgh Courier and other publications under contract.

The new facility would consolidate four older plants. No layoffs are expected, Schooley writes; instead, press workers would transfer to the new plant.

Bids from vendors are expected by July, according to the PBT.

Martin tells the Business Times that McKeesport is under consideration because it isn't obstructed by tunnels, and because space is available in the Regional Industrial Development Corp. business park on the former U.S. Steel National Works site.

The Trib's 10-year-old NewsWorks facility, which prints the Pittsburgh edition of the Tribune-Review as well as other publications, is already located in an RIDC industrial park in Marshall Township.

. . .

In Other News: One of the two radio stations licensed to McKeesport is for sale.

Tom Taylor of reported this week that WEDO (810) has been listed with a Chicago-based broker, Media Services Group, for $1.75 million.

The station was placed into an irrevocable trust several years ago by its owner, Judith Baron of Florida, who inherited the station from her late husband, Ralph.

Ralph Baron and other investors purchased WEDO in the 1970s from city businessman Ed Hirshberg.

WEDO, which has studios in White Oak and a transmitter in North Versailles Township, is a 1,000-watt daytime-only AM station. It broadcasts a mix of ethnic and religious programs, paid infomercials and nostalgia shows.

The asking price of $1.75 million may be overly optimistic; WEDO has never appeared in the ratings in recent memory.

And as Taylor notes, Baron's decision to sell WEDO comes as the market for radio stations has bottomed out.

With radio audiences declining and fewer than two out of 10 listeners currently using the AM band, the most likely scenario would be for WEDO to be sold to a national religious broadcaster or one of several low-budget "networks" that run schedules of nothing but paid programming.

Such was the fate of the former WLOA (1550), which is licensed to Braddock. After a community development group and two entrepreneurs were unable to make the station a success, it was sold to Greenwich, Conn., based Lifestyle Talk Radio. The network's schedule is heavy with paid programming.

Another station with local ties was sold to an all-Catholic religious broadcasting network; Carnegie-based WZUM (1590), which has a studio on Buttermilk Hollow Road in West Mifflin, experimented with talk and oldies before being taken over by Wisconsin-based Relevant Radio.

The other radio station licensed to McKeesport --- WPTT (1360) --- is owned by Pittsburgh's Renda Broadcasting Corp.

Although it still has a nighttime transmitter site in Lincoln Borough, WPTT's studio is located in Green Tree and the station has a pending application to change its city of license to Mt. Lebanon.

(Editor's Note: Portions of the WEDO story were originally published at Pittsburgh Radio & TV Online.)

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June 05, 2008 | Link to this story

Class Action Suit Possible Against Highmark

Category: News || By

City officials are considering whether to become the lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the region's largest provider of health insurance.

At last night's council meeting, Mayor Jim Brewster said he also was lobbying state and federal elected officials to investigate whether Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield was guilty of building a surplus far in excess of what non-profit corporations are typically allowed to hold.

"I want to challenge their non-profit status," he said. "I think these gentlemen should be paying taxes to the communities they represent."

The moves come as the city is struggling to cope with a nearly 84 percent increase in health insurance premiums for 80 city hall, public works and administrative employees covered under a collective bargaining agreement with Teamsters Local 205 in White Oak.

The rate hike, first reported in May by the Daily News and the Almanac, would cost the city an additional $620,000 each year.

McKeesport, which currently spends about $2.2 million each year on health insurance for 160 employees, was not the only community whose premiums increased by double-digit percentages. According to a story last week in the Post-Gazette, Highmark increased Brentwood Borough's premiums by 70 percent, or $262,000, and Glassport's by 65 percent.

Brewster, who has adamantly been against seeking assistance for the city under the state's Act 47, warned council that if the $620,000 premium increase is allowed to stand, it could be a "segue" into distressed status.

"You do not have the money to pay this," the mayor said. "You do not have the means to get the money. This is a major problem."

Highmark, which is planning to merge with Philadelphia's Independence Blue Cross, earlier this year reported that its surplus has reached an all-time record high of $3.5 billion.

"We have a non-profit organization that pays no taxes raising your premiums by 83 percent," Brewster said. "I want to challenge their non-profit status."

If the city has too many employees seeking expensive medical treatment, he said, it is open to negotiating with Highmark. "If we have utilization issues, then we deserve to have our premiums increased," Brewster said, "but usually those increases are in the range of five to 10 percent."

As of last night, the mayor claimed, the insurance carrier has refused to speak directly with city officials, choosing instead to deal only with a broker hired by Local 205.

