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June 30, 2009 | Link to this story

Tear 'Em All Down, and Let God Sort 'Em Out

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

Following up yesterday's Almanac, here's just one of the ads on eBay seeking a sucker to buy an abandoned house.

According to county tax records, this house at 2902 Freeland is a 1900-vintage frame structure in "D-minus" condition.

The only grade lower than "D-minus" is "condemned," or possibly "on fire."

And --- surprise! The guy who's selling it bought it from Penny Foreclosures LLC, the same company mentioned in Adam Fleming's City Paper cover story.

And --- surprise, surprise! There's an idiot actually bidding on this house. Why not? You can put it onto your eBay Mastercard!

(The same bidder just sold another house in McKees Rocks for $107.50 per month. It's another marginal structure that will probably wind up getting torn by the Borough of McKees Rocks at the taxpayers' expense.)

Sometimes I really feel like crying.

. . .

Meanwhile, in the comments to yesterday's Almanac, Alert Reader John asks a valid question:
Why can't we take the money that the mayor literally begs from the state government and tear down everything that is uninhabitable? Do it all at once, call it the Summer of Love or something, I don't care. Maybe sell some T-shirts, hand out snow-cones and funnel cakes.

The reason these houses are bought up for cheap and rented out is because they're there. Get rid of the inventory, and they won't have anything to buy.

The mayor loves to complain about how 40 percent of the property in town is rental property, but I'm sick of hearing the complaints. If you don't want renters, get rid of the rental properties.

. . .

These are all good points, and I'm not trying to make excuses, nor am I trying to brown-nose the mayor or anyone else. (Like Pete Flaherty, I consider myself "nobody's boy.")

But I should point out that the city has asked for $800,000 in demolition assistance from Allegheny County.

And while that sounds like a lot of money, it costs $10,000 to tear down a house. That's 80 houses. Eighty houses doesn't even make a dent in the problem.

. . .

The 2000 U.S. Census estimated that there were more than 1,400 vacant houses in the City of McKeesport, and 830 of those were built before 1939.

That doesn't include vacant commercial buildings, or empty apartment buildings --- like the empty three-story building at the corner of Olive Street and Jenny Lind Street, or the one a block down at Ninth and Jenny Lind.

The city has had a very aggressive program of tearing down vacant houses over the past 10 years, but I'd be willing to bet they're barely keeping up with the houses being abandoned every year.

. . .

Let's assume the city now has 1,000 abandoned houses. It would cost $10 million to tear them all down.

You have to sell one hell of a lot of T-shirts and snow-cones to pay that bill.

And we haven't even begun to tackle all of the vacant houses in Glassport, Duquesne, Clairton, Braddock, North Braddock, East Pittsburgh, Whitaker, Wilmerding ... every community in the Mon Valley has the same exact problem, not just McKeesport.

. . .

Of course, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Buffalo, Detroit, Scranton, Detroit, Erie, Detroit* ... all of the other metro areas in the "Rust Belt" are also full of abandoned houses. Who's going to pay for tearing down their houses when McKeesport gets $10 million?

The real solution has to be creating demand for property in the Mon Valley, so that private developers will be willing to buy up abandoned houses and tear them down.

Otherwise, we're spending a lot of taxpayer money and getting nothing but vacant lots in return.

. . .

By the way, the "40 percent" figure John quoted is wrong. It's too low.

In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 47 percent of the single-family homes in the city were rental units.

Like I said, I think I'm going to cry.


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June 29, 2009 | Link to this story

Journalism Worth Reading

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

In case you missed it, Adam Fleming's cover story in the current issue of Pittsburgh City Paper is well worth reading.

(City Paper, despite being a "free entertainment weekly," does some of Pittsburgh's best reporting into urban living, and that includes issues in the Mon Valley.)

Fleming explores an increasingly serious problem in Pittsburgh, McKeesport and other older communities. Because real-estate values are so low for older single-family frame houses, people are buying them off of the Internet, sight unseen.

Most of these buyers claim they intend to "renovate" the houses and re-sell them, but that's generally speaking a load of bull.

In most cases, what they intend to do is rent them as cheaply as possible, usually to people on public assistance, until they're uninhabitable.

. . .

Do you want to see the results? Take a ride up Stewart Street in McKeesport, and weep.

When I was a kid, it was a proud neighborhood of working-class people from all nationalities and races. My aunt lived on Stewart, and my grandmother lived a few houses down on Maple Street. Now it's infested with crummy-looking rentals.

On the 2500 block of Stewart, for instance, all 10 houses are owned by landlords who live somewhere else, according to county tax records. One is owned by a Canadian real-estate investment trust. Three of the homes are condemned.

. . .

Eventually, when these houses can't be rented because they're falling apart, they're abandoned to the elements. Then they're torn down at the city's expense, to the tune of $8,000 to $10,000 each.

As Fleming notes, municipalities have almost no recourse when this happens. Even if you can find the landlords --- often they hide behind P.O. boxes or shell corporations --- courts don't extradite people for building code violations.

. . .

The municipality can file a complaint with the local magistrate, but when the property owner's in another state, the fines are unenforceable and uncollectable.

There's no "return for code enforcement," the mayor of Mount Oliver tells Fleming. "The time and effort we put in, they get a slap on the wrist."

Many --- not all, but a sizable number --- of the renters are people who have been evicted from public housing because of criminal records or drug problems.

The landlords are out of state, so they don't care if the tenants throw garbage in the front yard, have parties at all hours of the day and night, threaten or intimidate the other residents, and generally wreck the neighborhood.

