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Monday, February 28, 2011

MP3 Monday: SoulDivide

Posted By on Mon, Feb 28, 2011 at 5:54 PM

Hey! Hi. It's Monday and it's kinda gross outside. Good thing we've got an MP3 for you, right?

This week's track comes from local MC SoulDivide, formerly of Shindiggaz; it's from his release from earlier this month with DJ Thermos, Prenutbucker Jellytime. The track is "Sterner Stuff."

SoulDivide performs live next on March 11 at Shadow Lounge.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Congo Square at Pittsburgh Playwrights

Posted By on Sat, Feb 26, 2011 at 12:34 PM

Having previewed this play for CP, I wanted to see the finished product. 

It was, after all, the local premiere of a work by locally based playwright Frank Gagliano, and both the script and the rehearsal I'd sat in on suggested an offbeat evocation of themes of innocence, corruption and fantasy through the lens of a hostage standoff in New Orleans.

Oh, and it's a musical -- or at least, a "drama with music," as Gagliano puts it.

Congo Square is a play about play-acting as escape -- possibly the only escape available to Willy Beau and Delphine, gunman and putative hostage, trapped in a corrupt world they never made and can't otherwise alter. 

Willy (played by Monteze Freeland) is holed up in a warehouse full of old Mardi Gras costumes and the mannequins that wear them; apparently he's shot someone, but because he's suffering from traumatic amnesia, we don't learn the full story until late in the play.

Joined by a young woman named Delphine (Erika Cuenca), whose true identity likewise is mysterious, Willy plays out a sort of personal history of New Orleans by singing in the personas of various characters historical, fictional and mythic from the 19th and 20th centuries: a madam, a murderous mulatto dandy, jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. 

All the while, the play's third character, the mayor (Kevin Brown) tries to talk Willy out of the building that's facing demolition, first from outside, by bullhorn, eventually by joining he and Delphine in the warehouse.

While Tony Ferrieri's set is a splendid mad attic, the best thing about the play as written are the songs, with lyrics by Gagliano and music by the late Claibe Richardson (with new arrangements by, and performed live by, pianist Ed Tarzia). And that's largely because of Freeland, who's onstage for all 90 minutes and singing for half of it. He gives his all, and he's got a lot of talent to give, both vocally and dramatically.

The play itself is somewhat less successful. Director Marci Woodruff works hard to emphasize a through-line, but the script too often feels less like a portrait of real people and more like an intellectual exercise -- a working out of themes.

As such, it's not bad. Gagliano, for instance, draws an interesting parallel between a land-developer's 1845 plot to replace the slaves who dance in Congo Square on Sundays with a modern dirty deal to bulldoze part of historic Nawlins for a shopping mall.

But the narrative never really drew me in emotionally. And the buried-memory trope feels pretty hoary. (It's worth noting that Gagliano wrote the original version of Congo Square in the 1970s.)

Still, the set, the songs and Freeland's great performance are well worth the price of admission and 90 minutes of your day.

There are three more chances to see Congo Square at Playwrights' Downtown space: tonight, tomorrow's matinee, and on Tue., March 8, as part of a special Mardi Gras performance of Gagliano's entire Voodoo Trilogy, also including In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau and The Commedia World of Lafcadio B.www.pghplaywrights.com

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Mugshot Mania: For those who don't think OUR content is depressing enough

Posted By and on Fri, Feb 25, 2011 at 12:17 PM

On the off chance that reading City Paper hasn't sufficiently dented your faith in human nature, we've got some new reading material for you: 

Mugshot Mania

This weekly tabloid just hit the streets with its first issue Feb. 14. And it delivers exactly what the name suggests: 16 pages of mug shuts for criminals booked for everything from driving without a license to involuntary manslaughter. Some are listed as "most wanted" criminals, though its hard to see what they've done to deserve the title: along with serious offenses like homicide and rape are such relatively minor offenses as simple assault and "acccidents involving property damage."

"My intent was to put a face on local crime," says Shawn Kirkwod, the paper’s publisher. "Our intent is to educate the public about crime and help law enforcement deter crime."

The paper also features a "missing children" page, and a "registered sex offenders" gallery, whose photos you can also find at the Megan's Law website. It also boasts a sports trivia quiz (quick! Who beat Pitt in the 2007 NCAA tourney's Sweet 16 round?), an astrology column, and a word-search. (Try to find such terms as "possession," "disorderly," "harassment," and "suspicious.")

In addition, it features some content intended for those who'd like to keep their photos out of its pages. One column discusses myths about addiction and substance abuse, with a primer on the treatment available. 

