Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A conversation with this week's Pittsburgh City Paper cover artist Joe Mruk

Posted By on Wed, Feb 22, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Pittsburgh artist Joe Mruk with his City Paper cover illustration
  • Pittsburgh artist Joe Mruk with his City Paper cover illustration


If you're tempted to hang up this week's City Paper cover on your bedroom wall, you're not alone. That's because our "Most Listable City" illustration was created by Joe Mruk, one of Pittsburgh's most recognizable poster artists. 

Joe's posters for bands and music festivals are intricate and surreal, often taking the viewer into a fantasy world. Flip through his online portfolio or his Instagram, and you'll find everything from multi-armed ladies to mythical creatures in space. A poster for Pittsburgh garage rock band Wreck Loose shows rabid cannibal rodents; another for New York’s King Buffalo shows beautiful conjoined twins sharing a spider's body. Creepy? As hell. And totally awesome.

Joe, a graduate of California University of Pennsylvania and a current resident of lower Lawrenceville, is a full-time illustrator who also does fine art and woodwork in addition to his poster art. We caught up with him over email after he was finished with this week's cover illustration.

What's your favorite thing about Pittsburgh's art scene?
In Pittsburgh, I found it fairly simple to get a start by having shows along the Garfield corridor of Penn Avenue during their "Unblurred" events every first Friday of the month. There is so much opportunity to be had there for fledgling artists, and landing a show by contacting gallery owners is the best experience for someone who has been working on their portfolio. I haven't participated in a show for awhile now, having mostly replaced my time painting with commissioned illustration work, but, earlier on, those shows served as plateaus to mark creative growth. I strongly urge anyone with a wish to facilitate their first show to participate in the Unblurred events!

You freelance under the identity Red Buffalo Illustration. Is there a story behind that name?
I wanted a name with a specific image but a broad iconic flexibility. For awhile now, leading back to before starting my freelance career in Pittsburgh, I was painting a lot of animals with intense colors, and that theme will likely never leave my work. And it's far more interesting, for me, to take the liberties of illustration into psychedelic territory by coloring things in unlikely combinations — green bulls, blue horses, red buffalo. I'm teaching a week-long summer arts camp on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and it has made perfect sense to be drawn into a world where the buffalo (tatanka in Lakota) serves as a central spiritual symbol of strength and providence.

You've done a ton of poster designs for local musicians over the years. How did you first get involved with the city's music scene?
One of my best friends, Craig Freeman (from the band Lost Realms), pushed me into creating show posters, and then I got more work mostly through word-of-mouth and spreading it out over social media. Honestly, my work ended up being a much better fit for music-based illustration than the fine-art world I was immersed in during college. I gravitate toward simple narrative tendencies, and I love the transportive quality of music, so I hope I've been able to provide good visual interpretations of the narrative qualities of all different types of music!

Has a band ever requested more copies because fans stole all your posters before the show?
Luckily, I'm seldom the guy who provides the copies. I barely ever screen print anymore, and it's much cheaper for the bands to have their posters printed digitally to spread them farther out into the city. I love screen-printed posters, and I know an important and classic poster element is lost by not utilizing that process, but the compromise is that I can provide more colors digitally, and decrease that cost of printing. It makes the pieces more like paintings. Sometimes other print companies are contacted by bands to screen print my work, and sometimes they sell out! I did a poster for Lotus recently that sold out quickly, so the band requested a color variant for a second edition! I'm always psyched when that happens.

Have a band you're dying to work with?
Too many to count. My heart skipped a beat when I was provided the opportunity to do a Godspeed You! Black Emperor poster. Future dream posters would involve working with Califone, Stereolab, Janelle Monae, the Olivia Tremor Control, the Black Angels ... there are hundreds of bands I'd love to wrap some art around!

You also illustrated a poster for a fundraising event last year for John Fetterman. Was that your first foray into politics?
Yes, that was my first piece of propaganda. Fetterman's poster felt righteous because he has been doing so much for the city and Braddock in particular. Through demonstrating a fresh perspective on the potential for urban renewal, he's a symbol of the working class taking initiative to improve our cities not through gentrification but through the power of working alongside existing communities.

Will you answer the call if Trump calls you to illustrate his 2020 campaign poster?
If he did, all I would send him a drawing of a big psychedelic hand, middle finger extending to the heavens, made up of all the immigrants that truly make this country great. With a note that says "Go to hell."

