BLOGH: City Paper's Blog |
Friday, March 20, 2015

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2015 at 2:33 PM

“How many dead people in Juarez does it take for one person in New York City to consume a gram of cocaine?”

Photo courtesy of Judith Torrea
The question occurred to Judith Torrea, 41, at a Manhattan dinner party. Originally from a mountain village in the Basque region of Spain, Torrea now lives in Juarez, Mexico — dubbed in 2009 as the most dangerous city in the world. She describes the Manhattan moment in her blog, Under the Shadow of Drug Trafficking.

At the time, 2009, she was senior writer for the Spanish edition of People magazine, working from an office in Rockefeller Center. “Powerful people parties” with white powder were part of her life. Asked amidst a circle of millionaires planning a museum fundraising gala and a weekend in the Hamptons, the question stopped the show.

Not long after, Torrea took her savings to Juarez, which she’d first visited in 1997 and often since. She’s the only international journalist living at this principle gateway for drugs from Columbia to the U.S. At a City of Asylum/Pittsburgh salon two days ago, on the North Side, Torrea told her story to a full house of 75 people.

Charming even as she presents horrifying anecdotes, Torrea impresses as a multilingual journalist who’s operated in powerful circles and does not evade discomfiting reality.

“Juarez is not a beautiful place,” she says. But “I fell in love there,” she says of meeting the “most inspiring people I’ve met,” the mothers of missing women.

A city of about a million people, Juarez has since 2007 suffered (according to Mexican government data) more than 11,000 murders — “mostly poor people,” says Torrea, “who have no connection with drugs.”

Torrea says the maquiladora system of cheap labor for American- and European-owned factories is a large part of the problem. A typical salary is $40 a week. “It’s impossible to live on that.” Hence youth are fertile ground for gangs and violence.

After a year of blogging from Juarez, Torrea was down to $200 and facing a painful choice. An unexpected telephone call told her she’d won the 2010 Ortega y Gasset Prize, roughly equivalent to the Pulitzer for Latin America and Spain. It brought $12,000 after taxes.

Despite death threats, Torrea stays in the city she now calls home. Even worse than death threats, she says, was being robbed of her notes and computer (at a conference in Mexico City). “At first I was depressed, and then thought, ‘It’s not my daughter. I don’t have a daughter.’ Then I couldn’t feel bad.”

Courage? Not exactly what you expect to find at a Pittsburgh literary salon on a Wednesday evening. But Torrea, a presence at 6’2", strikes me as one of the most courageous people I’ve been in a room with.

“The most difficult thing, more than threat of death,” she says, “is to protect your soul.” For her that has meant choosing to be, rather than a NYC journalist, a blogger in Juarez.

See Judith Torrea on YouTube in English here, here and here.

Tags: , , , ,

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2015 at 2:26 PM

To mark the first day of spring, area residents from northern city neighborhoods and boroughs, including Avalon, Brighton Heights and Ben Avon, presented a "Closed-Window Award" to DTE Energy's Shenango coke plant on Neville Island. The award, which was taken to the plant's front gate, was an actual closed window.

"We talked to a guard who said, 'You can't be here,' but we said, 'You know you just won a very prestigious award.' The whole thing was very tongue-in-cheek," organizer Tom Hoffman told City Paper after the event. Hoffman consults for the group Allegheny County Clean Air Now, a community organization concerned about air quality in the neighborhoods surrounding the Shenango coke plant. 

The dozen residents who presented the window award this morning did so because of foul odors they say they can smell from the plant.

"This community has a lot of old houses. I still have radiator heat, so when it’s hot outside, there’s no central air [conditioning]. You either open the windows and smell Shenango, or keep them closed and swelter," said Leah Andrascik, a member of ACCAN and resident of Avalon, which is across the river from the Neville Island plant. "I got involved in this because I have two small kids, a 3-year-old and a 20-month-old. Last summer, I noticed there were more days than I could count that I had to bring them in because it smelled so bad. I’m not sure what they’re breathing in when it smells like that. So we go inside and kind of hunker down."