The paper, which Kirkwod says is on sale at 160 stores througout the region, sells for $1. 

Media experts say publishing mugshots has become more common across the country. (The Beaver County Times, for one, publishes a weekly "Mug Shot Mondays" feature.) Most of the content, after all, is furnished at taxpayer expense. 

But as the practice becomes more widespread, so has criticism. 

Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member for ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says the papers are "pretty profitable and popular." But, she adds, "I don't think they're journalistic ... What they're selling is voyeurism."

And after all, most of the mugshots published only depict people accused of a crime -- not those who've been convicted.

Kirkwod, however, publishes a disclaimer -- "all suspsects are innocent until proven guilty" -- above each page of photos ... even those of convicted sex offenders. And Kirkwod says the publication helps create greater awareness of crime. "Is it unethical to inform people about local crime?"

Read more in next week's issue of City Paper.

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Final Weekend of Lonesome West canceled

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2011 at 12:08 AM

Point Park’s REP theater company has canceled the final weekend of performances of its current production, The Lonesome West, starting with tonight’s.

The cause is a medical emergency involving a member of the cast.

All remaining performances through Sun., Feb. 27, are canceled.

The cancellation was announced just this afternoon.

If you have tickets, the REP asks that you contact the Playhouse box office, at 412-392-8000, for a refund or tickets to a future REP show.  

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Young Democrats announce endorsements

Posted By on Wed, Feb 23, 2011 at 1:26 PM

The Young Democrats of Allegheny County have announced their endorsements in the upcoming May primary. The endorsees are:

  • County Executive Rich Fitzgerald
  • County Controller Valerie McDonald Roberts
  • County Council 6 Steven Hvozdovich
  • County Council 10 Bill Robinson
  • County Council 11 Barbara Daly Danko
  • City Controller Michael Lamb
  • City Council 1 Darlene M. Harris
  • City Council 3 Bruce A. Kraus
  • City Council 5 Corey O’Connor
  • City Council 7 Patrick Dowd
  • City Council 9 Lucille Prater-Holliday

For Common Pleas Court, while there are only two slots availalbe, there was a tie for second place, so the Young Dems backed three candidates: Michael Marmo, Leah Williams-Duncan and Alex Bicket.

The Dems also backed Hugh McGough for the District Magistrate seat in the East End -- the one outgoing councilor Doug Shields is gunning for. They also endorsed Dara Ware Allen in District 2 of the city school board.

There'll be more election-related material in this space a little later today -- along with a guide to upcoming political protests. Stay tuned! 

 

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Party-switching allegations in city council district 3

Posted By on Wed, Feb 23, 2011 at 11:45 AM

A couple developments this week in the race for City Council District 3. 

First up is a strongly worded letter in the current South Pittsburgh Reporter. The letter notes that one of the challengers in the race, Gavin Robb, registered as a Republican in 2001. The letter accuses Robb of having then "conveniently ... switched to the Democratic Party so he could run for Pittsburgh City Council." The letter continues:

Hence, our Republican turncoat, Gavin Robb, voted in Republican Primaries supporting Republicans that in turn ran against our Democratic candidates in the General Elections ...

Do we want to elect a turncoat? Does the party of George W. Bush, Rich Santorum and Sarah Palin have a place in Pittsburgh city government?

I have verified that Robb originally registered as a Republican here 10 years ago. He switched party registration in early 2009 -- roughly two years back. 

"I'm flattered to get so much attention," Robb told me. "It's good to know someone is that concerned."

Robb noted that his party switch wasn't that recent, and says that "I've always been a moderate, but I found myself aligning more with the Democrats -- thanks in part to the people identified in that letter."

In any case, Robb says,  "I had no inkling that I would be running for City Council at the time I changed my party affiliation." The move "was based solely on a change in my feelings towards both political parties and the evolution of my overall political philosophy."

Indeed, Robb has previously told me that he began weighing a run for office nine months ago. 

What's more, Robb says, "I don't think voters are really concerned about this sort of thing. I don't plan on stooping to that level."

Robb will be responding to the allegations directly, however: He plans to write a rebuttal for an upcoming issue of the Reporter.

Meanwhile, distrct 3's incumbent councilor, Bruce Kraus, took some time during Tuesday's council meeting to address some of the campaign talking points being tossed his way.

The topic on the floor was a city council proclamation honoring public employees -- timed to provide support for the ongoing labor protests in Wisconsin. But it also provided an occasion for councilors to defend their opposition to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to lease out publicly-owned parking garages -- a plan they likened to an anti-union privatization scheme. (Though proceeds from the lease would have been used to shore up union pension funds.)

