Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Last Call at the Smithfield Cafe

Posted By on Wed, May 30, 2012 at 5:41 PM

"Kitchen is Closed -- Bar Still Open," read the hastily hand-lettered sign on the front door of the Downtown landmark last Friday night.

Longtime owner John Petrolias, whose Greek-immigrant father opened the restaurant in 1933, had announced its closing the day after the bank foreclosed on the building.

Located on the 600 block of Smithfield Street, near the intersection with Liberty Avenue, the Smithfield Café was the oldest Downtown restaurant in the same location. Petrolias and his staff, many with decades of experience at the establishment, will say goodbye to customers this Friday at the Smithfield United Methodist Church's annual Strawberry Festival, held across the street from the now-shuttered restaurant.

Friday night, about 9:30 p.m., a couple dozen customers at the Smithfield were drinking and watching the hockey playoffs. The jukebox was gone from the wall, but one customer sauntered behind the oval bar to turn on the stereo, and half of the middle-aged crowd sang along to "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Petrolias, 76, stood at the bar himself, talking with customers and staff and sipping Johnny Walker Red, "lotta ice." He's a stocky fellow with a shock of gray hair, dressed in a suit jacket. His cane hung on the bar rail.

The closure wasn't a complete surprise: The Smithfield had filed for bankruptcy this past October. But Petrolias had told reporters he was convinced he could weather the reorganization. Earlier last week, the restaurant had hopefully posted its summer menu.

"When I leave here tomorrow, I'm going to be shaken up," said Petrolias on Friday. "I have my whole life in this place."

He said he first worked at the restaurant at age 8, when his father, James, told him, "Every time I look at you I want to see one foot in the air."

In 1958, the younger Petrolias, then still in his early 20s, took over the restaurant. Over the years it grew from 60 seats in 1,200 square feet to 285 seats in 6,400 square feet, complete with deli counter. In 1975, Petrolias told the Pittsburgh Press that he served 1,000 lunches a day.

The fare was solid and unpretentious. In the front window still hangs a sign advertising a special of wedding soup and "linguini with red or white clam sauce." The Smithfield was also known for its inexpensive, no-frills breakfasts and friendly service.

But like so many other restaurants, the Smithfield took hits from the rise of fast-food chains. And it suffered as Downtown's retail trade, the source of much of its traffic, withered. The recession didn't help. Petrolias says the statewide ban on smoking in bars, and the county drink tax, also cut into bar business.

Petrolias was an outspoken opponent of both measures, and vocally opposed former County Executive Dan Onorato, who backed the drink tax. That wasn't the restaurateur's first brush with politics: In 1969, when he still lived in Squirrel Hill, Petrolias ran a losing campaign for Pittsburgh City Council. In 1988, he publicly backed presidential candidate George H.W. Bush against fellow Greek-American (and Democrat) Michael Dukakis. (Petrolias remains a Republican committeeman in O'Hara Township.)

The final blow to the Smithfield was the loss of the big building's other major tenant, The Pittsburgh Technical Institute, which occupied the upper floors for 15 years. The school moved out three years ago, and Petrolias was unable to find another renter. "The vacant building was what took us down," he says.

"The saddest part to me is losing my employees," said Petrolias on Friday night. "They are a wonderful, wonderful group of dedicated, hard-working people."

Some of Petrolias' longtime staffers were at the Café on Friday, including Colleen Kelly, the restaurant manager. She started there 32 years ago as a waitress. "I knew it was coming. I just didn't know it was coming today," says Kelly, of Lawrenceville.

"There isn't anybody who hasn't been here for years," she said. Asked why people stay so long, she said, "Because he's been a fantastic boss." Kelly said Petrolias hired some staffers from a local halfway house. "He gives them a second chance and they stay," she said. "Once you work for John, you don't leave."

Petrolias said his breakfast cook had been at the Smithfield for 21 years, and one bartender for 35 years.

Some customers were equally loyal. Kelly cites one person who'd eaten breakfast there for 30 years.

Petrolias said he is unsure what he and his wife will do next. He said they might move to be with their daughter, in North Carolina. "There's a bunch of Greeks down there with restaurants," he quipped.

The Smithfield Café will bid Pittsburgh farewell from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Fri., June 1, in Downtown's Strawberry Way, alongside Smithfield United Methodist, 620 Smithfield St.