Andrascik says the odors are difficult to explain but sometimes smell like rotten eggs or chemicals.

DTE Energy, the owner of Shenango, Inc., says it wasn't contacted by the group of residents who came to the plant's gates this morning but that the company saw it on social media.

“While odors are subjective and can originate from many different sources, we are continuously evaluating our systems to determine if any issues could be contributing to the concerns across the river,” said a spokesperson for DTE Energy. 

DTE Energy says residents should call 412-777-6600, if they smell a foul odor.

"Since being acquired by DTE Energy Services, Shenango has improved its environmental performance to comply with over 100 federal, state and county regulations,” said the DTE Energy spokesperson.

The company entered into a consent agreement with the Allegheny County Health Department last April regarding emissions limits. There is also a pending lawsuit against the plant for emissions limits violations, which was filed last May by the local organization Group Against Smog and Pollution. 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2015 at 12:18 PM

click to enlarge Rendering of Persad's new location - IMAGE COURTESY OF PERSAD CENTER
Image courtesy of Persad Center
Rendering of Persad's new location
Persad Center, the second-oldest counseling center in the country that serves the LGBT community, has called Garfield home for roughly three decades. But at noon, on March 23, the organization will open its doors in Lawrenceville, taking over a newly designed 11,500-square-foot space.

The change isn't merely geographic: "The move really represents a plan on the part of our board of directors for significant program expansion," explains Persad Executive Director Betty Hill.

The new Lawrenceville location, at 5301 Butler St., will have a youth center with after-school programs; medical-exam rooms that will help "bridge" medical care and refer people to appropriate providers, expand STD testing and transgender-related healthcare; a senior center with meal programs, legal support, social activities and case management; and a training and technology center that will host everything from guest speakers to in-house training of outside organizations.

The new Lawrenceville location will have:

* a youth center with after-school programs; 

* medical-exam rooms that will help "bridge" medical care and refer people to appropriate providers, as well as expand STD testing and transgender-related health care; and 

* a senior center with meal programs, legal support, social activities and case management; 

* a training and technology center that will host everything from guest speakers to in-house training of outside organizations.

click to enlarge Persad Center's new space in Lawrenceville - PHOTO BY ALEX ZIMMERMAN
Photo by Alex Zimmerman
Persad Center's new space in Lawrenceville
But Hill wants the new space to serve a larger, community-wide purpose. Since many LGBT organizations don't have dedicated space, there will be rooms where those organizations can hold meetings and work. "We want to be a hub of community activity, which we think will generate lots of different creative relationships and solutions for the community."

If you're interested in checking out the space or learning more about Persad's new programs, drop by its inaugural open house Sat., March 28, from 1-3 p.m.

“It’s a different kind of coming out for us,” Hill says. "While there’s still a lot of privacy in the building, this is a much more visible space for the overall community.” 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2015 at 11:36 AM

Photo courtesy of Hills and Rivers Covenant of the Goddess

Here's a post-St. Patrick's Day party you maybe weren't aware of.

Noting that the "snakes" Patrick drove out of Ireland were actually metaphors for the druids, pagans and wiccans who refused to submit to church rule, the Hills and Rivers Local Council of the Covenant of the Goddess is holding this fundraiser at Cattivo.

Hills and Rivers is a locally based nonprofit that supports wiccan and pagan groups here through education, interfaith activities and community engagement.

Tonight's party features live music by the band Wicked and performances by the Fuste Vartej belly-dancers. The event logo is a snake happily drinking a beer.

The party runs 8 p.m. till closing. It's 21 and over. Admission is $15, and proceeds benefit Hills and Rivers.

Cattivo is located at 146 44th St., in Lawrenceville. 

Tags: , , , , ,

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 4:56 PM

The CP Weekend podcast for March 20-March 22 is now available here on the City Paper website. In store for you this weekend: Enjoy a beautiful day in the neighborhood, attend Bach’s b-day bash, and don’t fear the reaper.