. . .

And it's not always the tenants who are at fault --- even good renters have a hard time keeping up with the maintenance on a 1910-vintage wooden house, and these structures can quickly go to seed if the landlord doesn't help.

Entire blocks of the city are now infested with these kinds of houses, as are Duquesne, Braddock and Clairton.

Glassport, Trafford, Pitcairn and Wilmerding are getting slammed now, too, and Port Vue, West Mifflin and Whitaker are also starting to see the same problem.

. . .

If your neighborhood hasn't been hit yet, just wait. Eventually, one of your elderly neighbors will die or go into a nursing home. There's a reasonable chance that their heirs will sell the house cheaply to some budding, out-of-town slumlord.

Fleming talks to one of the "investors" --- Tami Twidwell of Beaverton, Oregon --- who recently bought five houses, including three in Our Fair City.

One of those is "gutted" and "abandoned" --- meaning "worthless." She claims the seller lied about the condition of the properties, which she never saw before buying them.

. . .

Twidwell, who claims her intentions were pure, tells Fleming: "I know this all sounds ridiculous, and I sound like the stupidest person in the world."

Yes, she does sound stupid. Here's why: She bought five houses that were 2,500 miles away without seeing them first.

And I have no sympathy for her, especially when Twidwell complains that Pittsburgh code-enforcement officers are harassing her with citations.

"Harassment" doesn't describe what I wish would happen. I wish Twidwell could be forced to live in one of her crummy houses, like Joe Pesci in The Super, but the law doesn't allow that in real life, just in bad movies.

The Mon Valley was knocked into a deep hole 25 years ago. It's damned hard to crawl out when the Tami Twidwells of the world keep throwing dirt on our heads.

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June 28, 2009 | Link to this story

Time for a New Surgeon General's Warning

Category: Cartoons || By

Cartoon © 2009 Jason Togyer/Tube City Community Media Inc.

News Item: Residents of Clairton and Glassport are exposed to toxic air pollutants that make their risk of getting cancer around 20 times greater than the national average, according to a report by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. (Don Hopey, Post-Gazette)

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June 25, 2009 | Link to this story

Disco for Young Lovers?

Category: Mon Valley Miscellany || By

Legendary WMCK and WIXZ DJ Terry Lee has found another nugget in his archives and posted it online for your entertainment. It's video from a dance show taped in Pittsburgh in 1977.

A lot of the male dancers are sporting the look that retired Post-Gazette columnist Peter Leo called "the Full Cleveland" (and he meant that only in the pejorative sense), while the women are rocking those pantsuits and velour dresses.

Terry is a lot smoother than "Rockin'" Mel Slirrup (Eugene Levy), host of the SCTV dance show spoof "Mel's Rock Pile" ... but since Pittsburghers Joe and Paul Flaherty worked on SCTV, was any resemblance purely coincidental? Hmm.

(Update: Hey! I just noticed that Sunday was Joe Flaherty's birthday. He turned 68. In honor of Joe, I'm going to put on a white suit and a Panama hat, and sit in a wheelchair --- to earn people's respect, of course.)

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June 24, 2009 | Link to this story

Briefly Noted

Category: News || By Staff and Wire Reports

An alert reader passed along this photo of a sinkhole in the parking lot of Norwin Hills Shopping Center on Route 30 near the Irwin exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The photographer, who asked to remain anonymous, says the sinkhole was about 10 feet in diameter on Sunday. By Monday, when this photo was taken at the North Huntingdon Township shopping center, the cave-in was 20 feet wide and 45 deep.

Last week's heavy rains are being blamed for causing a pipe to collapse under the parking lot, opening the sinkhole, according to the Tribune-Review. The shopping center remains open.

(Tube City hard-hat tip to "DPBKMB.")

. . .

Preservation Effort Sought: McKeesport Heritage Center is in talks to create a permanent process for preserving and re-using historic buildings in the City of McKeesport.

The announcement was made Saturday afternoon following a presentation on McKeesport architecture by Heritage Center Executive Director Michelle Wardle and local photographer and historian John Barna.

About 60 people were in attendance.

Jason Togyer, a member of the board of directors, told the audience that the Heritage Center is in discussions to bring Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation into the city to salvage, restore and find new owners for commercial buildings in the Downtown business district.

The effort would be coordinated and done with the consent of elected and appointed officials, including the mayor's office, council, the Redevelopment Authority, McKeesport Housing Corp. and other city agencies, he said.

A meeting has been tentatively scheduled for mid-July between the affected parties, Togyer said.

For more details, see Michael Divittorio's story in Monday's Daily News.

Residents, business owners and others interested in receiving more information --- when it becomes available --- are asked to call McKeesport Heritage Center at (412) 678-1832, or email

. . .

Tax Rebate Deadline Extended: The deadline for senior citizens to claim a property tax or rent rebate has been extended from June 30 to Dec. 31.

The state-run program provides rebates on property taxes or rent paid in 2008 to lower-income residents who are 65 and older, or 50 and older and widowed.

Permanently disabled residents 18 years or older also qualify.

Income restrictions apply, and homeowners who make under $35,000 per year qualify for different levels of rebates. Renters must have incomes of less than $15,000.

Rebate checks will be mailed after July 1.

For more information, visit or call 1-888-222-9190.

. . .

Bill Would Extend Unemployment: A Mon-Yough legislator has introduced a bill to extend unemployment benefits in Pennsylvania by seven weeks.