Kelly says that as usual, Café staff will serve dishes including cabbage and noodles, pierogies, kielbasa, ham barbecue and hot sausage to complement the church's Strawberry Festival.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Daryl Metcalfe at it again with anti-Planned Parenthood bill

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2012 at 3:11 PM

Conservative state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Mordor) today again introduced legislation to defund Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania and other organizations that provide abortions.

Flanked by fellow Republican lawmakers and representatives from pro-life organizations, Metcalfe touted what he calls the "Whole Woman's Health Funding Priority Act" which would "prohibit Planned Parenthood and all other abortion-on-demand providers from receiving taxpayer funding."

As we noted earlier this year, the measure would prohibit the state Department of Health from contracting with or providing grants to "any entity that provides non-federally qualified abortions." That means no state money for organizations, including Planned Parenthood, that provide abortions in cases other than rape, incest or a threat to the mother's life. It prioritizes entities like public health departments, nonpublic hospitals and federally qualified health centers, among others, that provide "whole woman" care for funding.

Metcalfe said at a morning press conference "that the war on women is taking place in every abortion facility in Pennsylvania and across this country ... You're putting women's health at risk every time an abortion is performed ... Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize abortionists and their facilities." (Anti-choice activists frequently claim that abortion has harmful effects on women, including elevated risks of breast cancer and mental illness. The National Cancer Institute and others have generally discounted such conclusions.)

Metcalfe and others at the event had especially tough words for Planned Parenthood. Metcalfe has repeatedly objected to any state funds the organization receives for other health services, claiming the agency is "utilizing taxpayer subsidies for their window dressing."

"They provide this testing to bring women in the front door at the same time they have someone in the back room performing abortions."

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania officials contend the bill would disqualify the agency for funds for services like breast and cervical cancer screenings, infertility treatment and birth control education, while noting state and federal law prohibit public funds from paying for abortions in Pennsylvania.

Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, offered a statement reading:

It's disappointing some politicians in Harrisburg would rather block women's access to cancer screenings, birth control, and annual exams than address the real needs of the Commonwealth. Women and families need high quality, affordable health care, not more political meddling.

Planned Parenthood won't let politics interfere with the health care that one in five women in America relies on at some point in her life. Planned Parenthood health centers are open in Pennsylvania today, and they'll be open tomorrow. Women are counting on us to protect their cancer screenings, birth control and basic, preventive care -- and we will fight for them."

Friday, May 18, 2012

Landmark Forest Hills pizza shop shuttered -- UPDATED

Posted By on Fri, May 18, 2012 at 1:02 PM

Word has reached our ears that Vincent's Pizza Park -- beloved Forest Hills home of the "Vinnie Pie" -- has been shuttered, following a business dispute that ended up in federal court.

Two other pizza locations bearing the Vincent name, in Penn Hills and Irwin, are still open: Both are separate franchises unaffected by the legal drama. Attorneys for the warring parties are either not available or have not returned calls for comment. [UPDATE: See below]. But in the meantime, here's the story behind the dispute, according to court records:

Continue reading »

Monday, May 14, 2012

Unionization effort at Duquesne takes next step

Posted By on Mon, May 14, 2012 at 4:43 PM

Adjunct professors from Duquesne University are petitioning the National Labor Relations Board this afternoon to hold an election to unionize.

The move comes just a few hours after the Adjunct Association of the United Steelworkers Union unsuccessfully asked the school to voluntarily recognize the union, according to Robin Soward, a member of the Duquesne Adjunct Faculty Association's volunteer organization.

A union bid would affect 124 adjuncts in the McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts. Once the petition is filed, Soward says an election should be held within 45 days, though if the petition is approved, Duquesne will have the opportunity to file any legal challenges. If the union prevails, and wins the election, it can begin negotiating for the instructors.

Soward says a majority of the adjuncts have already signed cards supporting a union.

"Only a handful of professors have voiced opposition overall," Soward says. "But that's not entirely surprising given how poorly we're paid."

Soward says adjuncts currently make a little over $2,500 per course and are limited to teaching two courses per semester and have no access to healthcare. Through negotiations adjuncts would seek higher pay, the ability to teach at least three courses per semester and have healthcare made available.