The city has solicited proposals from competing health insurance providers, Brewster said, "but it's real tough to compete when those organizations already know what your bids are."

The mayor was interviewed Monday about the rate increase on KDKA (1020) radio by talk-show host Marty Griffin. A Highmark spokesman interviewed later by Griffin reportedly said that the problem was the result of fees charged by Local 205's insurance broker.

Employees in Brentwood and Glassport are also represented by Local 205.

Brewster disputed Highmark's argument. "There are non-205 communities that got the same kinds of increases," he said.

City officials want to have a less-expensive health care plan in place before they negotiate five other labor agreements that will soon be expiring, Brewster said.

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June 05, 2008 | Link to this story

City Prognosis 'Good' Despite Evans Ave. Shooting, Mayor Says

Category: News || By

Tuesday night's shooting on Evans Avenue is not a sign that the city is suffering an epidemic of gun violence, Mayor Jim Brewster said Wednesday.

According to published and broadcast reports, Leroy Hughes, 29, was shot as he attempted to break up a fight between his dog and one owned by a neighbor.

Police have obtained a warrant for the accused shooter, Thomas Davis Jr., 31, who witnesses said fired up to a dozen shots into Hughes.

Brewster called the homicide "tragic" but cautioned residents against assuming that a wave of gun violence, similar to the one that swept the city in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is underway.

There is no evidence to link Hughes' death to drugs or gang activity, the mayor said; it appears to be the result of a neighborhood argument gone terribly wrong.

"We had a tragic homicide last night," Brewster said. "It was the first of 2008. We had one in 2007. We had one in 2006. We had 10 in 2004.

"Despite last night's events, I think the prognosis is good," he said. "I think we've come a long way with the help of the McKeesport Ministerium and the various task forces, I think people realize their need for involvement as parents, and I think our detectives should be given a lot of credit because they have developed a rapport with our young people, and I can see the difference."

Brewster said that the investigation of the Hughes shooting proceeded swiftly as a result of "excellent cooperation from witnesses in the neighborhood, which has really helped."

The mayor says he personally patrols the neighborhood, which is near UPMC McKeesport hospital and the Carnegie Library of McKeesport, "every single night" to keep an eye out for suspicious activity and talk to parents about bringing their children in after the city's 10 p.m. curfew for juveniles.

Brewster declined comment on a lawsuit filed this week by the mother of Tanya Kach, the now 26-year-old woman who was held captive by a former school security guard for 10 years.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh on behalf of Sherri Koehnke claims that former city Police Chief Tom Carter and Officer Michael Elias were negligent in their investigation of Kach's 1996 disappearance.

Kach is also suing the city and McKeesport Area School District.

However, the mayor said that the city will try to recover damages from people who file frivolous lawsuits, and that he's wearied of listening to commentators and attorneys attack McKeesport.

"I have directed our council that any more slanderous comments about my city, your city, and our police department will be met with a swift response," Brewster said.

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June 04, 2008 | Link to this story

That's All: Six Games and Out

Category: Cartoons, Wild World of Sports || By

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June 04, 2008 | Link to this story

Pistols at Too Few Paces

Category: Politics, Rants a.k.a. Commentary || By

According to pop culture, honorable men have used guns to settle disputes and right wrongs for many years.

Former Vice President Aaron Burr famously gunned down former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

In the "Old West," legend has it that cowboys shot rustlers and scoundrels like mad dogs in the streets.

And just a few years ago, Bernie Goetz became a folk hero for shooting several toughs in a New York subway.

Yet there was nothing honorable about the two shootings this week in the Mon-Yough area. (I almost wrote "the two shootings so far this week," but I'll try not to be that pessimistic.)

. . .

In fact, it's not honorable that our culture refuses to ask any hard questions about gun ownership ... even questions as simple as, "How many guns are too many?"

The United States has 90 guns for every 100 citizens, making us the most heavily armed nation in the world. In second place is Yemen, where terrorists and warlords prowl the streets.

That's pretty embarrassing company to keep.

I'm not a gun-control freak. I think every adult member of my family (even the women) owns at least one gun --- a pistol, a rifle, a shotgun.

But no reasonable person should think that the current situation is healthy. There is something seriously wrong in our country when someone can reportedly get into an argument at Nigro's in North Versailles, and think it's a perfectly reasonable reaction to go out to his car, grab his pistol, return to the restaurant and start blasting away, putting five people into the hospital.

. . .