The legislation proposed by state Rep. Marc Gergely, White Oak Democrat, would create a temporary trigger for extended benefits, which currently kick in when the so-called "insured unemployed" rate reaches five percent and is at least 20 percent higher than the total unemployment rate in the previous two years.

Those conditions were met in February, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

The so-called "insured unemployed" rate counts only those workers who have qualified for benefits, or not yet exhausted those benefits.

Under Gergely's bill, H.B. 1770, extended benefits would kick in whenever the total rate of unemployment reaches 8 percent statewide.

Extended benefits are usually paid 50 percent by the state, and 50 percent by the federal government.

But the federal stimulus package --- passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Obama earlier this year --- temporarily waived the state's 50 percent match and allowed them to tie their extended benefits to the total unemployment rate, rather than the insured rate.

Gergely said yesterday that nearly 60,000 people would benefit if the alternative, temporary trigger was approved. Pennsylvania residents would be eligible for up to 79 weeks of unemployment compensation.

As of today, 67 other legislators had added their names to the bill, including Mon-Yough area state Reps. Jim Casorio, D-Irwin; Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg; and Ted Harhai, D-Monessen.

According to Gergely, acting chairman of the House Labor Relations Committee, 29 states have either changed their extended benefits rules already, or are close to doing so.

The legislation would be effective only while the federal stimulus money is available, he said.


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June 23, 2009 | Link to this story

DEP Report: No Hazards in Lake Emilie

Category: News || By

Download DEP reportAn "exhaustive" analysis by the state Department of Environmental Protection has found no chemicals, poisons or manmade contaminants in Renziehausen Park's Lake Emilie.

However, the 16-page report, released Tuesday, does indicate the presence of fecal contamination --- animal droppings --- in the lake, DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh said.

That's very likely caused by the geese that inhabit the lake each spring and summer, Gresh said Tuesday, and is not a health hazard.

"It's about what we would expect for an urban pond," she said. "The fecal matter is definitely not the cause of the fish kills."

. . .

Lake Emilie's water quality became an issue several weeks ago after Councilman Paul Shelly Jr. reported he had found 75 fish dead at the man-made pond over the span of several days.

City officials said they had found only about a dozen, and speculated the fish were injured by rough handling during a fishing derby.

Shelly accused Mayor Jim Brewster and other administrators of covering up a public health hazard, and speculated sewage was getting into the lake.

. . .

Gresh said the fecal contamination is "not a high enough level" to kill fish.

DEP's tests, she said, cannot conclusively determine whether the contamination is from geese, human waste or pet droppings.

But she said the geese are a more obvious source than sewage runoff.

"We conducted an exhaustive amount of sampling," Gresh said. "It's most likely a result of having geese on the pond."

. . .

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, fecal coliform bacteria are not harmful, but can indicate whether other harmful bacteria are present. Besides human and animal waste, coliforms are naturally present in the environment.

The DEP found 440 coliforms present per 100 milliliters of water in samples near Lake Emilie's spillway, and 1,200 coliforms per 100mL at the north end of the lake.

Federal and state guidelines consider average coliform levels above 126 units unsafe for swimming, according to public documents posted at the EPA's website, but swimming is not permitted at Lake Emilie, which is a stormwater retention area.

The same reports indicate that coliform levels below 2,000 units are safe for recreational uses other than swimming.

. . .

Persons who catch fish in Lake Emilie should wash their hands thoroughly, she said. Consuming fish from the lake is not unhealthy, Gresh said, as long as the fish are cleaned and cooked thoroughly.

In a statement emailed Tuesday to the Almanac and Daily News, Shelly said county and state agencies are not taking the issue seriously enough.

"I need more information on their data and opinions to form a strong opinion on the safety of the lake for humans and the cause of death of the catfish," he said.

. . .

Shelly added he had "bigger city and personal issues to deal with" --- a reference to his June 13 arrest on charges he pulled a gun on a Downtown business owner during a argument.

A preliminary hearing before Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi, originally scheduled for Monday, has been moved to 9 a.m. July 13. Shelly remains free on $10,000 bond.

Gresh said DEP did not attempt to determine the cause of death of the fish. Fish kills are the purview of the state Fish and Boat Commission, she said.

. . .

A message left for a spokesman at the Fish and Boat Commission was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Anyone who has concerns about the water quality of Lake Emilie can call the DEP's SouthWest Regional Office at (412) 442-4000, Gresh said.

"If people do find more dead fish, or if there is anything awry, we do want to hear about it," she said.

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June 22, 2009 | Link to this story

Derby Day Draws Renzie Racers

Category: Events, News || By

John Barna photo

Celebrity races by KDKA-TV's Ross Guidotti and Stephanie Watson and WKFB (770) radio hosts Frankie Day and "Caveman" Ralph highlighted the 27th consecutive running of the Greater Pittsburgh Soap Box Derby, held Sunday morning on Eden Park Boulevard, near Renziehausen Park and McKeesport Area High School.

Photographer John Barna captured some of the sights of the annual event, open to boys and girls aged 9 through 16.

The top winners in three divisions --- stock, superstock and master's --- are advancing to the 72nd All-American Soap Box Derby, to be held July 25 at the "Derby Downs" in Akron, Ohio.

The winners, according to a spokesman for Greater Pittsburgh Soap Box Derby Association, were Ashley Coffield (stock division) and Valerie White (superstock) of Pittsburgh and Lacey Howard of Springdale (master's).

