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December 28, 2008 | Link to this story

After Christmas Leftovers

Category: General Nonsense || By

It turns out that my grandfather may deserve some of the credit (some say blame) for the 1963 film "A Visit to Santa."

As discussed at the Almanac last week, the 11-minute feature by Pittsburgh-based Clem Williams Films was shot mainly in McKeesport and features shots of Market Street, Fifth Avenue, Olympia Shopping Center and (possibly) the interior of The Famous.

The film, which was shown on Turner Classic Movies over the holidays, has developed something of a cult following on the Internet, mostly among people who can't believe how bad it is.

It even has the dubious distinction of having been mocked by MIchael J. Nelson.

Yes, Mike Nelson from "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Take heart, McKeesporters: If you're going to be mocked, you might as well be mocked by the best.

His website, Rifftrax, calls this slice of life in Our Fair City "a Christmas short of unknown origin that most probably was the result of Santa's short-lived collaboration with the producing team of Screwtape and Wormwood.

"Rather than being a right jolly old elf, Santa here is depicted as the Dark Prince of a vast slave empire made up entirely of children under 10 --- it's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with less dignified clothing. Or put another way it's Manos: The Hands of Fate without the elephantiasis."

Over the holiday, I screened "A Visit to Santa" for Tube City Almanac's quality control inspector (my mom) in hopes that she could identify some of the scenes.

She's not sure if the department store scenes were shot inside The Famous (she remembers the store being shabby during her childhood in the 1960s) though she agrees none of the city's other stores sported wooden floors and tall ceilings.

But she thinks the "Santa Village" was inside the Penn-McKee Hotel --- specifically in the arcade of shops on the first floor. The elevator and the nearby paneling were the clues, she says.

And then she dropped the bomb: "Clem Williams Films? I remember them. We used to go out there all the time when your grandfather was in the Eagles."

"To rent movies?"

"Oh, sure. For parties and at Christmas time he'd rent movies and cartoons from Clem Williams Films."

"Do you think that could be the reason that Clem Williams Films shot the Christmas footage in McKeesport? Because Pap always rented movies from Clem Williams at Christmas?"

"Well, McKeesport would have had one of the largest Christmas parades around, outside of Pittsburgh. But sure, it's a possibility."

Unfortunately, I can't ask my grandfather. He's been gone 13 years this week. But if he was in some small way responsible for what viewers have called an "intriguing but painful" movie and "the most disturbing children's film I've ever seen," I guess I can only beam with pride.

. . .

P.S.: About those reviews of "A Visit to Santa" ... Alert Reader Brian writes:

"I read all the comments, most smug from their safe position of modern technological sophistication. In the '70s, Saturday Night Live gave a once-a week dose of sarcasm. Now everyone is a jaded commentator.

"Not that I love the film, but that was 45 years ago and things were a lot different. I was born a year later and we grew up with a black-and-white TV. Our first movie camera in 1974 was a big deal. (It came with a light for the top that was bigger than the camera.)

"Little kids don't need much in the way of realism to enjoy things. How many school plays even today look much better? Oh well, I guess I'm jaded on sarcasm!"

. . .

Bank on It: We don't get much U.S. mail at Tube City Online World News Headquarters on the hill above McKeesport, but a package I recently received gave me pause. It was small, round, fairly heavy and wrapped in several layers of cellophane tape.

It wasn't leaking anything, and it wasn't ticking, but still I had to wonder who I'd offended this time. The Regional Chamber Alliance? The Pittsburgh Public Works Department?

But it had a return address in Belle Vernon, and would an angry reader put their return address on a tiny little pipe bomb?

Rather than wait for the volunteer fire department, I decided to take it outside and carefully peel it open.

It turned out to be a stack of drink coasters bearing the logo of Western Pennsylvania National Bank! Inside was a note from Alert Reader Tom, who sent them because he enjoyed the article on WPNB and First National Bank of McKeesport.

Thanks, Tom! Now I need to find out who left the horse's head in my bed. A foreign car dealer, maybe?

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December 26, 2008 | Link to this story

Around Here, Seldom is Heard an Encouraging Word

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

This website and its editor are not in the business of apologizing for politicians, elected officials or public servants. I prefer complaining.

For instance, back in May, this reporter was told that the city was going to clean up the approach ramps to the Mansfield Bridge. As far as I can tell, not a single pile of debris has been touched. A lamppost that was knocked down in a traffic accident more than a year ago is still sitting in the middle of the sidewalk.

(Hey, budget problems I can dig, but can't someone go out there with a dump truck and haul away the damn lamppost? Or else can I have it for the scrap value?)

Anyway, Tube City Almanac exists to print the news and raise hell. (That's why my business cards give my title as "local malcontent.")

But after reading the comments to Dec. 18's story, "Walnut St. Corridor Gets Makeover in '09," I thought a few kind words were in order.

(Just this once, mind you. I don't intend this "helpfulness" thing to be part of a trend. I have a lack of reputation to uphold.)

. . .

Several Alert Readers questioned whether the city is wasting money by improving Kelly Park and returning Fifth Avenue to two-way traffic.

They argued that McKeesport officials would be wiser to clean up the entrances to the city --- especially near UPMC McKeesport hospital and the Mansfield Bridge (ahem!) --- instead. The implication was that renovating Kelly Park and Fifth Avenue are a waste of time, money or both.

A couple of points spring to mind. First, there is public and private grant money available for capital improvement projects. That's how the Kelly Park and Fifth Avenue projects are being funded --- through grants.

Generally speaking, grants are not available for operating expenses. For instance, when it comes to public safety, a local municipality could probably get money to buy a bomb-disposal robot, but not to pay police officers or paramedics.

It's stupid, but that's the system. If you want to complain, start by going back to 1985 and telling Ronald Reagan not to eliminate federal revenue sharing.

. . .

Second, a lot of the blight you see Downtown, in Duquesne or in other Mon Valley communities is on private property.

Several people have asked, for instance, about the buildings around the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Lysle Boulevard; those are privately owned buildings. Government has very limited authority to touch private property --- as it should.

Despite what Jim Quinn and certain newspaper editorial boards think, this isn't a socialist country. (Yet. Check back Jan. 21, comrades, once Party Secretary Obama has transformed this bourgeois capitalist state into a glorious worker's paradise! But --- I've said too much!)

Government agencies can intervene if a building presents a safety, health or fire hazard to the public. They can't intervene because someone chose to leave their building empty, or unkempt, or "ugly." There's no law against "ugly."

CIties, boroughs and townships can enact zoning ordinances that regulate certain things, but those generally apply only to new buildings, not existing structures.

. . .

There are "eminent domain" rules that municipalities can use to take over commercial properties for redevelopment. McKeesporters may remember the last time that city government used eminent domain to demolish blighted buildings for commercial reuse.

The city gained wonderful public spaces like Midtown Plaza, the Executive Building and Hi-View Gardens Apartments.

Of course, sometimes city-funded redevelopment campaigns don't have such negative results, but even when they go well, they take a long time, and they're expensive. The city of Pittsburgh, for instance, successfully shut down the Garden Theatre, a porno house on the North Side. But it took Pittsburgh 10 years and well over a million taxpayer dollars.

That's why --- generally speaking --- commercial development should remain the bailiwick of the private sector. The city is doing what it legally can by tearing down unsafe, abandoned buildings and funding programs that help homeowners pay for repairs.