You've taught drawing and illustration classes for kids. What's the craziest thing one of your students has asked you to teach them to draw?
An intergalactic space wolf bursting out of a black hole, most likely.

In addition to illustrating, you also do woodworking, and your online portfolio includes some pretty amazing multimedia art pieces utilizing animal traps. Do you have a favorite medium to work with?
I gravitate toward wood pieces because it's a fairly manageable way to make interesting borders and unique constructions. I'm not a fan of painting on canvas; wood has always made more sense to me. I use a scroll saw to bring illustrative elements into wood panels, and that helps enhance the artwork, not just from the front, but [on] all sides as well. The perfectionism of woodworking has allowed me to corral my obsessive-compulsive tendencies into creative expression!

This week's City Paper cover illustration was for a story on all those lists Pittsburgh keeps ending up on: "Most Livable City," "Best Family Travel Destination," etc. What would you vote Pittsburgh the best at?
Food, food, food. Every week I eat at an amazing restaurant or three. Independent breweries are a close second!

Any art shows or special projects coming up we should be looking out for?
The next volume of my Young Rabbit book series, which is a collection of tales from people around the 'Burgh and beyond, based on a single theme, will be coming out soon! The first volume was "Fight Stories," and the second will be "Ghost Stories." There will be nine in total. I'm also working on a special secret project that will surface by the time I've completed my hundredth poster (which will be a psychedelic poster for a HughShows event!), so keep an eye on www.redbuffalo.org for news on that soon!


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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

CP Video: Protesters stage 'town hall' outside Senator Pat Toomey's Pittsburgh office

Posted By on Tue, Feb 21, 2017 at 8:03 PM

Protesters focused on protecting the First Amendment in today's Tuesdays With Toomey event at Station Square.

Video by Renee Rosensteel

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Pittsburgh housing advocates rally for better living conditions at Penn Plaza

Posted By on Tue, Feb 21, 2017 at 4:14 PM

More than 80 housing advocates rally in front of City-County Building Downtown - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • More than 80 housing advocates rally in front of City-County Building Downtown
O’Harold Hoots is one of about 25 residents remaining in the Penn Plaza apartment complex in East Liberty. The complex is one of East Liberty’s last below-market-rate, non-subsidized housing complexes, and it’s set to be demolished at the end of March. On Feb. 21, Hoots spoke at a rally in front of the City-County Building and decried the current living conditions of Penn Plaza.

“We are living in inhumane conditions,” said Hoots to a crowd of about 80. “We are awakened by loud construction noises, and I have caught many rodents in the building.”

In 2015, Penn Plaza’s owner, LG Realty Advisors, issued 90-day eviction notices to some 300 families that lived in Penn Plaza. In response to the pending mass eviction, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto stepped in and helped negotiate a deal that led to dollars for a city affordable-housing trust fund. Also, Penn Plaza residents received relocation assistance, and LG was allowed to redevelop the property.

The first building, at 5704 Penn Ave., came down February 2016, displacing some residents, while others remained in the other building at 5600 Penn Ave. Myrtle Stern lives there and has lived at Penn Plaza for nine years. She told the crowd the owners are already doing demolition work to her building including, “digging out the ceiling and tearing up the floors.”

Randall Taylor, a former Penn Plaza resident, helped to organize the rally and was very critical of Penn Plaza’s owners, who are attempting to redevelop the property into a mixed-use development, anchored by a new Whole Foods Market and luxury apartments.

“[LG Realty] have displaced hundreds of familes, for what, a few extra dollars,” said Taylor. “We welcome new development, but not at the cost of the old residents of the neighborhood.”

LG's initial Penn Plaza redevelopment proposal was rejected by a unanimous 9-0 vote from the Pittsburgh Planning Commission and LG has appealed that decision, as well as suing the city, saying the planning commission was too hasty in its decision. Attorney Jonathan Kamin, who represents LG Realty, did not return a request for comment by press time. City Paper spotted LG principal Brian Gumberg recording the rally on his phone today, but he left the scene before the rally concluded.

Peduto’s chief of staff Kevin Acklin said he is aware of the complaints of substandard living conditions at Penn Plaza. He added that the mayor’s office sent a letter to LG on Feb. 16, requesting the owners to stop any alleged construction work on the property until all residents vacate and LG provides proof they are meeting the living standards required by the Allegheny County Health Department.