The podcast is hosted by our Music Editor Margaret Welsh and produced by me, Multimedia Editor Ashley Murray. For updates on what's happening this weekend, follow the hashtag #CPWeekend on Facebook and Twitter.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 3:02 PM

There aren't that many places on the internet where it's just as easy to find an LGBT-friendly bar as it is to find a support group, but the Pitt Men's Study Community Advisory Board has done just that.

Maybe you missed it (I certainly did), but the site, LGBTQ Pittsburgh, is basically ... well, the name kind of says it all. Trans resources: check. Gay friendly religious groups: yep. Also: bars, student groups and news updates.

“It’s relatively new – we’re just trying to show people it’s there,” says Jessica McGuinness, a clinical specialist at the Pitt Men's Study. She explains they started kicking around the idea for the website after Pittsburgh's Out — an LGBT publication — folded. Out was "always really good about posting health updates — especially during the HIV outbreak," McGuinness says. "They were also really good about keeping resources. But since then, there hasn't really been a really good collection of these resources for people to go: from the bars [to] support groups."

The website's creators acknowledge they might be missing some stuff and encourage suggestions, feedback and additions to the site by emailing

Tags: , , , , ,

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 11:55 AM

Wilson made his name by publicly questioning his own musical preferences when he chose to write about a mega-selling Celine Dion album for the 33 1/3 series.

The author of 2007's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, who now writes for Slate, gives a free talk at 8:30 p.m. this Wednesday night (March 25) at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, courtesy of Pitt. (The auditorium is located at 650 Schenley Drive.) He recently spoke with CP by phone.

What are you planning to talk about in Pittsburgh?
It will be a general discussion of ideas in music and the social issues around taste: kind of the central themes of the book

How did the book come about? I read that you had pitched a couple other ideas for the 33 1/3 series before settling on this.
[33 1/3 series editors] originally approached me. I threw out a couple ideas that were about more obscure things — a Randy Newman album and a Pere Ubu album — and the editors were a little skeptical about the audience for both of those things [laughs]. So, after being told that things were too obscure, I kind of went the other way.

I didn’t know what I was going to focus on, but I went to the Recording Association’s website, just looking at what the biggest-selling albums of all time were. And — this isn’t true anymore — but at the time there were three Celine Dion albums in the top 20 best-selling albums of all time. That kind [brought out] this idea that I’d been kicking around in my head for a long time, about doing an investigation of taste. I think that Celine kind of stood — for me, at a certain point in my life — as the ultimate in sort of mainstream, homogenized music.

And so, the question [was about] the contrast between [my] reaction to her, and [her] massive success, which, when you looked at the stats, really kind of blow you away. I thought, ‘How can I feel so differently about this than so many other people?"

How did the editors react when you pitched Let’s Talk About Love?
I almost expected them to say no, and [thought I would] have to talk them into it. But they got the idea right away. That was an encouraging thing, because of the resonance of the idea, but also because the focus of the [33 1/3] series wasn’t as narrow as it seemed. They weren’t just trying to make a canonical list of the accepted great albums of all time. They were interested in exploring the concept of how you could write these short books about music from all kinds of angles. So, their enthusiasm for it really spurred me on.

There was a review in The New Yorker that said reading this book might make you a better person. Do you think that writing it made you a better person?
[Laughs] Yeah, I think that that was what it was about for me. As a critic I’m interested in these concepts of taste and aesthetics, and what it really came down to for me [was] the idea that these kind of taste-boxes that we put ourselves in separate us from other groups of people. And in our society — especially in the last 10 years — if you look at the political scene and if you look at race issues and if you look at sort of general hostility that happens on the Internet, there are all these problems of us putting ourselves in to demographic categories. [We] imagine people in other categories as somehow completely alien to us. I think there’s kind of a deep kind of humanist idea to this, that other people should never be alien to you in any fundamental way. To me [the book] really was about trying to work through that kind of moral problem.