. . .

The problem faced by McKeesport, Glassport, Clairton, Duquesne and all of the other aging communities in our valleys is that there's no demand for 100-year-old commercial buildings that weren't very good to begin with. Nobody wants two- and three-story office buildings without adjacent parking.

Ditto for 1910s and '20s frame houses without garages or air conditioning. Even if the houses were modern, we'd still lack the young, mobile population to fill them.

The Mon-Yough area never had a "housing bubble" because for the last 30 years, people have been dying faster than they could get sub-prime mortgages.

. . .

Now, if I had the answer for how to get people to move back to Western Pennsylvania and repopulate the Mon Valley, well, hell, I wouldn't be writing this.

From where I sit, fixing up Kelly Park isn't a bad idea, and as far as returning two-way traffic to Fifth Avenue between Coursin and Market --- why not?

Yes, Fifth Avenue is narrow. There also aren't any people using it. Most weekdays you can lie down in Fifth Avenue at 12 noon and take a nap. If restoring two-way traffic encourages someone to use the street --- or, God forbid, open a business --- it's a fine idea.

There are plenty of things to complain about in the city of McKeesport and the surrounding communities. But a couple of projects which may make a few areas more attractive (at no direct cost to local taxpayers) aren't among them.

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December 24, 2008 | Link to this story

Merry Christmas

Category: Events || By

For thou, O Lord, art most high over all the earth;
Thou art exalted far above all gods.
The Lord loves those who hate evil; He preserves the lives of His saints;
He delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, and give thanks to His holy name!

(Psalm 97:9-12)

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December 22, 2008 | Link to this story

Visit to Santa, 1963

Category: General Nonsense, History || By

Longtime friend, mentor and Alert Reader Clarke emailed me over the weekend. He's addicted to Turner Classic Movies --- and when it comes to addictions, that's not a bad one to have.

If you ever watch TCM, you know that between the features, the network fills time with "short subjects" such as newsreels, "trailers," and advertising and public domain films.

"So I'm sitting here watching a short film on TCM, entitled 'A Visit to Santa (1963),'" Clarke writes. "I wasn't paying much attention until I noticed Santa was on the Gateway Clipper. A few minutes later, he's on a Christmas float going past the Penn-McKee."

Sweet baby you-know-who in a manger. He hit the motherlode. A quick dash around the Internet tubes turned up a copy at the Internet Archive, where you can download your very own copy of "A Visit to Santa."

. . .

It's almost all shot in Downtown McKeesport (except for a brief side trip to Olympia Shopping Center) with plenty of footage of what must have been the 1962 "Salute to Santa" parade.

A quick search found several websites that discussed "A Visit to Santa," and most people called it one of the worst films they've ever seen. ("What the holy hell is this crap?" is one of the kinder comments at Internet Archive, which describes the film as "grueling.")

As a work of art, it's definitely lacking something. Produced by Pittsburgh's Clem Williams Films, the 11-minute short follows two young children (called "Dick and Ann," because "Jane" was copyrighted) as they fly in a "magic helicopter" to the North Pole to visit Santa's workshop ... which turns out to look an awful lot like the toy department inside The Famous at the corner of Fifth and Market.

(At least I think it's the Famous. It's not Murphy's or Green's, and Cox's didn't have wooden floors or old fashioned wooden columns like the store in the film.)

The pace is glacial, the music (Christmas carols played on a chord organ) is insipid, and the narration is one step below story hour at the library.

But boy, check out some of the scenery!

I'm not sure where these shots were taken. It looks to me like it might be the old Point Park in Pittsburgh before the Manchester and Point bridges were torn down, but I wouldn't want to bet on it.

"Every year just before Thanksgiving, he starts the merry yuletide by visiting towns and cities all around the world," the narrator says. "He makes his jolly trip in many different ways. He arrives by riverboat and finds many new friends along the way."

(I must have missed the verse of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" when Santa needs to take a tugboat down the Monongahela, but I digress. We come not to bury "A Visit to Santa," but to spot the landmarks.)

That's the intersection of Fifth and Market, Downtown. The awning of Kadar's Men's Store is visible to the left, while in the background you can see the old Market Street School (soon to become part of CCAC South Campus), the Elks Temple and the Famous. (All of those buildings burned down in the 1976 fire. The space where the Famous was is currently occupied by the NSOF social hall.)

"In many towns, the marching bands step out and step lively to the merry Christmas tunes," the narrator says.

Says the narrator: "Now, isn't that nice? They even have a big mail box to help Santa collect his letters from the boys and girls!"

That's Market Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. On the left is Hunter-Edmundson-Striffler Funeral Home. Directly behind the parade float is Market Street School, the Elks Temple (notice the "WMCK" sign hanging out front?) and the Famous.

"The little elves parade, too!" More shots of Market Street. The second view is taken from the corner of Sixth and Market, looking toward the Monongahela River. That's Immanuel United Presbyterian Church on the right.

Between the church and Fifth Avenue you can see a Western Union office, a loan agency (Beneficial Finance, maybe? HFC was in the Peoples Union Bank) and the Market Street exit of the Memorial Theater.

Notice what you don't see in the background --- U.S. Steel hadn't yet begun construction of its electric-resistance weld mill (the present Camp-Hill Corp. plant at the foot of Market Street), but slum clearance had already removed most of the old "First Ward."

At left, the corner of The Famous, and just visible are Ohringer's Furniture and the top of the old Stone's Furniture Store ("Try Stone's for Soft Beds").

In the 1960s, Stone's was occupied by Wander Sales and was used as a warehouse for Schulhof's Tires; I'm pretty sure the building was struck by lightning and burned circa 1963. (The lot is now the site of the state liquor store, check-cashing outlet, Family Dollar and Sherwin-Williams.)

(Incidentally, several people emailed me to say that this year's Salute to Santa parade was nice, but too long. I don't know about that, but I know that this parade seems much longer.)

"With all of the big new shopping centers opening, Santa has to use his new rocket to get around," the narrator says, "but he still uses his reindeer on Christmas eve."

(I'm glad he clarified that, because the thought of an ICBM streaking toward my house on Dec. 24 would make visions of Weird Al Yankovic dance in my head.)

That's Olympia Shopping Center, which was two years old in 1962 (if that's when these shots were filmed). Thrift Drugs --- whose successor, Rite Aid, just recently vacated its longtime corner location --- is visible in the background.

"For Dick and Ann, their visit is almost over, but Santa's saved his pride and joy 'til last," the narrator says, "they'll take his rocket to the super Toy Town trains!" (If Toy Town has a rocket, why does it need trains?)

The Famous burned when I was two years old, but I suspect that's the basement. None of McKeesport's other department stores would have looked like that, except maybe Hirshberg's and Helmstatder's. But I don't think Hirshberg's sold many toys, and I don't think Helmstatder's ever used its basement as a salesfloor.

Ditto for these scenes --- if they were shot in McKeesport, then I suspect they were shot at The Famous, because I don't think any of the other department stores had those high ceilings and wooden floors, nor would they have had the space to dedicate this much room to toys.

That's some stereotypical late 1950s department store scene, though. You can almost envision Jack Benny being confronted by an unctuous floorwalker (played by Frank Nelson).

. . .