John Barna photo

First held in 1934 in Dayton, Ohio, the race moved to Akron the following year because of its hillier terrain. A permanent race track was created in 1936.

The All-American Soap Box Derby is billed as the fastest "gravity-powered" race in the world for young adults. The Greater Pittsburgh chapter, based in West Mifflin, is one of 170 nationally sanctioned organizations holding regional competitions. About 7,500 children in 42 states participate each year.

John Barna photo

Although the McKeesport race has been run since at least the 1950s, it was suspended for several years before returning in the early 1980s. Cars can be built from kits --- available through International Soap Box Derby, a non-profit corporation in Akron --- or designed from scratch, though all must meet certain minimum requirements and pass various safety checks.

John Barna photo

Photos continue after the jump, and complete results are available at the end of this story.

(All photos taken especially for Tube City Almanac and © 2009 John Barna; contact John for reprint permission.)


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June 19, 2009 | Link to this story

Free History Program, Soap Box Derby Highlight Weekend

Category: Events || By

Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day! We mean it!

Frankly, the last thing anyone needs is more rain. Rumor has it that beachfront property is now on sale in White Oak. Wednesday night, Long Run looked like the mighty Mississippi --- in fact, somebody told me that Hartley King was trying to talk Huck Finn into whitewashing his fence. Or maybe not.

Assuming Mother Nature doesn't wash everything down the drain tonight and tomorrow, here are a few activities:

. . .

City Fair Continues: McKeesport City Fair continues tonight and tomorrow at Helen Richey Field, Renziehausen Park, Eden Park Boulevard near Tulip Drive. Ride all night for one price, or enjoy food and games.

. . .

McKeesport Architecture Program: McKeesport Heritage Center, 1832 Arboretum Drive, Renzie Park, presents a free program on McKeesport architecture at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Local historian and photographer John Barna and Heritage Center Executive Director Michelle Wardle will highlight different styles of buildings in the city --- some landmarks that are still here, some that have been demolished.

"Come see images of some of McKeesport's architectural treasures," Wardle says. "We will walk you through the different architectural styles that appeared in this city over the last two hundred years, looking at both residential and commercial buildings. Some of the buildings we will visit are still standing, while others have long since disappeared."

In addition, there will be a very important announcement regarding historic preservation by one of the members of the board of directors of McKeesport Heritage Center. (Hint, hint, hint.)*

. . .

Dance, Dance, Dance: Palisades Ballroom, Fifth Avenue at Water Street, hosts line dancing tonight at 8:30 p.m. (with dance lessons starting at 7 p.m.). Admission is $6. Call (412) 678-6979. (Note: There's no oldies dance this Saturday.)

Elks Lodge No. 11, Buttermilk Hollow Road, Lincoln Place, hosts McKeesport's Mikey Dee Band at 8:30 p.m. tonight. Call (412) 461-3322.

And Harvey Wilner's Village Tavern, 1620 Pennsylvania Ave., West Mifflin, has Monongahela's The Klick tonight and Pittsburgh's Steeltown on Saturday. Both shows start at 9:30. Call (412) 466-1331.

. . .

Race Day Sunday: It's not the biggest spectacle in motorsport, because these cars don't have motors. But the annual Greater Pittsburgh Soapbox Derby gets underway Sunday morning on Eden Park Boulevard.

(Saith the National Weather Service: "Slight chance of showers Sunday." See? "Slight.")

Races begin at 9 a.m., with KDKA-TV's Stephanie Watson facing off against Ross Guidotti, and WKFB (770) radio morning host Frankie Day facing weekend oldies DJ Caveman Ralph.

There are three divisions --- stock, super-stock and master class --- for boys and girls ages 9 through 16, and winners advance to the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio.

Parking is available in Renzie Park or at McKeesport Area High School, 1960 Eden Park Blvd.

. . .

Free National Park Admission: Finally, admission fees are being waived this weekend at 100 national parks, including:

There will be two more free weekends this summer, but why not take dad on a road trip for Father's Day? It'll appeal to his frugal side.

And who knows, maybe the rain will stop. Otherwise, I'd steer clear of the Johnstown Flood Memorial, just in case they haven't got all of the bugs worked out.


* --- A reminder that opinions expressed at Tube City Online are not those of McKeesport Heritage Center, its members or board.

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June 17, 2009 | Link to this story

Councilman Responds to Accusations

Category: News || By

City Councilman Paul Shelly Jr. has responded to yesterday's article in Tube City Almanac regarding his arrest on Saturday.

"The charges against me are make believe," he said in statements issued to the Almanac and Daily News. "The alleged 'incident' never happened. I have no idea why a person I considered a friend, who I visited frequently, did work for (on a rental property) and offered my son a job at his store, would make up such lies. The truth will play out. I will be cleared."

As for an earlier citation for harassment, Shelly described it as "silliness" resulting from a "charged political climate" during the Democratic primary.

"I don't take the charge lightly but it has no merit in fact and is likely to be dismissed," he said. "I have plead not guilty, as I am not."

Shelly called the accusations made against him by the owner of a Downtown dry-cleaning shop "slanderous" and "ludicrous," and that he does not own a handgun.

"When the truth comes out, it will be far different than the fabrications that have hit the media to this point," he said.

His complete response can be found here.

. . .

Update: Pat Cloonan of the Daily News is reporting that police did not find a handgun in Shelly's vehicle when he was arrested.

Update 2: WTAE-TV has posted a transcript of an interview with Shelly conducted this morning by reporter Ari Hait.