Acklin said the city will seek legal action if LG does not comply. “If [LG] doesn’t provide those assurance by the end of the day, we are tee’d up to go to court,” said Acklin at a press conference after the rally. “If they are unable to certify compliance, then we are ready to go to court to force them.”

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Solidarity rally and march tomorrow in Pittsburgh's Schenley Plaza

Posted By on Fri, Feb 17, 2017 at 3:37 PM

The Pitt College Democrats have organized this afternoon event for Sat., Feb. 18, to "show support and solidarity with marginalized groups."

rally.jpg
Issues to be addressed in light of words and actions from the Trump administration include reproductive rights, immigration, LGBTQ+ issues, racial equality, disability equality and the environment.

Planned speakers include state Rep. Dan Frankel; Pittsburgh City Councilor Corey O'Connor; Liz Kile, of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania; a spokesperson from the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle; and Alisa Grishman, of Access Mob Pittsburgh.

The event, which has a city permit, runs 2-4 p.m. The march route is TBD.

Schenley Plaza is located at 4100 Forbes Ave., in Oakland.

More information is here.

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Members of Pittsburgh legal community call for resistance against Trump administration

Posted By on Fri, Feb 17, 2017 at 3:07 PM

Joan Hill is a labor educator with the United Steelworkers International Union. - CP PHOTO BY REBECCA ADDISON
  • CP photo by Rebecca Addison
  • Joan Hill is a labor educator with the United Steelworkers International Union.
Earlier today, the United States Senate confirmed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental lawyer Emily Collins heard the news shortly before speaking at a rally in Pittsburgh. The event gathered members of Pittsburgh's legal community working to fight the ideology, agenda, and actions of Trump's administration.

"When we have an executive who seeks to dismantle the agency that oversees our environment, it's up to us," Collins said. "When the government isn't there to protect us, it's up to us to step up."

The event, which drew a crowd of about two dozen, was one of more than 12 rallies in cities around the country. Organizers say Trump's administration has been working to "legitimatize racial and religious bigotry, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny and homophobia."

"When they come for me because of my race, or they come for someone else because of their religion, what are we going to do? Resist," said Amanda Green Hawkins, director of civil and human rights for United Steel Workers. "We have to resist, and lawyers have always been their to help."

Several of the speakers in front of Downtown's City-County Building criticized Trump's administrative appointments saying they couldn't count on many of the leaders he's selected to fight for civil rights.

"We have Jeff Session as our attorney general," Green Hawkins said. "Do you think we can count on him to protect our right to vote and to fight voter-suppression efforts? What are going to say to him? Resist."

Others criticized Trump's attacks on the legislative and judicial branches of government, such as his attempts to de-legitimize judges who blocked his Muslim ban; they also cited his attacks on the media.

"We all have to remain vigilant, and we all have to remain committed, because what we are seeing now is an assault by the executive on other branches of government," said Jon Pushinsky, chairperson of the Greater Pittsburgh ACLU’s legal committee. "We have to embrace our neighbors. There may come a day when I will call on you to identify as Muslims or any other community that is being targeted."

Above all, the speakers said many of Trump's actions during the first month of his presidency infringe on the rights laid out in the United States Constitution, and they charged themselves with fighting back.

"No amount of [support] gives you the right to counter the Constitution," said Safdar Khwaja, chapter president of Pittsburgh's Council on American-Islamic Relations. "If this was done in any other country, we would be going against that country for human-rights violations."

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Pittsburgh immigrants walk out of work, school to march in Beechview

Posted By on Thu, Feb 16, 2017 at 3:18 PM

Marchers on Broadway Avenue in Beechview - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Marchers on Broadway Avenue in Beechview
Pittsburgh has one of the smallest percentages of foreign-born people of any large U.S. city, but in Beechview on Feb. 16, it didn't feel like it. Although there are only 25,000 foreign-born residents among Pittsburgh’s 306,000, more than 120 people, most of them Latino immigrants, came out to march as part of the national Day Without Immigrants campaign.

“We need to stand together for everybody, not just the documented immigrants, but the undocumented, too,” said Evaline Aiken, who was born in Ecuador and now lives in the South Hills with her husband.

For the Day Without Immigrants campaign, also known in Spanish as Dia Sin Inmigrantes, events are being held on Feb. 16 across the country to showcase how integral immigrants are to every facet of life in the U.S. Immigrant workers and students walked out of work and school today to protest President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration, particular the change in enforcement priorities for U.S. immigration officials. (On Feb. 10, for example, an immigrant in Seattle was detained by authorities even though he is a DACA recipient, meaning he crossed the border illegally as a young child and has since been given access to a work permit.)