And that's about it, except for the moral, delivered by the jolly old elf himself: "Always remember, the entire Christmas celebration commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, hundreds of years ago."

Why was this film made? Who knows? According to a newspaper obituary I found in an online database, Clem Williams died in 2003 in Seminole, Fla., so I can't ask him.

Clem Williams Films was founded sometime before 1945 (the earliest reference I can find) and lasted until at least the mid-1980s. A check of various library databases indicates that the company rented cartoons, popular movies and industrial films to high schools and colleges, but was probably best known for distributing highlight films from the Steelers, Pirates and other sports teams and was located at 2240 Noblestown Road until 1985. The building is now a church called Calvary Chapel.

If I had to make a guess, I'll bet this was designed to be shown at elementary schools to very small children who might be afraid of Santa.

(Every Catholic school kid of a certain age can remember the dreaded "movie day," usually right before the Christmas break, when everyone traipsed down to the cafeteria or gymnasium to watch a scratchy 16-mm film. My friend Steve called them "Scotch tape capers" because so many of the prints broke and had to be patched with you-know-what.)

. . .

This certainly isn't Clem Williams' best work (some Internet critics call it, unkindly, "the worst Christmas film ever produced"), and it sure doesn't hold much interest for anyone who isn't from McKeesport.

But for McKeesporters of a certain age, it's a sure-fire Academy Award-winner, and we can thank Mr. Williams for preserving --- albeit inadvertently --- some great shots of Our Fair City during the holidays!

. . .

(Watch "A Visit to Santa" in all of its grainy glory here. And if you spot yourself in the crowd scenes, post the information in the comments section.)

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December 18, 2008 | Link to this story

Walnut St. Corridor Gets Makeover in '09

Category: News || By

Jeremiah Ostrosky photoA prominent (but underused) corner of Downtown McKeesport will be getting a makeover in the spring.

Renovations to J. Clarence Kelly Park are expected to get underway at the same time that Walnut Street and Fifth Avenue are being improved.

And because at least 10 homeowners in Christy Park are eligible for funding for new facades and other repairs to their homes, the entire Walnut Street corridor could look a little better at this time next year.

Kelly Park --- best known as the home of the city's last remaining railroad crossing shanty --- is being redone with the assistance of a $215,000 grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Although used for the weekly summer "Lunch on the Lawn" events and as a play area for nearby day care centers, the park is otherwise neglected.

"When you're driving past, it looks OK, but when you're over there walking around, (you can tell) it's become unkempt," says Bethany Budd Bauer, city director of community development. "Our goal is really just to freshen it up and green it up."

. . .

Named for one of the city's most prominent physicians, the park was created in the 1970s after the removal of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tracks that bisected Downtown.

For many years, the park was owned by the city Redevelopment Authority, which held the deed in case a business owner wanted to use the land for commercial use.

Initial plans called for a fairly elaborate renovation of Kelly Park, but Bauer says the rapidly rising cost of construction supplies will likely force a more modest scheme.

The work will likely include repairs to the pavilion at the center of the park, replacement of trees and shrubs, and decorative fencing around the edges, Bauer says.

Planning is being completed by Senate Engineering Corp. and bids will probably be solicited in March or April.

If the work stretches into the summer, Bauer says "Lunch on the Lawn" may be temporarily relocated to Kennedy Park or Gergely Riverfront Park.

. . .

Improvements to Kelly Park will come as work finally begins on a long-delayed, state-funded project to install new street lights, traffic controls, signs and other amenities to Fifth Avenue between Huey and Water streets.

In addition, two-way traffic will be restored to Fifth for the first time since the 1960s.

But rather than focusing all of their attention on Fifth Avenue --- once the city's main shopping district, but now largely vacant or occupied by marginal business --- city officials are working to reshape the Walnut Street corridor that connects Downtown and the marina with Elizabeth Township.

Sidewalks will be installed this spring along Walnut between the 15th Avenue Bridge and the 2000 block near CP Industries.

The money is coming through the "Elm Street Program" administered by the state Department of Community and Economic Development. Created in 2004 by the state Legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell, the Elm Street Program funds improvements to older residential neighborhoods in distressed communities.

. . .

Perhaps the most significant improvement to Walnut and other streets in Christy Park, however, will come within the neighborhoods of the 11th Ward, through a series of grants to homeowners for facade improvements. All owner-occupied houses between Eden Park Boulevard and 24th Avenue are eligible for up to $5,000, says Jim Haughey, Elm Street Program Coordinator for McKeesport Housing Corp.

Although there are no income eligibility requirements, Haughey says homeowners must obtain matching funds for any grants they receive.

Improvements can include painting, cleaning, installing new siding, repairing porches or awnings, repointing brick, replacing windows or other capital investments, Haughey says.

. . .

According to Haughey, MHC wants to fund improvements to at least 10 houses, but more Christy Park homeowners may be eligible if individual projects cost less than $5,000.

Homeowners need only to make a request describing the kinds of improvements they need, Haughey says. "We write the specifications and put them out to bid," he says. "All of the contractors we use will be qualified to do safe work."

Three homes have already qualified, Haughey says. The deadline for applications is June 30.

For more information, call McKeesport Housing Corp. at (412) 664-7003.

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December 16, 2008 | Link to this story

If It's News to You, It's News to Me

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

The news last week that the Post-Gazette was losing about two dozen of its most experienced writers was accompanied by word that One of America's Greats also was raising the single-copy price from 50 to 75 cents.

This prompted a former boss of mine from the competition to quip: "We're the only industry that responds to dropping sales by making our product s--ttier and raising prices."

In case you haven't heard, these are tough times in the newspaper industry. The Detroit dailies are cutting back home delivery to three days a week. The Chicago Tribune is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Miami Herald is for sale.

Print newspaper readership is dropping at the same time that the recession has caused other businesses to pull back their advertising. So while the rest of the economy is catching cold, the newspaper business has pneumonia.

. . .

I read the new, 75-cent P-G Monday morning amid the squalor of the PAT bus depot ("transportation center" my rear) on Lysle Boulevard.

About 20 inches of the features section was turned over to columnist Patricia Sheridan's "Breakfast With" 83-year-old Tony Curtis. It featured gems like this:

Q: You have been married, I think, six times. Did you find it hard to commit or was it something else?

A: I am glad you said that because it was. I would wait, you see, wait until I got married and realize I hadn't done the right thing for me, you know? It seemed all right at the time. But it wasn't good for anybody, and the wives didn't help.

And on and on and on it goes, for 1,200 words.

First, Tony Curtis. Really? Does anyone under the age of 70 even remember Tony Curtis? (Hint: Jamie Lee Curtis' dad. He also made a guest appearance on "The Flintstones.")

Second, not only did Sheridan print Curtis' vacuous answers, she printed his shallow praise of her "interviewing" technique.

Oh, my head. There are so many things wrong that I don't know where to start.

. . .

There are a lot of reasons why newspapers are in the dumper. The Internets get blamed, and rightfully so. For one thing, they skimmed off much of the advertising --- specifically, classified ads.

The catch is that many, many more people are reading news generated by newspapers than ever before. The website of the New York Times is hugely popular --- and is probably read by many visitors who never saw the print edition of the Times.

Unfortunately, it's also being read by many people who used to buy the print edition, but don't any more.