Kraus noted that he and other councilors -- including council President Darlene Harris -- were facing election-year challengers, and he tied that opposition to the lease vote. 

After nothing that he's been accused of taking an anti-business approach to bar-related problems on the South Side, Kraus asserted that "not selling our parking assets to private bankers was the best pro-business decision this council has made." Council's position, he argued, protected neighborhood business districts from seeing steep parking-rate hikes. 

Yet a price was being paid on council, Kraus added: "If anybody out there thinks that this administration is not coming after sitting council members" because of the lease vote, "I've got news for you -- they are."

In any case, on balance you'd have to say Kraus is having a good week. As noted here earlier today, he also got the backing of the Young Democrats of Allegheny County. And in a statement circulated by the Kraus campaign, YDAC president Michael Phillips lauded Kraus as a "model of how to be truly engaged in the betterment [of] neighborhoods and the city." The statement backed Kraus on a variety of issues, ranging from a ban on drilling for natural gas in city limits to opposing the tuition tax. But it singled Kraus out for "his efforts to rid the city of litter and graffiti, and his plans for maintaining a safe and vibrant nightlife in the South Side and Oakland neighborhoods."

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fitzgerald: Without statewide tax reform, "I'll go to jail" before sending out tax reassessments

Posted By on Tue, Feb 22, 2011 at 7:21 PM

Most political junkies know that one of the Republican candidates for county executive, Charles McCullough, is facing a date with a judge

What you may not know is that one of the Democratic candidates, Rich Fitzgerald, says he's willing to be hauled into court as well. For the good of the people, of course.

It's no secret that Fitzgerald, the county council president, opposes the ongoing reassessment of county property values. He's on record saying that reassessing propery values in Allegheny County is unfair, since nearby counties haven't reassessed their residents' homes in decades.

Still, I was surprised to hear a pledge Fitzgerald has been making on the campaign trail. As Fitzgerald put it during a political gathering on the South Side last week, if the state doesn't ensure a uniform reassessment process in all 67 counties, "[Y]ou have my commmitment that next year, those bills will not go out."

At least, that's what my notes tell me he said. At first, I was a little unsure I'd gotten that right. As Chris "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" Briem has pointed out, the property tax issue has been litigated for years now. The state Supreme Court has upheld the operative part of Judge Stanton Wettick's court order to carry out the valuations. So is Fitzgerald saying that -- if elected to the county's highest office -- one of his first acts would be to buck a ruling upheld by the state's highest court?

Well, yes.

I called Fitzgerald yesterday, and he confirmed it: "If I'm the county executive, I won't send the bills out, unless [reassesment] is done statewide."

Um. Can he actually do that? Wouldn't he be in contempt of court or something?

"I guess they could throw me in jail," he says. "And if they do, I'll go to jail. I will not send those bills out if this isn't addressed."

(ADDED: This seems an obvious point, but while contempt of court can result in incarceration, fines are a more likely penalty.)

Technically, Fitzgerald wouldn't really be spiking your bill: He'd be refusing to mail the certified valuations your bill is based on. The reassessed valuations are to be sent in January. And they're what taxing bodies will use to levy their taxes on next year. Fitzgerald, then, would effectively be freezing values at the current level.

To be sure, Fitzgerald says a courtroom standoff would not be his first choice. He notes that Democrats in the state House have proposed a measure requiring the state to solve "the vast inequities of property assessments across this Commonwealth." The bill, which is similar to one that died in the Senate last year, also imposes a moratorium on any future reassessments until the issue is addressed. (The legislation does allow counties "currently conducting a court-ordered countywide reassessment" to continue it -- but that's purely "at the discretion of the county.")

The bill is currently backed by Democrats, but Fitzgerald thinks the GOP will likely feel some pressure to support it as well. He notes that  Mike Turzai, the House majority leader, represents affluent suburbanites in the North Hills -- areas that will likely see steep increases in their tax bills under a reassement. Fitzgerald figures that the moratorium is going to look pretty good to Turzai's constituents.

Failing a legislative solution, Fitzgerald says the county should appeal the reassessment back to the state Supreme Court -- again. Fitzgerald says that in previous litigation, the county's attorneys didn't push county-to-county disparities hard enough. "The gubernatorial race came into play" he surmises: County Executive Dan Onorato was running for governor and "didn't want to be responsible for a [court ruling that required] reassessment in Erie and Fulton counties."

And what if neither the state Legislature nor the courts take action? 

