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Monday, June 30, 2014

Posted By on Mon, Jun 30, 2014 at 4:11 PM

During a tour of Larimer, Federal Housing Administration Commissioner Carol Galante passed dozens of vacant lots and deteriorating houses. But along the way she also passed the neighborhood's Environmental and Energy Outreach Center, a branch of Chatham University, and the popular Bakery Square — signs that one of Pittsburgh's long forgotten neighborhoods is being reborn.

Galante was in Pittsburgh today to announce another step in Larimer's growth, a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods implementation grant. The grant will be used to build a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, green infrastructure, and community support services.

"While housing is at the core, some of the funds can be used for what I call the glue," Galante said. "So not only will it help with some of the hard development, but also the community infrastructure."

Pittsburgh competed with 43 communities for the grant and was one of four cities awarded. The funds will be combined with local investment to create $90 million in total development.

"This grant is going to help create some of our vision for the neighborhood," said Malik Bankston, executive director of the Kingsley Association. "We're leveraging resources to jump-start some of the more extensive planning and development we need to get people to stay in our community."

Committed funders include City of Pittsburgh, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Dollar Bank, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, The New App for Making It In America, Pittsburgh Public Schools, and The Pittsburgh Promise. The funds will be used to build more than 300 housing units in Larimer and East Liberty.

"It will link the East Liberty development to Larimer in a seamless way," said Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess. "It will be transformed and it will also lead to new development in Lincoln/Lemington and Homewood."

And this summer, two housing developments are already set to start construction. In July Keith B Key enterprises will start on 40 scattered site units, and construction of 85 mixed-income rental units will begin later.

"We've been dis-invested for over 55 years," said Evelyn Brooks, a member of the Larimer Consensus board. "It's been long over due so I'm very happy about the outcome."

"I think it's a beautiful thing," said 43-year Larimer resident Betty Lane. "It's going to spur more interest and investment in the neighborhood."

Posted By on Mon, Jun 30, 2014 at 1:10 PM


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Posted By on Sun, Jun 29, 2014 at 9:50 AM

Tonight's the second and final chance to see this lively, fun and moving show about four political refugees who wound up in Pittsburgh.

And if you like brass-band music, you'll love the concert afterward.

And the whole thing's free.

Lost and Found: Finding Refuge in Pittsburgh consists of four short performance works by the Czech Republic's Archa Theatre, each telling the story of a different refugee — in most cases, with said refugee being part of the show. The concert's by the Allstar Refugee Band, a multinational effort that for this weekend's concerts includes some Pittsburgh musicians among its 14 members.

The North Side shebang is made possible by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.

I saw last night's show, and it's well worth the 3.5 hours: a little theater, a little geopolitical consciousness-raising, and some foot-stomping tunes to cap it off.

You'll congregate at COAP's Sampsonia Way tent by 5:45 p.m., get assigned to a group, and then sent, in sequence, to four nearby ad hoc performance spaces. (One of them is Randyland, which every Pittsburgher should see anyway.)

The refugees whose stories are told with the help of actors from Archa and the Pittsburgh community include: dissident Iraqi engineer Mazen Al Qatia; Congolese teachers Lina and Manuel Kateng; Bhutanese refugee Dahdi Ram Chhetri; and Nepalese refugee Menuka Bhattarai.

If you're not up on the plight of the world's millions of political and economic refugees — and maybe even if you are — these stories are astounding. Three of these refugees, for instance, spent more than a decade in a refugee camp before they managed to emigrate to the U.S. Al Qatia's hair's-breadth escape from Saddam's Iraq alone is a thriller.

The stories are told straightforwardly, with stagecraft adding depth. My only quibble is that you never learn exactly why any of the refugees ended up in Pittsburgh, of all place.

The concert is an all-out party, complete with raucous beats and an accordion solo. The Allstar Refugee Band is an ensemble effort, but if there's a star it's probably Jing Lu, a native of China now living in Prague. She's a hell of a vocalist and a skilled ham. (Earlier in the evening, she also helps tell Menuka's story.)

As of last night, there were still open spots for tonight's show. You can also show up early — say, 5:30 p.m. for the 6 p.m. performance — and get on a waiting list, because no-shows and cancellations are likely.