. . .

Meanwhile, efforts to force people to pay for online access to news have (mostly) failed. And efforts to sell advertising on websites haven't generated much money for the people who own the websites.

Tube City Almanac (to take one example) has about 1,200 unique visitors per week. Tube City Online LLC has been selling Google advertising since July, and has made a grand total of $25.98. referrals have added another $100 to the corporate "treasury" (a black-and-white composition book).

But the server space costs $10 per month, and a high-speed Internet connection costs another $20. If "the corporation" (such as it is) also had to deduct wages, mileage and other expenses, it would be thousands of dollars in the hole.

If you suspect the New York Times is in a similar but much, much larger boat, you're right. According to The New York Times Co.'s 2007 annual report, "while online advertising revenues grew, they were more than offset by the decline in print advertising revenues."

In other words, they're losing money on every visitor to their website, but they're making it up in volume.

. . .

Still, I can't help but think that some of the problems in the newspaper business are self-inflicted.

I don't see any evidence that people are unwilling to read. I also don't see any evidence that people are unwilling to pay for a print product --- take a look at the magazine rack in Scozio's in White Oak and count the number of titles on sale.

But print newspapers aren't making a great case for being indispensable.

. . .

Take my Monday P-G (please): In the features section, besides Pat Sheridan's earth-shaking interview with Mr. Schwartz, there were two pages of syndicated comics, 16 of which debuted more than 30 years ago. Several of those are no longer being updated; only reruns are appearing.

The front "world news" section was mostly filled with day-old stories from wire services --- and by definition, none of those were news. Most of one page was occupied by the bridge column, Jumble, Wishing Well, the horoscope and two (count 'em!) crossword puzzles.

How much money would the Post-Gazette save by eliminating its "world news" section and a lot of this crud? It would be a much smaller newspaper, but it also would consume less paper and ink and require less energy and manpower to deliver.

How much money would be saved simply by dumping comic strips like "Beetle Bailey," "Rex Morgan," "Marmaduke" and "Family Circus," which haven't been funny for two generations, and exist solely so that The Comics Curmudgeon can make fun of them?

Yes, that would lose a lot of older readers, but a lot of them aren't going to be customers for much longer anyway, for obvious reasons.

. . .

As for celebrity news, if I'm reading entertainment news in the Post-Gazette or Tribune-Review, I should be reading about local TV, radio and theater personalities.

Keep critics covering those beats, and can the people who write about movies ... unless the movies have a local connection. I have a hard time believing that anyone is buying the Post-Gazette or Tribune-Review to read the latest gossip from Hollywood.

Especially when that "gossip" is being delivered by Tony Curtis.

Because when I read that column, I was sitting on the wall at the bus depot next to a mound of pigeon dung, but it wasn't the biggest pile that I could see.

. . .

(Standard disclaimer: Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of any other organization. And he's a failed ex-newspaper reporter, so what does he know anyway?)

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December 15, 2008 | Link to this story

A Brief Disquisition on Public Transportation in Allegheny County, Formulated Upon Riding Said Transit Network for Several Days

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

Any fools --- including the executive director of the Regional Chamber Alliance and certain newspaper editorialists --- who think that Port Authority buses are a luxury for upper-class liberals (or at the very least, a waste of money) ought to be forced to ride the 61C round-trip between Pittsburgh and Lysle Boulevard for a week.

I never see any luxuries on those buses, and I don't see many upper-class people. I see a lot of working-poor people who are riding buses because they have to, not because they want to.

If we want people to make a productive contribution to society by entering the workforce, then we need to make sure they have transportation. If we keep encouraging sprawl and making it easier for people to live far away from the places where they work, then we either have to pay them enough to own their own cars, or provide subsidized public transit.

(And let's not start again on how "the private sector can provide mass transit." We've covered that already.)

As for Port Authority bus drivers who are supposedly paid "too much money," personally, I wouldn't do that job for twice the money.

Is Sidney Crosby paid "too much money"? Is Ben Roethlisberger paid "too much money"? If not, then explain how they're providing a more vital public service than the men and women who wrestle buses through traffic, ice storms and construction zones every day?

I'm particularly irritated with the "leadership" of the Regional Chamber Alliance --- no longer called the "Mon-Yough Chamber of Commerce," because heaven forbid, they don't want anyone to think they're in the (ick, yuck) Mon Valley --- which is ostensibly supposed to support business development.

It seems as if the RCA's main hobby horses are the development of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, elimination of the Allegheny County drink tax, and the privatization of public services such as education and transit.

The last time I checked, the RCA and other Pennsylvania chambers of commerce were also against any increases in the minimum wage. Apparently, they see no contradiction between paying people too little to afford a car, and then removing or reducing access to public transportation.

The Regional Chamber also sees no contradiction between complaining about taxes that fund the Port Authority while it advocates spending hundreds of millions of public dollars to complete the Mo-Fo Excessway.*

Doesn't funding public education and transit help "develop business" by "developing" the actual workers that build and are employed by those businesses? Maybe I was absent when that topic was covered in Econ 101. (I must have missed my bus that day.)

Hundreds of Mon Valley residents schlep into Pittsburgh every day on buses to guard, clean and maintain fancy office buildings and stores, sometimes in the middle of the night, in all kinds of weather.

Since the free market is so good at providing for the public good, maybe the private developers who own those fancy buildings will provide free cars and education for their employees! (And maybe they'll also provide free unicorn rides to Candy Land!)

On second thought, maybe it's smarter and easier to just fund these necessities --- not luxuries --- through taxes. (Including the drink tax --- which is easy to avoid, because it applies only to people who choose to go to bars and restaurants.)

So until one of the free market geniuses adequately explains away these contradictions to my satisfaction --- or until they start spending a couple of hours on the bus every day --- I don't care what they have to say about public transportation.

Put that in your bus's tailpipe and smoke it.

. . .

(P.S.: Sorry if this sounds grumpier (and bolshier?) than usual, but the car's been in the shop, and a couple of days of motion sickness would put anyone in a bad mood.

(I decided to do my part to stimulate the economy by having the suspension on the Sleek, Gray Mercury heavily upgraded and by getting the front end repainted. Jobs that were supposed to take five days have now stretched into eight days spread over two separate weeks. This sucker better be able to pop wheelies when it's done.)


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December 13, 2008 | Link to this story

To Do This Weekend

Category: Events || By

McKeesport Symphony Orchestra presents its annual Christmas concert at 7:30 tonight.

The concert features solo performances by Emmy Award-winning composer and pianist Jace Vek and soprano Carol Burgman.

Vek will perform four of his own original compositions, while Burgman, a music teacher at Churchill's Pace School, will sing "O Holy Night" and "Coventry Carol."

Other works to be performed include Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," "The Skater's Waltz" and Leroy Anderson's "A Christmas Festival."

The audience will be invited to participate in a carol sing during the concert and a reception with refreshments will be held afterward.

The concert will be held tonight in the auditorium of McKeesport Area High School, 1960 Eden Park Blvd. near Renziehausen Park. Call (412) 664-2854 or visit the symphony's website.

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December 12, 2008 | Link to this story

Friday Morning Rant

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

Asian and European stock markets cratered this morning.

The price of oil plunged, too, and Russia announced that it might begin colluding with OPEC to keep the cost artificially high by depressing supplies.