Says Fitzgerald: "Assuming Plan A and B don't work -- which I think they will -- we'll go to Plan C." 

Fitzgerald allows that he might send out the bills -- if county council passes a measure requiring it and overrides his veto. But barring such action, he says, "I don't think [Wettick] is right. This should be in the hands of the county executive and county council." 

What's more, he adds, "Everywhere I go, municipal officials are passing resolutions saying, 'No, don't reassess.'"

Fitzgerald allows that freezing current values will hurt some communities -- especially hard-pressed places like Braddock, where actual property values have fallen precipitiously since the last assessment, but the tax burden remains unchanged. Still, says Fitzgerald, "The same problems exist in every county. We need to fix this statewide." 

But can a local official really just decide not to play ball until the rules change?

"You can always decide not to comply with the law," says Joe Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor with a background in local government. "But there are often unpleasant consequences." 

Mistick notes that if Fitzgerald did throw up a roadblock to the assessment process, a number of things could happen. The plaintiffs who sued to require the reassessment could file a mandamus action, which compels governmental officials to take actions they are duty-bound to execute. Or a judge could find Fitzgerald in contempt. 

Mistick doesn't think the Supreme Court will hear this matter all over again, however. "It's very rare that a court rules on a matter but then changes its mind because you say, 'Hey, come on.'" 

But ultimately, Mistick doesn't expect to see Fitzgerald clapped in irons, either. "I don't think this is a good governing strategy," he says. "But it might be a good election strategy."

And if it helps pressure Republicans like Turzai to ensure statewide tax fairness this year ... Rich Fitzgerald will have pulled off a major coup before even being elected.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

MP3 Monday: Big Hurry

Posted By on Mon, Feb 21, 2011 at 6:41 PM

I was scrambling on deadline for an MP3 to post today because a couple of prospects fell through temporarily -- you might say I was in a ... rush. Then the always-reliable Big Hurry came through with a single I played on WYEP a few weeks back. It's a fun little joint that builts a lot of tension then releases it into a danceable fun frenzy. It's the title track from the band's new EP (issued a fwe weeks ago) and it's here and free: Download "Gets Me Low," by Big Hurry!

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Pallus formally launches council bid

Posted By on Mon, Feb 21, 2011 at 11:13 AM

Brighton Heights resident Vince Pallus has made official a development we first reported nearly three weeks ago: A short time ago, he released a statement announcing his campaign against City Council President Darlene Harris in this year's Democratic primary.

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Pallus joins another contender in the race, Bobby Wilson, and has ties to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Pallus' campaign outreach is being handled by Zachary Mazefsky, who's the (fraternal) twin brother of mayoral policy director Gabe Mazefsky. Pallus also graduated from North Catholic High School, just a couple years ahead of Ravenstahl himself.

Ravenstahl would score a major coup if Harris was ousted; she won the council presidency last year by joining with an anti-mayor bloc, which has subsequently thwarted Ravenstahl's will on some key initiatives.

It's hard to avoid that subtext when you browse Pallus' nice-looking website, where you'll find assertions like this one:

Over the last four years, we’ve seen personal interests and power politics put above the well-being of everyone in our community. Together, we’ve watched what seems like an endless soap-opera of fighting within the administration , while dangerous, vacant homes continue to cripple our North Side neighborhoods, crime rates continue to soar, and roads go unpaved. 

As we've been seeing in district 3, this is becoming a meme in council races this year -- members of the Harris majority being attacked for uncivil debate, etc. 

We hope to speak with Pallus in the days ahead. For now, though, the full text of his campaign announcement follows:

Vince Pallus, 33, of Brighton Heights, announced today that he will be seeking the Democratic Endorsement for Pittsburgh City Council District 1, challenging incumbent Darlene Harris.

Vince was born and raised in Pittsburgh’s North Side, purchasing the Brighton Heights home in which his parents raised him and his three siblings.

"The reason I'm running to represent the people of the North Side is simple," said Vince. "The incumbent has made poor decisions that will negatively impact the taxpayers of the North Side and the City of Pittsburgh. I care deeply about the North Side neighborhoods, it's where I went to school, played ball, coached sports and where I call home. It's time that we elect a representative that will usher in change by putting the community's concerns first, not personal interests."

After 14 years in the private sector working his way up the ladder with a small, local business, Vince seeks to bring common-sense leadership to Pittsburgh City Council.

Vince graduated from North Catholic High School, where he later coached basketball. He is a member of the Risen Lord Parish located in the Brighton Heights neighborhood of the North Side. Vince volunteers with sports programs at North Catholic High School and for Kids' Chance of Pennsylvania.