The theater pieces start at 6 p.m., the concert at 8:30 p.m. (In between, there's a short street parade for musicians and the audience.) And bring an umbrella: Last night we got rained on a little between the halves. But no one seemed to mind.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Posted By on Fri, Jun 27, 2014 at 12:50 PM

The Port Authority board announced today it will hold a public meeting to discuss possible funding streams for a $4 million study of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) — a project that would create separately branded rapid bus service between Downtown and Oakland.

The study is a necessary step to qualify for federal funding, according to board chairman Robert Hurley, because the Federal Transit Administration requires an environmental analysis of the project as well as engineering plans, including "vetting" alternative routes (converting a lane of Forbes Avenue or additional lane on Fifth Avenue to be bus-only, for instance).

A date for the meeting has not yet been set, but will be held in the next couple weeks, Hurley says.

"I believe this board is in favor of [BRT]," Hurley says, "It's really a development project that has support" from the business and medical community.

The county is kicking in $1 million for the study — other funding streams will be discussed at the meeting (including amendments to the authority's $388 million operating budget which includes no fare hikes or service cuts, and was approved unanimously today along with a $183 million capital budget).

The board previously contracted with Parsons Brinkerhoff for $1.5 million to conduct an analysis of alternatives and environmental study of the BRT project, but changes in the authority's leadership and board stalled the process, Hurley said. (The FTA also changed its rules and now allows transit agencies to conduct one large study that includes an engineering analysis instead of several small studies, according to Chris Sandvig, regional policy director at the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group).

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a BRT supporter, has previously said the project could cost around $200 million, though Hurley notes the study "will help us figure out what the real future cost is."

Some transit advocates have question the wisdom of an investment that large in a transit corridor that is already well-served, arguing the agency should be putting its resources into restoring routes that have lost service.

That argument got some support from North Baldwin residents who showed up at the board meeting this morning to ask Port Authority to restore route 50-Spencer, which was cut in 2011.

Hurley said he's received "a number of letters" on restoring service to Baldwin. He said he couldn't promise service restoration, but "The board is going to take a look at where we need to restore service."

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Posted By on Fri, Jun 27, 2014 at 10:23 AM

The Brooklyn Brewery Mash tour rolled into town this week and the festival closes with a bash of "new school rockers" tomorrow night.

The Mash Bash, a show that serves as the Pittsburgh stop's closing party, features Massachusetts' Speedy Ortiz and Pittsburgh's own Legs Like Tree Trunks and The Lopez. The event also includes video artists, local apparel collaborators and food trucks.

Touted as "what's next in food, film, comedy, music books and beer," the beer-focused festival boasts dinner parties, comedy, concerts, readings and more. The Pittsburgh Mash tour stop started June 21 and ends tomorrow, Sat., June 28. The Mash Tour is visiting 12 cities, including 11 in the United States and London. It started in March, in Nashville, and will end in Austin, Texas, in November.

Mash Bash will be held at Club Cafe Saturday night and features Speedy Ortiz, Legs Like Tree Trunks and The Lopez. 56 S. 12th St., South Side. Free. 412-431-4950

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Posted By on Thu, Jun 26, 2014 at 4:56 PM

At a meeting at Lighthouse Cathedral on June 26, a group of community partners presented a draft of their plan for the Hilltop Farm on the former Saint Clair Village public-housing project. The effort is being lead by: the Hilltop Alliance, a community group representing nearby neighborhoods; Grow Pittsburgh, an urban agriculture nonprofit; the Allegheny Land Trust, which works to protect land of natural value; Penn State Extension, Allegheny County; and Lighthouse Cathedral.

Site Plan
  • Site Plan

Under the proposal — which must be approved by the city Housing Authority, which owns the land, and by the federal government — the site will include a "farm incubator" with 19 quarter-acre plots. These plots will be used for a farmer-development program; Hilltop residents will be given priority for placement in the program.

A youth farm will take up one-half to one acre of the site, while other space will be devoted to a community garden, community park and playground.

"There are quite a few young people in the area and [the need to provide] opportunities for young people is something we've heard time and time again in consideration for this site," said Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh.

Five acres of the area will be devoted to community supported agriculture (CSA). People will buy shares or memberships and will in return receive regular boxes of produce grown on the farm. Revenue from the CSA will be used to support other programs at the site and could also be used to subsidize subscription boxes for nearby low-income residents.