In Pittsburgh, all four of Las Palmas grocery stores and eateries closed down in solidarity with the campaign. Also close were Edgar’s Best Tacos, in the Strip District; El Milagro Mexican restaurant, in Beechview; and Bea Taco Town, in Banksville; Downtown's Bea Taco Town closed down in mid-afternoon.

Bea Taco owner Erick Martinez participated in the march because he said this country was “founded by immigrants.” He stated how a wave of European immigrants came to the U.S in the early 1900s, [and that] immigrants from Latin America are just another wave.

Martinez, born in Mexico, crossed the border without documentation when he was 7, and has since received a work permit through DACA. He came out to march, not only to support his community, but to remind people that the ICE raids have been causing his community anxiety for years and will likely get worse under Trump. 
Sign in the window of Las Palmas bar and restaurant saying they are closed for Day Without Immigrants event. - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Sign in the window of Las Palmas bar and restaurant saying they are closed for Day Without Immigrants event.

“Most of my community is participating in this campaign in their own way,” said Martinez. “But not everyone is out here because they are afraid.”

At the march, chants echoed in the streets in both English and Spanish, and marchers carried flags from Ecuador, Honduras and the U.S. Alma Brigido, the wife of the recently deported immigrant activist, Martín Esquivel-Hernandez, addressed the crowd.

“Immigrants have rights, we are here to fight for them,” said Brigido in Spanish
And Latinos were not the only Pittsburgh immigrants participating the Day Without Immigrants campaign. Abdulkadir Chirambo is a refugee from Somalia and head of the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh. He was not at the march, but he told City Paper that many in his community were walking out of work and school in solidarity with the campaign as well.

At the march, Kai Pang, an organizer with labor coalition Pittsburgh United and the son of Chinese immigrants, spoke to the crowd about the importance of embracing immigrants.

“We have immigrants in every sector of our economy,” said Pang. “This is our community.”

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Audit by City Controller Michael Lamb finds mismanagement at Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority

Posted By on Thu, Feb 16, 2017 at 1:54 PM

Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb (left) and Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale (right) - CP PHOTO BY REBECCA ADDISON
  • CP photo by Rebecca Addison
  • Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb (left) and Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale (right)

It's been a rough two years for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. High lead levels have been found in the city's drinking water. The installation of new water meters lead to billing issues. And many have been critical of the authority's customer service.

According to Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb, these issues are "a perfect storm of mistake and incompetence." Earlier today, his office released a performance audit of the authority that examined PWSA's contract with management company Veolia Water North America; the installation of the new water meters; corrosion control treatment; and customer service.

Overall Lamb says mismanagement is to blame for PWSA's issues. He says poor leadership and administrative turnover has left the authority vulnerable to mismanagement and even though Veolia was contracted to increase consistency, a clear plan for the authority never materialized.

"We've never had consistent leadership. The idea behind bringing in a management company was  let's create a long term plan for PWSA and whoever PWSA's executive director is can follow that plan," Lamb says. "There's a role here for the board as well. The board just can't accept what's presented to them by the executive director. The board has to be engaged in the decision making down there."

At the heart of all of PWSA's problems are the high lead levels reported over the past year.  According to Lamb, lead effects approximately Pittsburgh 20,000 homes. He says the problem would cost $100 million to fix.

"We know there's no lead when it leaves the plant but there is lead when it gets to homes and in some places its at dangerous levels," Lamb says. "It's going to take a significant financial commitment to deal with this problem."

At today's press conference, Lamb was joined by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale who was there to announced that his office will be launching its own audit of the authority, specifically looking at its governance.

"They have had multiple executive directors over the last several years. For those of you who follow my work, you know that I've been highly critical of school district that have significant turnover with superintendents," DePasquale says. "While the issues are different, the operation concerns are the same. If you cannot maintain good quality staff and consistent leadership, your mission and professionalism are going to continually be in flux."

Last week, Mayor Bill Peduto announced the office of municipal investigations would be investigating the authority. The investigation was primarily spurred by the flush and boil advisory PWSA issued earlier this month that impacted 100,000 city residents. Peduto has also called for an audit of of lead testing kits after only half of the 6,625 testing kits ordered last were returned.