But hey, Republicans in the U.S. Senate sure taught the United Auto Workers a lesson last night!

Remember, the real problem with the economy isn't 12 years of a Republican Congress that rolled back or eliminated banking and mortgage-lending restrictions.

And it isn't a Republican president who appointed unqualified lobbyists and political hacks to oversee government regulatory agencies.

And it sure isn't a stock market that focuses on day-to-day share prices instead of long-term investment potential.

No, the real problem with the economy is that some guy from Hamtramck, Mich., is making $45,000 a year to bolt fenders onto Buicks.

And the $14 billion that GM and Chrysler want in loans --- loans, not gifts --- is actually a lot more money than the $700 billion the federal government wants to use to purchase bad mortgages from banks that created the current credit mess in the first place.

(After all, everyone knows that 14 is more than 700.)

And the fact that big auto-producing states like Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio all voted for Barack Obama last month has absolutely nothing to do with the objections that Republican senators have to helping the domestic auto industry.

No, they just care about protecting the free market.

Thus endeth the sermon. Let us pray. Seriously.

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December 11, 2008 | Link to this story

City Asking Unions for Health Benefit Concessions

Category: News || By

City officials are asking their unionized employees to contribute $12 from each paycheck to their health insurance to help offset the cost of that benefit.

In addition, the city wants the health insurance policies to carry a $1,000 deductible --- $2,000 for families --- and wants all of its 160 employees to enroll in a "wellness plan."

The requests, designed to help lower the city's insurance premiums, have come as McKeesport officials attempt to close a revenue shortfall that city Controller Ray Malinchak estimates at $40,000 per week.

. . .

Faced with rising costs and declining income, city officials last week said they will likely have to layoff some employees in 2009 and have asked eligible workers to accept early retirements.

Although unionized firefighters have accepted the new health insurance program, the proposals are reportedly facing stiff opposition from some rank-and-file employees. The city is negotiating new contracts for blue-collar and clerical employees represented by Teamsters Local 205.

Unionized city employees in the past were not required to contribute to their health insurance premiums.

City Administrator Dennis Pittman said all of the costs paid by employees would be reimbursable at the end of each calendar year if those employees enrolled in the so-called wellness plan, called Lifestyle Returns.

The plan would require employees to complete an annual physical and answer questions about their medical history and eating habits.

Pittman said that Highmark, the city's Blue Cross-Blue Shield provider, has agreed to lower McKeesport's premiums if the city can prove that most of its workforce is at low risk for serious health problems.

"The net cost to each employee is zero," he said, and the surveys --- which can be done at any computer connected to the Internet --- can be completed while employees are at the office.

. . .

Last week, city council by 4-0 vote approved a 2009 budget of $20.3 million. The budget --- about a half-million dollars lower than the 2008 spending plan --- includes no tax increase.

But the budget was balanced only after council agreed to withdraw $1 million from the city's fund balance --- or surplus --- which leaves McKeesport with no financial safety net for the following year.

City property taxes are 4.26 mills on buildings and 16.5 mills on vacant land. Property tax is expected to generate about $2.4 million of the city's revenue next year. Each so-called "blended mill" generates approximately $75,000.

In addition, the city assesses a 1.7 percent wage tax, of which 0.5 percent is collected for McKeesport Area School District, and a $52 annual local services, or "occupation," tax.

. . .

In Other Business: City council has voted to extend McKeesport's deal with Lamar Advertising to maintain bus shelters on local streets. The deal allows Lamar to sell advertising on the shelters and will generate $25,000 per year for the next five years.

A similar deal was signed in 1999 with Chancellor Media, a predecessor of Lamar.

In addition, city council approved taking over maintenance of two stretches of road inside the RIDC industrial park on the old National Works site.

The streets include about 385 feet of Locust Street north of the CSX railroad tracks as well 871 feet of a newly created street called McKeesport Commons Drive.

Acceptance of the streets came after approval by Senate Engineering. In a separate 4-0 vote, city council extended Senate's appointment as the city's engineering firm. Based in Harmar Township, Senate also maintains an office at the municipal building on Fifth Avenue.

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December 09, 2008 | Link to this story

The 'Everything' in Braddock

Category: News || By

Other parts of the United States are experiencing one of the nation's deepest recessions since World War II, but not much has changed in Mon Valley communities like Braddock.

They're just as bad as they were last year.

"I was very surprised at the level of need here," says Capt. Rickie Armour, who arrived in Braddock in August 2007 to take over the Salvation Army's Worship and Service Center on Holland Avenue, near UPMC Braddock hospital.

It's the first command for Armour, a native of Matawan, N.J., who previously served in Johnstown. He shares duties with his wife of four months, Pamela.

Armour was distressed to find a culture of despair and poverty in the Mon Valley that in some cases goes back generations.

"We don't want to continue with the status quo," he says. "We want to break the cycle. We want people to grow. You get into a cycle of giving people a handout, and we want to give them a 'hand up.'"

Armour also takes seriously the teachings of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, who said that his missionaries had to feed the poor before trying to teach them about Christ.

"Me and my wife have a vision in our community to get our people well rounded," Armour says. "I think a lot of people don't have success in the world because they don't have their priorities straight."

The Braddock corps serves Mon-Yough communities in the Turtle Creek valley and on the northeast back of the Monongahela River, including East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, North Braddock, Pitcairn, Rankin, Swissvale, Wall and Wilmerding, and all the way out to Plum and Monroeville.

The Braddock corps is trying to raise $65,000 from its annual "Red Kettle Campaign" between now and Dec. 24. Armour has a reputation among his fellow Salvation Army soldiers as a good fundraiser, and his territory includes several big malls, department stores and shopping centers.

Local Rotarians and Kiwanians are helping to man the kettles from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Still, like all of the Mon Valley's relief agencies, the Salvation Army in Braddock is struggling to do more with less.

"We're getting new clients every day, due to the economy," Armour says. "People are hurting, and we're not able to give our clients what we're used to giving them. We've had to minimize the amount of aid we give each person so that we can help more."

Besides general and spiritual counseling ("we are a church and a worship center first," he says), the Braddock corps also provides assistance for families in need of utility and rent payments, clothing, food, Christmas toys, as well as home heating assistance.

There are also programs for senior citizens and youth.

The Salvation Army's gymnasium and related facilities have also become home to men's and kids' basketball clubs as well as fitness classes, taibo classes and a bowling alley.

And Armour would like to add a complete fitness center. Braddock lacks a YMCA.

"We are the YMCA in Braddock," he says, laughing. "We're the 'everything' in Braddock."

. . .

To volunteer or donate to the Braddock Corps of the Salvation Army, write to 300 Holland Ave., Braddock, PA 15104, or call (412) 271-2407. See also our previous article on the McKeesport Corps.

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December 08, 2008 | Link to this story

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

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

Clean items from a dirty mind:

. . .

Snow? Big Deal: I was in the Strip District on Saturday afternoon when the snow came through. The southbound lanes of the Glenwood Bridge were closed for repairs, so I had to use the Homestead Grays Bridge to get home.

The city of Pittsburgh didn't get much more than a quarter-inch of snow, but most of the streets hadn't been touched by salt or cinders, and I'm not talking about side streets --- I'm talking about major arteries like Bigelow Boulevard, Centre Avenue, Forbes Avenue, Murray Avenue. The streets were virtual sheets of ice --- I watched accident after accident as cars bounced from curb to curb.