The next phase of the process will include interaction with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, an environmental review of the site, traffic study, zoning changes, and more community outreach. Some work has already been done.

"Preliminary soil testing has eliminated a lot of the concerns we had with things like lead poisoning," Pezzino said.

Hilltop Alliance expects to present the proposal to the HACP board, which could either sell or lease the site, as early as this autumn. The plan wouldthen go before the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, perhaps as early as winter 2015.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 26, 2014 at 2:29 PM

Today the US Supreme Court unanimously overturned a Massachusetts state law establishing a "buffer zone" that keeps anti-choice protesters at arm's length from the entrance to abortion clinics. But while Pittsburgh has a buffer-zone ordinance of its own, at least one abortion-rights advocate says it's too early to say what the ruling's impact here will be.

The ruling, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts and backed by the court's four liberal justices, held that the rules in Massachusetts "impose serious burdens on petitioners' speech." And by precluding demonstrations within 35 feet feet of a clinic entrance, Roberts wrote, the law risked "sweeping in innocent individuals and their speech." (The court's most conservative justices, while concurring in the decision's result, took a tougher line, arguing that buffer zones inherently favor the speech rights of clinic workers and abortion proponents.)

Pittsburgh also has an ordinance establishing buffer zones around clinic entrances -- though the zones have a radius of 15 feet, less than half the size of the zone in Massachusetts. Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto, says that the solicitor's office will be reviewing the ruling for any potential impact on the city ordinance. (UPDATE: Late this afternoon, McNulty said that "while this ruling requires careful study, we think Pittsburgh's law is narrowly tailored enough to stand." He outlined reasons presented elsewhere in this piece.)

Whether the city's zone is affected by today's ruling "is a really good question," says Sue Frietsche, an attorney with the Women's Law Project. "I don't want to give a definitive answer about what's going to happen in Pittsburgh because I don't know yet. There's a lot to look at, but I wouldn't assume that our ordinance is going to fail the constitutional test, because it is very different."

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Posted By on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 at 5:33 PM

Thanks to his days booking shows at the Mr. Roboto Project — and time spent playing in bands like Adult Field Trip — Rick Moslen knows a thing or two about Pittsburgh-based music. On Friday, he’ll release Drag Me Home, a collaborative CD and zine featuring songs by 22 local bands, corresponding work by 22 visual artists and various writings by Brendan Sullivan, Ryan Kaufmann, Cassidy Gruber and others.

“After seeing the local music ‘scene’ from so many different angles, I noticed that a lot of bands and show attendees don't necessarily know what's happening outside their smaller micro-scene or group of friends,” Moslen says. “It's like, hey young punk kids, or, hey older scenesters, there's this weird and heavy band Night Vapor, or this melodically beautiful band Trapper's Harp, or this super catchy indie pop band The Lampshades who you'd probably all REALLY like, but you don't know they exist.”

Beginning early this year, Moslen solicited bands from a mix of genres, not knowing what songs would be submitted, or how they would work together. “I wanted there to be some kind of flow while still keeping things balanced within the indie rock/punk realm,” he says. “It's a good (though not by any means thorough) representation of what's happening musically in the East End, even though there's a ton of great hardcore bands, noise artists, folk rockers, electronic artists, and DJ's doing fantastic stuff who unfortunately aren't on here.”

Furthering collaborative spirit of the project, Moslen enlisted folks like Jeff Betten of Wild Kindness Records, who helped with CD duplication, Garrett Haines of Treelady Studios, who mastered the comp and Brandon Locher of My Idea of Fun, who is releasing the finished product on the MIOF website.

In the end, the project has reinforced what Moslen already knew. “Seriously, every time I had a new song or piece or artwork or essay waiting in my e-mail inbox, it felt like Christmas,” he says. “And everything submitted was legitimately REALLY good—it made all the hours working on this so much easier. We have such a talented city.”

Drag Me Home release show feat. The Harlan Twins, Host Skull, Allies, Cyrus Gold, The Lopez, Trappers Harp, Driver, more. 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 27. The Mr. Roboto Project/BUNKERprojects, 5106 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $3.