And now, last night, a man on Evans Avenue in the city shot his neighbor multiple times because their dogs were fighting. Witnesses are telling police and reporters that the man charged in connection with the shooting, Thomas Davis Jr., fired at least eight shots into Leroy Hughes, 29, as he tried to pull the dogs apart.

He's accused of executing his neighbor on a city street because their dogs were fighting.

. . .

We can parse the language of the Second Amendment all we want: Does it forbid government from placing any restrictions on gun ownership? Or does it just enable each state to create a "well-regulated militia"?

Having philosophical discussions about the Bill of Rights doesn't change the fact that if the shooter at Nigro's didn't have a gun on Sunday morning, the worst thing that would have happened was a fistfight.

And if the shooter on Evans Avenue didn't have a gun, he probably wouldn't be facing homicide charges, and Hughes would probably just have a shiner and a bloody nose.

. . .

There are people, especially in McKeesport's suburbs, who think they're immune to gun violence because they're white, or upper-middle class.

Ah, but it was a white college professor, Edward Constant, who shot two police officers in Mount Lebanon a few years ago during a domestic dispute.

It was a white law-school graduate, Richard Baumhammers, who went on a shooting rampage in the South Hills.

And it was the well-to-do son of two small business owners, Seung-Hui Cho, who shot 57 people on the rural campus of Virginia Tech (which is 72 percent white).

. . .

Gun violence is not a "black issue" or an "urban problem." It's an American problem.

By Pittsburgh standards, Nigro's is a painfully typical suburban restaurant. Until Sunday morning, it was best known for its weekly oldies car cruises. The loudest arguments concerned whether Ford's 302 small-block was as good as a Chevy 350.

Instead of facing this American problem, the United States has allowed itself to be held hostage by a small, but very vocal and well-funded, gun lobby. Barack Obama was attacked for pointing out something that should be obvious --- guns and religion have been used as wedge issues in American politics for far too long.

The gun lobby argues that Americans need guns for "protection."

Protection from what? Other people with guns, presumably. There's a nicely self-fulfilling prophesy --- protect yourself from the problem of too many guns by buying more guns.

. . .

Yes, you can buy a gun for protection. Or you can buy one to keep handy for when you're pissed off at your neighbor and want to pump eight shots into him in the middle of Evans Avenue.

Did you know that the NRA opposes programs where citizens voluntarily surrender old handguns in exchange for gift certificates or other inducements?

That's not defending the Second Amendment. That's having a gun fetish that borders on paranoia.

. . .

No, there's nothing honorable about the gun lobby, there's nothing honorable about American politicians who quake in fear at the initials "NRA," and there's nothing honorable in our own refusal as citizens to honestly question the role of guns in American society.

We need to decide whether we're going to be a nation of civilized people, or a nation of vigilantes and animals who only respect the survival of the fittest.

It's well past time for us to open the discussion, even if it's too late for the people at Nigro's on Sunday morning, or the people on Evans Avenue last night.

And it's the honorable thing to do.


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June 03, 2008 | Link to this story

Apparently, Everyone's Following Hockey

Category: Cartoons, Wild World of Sports || By

(c) 2008 Jason Togyer/Tube City Almanac

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June 02, 2008 | Link to this story

We Live Here ... We Like It!

Category: General Nonsense, History, Mon Valley Miscellany || By

For pure, unbridled Kennedy-era, "New Frontier" enthusiasm, it's hard to beat the 1963 book "This is Pittsburgh: We Live Here ... We Like It!" by the late Josie Carey and Marty Wolfson.

Long out of print, you can still get a copy at the Carnegie Free Library of McKeesport and on finer used-book websites everywhere.

I took a look at "This is Pittsburgh" for this week's installment of "Monday Morning Nostalgia Fix" at Pittsburgh Radio & TV Online.

Incidentally, "This is Pittsburgh" reports that all of Allegheny County's traffic problems will have disappeared by 1970 because of the fabulous new "expressways" being built, namely the Crosstown (I-279), the West Virginia-Erie Expressway (I-79), the Extension Expressway (Route 28) and the Penn-Lincoln Parkway (I-376).

(Or, the authors suggest, you can take "the Rapid Transit to Brentwood, the helicopter to the airport, or a train to anyplace you want to go!")

Since all of our traffic woes were solved by new highways in 1970, I guess I'm not sure why the Mon-Fayette Expressway is needed.

Ah, a cheap shot, I know, but I'm not sure that prognosticating --- particularly when we're talking about the improvements that highways will bring --- has improved that much in 45 years.

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