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June 16, 2009 | Link to this story

City Councilman Faces Several Legal Hurdles

Category: News || By

City Councilman Paul Shelly Jr.'s arrest on Saturday is only the latest in a series of legal scrapes for the high-profile mayoral candidate, including possible eviction from his home.

Shelly --- a vocal opponent of Mayor James Brewster and a frequent commenter on Tube City Almanac and various Internet message forums --- was arrested Saturday afternoon after the owner of a Downtown dry-cleaning store called police and said Shelly had threatened him with a handgun.

According to documents filed by city police and reports from the Daily News and WTAE-TV, Shelly, 46, became angry when the shop's owner refused to post one of his campaign signs.

The owner told police Shelly then pointed a pistol at him before leaving the store.

City Patrolman Joseph Stepansky arrested Shelly on Patterson Avenue a short time later. The councilman, a Democrat in the fourth year of his first term, was charged with aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, terroristic threats and defiant trespass.

. . .

Jail officials said Shelly was released yesterday after posting $10,000 straight bond. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. June 22 before Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi Jr.

The arrest has made at least one out-of-town news outlet --- the Kansas City Star carried an item on its crime blog.

Shelly, who missed seven council meetings during 2008 due to illness, is a computer and information technology consultant who was active last year in local campaign efforts on behalf of Barack Obama.

He has been highly critical of Brewster and other city Democratic officials for operating what he calls a political machine.

. . .

Saturday's arrest is Shelly's third recent run-in with the law. On May 12, city Patrolman Vernon Andrews charged Shelly with harassment, a summary offense; a hearing on that citation has been scheduled for June 29.

On June 1, Shelly was cited by city code enforcement officer Ron Brooks for failure to remove garbage after neighbors complained about old political signs littering the front lawn of his home on Versailles Avenue in the city's Grandview section.

That home was recently offered at sheriff's sale. According to Allegheny County court records, North Carolina-based Wachovia Bank began foreclosure proceedings in September 2008 after Shelly and his wife defaulted on a mortgage owing $33,000.

Last week, according to court records, Wachovia received permission to evict the family. (Download court order; PDF reader required.)

. . .

Shelly, who was defeated in the May primary in his bid for re-election, has promised to run for mayor in 2011.

This month, in a series of emails to local media outlets (including the Almanac) and posts on his website,, Shelly accused Brewster and other officials of covering up contamination of Lake Emilie in Renziehausen Park.

The councilman, who said Brewster was jeopardizing the health of city residents who use the park or eat fish caught in the lake, claimed more than 70 fish had been killed.

. . .

As proof, Shelly provided photos and digital video that he said were taken over a series of several days and showed numerous dead fish floating in the lake.

City Public Works Director Nick Shermenti said earlier this month that approximately a dozen catfish stocked in the lake ahead of a fishing derby were found dead.

Preliminary tests by the state Department of Environmental Protection have found no toxins in Lake Emilie.

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June 15, 2009 | Link to this story

Play 'Misty' For Me

Category: Events || By

It's the birthday of Pittsburgh's Erroll Garner, who died in 1977. He would have been 88 today.

Garner is one of many jazz piano greats who grew up in Western Pennsylvania, including Duquesne native Earl "Fatha" Hines, Dodo Marmarosa, Ahmad Jamal and Billy Strayhorn.

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June 14, 2009 | Link to this story

To Do Today

Category: Events || By

If you have nothing else to do today, you could celebrate the 90th birthday of Jack Riley, formerly of Toronto, Ontario, and a one-time right winger with the Philadelphia Falcons and Hershey Bears.

This may sound like sacrilege today, but Mr. Riley hated the name "Pittsburgh Penguins" and the team's logo of a smiling penguin on ice skates.

So what? Well, Mr. Riley was the first general manager of the Penguins when they entered the National Hockey League as one of six expansion teams added during the 1967-68 season.

That's what.

And that's why, for their first season, the Penguins' uniforms just had the word "PITTSBURGH" across the front of the sweater in block letters.

The Penguins made the playoffs in 1970, but sank to the bottom of the standings by 1972, when Mr. Riley was fired.

At last report, he remained an active member of the Penguins Alumni Association, and here's to many more happy birthdays to the team's founding general manager.

But if you didn't get him a birthday present, don't feel bad. The team got one for him Friday night.

. . .

Concert Series Opens Tonight: Otherwise, the city's summer concert series begins at 7 p.m. tonight at the bandshell at Renziehausen Park.

McKeesport Symphony Orchestra kicks off this year's set of concerts (and wraps up its 50th anniversary season) with a free performance.

Joe Bob says "check it out."

Other concerts slated this summer at Renzie include the U.S. Army Jazz Band on Saturday; the Pennsylvania Army National Guard Band on June 28; the Four Townsmen on July 12; "Come Together," a Beatles tribute band, on July 19; Lee Alverson on Aug. 2; William Dell & Wee-Jams on Aug. 16; and Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners (including tenor and McKeesport native Dick Muse) on Aug. 30.

In case of rain, concerts are moved to the Palisades, Fifth Avenue at Water Street, Downtown.

. . .

Honor Old Glory: Last but certainly not least, today is Flag Day, a day set aside to honor the red, white and blue, not that polyester Penguins flag you bought at the flea market in North Versailles to hang from the window of your car.

Flag Day commemorates the day in 1777 when the Continental Congress of the American colonies resolved "that the Flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation."