And while it's too early to know what kind of contracts the prospective union would negotiate, Soward says conditions at universities like George Washington, for example, "improved dramatically" after forming a union.

Duquesne's spokesperson Bridget Fare, said via email that the university won't be discussing details of the meeting or the decision. Duquesne, she says, "will be following the NLRB process."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fitzgerald fires shot across the bow at Port Authority management

Posted By on Thu, May 10, 2012 at 2:04 PM

County executive Rich Fitzgerald had harsh words for the Port Authority today after a weekend of service disruption on its light-rail line.

"The wait time and lack of service provided by the Port Authority this past weekend to residents and visitors alike is absolutely inexcusable," Fitzgerald said in a statement issued this afternoon. "This agency must be responsive to its customers, and the recent problems indicate to me that it is not the focus of the management."

Light-rail service was delayed this past weekend due to a shortage of operators on the Red and Blue lines on Saturday, causing wait times that reached up to an hour, said authority spokesman Jim Ritchie.

"Bottom line is there were just not enough to people to fill the runs," he says. "We have 68 rail operators; there's over 1,000 bus operators. So you don't have an endless supply [of backup trolley operators.]."

Excused absences, regular call-offs, vacation, military leave and other factors, combined with system cuts and staffing reductions over the last few years, formed "a right mix of factors that caused an issue like this."

In addition to the shortage, the T system did not have the capacity for the influx of riders due to the Pittsburgh Marathon on Sunday, he says.

"The biggest issue is we weren't able to staff any extra service between North Shore and Downtown and we recognize that's a problem. There were a lot of people coming into town who walked away disappointed," Ritchie says. "On our end, there's no excuse."

Rail service runs less frequently on weekends -- and, Ritchie says, "there's some financial issues we have to maneuver through to put out [extra service]. There's a price tag on extra service that's not in the schedule ... We want to do it, we're happy to do it."

Ritchie says the authority is working with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 and will release more specific plans this week to deal with events such as concerts or Steelers game that bring an influx of passengers.

"It could have been handled better on our end. We still think there would have been a way to get that service out," Ritchie says. "That's where we're addressing for this weekend."

That may be just as well, because the weekend's chaos couldn't have come at a worse time. The authority is set to make massive service cuts in September, while hoping the state will provide assistance to avert them. And judging from Fitzgerald's statement, patience is wearing thin.

"There is absolutely no valid explanation for why there was no planning or preparation for this past weekend's influx of people into the city," the statement continued. "It's not as if the Pirates' schedule, the Stage AE concert or the Pittsburgh Marathon were a surprise to anyone.

"This will be fixed -- either within the existing structure, or with changes from the top to the bottom."

Asked to respond to the potential threat to director Steve Bland's job security, Ritchie declined to comment.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

South Side braces for taxing-district decision

Posted By on Tue, May 8, 2012 at 3:52 PM

The South Side Planning Forum could decide tonight whether to advance a proposal to create a special fee for additional neighborhood services to city.

The forum, which includes representatives from The Brashear Association, South Side Chamber of Commerce, South Side Community Council, South Side Local Development Company and South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association, meets tonight at 5:30 p.m. in the cafeteria of UPMC South Side Hospital, 2000 Mary St.. Susie Puskar, neighborhood outreach coordinator of the South Side Neighborhood Improvement Steering Committee, says the group is expected to vote tonight. The board will allot 40 minutes to public comment, and 20 speakers can sign up on a first-come, first-served basis.

If the forum votes in favor of the proposal, "they will then petition city council to begin the legal process that allows each property owner to have a vote," says Puskar. "Ample opportunity remains for public comment if that occurs."

Neighborhood planners outlined the subsequent process at an often-contentious March 13 planning forum meeting.

Known as a NID, the proposal would assess an annual fee on residential and commercial property owners in a proposed zone that runs between South 9th to South 29th streets, encompassing most of the area from the Monongahela River to the railroad tracks at the foot of the South Side Slopes. The additional assessment is expected to generate about $1 million for services beyond what the city provides.

The proposal has met with opposition from residents and business owners, and they haven't been shy about making their feelings known: A walk through the South Side turns up numerous signs in windows and storefronts that read "NID" with a Red X through it.

At the March 13 meeting, residents in attendance decried everything from the voting process itself to arguing it was just another tax to pay for trouble caused by the large number of bars in the neighborhood.