(I also watched some fool on a mountain bike go arse-over-appetite in the middle of a busy intersection when his wheels slid out from under him. I'll refrain from commenting on the mentality of people who ride bicycles in traffic during ice storms, but doctors have a term for them: "Organ donors.")

Several streets were blocked by cars that had spun out. It took me two hours to get from the Strip to Browns Hill Road. Never once did I see a City of Pittsburgh DPW truck.

Once I hit Browns Hill Road --- which is maintained by Allegheny County --- I had smooth sailing through Homestead, Munhall and West Mifflin, except for the portion of Mifflin Road that's maintained by the City of Pittsburgh. That was glazed with ice and snow.

Back over the city line into West Mifflin and Dravosburg, everything was fine.

I can dig that Pittsburgh is a distressed community, but Homestead's not exactly swimming in money, Pennsylvania is looking to whack a billion dollars from the budget, and Allegheny County has many more highways to cover than the city. Yet they all seem able to send a salt truck or two out after a snow.

What do Betty Esper and Dan Onorato know that Opie "Luke" Ravenstahl doesn't know? Can they call Ravenstahl and help him? (I'm not the only one who's noticed this ... see the Notorious A.D.B.'s treatise on snow removal.)

Barring that, can we just send the Homestead DPW into Pittsburgh after the next snow? Sheesh.

. . .

Ah, December: I'm not sure which December task I enjoy less --- putting on the snow tires or going Christmas shopping.

One task involves risking life and limb, profanity, discomfort, swinging a tire iron, getting dirty and tramping around outside in bad weather.

The other requires a floor jack.

. . .

While We're On the Subject: Nobody asked me (I feel like Larry King all of a sudden), but cheap tires are not a bargain. Save your money, and buy good quality tires.

Cheap tires don't do anything particularly well. If they're designed for high mileage, then they'll be made of such hard material that they'll ride like wagon wheels, will be prone to skidding and will make a lot of noise.

If they're designed for a smooth, quiet ride, they'll wear out fast.

Take it from a guy who bought a lot of cheap tires before finally biting the bullet and investing in a good set of brand-name shoes for the hoss. They cost more, but they were worth it.

What kind? Tiger Paws, of course. (Groan.)

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December 07, 2008 | Link to this story

Radio Show Fail

Category: General Nonsense, Radio Geekery || By

For the four or five people who actually tried to tune in WRCT-FM (88.3) on Saturday afternoon to hear the broadcast taped at the Festival of Trees, a note of explanation is in order.

The good news is that everyone involved in the Festival of Trees was tremendously helpful on Friday afternoon. All of the volunteers from the Recreation Committee went out of their way to make sure we set up successfully.

(Rec Director Jim Brown did watch me suspiciously after I knocked an entire stack of CDs onto the floor, but can you blame him?)

The bad news is that the level of noise in the Jacob Woll Pavilion made it impossible to tape the show successfully, so I played Christmas music over the PA in between live acts. (And a lot of people stopped by to say hello.)

Unfortunately, that left me still in need of a show to air Saturday afternoon. After packing up all of the remote gear, I headed up Route 48 to the studios of WKHB (620), where management graciously allowed me to record a replacement show in the production room.

I finished up at about 11:30 p.m. Friday. But when I went to play back the recording, I had a little bit of music and a whole lot of digital noise.

At that point, I decided that God was clearly punishing me, and in the words of the old mill hunkies, said "t'ellwidit."

Sorry 'bout that. Look for the next WRCT remote broadcast at about the time Clairton gets a Nordstrom's.

You have until Tuesday night to see the Festival of Trees, by the way --- it's one of the most impressive arrays they've done, and it's now open additional nights. Go check it out.

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December 05, 2008 | Link to this story

New Tenant in Place at RIDC Park; Dish Future Unknown

Category: Local Businesses, News || By

Rumors continue to swirl that Dish Network will close its call center at the business park on the former U.S. Steel National Works site.

Meanwhile, there's word that the park's newest tenant is in place --- and has plans to grow.

A Colorado-based satellite TV operator that was formerly part of EchoStar Communications, Dish Network's lease on the former pipe mill building (now known as McKeesport Commons) expires in March.

The nation's third-largest pay TV company, Dish opened the call center in 1998. As of last year, it reportedly employed about 800 people in the city, and it continues to accept applications for the McKeesport call center on its website.

Although Dish Network has refused to comment on the future of the city's facility, Dish employees, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, have told the Almanac and other outlets that they heard the center will close early next year.

Fueling the speculation is an advertisement on the website of the Regional Industrial Development Corp., which developed the industrial park.

The ad offers a 105,445 square foot "former call center that seated 1,000" (emphasis added) featuring "a multi-level auditorium" and "large break room with vending area," which would describe the Dish Network facility.

F. Brooks Robinson, Jr., RIDC vice president of marketing, says the ad "does not mean" that Dish is leaving. "All that means is that if they ever would leave, we want to make sure we have someone available to fill that back up," he says.

Robinson --- who helped bring the call center to McKeesport --- declined to speculate further, but says RIDC has not been told, officially or otherwise, that Dish is leaving.

Weak consumer spending and a sagging stock market could ultimately dictate the fate of the McKeesport facility. Dish Network last month reported that its net income fell by more than half during the third quarter of 2008. Dish Network's earnings were 20 cents per share during the three months that ended Oct. 31, versus 47 cents per share during the same period in 2007.

The company blamed the $108 million decline on "impairments on marketable and non-marketable securities" --- losses related to the turmoil on Wall Street. Although it lost 10,000 subscribers in August, September and October, Dish currently has a subscriber base of almost 14 million households.

. . .

However, the RIDC park's newest tenant is up and running. Consolidated Power Supply of Birmingham, Ala., took over the former Total Marine Solutions building on Center Street in July, says Bobbie Snowball, RIDC leasing manager.

"They're gearing up now," she says. "It's a good tenant and I think it's a great thing for McKeesport."

Along with Camp-Hill, CP Industries and Dura-Bond, Consolidated Power Supply is helping to keep "tubes" in the Tube City.

According to information submitted to RIDC, Consolidated supplies tubes, pipes, fittings, plates and other equipment to nuclear power plants. Its clients include Westinghouse Electric Co., currently based in Monroeville.

The McKeesport office currently has three full-time employees but expects to have 10 to 12 employees within the next three years, and may also hire subcontractors, including engineers, welders, inspectors and "general maintenance" personnel.

After years of neglect, the nuclear power industry is in the midst of a revival. Demand for electrical power in the developing world continues to increase while scientists are becoming alarmed about the effects of air pollution from coal- and oil-fired plants.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the amount of electricity generated by nuclear power to increase from 2.6 trillion to 3.8 trillion kilowatt-hours by 2030.

China --- which in 2007 awarded a contract for four new nuclear plants to Westinghouse --- is planning to spend $50 billion over the next 20 years to construct 30 new reactors.

And Westinghouse last spring announced plans to build four new plants in Georgia and South Carolina for utility companies there.

"I think there's a lot of potential with this company," Snowball says.

. . .

(P.S.: Tip o' the Tube City hard hat: Alert Reader John)

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December 04, 2008 | Link to this story

Budget Passes, But There's Pain Still to Come

Category: News || By

Approximately a dozen city employees could lose their jobs next year if revenue projections are accurate.