"This is not a fishing expedition. We simply want to discover what went wrong, and how to keep these events from happening again," Peduto said in a statement.

Peduto's announcement has lead many to speculate about the possible privatization of the authority but at the press conference earlier today, Lamb called the notion "wrong headed."

"The answer is not to privatize this authority," Lamb said. "The structure of that authority right now just doesn't lend itself to a private sale. There's not a private partner that would pay real value for the authority. We're talking about a lot of problems down there; but the fact is the system itself is a phenomenal system."

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Why a small item in Gov. Wolf’s budget proposal is a big deal for Pennsylvania public transit

Posted By on Wed, Feb 15, 2017 at 1:48 PM

Gov. Tom Wolf at a press event in March 2016 - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Gov. Tom Wolf at a press event in March 2016
Expanding Allegheny County’s public-transit network is an idea that has wide-reaching support. Residents in low-income neighborhoods say they need more buses because that is their only means of getting around affordably. Wealthier neighborhoods often desire a light-rail system that connects to Downtown and other hip neighborhoods. And while finding additional funds has proven extremely difficult, Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing a fix that would at least stop cash from funneling out of Pennsylvania’s public-transit fund.

For the past several years, a growing chunk of the Pennsylvania's motor vehicle fund has been siphoned off to pay for an increasing number of Pennsylvania State Police troopers. (Monies from the fund are used to pay for a multitude of projects, including bridge and road construction.) Last year, state legislators responded by passing a rule limiting PennDOT’s allocation for state police, and mandated that allocation shrink by 4 percent each year until it’s reduced to $500 million. But Gov. Wolf is going even further and is proposing moving the state-police funding out of the motor vehicle fund entirely.

In his 2017-2018 budget, Wolf  wants to fund the troopers through a $25-per-person fee, for towns that rely solely on the service of state police, instead of taking money from the motor vehicle fund. "Nothing else in life is free," said Wolf of state police in Allentown’s Morning Call in February, "and this isn't either."

Chris Sandvig, a transit expert at Pittsburgh Community Redevelopment Group, says that under the current circumstances, the motor vehicle fund is obligated to pay for both road construction projects and state police, meaning funding for state police is in direct conflict for money that could go to improve our roads. Sandvig says that as the motor vehicle fund is increasingly taken over to pay for state police, then money to build road constructions could then be in conflict with funds for public-transit improvements.

And Sandvig says more and more small municipalities are using state troopers to police their towns. In fact, statewide news website Keystone Crossroads reported in May 2016 that more than half of Pennsylvania municipalities fully rely on state troopers for police service.

“The users of the highway system are paying for state troopers in towns that don’t want to pay for police,” says Sandvig.

Sandvig says the more money used from the motor vehicle fund to pay for state police means a significant chunk is unavailable to pay for potential public-transit projects. In 2010, the motor vehicle fund contributed $530 million to state police, and in 2016 it had ballooned to $839 million. “If it continues at this rate, it’s on track to a hit a billion dollars this year,” says Sandvig. “This is unsustainable, and something needs to be done.”

Currently, the motor vehicle fund is primarily funded from a tax on gasoline and a fee collected through motor-vehicle registration. Sandvig is pleased with the governor’s proposal. “So many people put so much work into funding public transportation, and the money we pay at the pump should go to transportation," says Sandvig.

Wolf’s proposal needs support from the state legislature before becoming law, but state Republicans, who control both the House and Senate are open to negotiating a fee on municipalities.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

What's a sneckdown and what does it teach us about Pittsburgh road design?

Posted By on Thu, Feb 9, 2017 at 12:39 PM

Sneckdown on Friendship Avenue in Bloomfield - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Sneckdown on Friendship Avenue in Bloomfield
What the heck is a sneckdown? A neckdown is a traffic-calming design (like a curb bump-out) that is meant to slow down drivers. Combine neckdown with snow and you get sneckdown.

After snowfalls, Pittsburghers can see sneckdowns just about everywhere they look, since there are plenty of places where snow falls on the street that cars don’t drive over. Sometimes these untouched snow patches are as small as a kite, but other times they are as large as an above-ground swimming pool.

Eric Boerer, of Bike Pittsburgh, says they illustrate exactly how much extra space is given to vehicles on Pittsburgh streets.

“The clear thing is that they show a lot of unused road space,” says Boerer. “And this is one of the big issues we have in such a tight city.”