Flag Day was unofficially commemorated beginning in 1877, but President Wilson proclaimed it a national holiday beginning in 1916. Legislation formally installing the day as a federal holiday passed the U.S. Congress in 1949, and was signed into law by President Truman that same year, according to the Library of Congress.

P.S.: As someone who's worn out several American flags, I suggest getting one of the embroidered ones instead of the screen-printed versions --- they seem to last longer. Expect to pay between $30 and $50 for a reasonably sturdy one.

Also, look for a flag with reinforced metal grommets and an "open weave" pattern that lets the air pass through, because they won't tear as easy, and they retain less moisture.

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June 11, 2009 | Link to this story

Briefly Noted

Category: News || By

One Good Lectern Deserves Another: Brian Huber, 17, and Mitchell Kelly, 17, both juniors at McKeesport Area High School, pose with Mayor Jim Brewster and the new podium they constructed for city events.

Huber and Kelly are students in Mike Locke's building construction class. (Almanac photo)

. . .

$6M Committed to RIDC Parks: The Industrial Center of McKeesport and Keystone Commons in East Pittsburgh will share $6 million in "Building PA" funds.

Both industrial parks are operated by the Regional Industrial Development Corp. ICM, which is home to eight companies, including Dish Network, Steel City Products and others, is located on the former U.S. Steel National Works site, while Keystone Commons is a former Westinghouse Electric Corp. facility.

The grants were announced this week by state Reps. Marc Gergely (D-White Oak) and Bill Kortz (D-Dravosburg).

Keystone Commons, which currently houses 43 companies employing more than 1,200 people, will use the money to add several new structures. The city's industrial park will use the money to renovate an existing vacant structure that housed seamless pipe production lines.

"It has been 19 years since the Industrial Center started to be renovated," Kortz said in a prepared statement. "It is definitely time to finish this project. Once it is finished, the facility will be able to run at full capacity, which means there will be room for more employees, more companies, and an all around growth in the local economy. There is certainly a lot of potential here."

More than 800 people presently work on the old National Works site.

Gergely called the funding "a bright spot during these poor economic times."

"I think this funding implies positive things for the Allegheny community," he said. "These facility expansions imply future job openings, which is great for surrounding residents who may be unemployed."

Building PA is a state-sponsored real estate fund, administered by the Commonwealth Financing Authority and the state Department of Community and Economic Development, which invests in commercial properties operated by established developers in small- to mid-sized municipalities. It is designed to close funding gaps that prevent vacant industrial sites from being fully developed.

. . .

Banner Day for WM VFW: VFW Post 914 Intrepid Commander Charles Krebs, left, and Post Quartermaster Mike Mauer display the membership streamer award from National Commander-in-Chief Glen M. Gardner, Jr.

The West Mifflin post was recognized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States for having one of the highest recruitment rates in Allegheny County.

Post spokesman Mauer said the event marks the second time in three years the post has been awarded a flag streamer for membership gains. (Submitted photo)

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June 10, 2009 | Link to this story

Housekeeping Notes

Category: Shameless Horn-Tooting || By

A few notes of possible interest from the Almanac business office ...

. . .

Downloadable Maps Online: Free, printable maps of Our Fair City and many surrounding municipalities can now be downloaded from the "Facts & Figures" department of Tube City Online.

Right now we have official state Department of Transportation maps for Dravosburg, East McKeesport, Elizabeth, Forward Township, Glassport, Liberty, Port Vue, West Mifflin, White Oak and Wilmerding. (The maps are available on PennDOT's website as a free download; we're hosting local copies strictly as a convenience.)

As time permits, we'll add other maps of local interest. We can't fill special requests, and we can't post copyrighted material, but if there's some community we should have, feel free to suggest it.

. . .

Kindle This: You can now have Tube City Almanac delivered directly to your Amazon Kindle or iPhone. Cost is $1.99 per month, and there's a money-back guarantee from Amazon. Visit their website.

And if you don't know what a Kindle is, read this review at Gizmodo or this one at ZDNet.

Kindle is a lightweight, low-power "e-Book" reader that allows you to download entire books, magazines and newspapers while comfortably seated in the most important room of your home.

The Almanac thus joins such other prestigious journalistic organizations as the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Le Monde and U.S. News & World Report ... but not the Daily News, West Newton Times-Sun or the Munhall Valley Mirror, yet.

That last one is a real disappointment, because the information superhighway is crying out for the weekly "Earle's Pearls" column. We need more right-wing reactionaries ranting about the Obama administration based on what they heard the week before on Fox News.

. . .

Last But Not Least: Angie Schmitt and Kate Giammarise's RustWire has an interview with city native, journalist and editor John Hoerr about his new novel set in McKeesport, Monongahela Dusk.

A McKeesport High and Penn State alumnus who had a long career as a labor editor and reporter for Business Week and WQED-TV, among other outlets, Hoerr is perhaps best known for his 1988 book And the Wolf Finally Came, which is arguably the definitive history of the decline of the American steel industry.

Monongahela Dusk isn't being released until Aug. 15, but if you order before Aug. 1, you receive a 25 percent discount. Call Autumn House Press at (412) 381-4261.

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June 09, 2009 | Link to this story

Lake Emilie Gets Clean Bill from DEP

Category: News || By

No contamination has been found in Renziehausen Park's Lake Emilie, according to preliminary tests done by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The tests were ordered after several dead fish were found --- reports vary widely on the number --- following a fishing derby at the manmade lake along Eden Park Boulevard.

Spokeswoman Katy Gresh of the DEP's SouthWest Regional Office said the agency confirmed five "large catfish" were found dead in the lake.