City council last night by 4-0 vote approved a $20.3 million budget that holds the line on property and wage taxes. Councilors Loretta Diggs, Darryl Segina and Paul Shelly Jr. were absent due to illness.

But the budget was balanced only because councilors agreed to drain $1 million from the city's surplus, or "fund balance," which runs McKeesport's savings account essentially to zero.

Officials are hoping that enough employees accept early retirement or voluntary layoffs to avoid mandatory furloughs.

"The economy has only made a difficult situation more difficult," Mayor Jim Brewster said. "There's apparently money available to bail out companies that have really been mismanaged, but there is no money available for communities like McKeesport or Pittsburgh or Duquesne or Clairton."

. . .

City officials declined to say how many employees could be let go. An estimate presented to council by City Administrator Dennis Pittman had the numbers blacked out.

Pittman said later the figures were preliminary and that officials decided they didn't want to unnecessarily alarm employees --- or give them false hope.

But Brewster, Pittman and others said the city needs to cut $1 million from its expenses before 2010. With most of the city's 160 employees making annual salaries in the range of $30,000 to $50,000, plus benefits, chopping $1 million from the payroll would mean that more than 10 employees have to be eliminated.

Those staff reductions would come in addition to 10 vacant positions that are not being filled. Officials said last night they hope any layoffs would be temporary.

"These changes will be transparent to the public, and we will continue to be very business-friendly," said Brewster, adding that the city's "most valuable resource" was its employees.

"We recognize that good employees are hard to find, and that we have a lot of them," he said.

. . .

Council President Regis McLaughlin last night said he would be donating part of his salary back to the city treasury, and encouraged other councilors to do the same. But the gesture is symbolic at best; council members are paid only $4,000 per year.

Last night's sobering news comes one month after Uniontown announced that it would temporarily lay off 41 employees and raise taxes 5.5 mills.

In McKeesport's case, Brewster said one serious problem is a decline in sewerage payments, trash fees and taxes. Delinquent sewerage bills alone amount to nearly $746,000, the mayor said.

"People for whatever reason are not paying government," Brewster said, promising that the city would become "more aggressive" in chasing deadbeats.

"Frankly, one of the things I don't think we've done as good of a job at is collection of revenue," he said. "We have residents who are paying for cell phones for three of their kids, but aren't paying their sewerage bills. We don't want to put people 'on the spot.' I think we should."

. . .

Brewster said the city has generated $5.4 million in unexpected revenue over the past four years, and has renegotiated health insurance premiums and the trash collection contract to save money.

At this point, he said, "most of the costs in our budget are staff-related ... it's the only place we can save a million dollars."

Health insurance, pension contributions and other benefits account for 10 percent of the city's budget, according to figures released by the city. Workman's compensation premiums alone total $12,000 per month.

"Five years ago, we had a deficit," Brewster said. "I'm proud of the way city employees have rallied. We have succeeded in many ways by creating a fund balance. We have the opportunity to move forward, and we are going to continue to market the city. But we cannot ignore our fiscal responsibility."

. . .

Not everything is gloomy, the mayor said. Renziehausen Park is in the second year of a five-year capital improvement project, the Youghiogheny River bike trail continues to generate traffic through the city, and a new business (Consolidated Power Supply) relocated to the industrial park at the former National Works site. Fifth Avenue and Walnut Street will be reconstructed next year with the aid of state redevelopment money.

In addition, Brewster said, the new regional courthouse and public safety complex planned for the Third Ward and the new flyover ramps into the industrial park will make the city more attractive for visitors, businesses and potential residents.

Next year's celebration of the Helen Richey centennial and the 50th anniversary of International Village also will portray the city in a positive light, he said.

"We've been able to make McKeesport a destination point again," Brewster said. "All of these things are important to positioning yourself as a viable community ... we've accomplished nothing short of a miracle that we're able under these conditions to talk about growth."

But while money is available for capital improvements, "there are not grants available for salaries," he said. "I've asked."

. . .

Read More:

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December 03, 2008 | Link to this story

Local Sally Ann Kettles Ringing Hollow Again

Category: News || By

The Salvation Army corps serving the heart of the Mon-Yough area reports that collections in its annual Red Kettle Campaign are falling behind again this year.

Capt. Sean Barton, who commands the city's Worship and Service Center at the corner of Walnut and Ninth streets, says collections are down $7,000 so far.

His goal is $70,000. In 2007 the collection fell short and Barton says the local Army corps was forced to make cuts.

"Last year we couldn't hire a youth worker," Barton says. "This year, if we fall short again, well, that position isn't filled right now and (not filling it) would be the easiest way to say we're going to save 'X' number of dollars."

. . .

Besides the city, the McKeesport Corps also serves Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln, Port Vue, North and South Versailles townships, Versailles, White Oak, and parts of Elizabeth and Forward townships.

The decline in donations comes as requests for assistance around the Pittsburgh area are up 20 percent, says Ginny Knor, spokesperson for the Western Pennsylvania Division of the Salvation Army.

"And we're finding a different sort of client coming in," she says. "We're finding people who had never sought out social services before. This is a very proud, hard-working area --- especially in the Mon Valley --- and you almost have to chase after people to help them."

Layoffs and financial difficulties are hitting people from "all economic levels," Knor says. "We have to really take special care with someone who has never walked into our doors before --- the first time can be very daunting."

. . .

Although the Salvation Army is also a Christian church, its community service efforts are non-denominational and recipients of aid from the Army are not proselytized.

In fact, many Salvation Army volunteers are not themselves Salvationists.

"My mom works in the New Stanton service unit, out of her Lutheran church," Knor says. "It's really kind of humbling that we have thousands of people out there doing this stuff for no pay. They volunteer to do casework, or drive around and put out the kettles."

In addition, all money collected by an Army corps during its Red Kettle drive remains in the community, she says.

"The money you put in McKeesport area kettles stays in the community," Knor says.

. . .

During 2008, one of the McKeesport Corps' biggest outreach efforts was finding replacement furniture for residents of the Hi View Gardens apartments who lost everything in a fire July 11.

But the city's center also feeds the homeless three nights per week, provides after-school programs for youth, and operates an emergency food bank.

"We also provide utility assistance through the Dollar Energy Fund," Barton says. Last year, 360 Mon-Yough area residents applied for assistance paying their heating bills through the Salvation Army.

Barton's not sure why McKeesport has been falling behind in its kettle collection, but he suspects the region's population decline and the relatively poor communities served by the city's corps are the main reasons.

"We don't have any big shopping centers like Century III or even Monroeville Mall, so we're limited, too, with the number of places we can put out kettles," he says.

. . .

The McKeesport Corps' kettles this year are located at Shop 'n Save and Save-a-Lot at Olympia Shopping Center; Giant Eagle, O'Neil Boulevard; Shop 'n Save on Fifth Avenue, Downtown; World of Values, Rainbow Shopping Center, White Oak; Scozio's Giant Eagle, Oak Park Mall, White Oak; Wal-Mart and Kmart in North Versailles Township; and Spagnolo's Foodland in Glassport (Saturdays only).

Retired postal carriers are also manning a kettle on selected days at the Central Post Office at the corner of Walnut and Ninth.