"Over the course of my campaign, I look forward to speaking with constituents about their concerns for our community, and the changes they expect to see," Pallus said.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Local media landscape getting crowded with planned new online venture

Posted By on Fri, Feb 18, 2011 at 12:37 PM

So it looks like Charlie Humphrey, who heads up Pittsburgh Filmmakers, is launching an online news venture later this year, with help from the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Attentive City Paper readers shouldn't be surprised. We first reported on the foundation community's interest in such a venture back in June. That story came about in the context of discussions about the future of WDUQ, but clearly foundation officials were thinking about online models as well:

Grant Oliphant, who heads the Pittsburgh Foundation, notes that "much of our work involves strengthening communities." And one key to a healthy community is a public that is "engaged in decision-making and informed about what's going on." That's why, along with the Heinz Endowments especially, "We're very concerned about the future of journalism."

...

Local foundations have also followed the efforts of the Knight Foundation, a Miami-based grant-maker with roots in the newspaper business. Through its "New Voices" grants, Knight has helped fund upstart community journalism projects around the country -- from Oakland, Calif., to Coral Gables, Fla. 

Not all the resulting journalism has shaken the pillars of power ("Dutton/Brady [school] board approves three bus routes," read one recent Knight-funded headline) and some ventures have gone dark since getting Knight funding. But they have provided new forums for community discussion. And as a study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism notes, "some partnerships have begun between the old and the new media." Some newspapers, for example, share links and collaborate on reporting with local blogs. 

The Knight Foundation's ventures "tend to be really good models for how you could do something here," says Oliphant.

Today's news, not surprisingly, also includes Humphrey suggesting the possibility of partnerships with existing media. 

Nor is it particularly surprising to see him involved in the enterprise. Humphrey, after all, had been working as a public liasion with the foundations as they pondered WDUQ's fate. And at one time, he was the editor of the now-defunct In Pittsburgh -- an alt-weekly which predated City Paper, and which was eventually merged into it. (Full disclosure: I am a former In Pittsburgh employee myself, though I worked there after Humphrey's departure.) 

So in one way, this deal makes a hell of a lot of sense. (In fact, when I interviewed the Pittsburgh Foundation's Oliphant last summer, I recall asking him why the foundations were even thinking of trying to launch a journalism enterprise in a capital-intensive medium like radio.)

On the other hand, the venture raises some interesting questions. 

First, even though the foundations ultimately weren't involved with the sale of WDUQ, its new owners are apparently still planning to focus on local journalism. And as I said when they announced those plans, "when you consider Pittsburgh already has two daily papers -- each held by independent owners willing to sacrifice profit margins that corporate owners would insist on -- I'm not sure that the problem with journalism here is insufficient supply. It may be a lack of demand."

And I haven't even mentioned Patch.com -- a hyperlocal journalism initiative launched by AOL.com. In recent months, Patch.com has launched a series of community-level news sites in the area. Among them are sites covering areas like Regent Square and environs, Dormont/Brookline, and Upper St. Clair. Some of these sites are better than others, though there is some journalistic muscle here: Former Post-Gazette staffer Cindi Lash is a regional editor, and contributors include folks with journalistic experience (including a City Paper intern or two). 

As an alt-weekly editor, I believe strongly in having as many voices as possible. And as a reluctant capitalist, I am compelled to profess that competition is the bedrock of our society. A surplus in media outlets should -- at least in theory -- result in a winnowing process where only the best survive.

That said, I think one of the things that characterizes Pittsburgh is that there's a surplus of civic institutions -- many of which date back decades or even centuries -- while the citizenry has shrunk, and civic life has in many ways calcified.

The backers of this new venture, at least, aren't seeking to put anyone out of business. The Pittsburgh Foundation's Oliphant told the Post-Gazette today that the new venture "will hopefully supplement the traditional media in the community." I guess we'll see.

ADDED: More from the Pittsburgh Foundation on the initiative. Time to change out of those pyjamas and burnish those resumes, bloggers!

A process will begin shortly to appoint two full-time staff members, an editor and a web content manager. 

...

The Pittsburgh on-line news initiative will seek to work closely with regional partners in the mainstream broadcasting and print media, and initially will use a core of independent freelance journalists for news and feature story assignments.
 
... 
 
Charlie Humphrey added: "We cannot continue to view news and information production in silos where everyone is rushing to scoop everyone else. We need to look beyond that competitive model and look for ways to strengthen all media outlets."
 
Like I said: I guess we'll see. 

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