. . .

While other fish may have died, reports that "dozens" of fish were dead are "not correct" in the agency's opinion, Gresh said.

"As far as other aquatic life, we found lots of live minnows, and snails that seemed to be alive --- although it's hard to tell sometimes with snails," she said.

According to the report completed Saturday and released today to Tube City Almanac, water samples from Lake Emilie had no signs of so-called "volatile organic compounds," which could include gasoline, pesticides, fertilizers or other petroleum-based chemicals.

Additional tests will not be available for at least a week, Gresh said.

. . .

Public Works Director Nick Shermenti said last week that city workers had found eight dead fish, including five that had gone over the spillway at the end of the lake.

Preliminary tests last Monday and Tuesday had indicated that the lake's pH balance (a measure of the water's acidity) and temperature were fine, and while a "slight trace" of chlorine was present, it was too low to harm fish, Shermenti said.

Chlorine is added to treated water --- including drinking water and swimming pools --- to destroy bacteria.

. . .

The catfish found dead were put into the lake a week earlier ahead of a fishing contest, Shermenti said. He speculated that rough handling during the contest, combined with recent heavy rains, might have stressed the fish.

"Or, they could have been injured by the transfer (into the lake), or we could have gotten a load of bad fish," Shermenti said.

Lake Emilie was created as a retention pond for storm runoff from the Hall Park neighborhood of the city. Three years ago, more than 600 fish were relocated to the Youghiogheny River before the lake was dredged and cleared of debris.

The spillway at the end of the lake was rebuilt at the same time. Besides the catfish added to the lake in May, the lake was stocked with trout in April, city officials said.

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June 08, 2009 | Link to this story

Traffic Being Bounced Off of Spring Street

Category: News || By

(If above video fails to load, go directly to the DailyMotion website.)

. . .

If Rod Serling were narrating this video, he might say, "This is an average working-class neighborhood in Allegheny County's second city. It's the home of Cornell Intermediate School, McKeesport Little Theater and Carnegie Library. But there's a signpost up ahead. We're about to make a right turn into ... the pothole zone."

It's Spring Street (technically, Spring Avenue) between Jenny Lind Street and Cornell Street, a shortcut between the Library District and the Third Ward which passes next to the old Tech High football field.

The street is named for the natural spring water that has been undermining the pavement for decades, causing the concrete slabs to sag and crack. Several years ago, the city put a five-ton weight limit on Spring Street, blocking fire trucks, buses and delivery trucks from making the bone-jarring trek.

. . .

Last week, on the recommendation of Senate Engineering, council voted 6-0, with Councilor Paul Shelly Jr. absent, to close Spring to all through traffic between High and Cornell streets.* (It remained open on Monday.)

Public Works Director Nick Shermenti says the storm sewers have completely failed and runoff is eroding the ground at least 18 inches beneath the center of the street. A 2006 estimate of reconstructing the road pegged the cost at between $750,000 and $1 million.

Former public works director and current Councilor Darryl Segina last week disputed those figures.

"Seven-hundred-fifty thousand dollars seems like a lot of money to lay in some plastic (sewer) pipe," he says. The estimate isn't realistic, Segina says.

. . .

"Even if it was half that amount, we just don't have the money," Mayor James Brewster says. "We're trying desperately to end up in the black this year, and we can't talk about paving other streets when we don't know where we're going to find the money."

McKeesport Area School District has been considering plans (currently on hold) to construct a new elementary school on the Cornell site and create an educational campus.

If the district moves ahead with those plans, Brewster and others have discussed vacating Spring Street altogether and possibly rerouting and extending High Street to serve the Cornell and Library area.

. . .

Until a solution is found, Spring Street will be closed. "We have to be cognizant of what we're doing," Brewster says. "Right now, we're letting people go up and down a street that could cause a fair amount of damage to their cars."

With Spring closed, all vehicles headed to MLT, Cornell and the library will have to travel via Shaw, Huey and Versailles avenues --- a slightly more circuitous but definitely smoother trip.


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June 04, 2009 | Link to this story

Council Rejects Halfway House Application

Category: News || By

A proposal to locate a halfway house for recovering drug offenders on Shaw Avenue, Downtown, was unanimously rejected Wednesday night by city council.

Second Chance Two Inc., which lists its corporate address as Fairchance, Fayette County, was seeking a conditional use permit to open the group home in the former St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic School.

The school closed in 1996 due to declining enrollment. The building, owned by the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, was most recently used as a temporary location for Propel Schools McKeesport.

. . .

A conditional use application was necessary because the school is located in a commercial C-2 district, which would normally prohibit residential uses. City zoning rules permit group homes in so-called Class R-5 mixed-use residential districts.

The city Planning Commission on May 26 by 4-1 vote recommended granting the conditional use permit. Commission Chair Mary Ann Popovich cast the only "no."

Citing concerns about security and the future rehabilitation of the Downtown business district, Bruce Thornton, owner of Don't Worry Child Care on Locust Street, last night urged council to reject the recommendation.

"Please don't bring this in here," he said.

. . .

"I do think these people deserve a chance to be rehabilitated, but I don't think this business should be on a main street in our business district," said Tracy Lee Janov of Greenock, a local real estate agent and parishioner at St. Nicholas Church, located next door.

No one spoke in favor of the group home, though Patricia Schwarz of Second Chance Two was in the audience, along with the Rev. Donald Voss, pastor of St. Nicholas. Also listed on the application for Second Chance Two was Florine Gwynn.