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Posted By on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 at 4:40 PM

The Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers (AFA-USW), says adjunct instructors at Point Park University have voted to form a union. After a campaign that has been underway for the first half of 2014, the vote in favor was 172 to 79; a handful of additional votes are under review.

"The adjunct instructors have spoken very clearly with this vote," Steelworkers International President Leo W. Gerard said in a statement. "Now it's time for the Point Park administration to work with them to craft a fair collective bargaining agreement."

In the university's own statement, spokesman Lou Corsaro acknowledged that "adjunct faculty voted in favor of United Steel Workers representation. We are pleased that so many adjunct faculty members took the time to make their voices heard on this important issue. We respect the decision made by those eligible to vote and look forward to working with all faculty members to fulfill Point Park's mission of educating the next generation."

The vote was carried out earlier this month by mail-in ballot; some 314 adjuncts were eligible to vote.

Organizers were giddy about the results.

"It's a decisive victory," said Matthew Ussia, a volunteer with the union who himself works as a non-tenure-track/full time teacher at Duquesne University, by phone. "We're still reveling. I'm actually standing outside Tonic [a bar not far from the federal Department of Labor office where the votes were counted] right now."

The next step, Ussia says, is that the adjuncts will choose a bargaining team and seek to begin negotiations with Point Park. Ussia said he couldn't provide a timeline for that yet, though he said, "I think people will want to move quickly, now that we have momentum."

Union allies were quick to trumpet the outcome. Adjuncts are "saying NO to poverty wages ... and yes to fairness and workers' voices on the job," said Barney Oursler, the executive director of economic-justice group Pittsburgh UNITED, in a statement. "We expect that the University will respect their worker's voices and their rights and move into negotiations in good faith and without a challenge."

A previous union bid at Point Park hasn't gone quite that smoothly. As City Paper noted in April, Point Park has been engaged in a decade-long fight against a bid to organize full-time instructors at the school. RJ Hufnagel, a spokesman for the Steelworkers union, acknowledged that history. But even so, he added, "Today is a good day."

Posted By on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 at 4:19 PM

According to the website there are more than 20 varieties of edible trees in Pittsburgh. And one organization is suggesting that the fruit from these trees be harvested and given to local food banks.

This notion was behind one of the many innovations presented at the Public Allies leadership conference today. Public Allies places participants with local nonprofits, and several of the allies in this year’s class have spent the past year working on the issue of food insecurity.

Among them was Rose Smiechowski, who was inspired by one of her former Chatham University instructors, Carolyn Barber, to co-found Hidden Harvest Pittsburgh, an organization that promotes urban harvesting initiatives throughout the city. Similar organizations, like one in British Columbia, were able to harvest 30,000 pounds of fruit in one year from urban trees.

“Fruit tree harvesting is a way to make use of a neglected and valuable source of food,” Smiechowski said. “Apples down the street have the same benefits as apples from the store, and are often fresher.”

Meanwhile, according to Jacob Myers, another Public Allies presenter, 20 to 40 percent of the food that’s grown in the United States is never consumed.

Myers spent his year with the Pittsburgh Community Foodbank; his presentation focused on how individuals can reduce their own food waste. By reducing wasted food, Myers said, households can reduce their spending on food; the resulting savings could be given to the Foodbank, which takes every dollar donated and turns it into $5 worth of food.

Jessica Ruffin, who serves as the Public Allies site director, acknowledges the innovations presented throughout the day are ambitious, but she hopes the local leaders invited to attend the conference were listening.

“I know it's very idealistic, but the reason we have this conference is we realized some of the insight [our allies] had needed to be shared with a much broader audience,” Ruffin said. “We're hoping a good bit of the innovations are something they can grab and take back to their organization."

Another ally, Linda Kuster, recently accepted a position with the YWCA, where she has been helping individuals with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program application process. She said 35 to 40 percent of applications are denied, and more support is needed to help people navigate the process.

“It's no secret that there's a huge problem with Pennsylvania's food-stamp system,” Kuster said.

The conference concluded with keynote speaker Leah Lizarondo, a food and health advocate and creator of The Brazen Kitchen, a healthy-living blog. While Lizarondo praised initiatives like urban farms and food education in schools, she said local government needs to play a greater role in the health of the city.

“Those initiatives are limited because they're not mandated by the city,” Lizarondo said. “We need the backing of the city.”