"We all know this is double taxation!" one resident yelled. "We don't need to waste taxpayer money."

Other residents contended they had collected enough signatures from property owners in the proposed zone to squash the plan before it even heads to city council. Puskar says neighborhood planners, however, want the community input process to play out.

"South Side has always been driven by the community process ... People are coming out to meetings and yelling, but we hear a lot from people who don't come to meetings and yell that are very much for [the NID]," Puskar says. "We want individuals to have the right to vote on the process, so that's why the process continues."

Friday, May 4, 2012

Pirates anti-bullying video comes out swinging for "It Gets Better Project"

Posted By on Fri, May 4, 2012 at 4:42 PM

The Pittsburgh Pirates will join 50,000 other contributions to the It Gets Better Project, as the club debuts an anti-bullying video tonight.

The project to get the club to participate began last year and was spearheaded by local lesbian blogger and activist, Sue Kerr.

Kerr first reported the news on her blog, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents.

In a press release announcing the video, Pirates President Frank Coonelly said bullying can't be tolerated. "We feel it is important to get the message out that there is no place in our society for bullying anyone for any reason," he said. "The organization is pleased to utilize our resources to help call attention to this subject and to encourage those that have been a victim of bullying to come forward and seek help."

Kerr praised the decision, which started with her petition last summer.

"Working with the Pirates on this project and witnessing their increasing investment in our local LGBT youth has been a privilege," she said in a release. "I grew up when Pittsburgh earned 'The City of Champions' title and this proves that we still hold it. I've never been more proud to be from Pittsburgh."

According to the release, the Pirates will work with the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh (GLCC) and the local chapter of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network "to build relationships with LGBT youth on an ongoing basis."

The club is also sponsoring a meet and greet tonight with the team and GLCC youth.

We've contacted the club and will post a response when we hear back. In the meantime, the video will be released on YouTube and the It Gets Better Project web site at www.itgetsbetter.org.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

County Controller decries fiscal situation, blames governor

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 4:58 PM

County Controller Chelsa Wagner had harsh words for Gov. Tom Corbett, and his proposed budget cuts, as she outlined the county's finances today.

"I think it's very, very, very fair to say we've been dealt a bad hand by the state," Wagner said at a morning news conference. "And it's one I find particularly disappointing when we have a governor from Allegheny County looking at the cuts proposed in this budget year." "We need Gov. Corbett to remember where he came from," she later said of the Shaler Republican.

While presenting a report on the state of county finances for 2011, Wagner called on Corbett to reinstate two state grants the county had been receiving for public safety. The grants amounted to approximately $7.5 million.

In reviewing the county's books, meanwhile, Wagner noted the areas of greatest concern are: a decrease in the general fund balance; dependence on one-time funding sources; and state and federal funding cuts -- as well as "looming uncertainty" involving future funding streams.

"I think the message is clear that county government can no longer exist in a constant state of financial instability with little flexibility and inadequate resources for us to invest in the future," she said.

Wagner pointed to the General Fund balance as one of the county's "most pressing financial issues," while noting that rating agencies suggest keeping a fund balance of $35 million. In 2002, the county's fund had $47.4 million in it; at the end of 2011, it had $6.2 million.

"This is lower than many school districts in Allegheny County," she said. "We keep kicking the can down the road and at some point, we're going to have face the problem," she said.

And though the county has already levied a 1-mill property tax increase estimated to generate $53.8 million, Wagner said the new revenue will have only a small impact. "This is really going to be plugging holes from lost funding sources."

Among the items Wagner said she was "cautiously optimistic" about: The region's housing market grew in 2011; economic development created 11,400 new jobs and retained 5,260 in the region; and that the county's unemployment rate stayed below the state average.

In a statement released this afternoon, county executive Rich Fitzgerald said he wasn't surprised by Wagner's findings. "Our $6 million fund balance is the lowest it has ever been. Although we have controlled costs and streamlined government, we have also seen decreases in state and federal funding that we have had to contend with at the county level."

The statement further asserted that the 1-mill increase will prevent laying off 1,000 employees and that his office is meeting with every department to review budgets and identify savings.

"Our directors and employees are already doing more with less and we're now asking even more of them," Fitzgerald said.

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