Boerer says some of the most egregious sneckdowns occur in Bloomfield. He points to the intersection of Liberty Avenue and the Bloomfield Bridge, and spaces around Friendship Park, as an areas where snow highlights a lot of unused square footage. He believes this unused space provides strong arguments that sidewalks can be made larger and bike paths can be installed, even if the city has a sometime contentious relationship with winter bike riders.

Bike Pittsburgh does a lot of outreach to teach Pittsburgh residents about smart road design that can accommodate cars, bicycles and pedestrians equally. (This concept is known as complete streets.) Boerer says normally groups like Bike Pittsburgh would have to set up physical objects and staff in sections of roads to prove roads can be designed differently, but sneckdowns accomplish that work for them.

“It is almost like a real-time [road design] experiment,” says Boerer. “It proves your point without doing an intervention. It can reveal a lot about how motorists are using the streets.”

Sneckdowns can also reveal other uses for wasted space on road. Boerer says sneckdowns at the intersection on Schenley Drive (near the Schenley Park visitor center) reveal ample space that could be used for green space, like grass or bushes. He says this could help mitigate stormwater issues that occur often in Oakland and Four Mile Run in Greenfield.

Boerer says sneckdowns are well known in the bike-ped advocacy community and by city planners, but there have been no street redesigns in Pittsburgh as a result of sneckdowns as in New York City and Philadelphia. But, he is hopeful that will change considering Pittsburgh’s growing interest in road design with the city’s formation of the Complete Streets Advisory Council.

“Right not there is a lot of momentum on complete streets,” Boerer says. “Sneckdowns are part of that. [They are] a great way to visualize these traffic calming ideas.”

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Pittsburgh veterans encourage bettering relationships with immigrants

Posted By on Wed, Feb 8, 2017 at 2:03 PM

Wasiullah Mohamed speaks about improving relationships between veterans, immigrants and Muslims. - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Wasiullah Mohamed speaks about improving relationships between veterans, immigrants and Muslims.
A day after Martin Esquivel-Hernandez, a Pittsburgh immigrant activist and undocumented immigrant, was deported to Mexico, local veterans are calling for an improvement in the region’s relationship with immigrant and refugee communities.

On Feb. 8, Joel Laudenslager, who served 10 years in the Marine Corps., spoke at a press conference in front of the City-County building about the importance of getting to know immigrants on a personal level. “If you don’t know [any immigrants], reach out and talk to one,” said Laudenslager.

Laudenslager has lived all over the world, including 12 years in Malaysia, and served as a translator in conflict zones in Afghanistan. He says veterans traditionally have good relationships with immigrants because they have come in contact with so many other cultures on tours overseas.

“We learned their culture, and many times brought some of it back with us to the states,” said Laudenslager.

Wasiullah Mohamed, director of The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, also spoke at the press conference. He said many veterans have reached out to the center, concerned with increased anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim dialogue.

“A lot of veterans have told me this is not the America they fought for,” said Mohamed.

Defending these immigrants, particularly the ones who served as U.S. allies in international conflicts, is the mission of nonprofit No One Left Behind. Its co-founder and CEO Matt Zeller served as an embedded combat adviser in Afghanistan in 2008. Zeller said at the press conference that he spends time with U.S. soldiers he worked with, and with Afghanis who helped the U.S. cause. “Our children pray together," he said.

Zeller also believes that communicating with immigrants will help relations, but goes even further asking Pittsburghers to contact politicians and share their feelings on immigration.

“Contact your elected officials,” said Zeller. “Tell them you want an inclusive community that accepts immigrants.”

Speaking of such, SB 10, a state bill that would strip funding from so-called “sanctuary cities,” recently cleared the Senate. Pittsburgh state Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline) voted against the bill and said on Twitter that “SB 10 punishes municipalities for welcoming refugees and immigrants, values our country has always embraced.”

If the bill clears the House, Gov. Tom Wolf can veto the bill, but Senate Republicans, who all voted for SB 10, hold a veto-proof majority. This means some senators would have to change their vote for the bill to be defeated. The Allegheny County state senators who voted for the bill are Guy Reschenthaler (R-Jefferson Hills) and Randy Vulakovich (R-Shaler).

Also, if you are an immigrant or refugee and want to help spread your story in Pittsburgh, local refugee resettlement groups are hosting a Valentine's Day Crafting Party on Feb. 11 at The Shop in Homewood, at 621 N. Dallas St.

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