Janov said Schwarz and Gwynn didn't provide the public with enough information about their track record at operating similar facilities.

. . .

According to the state Corporation Bureau, Second Chance Two was chartered in 2007.

Federal tax records indicate that Schwarz is an administrator at Another Way Inc., which operates a halfway house for women recovering from drug or alcohol addiction on West Main Street in Uniontown, while a professional directory of mental health professionals issued by a Greene County social-services agency lists Gwynn as lead therapist at Another Way.

However, a check Thursday morning with the state Department of Public Welfare --- which licenses group homes and drug treatment services --- did not turn up any active certifications for Another Way or Second Chance Two in either Fairchance or Uniontown.

. . .

Nor does the state Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs --- which oversees social workers, registered nurses and mental health professionals --- have active licenses on file for either Gwynn or Schwarz.

City Administrator Dennis Pittman said Wednesday night that Second Chance Two would be allowed to reapproach the planning commission with a new application for conditional use, or seek an occupancy permit to open a group home in an R-5 district.

The city has rejected other similar applications to open group homes in business districts, he said.


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June 03, 2009 | Link to this story

Police Audit Complete; Findings Sealed

Category: News || By

An audit of city police overtime has been completed and turned over to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., Mayor James Brewster said tonight.

But the audit is not being made public because the DA's investigation remains open, according to the city solicitor.

Brewster told council at its monthly meeting that the audit was delivered to the city by an outside auditor, but was sealed and forwarded to Zappala without any copies being retained locally.

. . .

The independent audit, which included a review of all police overtime between Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2008, was recommended by Zappala after KDKA-TV reported that seven officers had been suspended without pay for submitting inaccurate time cards.

The Post-Gazette later reported that all of the officers were members of the narcotics unit and have been reassigned.

The cards indicated the officers had attended court hearings where they were not present.

. . .

Police Chief Joe Pero discovered the discrepancies while performing a random audit of the so-called "court cards."

Officials have said that the disputed amounts were less than $1,000 per police officer, and that the suspensions enabled the city to recover the money.

But Brewster has declined to provide specific amounts, or to identify the officers involved.

Several sources close to the investigation have speculated that releasing the names of the officers --- some of whom worked undercover --- might put other officers or their cases into jeopardy.

. . .

The mayor's announcement tonight apparently took other officials by surprise, including City Controller Raymond Malinchak, who questioned why the findings were not provided to his office and to city council.

"What evidence does the controller's office see that the money has been recovered?" Malinchak asked Brewster.

Brewster said it was inappropriate to discuss the findings in an open meeting because confidential information was involved.

"I'm considering it a closed case," the mayor said, "and it's a personnel matter not to be discussed in this meeting."

. . .

Brewster, who left following what was an unusually lengthy meeting, was unavailable for further comment.

Because the audit was paid for with city funds, the details should be subject to public inspection under the state's new Right-to-Know Law, which took effect Jan. 1.

. . .

City Solicitor J. Jason Elash told reporters following the meeting that the audit is part of an ongoing investigation by Zappala's office to determine if criminal charges or further punishment is warranted.

"Pre-decisional deliberations" are exempt from the Right-to-Know Law.

Once Zappala's investigation is complete, Elash said, city officials will determine whether all or parts of the audit can be released.

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June 02, 2009 | Link to this story

... And Did You See 'Gung Ho'?

Category: Cartoons, Commentary/Editorial || By

Dan Onorato and Luke Ravenstahl prepare for the G-20 Summit

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June 01, 2009 | Link to this story

Corrections Dep't.

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

I'll say this much ... when I whiff, I whiff big. Two recent whiffs deserve a prominent apology.

. . .

Alert Reader Chris took issue with May 21's Almanac, especially with the line: "The odds of getting all three digits in the Daily Number in the right order are 500 to 1, according to the lottery commission."

Notes Chris, "Erm, the odds of getting all three digits in the right order are actually 1,000 to one --- even in Pennsylvania. The payout is 500 to one.

"I wouldn't point this out except you made fun of those hard-working school-board members."

. . .

That's not a small mistake. After all, the Daily Number runs from 000 to 999, and even in Catholic school, they teach that there are 1,000 numbers in that set. (Unless the pope says otherwise.)

I was looking a page on the Pennsylvania Lottery's website titled "Prizes and Odds," which has "500 to 1" next to the Daily Number. It didn't make sense to me, but I ran with it.

As Chris correctly notes, I took it out of the column marked "Payoffs," which means it's not just my math skills that are poor, it's my reading comprehension.

. . .

Finally, several readers emailed privately to chastise me for not naming the four West Mifflin school directors who sent out the shoddy campaign literature.

Writes one, "I was unpleasantly surprised to see you censored the names to protect the guilty in the item on West Mifflin School Board. Tsk-tsk.

"While I can see your desire to stay outta the politics, isn't the job of news types --- dead-tree or electronic --- to tell the Great Unwashed the emperor has no clothes?

"You say you're doing them a favor by not naming names. You're right. But they don't deserve your favors. I'm glad to hear they lost.

"Keep up the (otherwise) great work."

. . .

My emailer was being relatively kind. One commenter called me a coward, but used a mildly vulgar term.

They're right. I had a brain cramp. I should have named the four people who sent out that handbill. I screwed up.

For the record, they were John Donis, Michael Jakubovic, Diana Olasz and Edward Schueler. Donis, Jakubovic and Schueler did not win renomination; Olasz did.

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