Most kettles are manned (or womanned) from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Barton says, with two shifts at each kettle through Dec. 24.

. . .

Many local civic groups are helping staff the McKeesport Corps' kettles, including members of McKeesport-White Oak Kiwanis, AARP Chapter 2911 in Versailles, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, the College Club of McKeesport, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, and the McKeesport Missionary Alliance Church.

"This year, all of our locations are staffed, plus there are a couple of extra people who run between locations to give the workers breaks," Barton says.

More help is welcome, he says, but what would be just as welcome is more money.

"People always say 'I'm so sorry, I only have this change,'" Barton says. "They don't understand how the change adds up. Last Friday and Saturday, we had $800 worth of (coins) in our kettles."

. . .

Besides depositing donations in the Salvation Army's kettles, contributions to the McKeesport Corps' Red Kettle Campaign can be mailed to 821 Walnut St., McKeesport 15132. Donations can also be made at

Other Salvation Army corps serving the Mon-Yough area include the Braddock Corps, 300 Holland Ave., Braddock 15104; and the Steel Valley Corps, 104 E. Ninth Ave., Homestead 15120.

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December 02, 2008 | Link to this story

Blatant Self-Promotion

Category: Shameless Horn-Tooting || By

For those of you who are interested, I'll be signing copies of For the Love of Murphy's from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

I'll also be at the Pitt Book Center in Oakland (near Children's Hospital) at 12 p.m. next Thursday, Dec. 11.

There's a chance that I'll also be at Foodland this week; however, that will be to buy toilet paper, taco chips, bread and soap. But hell, if you want me to sign any of those for you, hey, meet me by the produce case.

In other book-related news, I was interviewed Friday morning by P.J. Maloney on KQV (1410). You can listen here.

In all honesty, I should mention that I've recently received two complaints about the book.

"I went to Barnes & Noble yesterday with money in hand, ready to buy your book," one lady wrote me yesterday. "Before I purchased it, though, I thought I would look through it briefly. It is a very good book about G.C. Murphy; however, I couldn't find anything in it about the Homewood store ... Therefore, I didn't purchase it."

Another guy gave it a mediocre review on because I didn't write anything about Rockville, Md.

So, if you were looking for a book about Homewood, Pa., or Rockville, Md., please don't buy mine, or you'll be disappointed.

Other towns that I didn't write anything about in the Murphy book include East Smethport, Pa., Ablemarle, N.C., Clendenin, W.Va., and New Bavaria, Ohio, so all of you people in those places, don't bother.

Finally, we've received reports that WRCT-FM's "Radio 9" show will be taping on location from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. this Friday at Jacob Woll Pavilion in Renziehausen Park during the Festival of Trees.

The host of "Radio 9" used to date one of my old girlfriends, and come to think of it, she never wrote anything about Rockville, Md., either, which is probably why that relationship didn't last.

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December 01, 2008 | Link to this story

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Category: Mon Valley Miscellany, News || By

How was your Thanksgiving? The last time I saw that much pale white turkey, I was shaving. But seriously, folks:

. . .

Former cow-orker Scott Beveridge did a wonderful job rounding up stories about the infamous Donora Smog and the commemorative events that marked the 60th anniversary of that tragedy. (This should have been mentioned back in October, but time slipped away.)

Scott also reports that this Saturday will mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Donora-Webster Bridge.

They don't make 'em like this any more ... a steel truss (specifically, a Parker truss) made of lacy structural members built up from smaller pieces.

Slowly but surely, these old truss bridges are disappearing, replaced by cheap (but boring) concrete or deck-girder bridges. The last significant truss bridge that was built in the Mon Valley was probably the Glenwood Bridge back in 1966.

. . .

My fellow Tartan Derrick Brashear, former longtime web guru for Tube City Online, noted recently that an old steel bridge in Butler is about to be replaced.

"I'm one of what seems like must be five people in the world who are products of engineering discipline and doesn't believe that form should be forgotten and only function is worth paying for," he says, "and the bridge they're going to build is yet another one of the usual 'slap a trio of beams over concrete T-bar piers' that are supplanting older, interesting structures with history and character."

Concludes Derrick: "We can't preserve or reuse everything. That doesn't mean I have to be happy about it."

. . .

Meanwhile, just upstream from Scott Beveridge, we note that Kevin G. Barkes (of the KGB Report) has moved back to the Mon Valley.

Specifically, to Fayette City, which as many of you know, isn't a city.

It's no exaggeration to say that Barkes is now the leading computer consultant in all of Fayette City.

. . .

To the long list of things Bill Balsamico doesn't like --- including the former Norwin Dodge, non-white immigrants, Arabs and people who speak English as a second language, we can now add music licenses.

Balsamico, owner of Casa d'Ice Restaurant in North Versailles, is being sued in federal court by Broadcast Music Inc. The restaurant is known worldwide for the outrageous messages posted on its Route 30 marquee.

According to the Tribune-Review, Balsamico ignored at least 30 warnings that he was required to get a BMI license to perform copyrighted music on the premises.

As a part-time employee of one radio station and a volunteer at another, I can assure you that although a BMI license isn't cheap, the penalties for not having one are even more expensive.

And although I'm half-German, I'll try to control my schadenfreude.

. . .

Letter to the Editor: Alert Reader B.C. writes:

"For years I lived in Fawcett Plan, then White Oak, and now Christy Park. I like the city ... (but) in my 42 years of traversing back and forth through McKeesport I shake my head at some of the conditions I see.

"For example, at Fifth and Lincoln Way the red light got smacked by a car. Rather than installing a new pole, it's propped up against the guardrail. Really classy.

"When you enter McKeesport from the Jerome Street Bridge you see a sign that says 'Forging Our Future From Roots of Steel.' Isn't that motto kind of outdated?

"What else is really bad is the litter you see in front of Dollar General and the bum that sleeps or hangs out on the corner by Kwik Cash. Either way you enter McKeesport, the sights are not very appealing.

"Another joke is the condition of Fifth Avenue between the Jerome Street Bridge and Dravosburg Bridge. When are they going to bite the bullet and rip out the old street car tracks so they don't have to repave every four years or sooner?

"The last time they paved that stretch, they supposedly used some type of new asphalt that was guaranteed for at least ten years. After about four years it was worn out, and we've still been driving on it for an additional four years. I wonder if they ever got their money reimbursed?"

Well, we covered the West Fifth Avenue situation back in May. (It's worth pointing out that the light pole on the city side which was knocked down more than a year ago is still laying on the sidewalk in front of Casturo Iron and Metal.)

The city's trying to find the money to repave West Fifth Avenue at the same time the Mansfield Bridge is rehabbed, but the preliminary cost was estimated at $750,000, and removing the trolley tracks would cost another $500,000. I'm going to assume that most of the problems come down to money, or lack of it.

As for "bums" and other people loitering Downtown, unfortunately, anti-loitering ordinances are very hard to enforce. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that loitering is protected under the First Amendment.

In a landmark 1972 ruling in the case Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, Justice William O. Douglas called the freedom to loaf or loiter one of "the amenities of life ... responsible for giving our people the feeling of independence and self-confidence."

Of course, Justice Douglas never had to wait for a bus amidst the loiterers and loafers on Eighth Avenue in Homestead at night. He would have felt a lot less self confident.

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