How did it change you as a critic?
I think that the impetus of the project, in many ways, was this question of where critical authority comes from. You know, who am I to make pronouncements and claims [or] to rank or star or give letter-grades to things that other people might see in really different ways? I really strive now to include that sense of subjectivity to my work, and to make sure I’m signaling where I’m coming from.

Yours is one of the most popular books in the 33 1/3 series. Why do you think people feel connected to it?
The sense that I get is that it’s a dilemma that a lot of people can identify with. I think that it’s kind of a mirror for people. And I think that with this particular example, I was lucky that it turned out to be something recognizable. And I think there’s a sense of humor to using [Celine] as that case [study] as well. The book has been out for years now in different forms, and people seem to still respond to that. When I talk to undergraduate college students they still seem to respond.

What led you to reissue the book about a year ago?
The book had kind of developed a life that went beyond the 33 1/3 series, and I felt like I wanted it to exist as a stand-alone book. But the other side of it was that there had been all this rich reaction and conversation in relationship to it over the years, and I wanted to share that side of it with readers. I wanted to incorporate that dialogue itself into the book. And that made it feel like a rounding off of the project. I was really lucky to have some really brilliant writers and great people contributing their ideas to the back half of the book.

James Franco contributed an essay to the reissue, which seems both strange and very appropriate.
James kind of [played] a role in the book’s life because he endorsed it in a very public way [in a red carpet interview], which [allowed it to reach] more people. And from talking to him about it, [I realized] that there were ways that it influenced the kind of interesting, eccentric [direction] that his work has taken since then. So I wanted to invite him to talk about that and make that connection. 

Tags: , , , , ,

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 11:09 AM

As early as April, Port Authority riders will be able to load virtual cash and passes on their ConnectCards through a web portal instead of at vending machines or retailers, the agency announced this morning.

But there's a catch: The website won't update ConnectCards in real-time; the process will likely take several hours — or up to a day in some cases.

The move is part of the transit agency's attempt to modernize and give riders more flexibility, says Thomas Noll, PAT's director of technical support and capital programs.
CP File Photo by Heather Mull

The new web portal will allow users to use a credit or debit card to add cash; buy passes; set up recurring passes that will automatically bill the relevant card; and let riders to manage multiple ConnectCards from a single account (such as parents who want to add virtual cash to a child's card).

The website will also allow users to load passes up to a month in advance of their use and add fare products "anonymously" to their ConnectCard without the agency storing personal information, Noll says.

So why won't the cards get information from the web portal in real-time?

Noll explains that the authority's busses and trains aren't equipped with cell technology that lets them connect with the internet.

Fare information taken from the web portal "is relayed to our central computer system," Noll says, but "that information needs to get on a bus."

The only way a bus will get updated information is when it visits a garage, which happens at least twice a day: when it leaves at the beginning of a run and returns at the end.

"When you add a cellular device" to every bus in the system, "it adds cost," Noll says.

Still, the web portal will likely represent a significant improvement from the current system, in which a rider must visit one of 61 vending machines or roughly 69 retailers to load their cards.

For now, the authority doesn't have plans for a mobile app; the only web interface will be the agency's website.

The new portal is in a pilot phase with 60 riders — and barring any hiccups, Noll says, "We should be ready to go next month."

Tags: , , , , ,

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 10:03 AM

Every Wednesday, we make a Spotify playlist containing tracks from artists covered in the current music section or included in our concert listings or mentioned on the CP Weekend Podcast. Listen! Read!

click to enlarge Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee - COURTESY OF JESSE RIGGINS
Courtesy of Jesse Riggins
Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee

Tags: ,

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Posted By on Wed, Mar 18, 2015 at 4:10 PM

The Associated Artists of Pittsburgh opens its Black & White show at Lawrenceville’s Framehouse/Jask Gallery.

click to enlarge Nancy McNary Smith's porcelain sculpture "Fruit and Veggies," part of "Black & White"
Nancy McNary Smith's porcelain sculpture "Fruit and Veggies," part of "Black & White"
The show features works in a range of media by two dozen of AAP’s 550-some members from the region. The exhibit – all work in black and white, naturally – was juried by Jeff Jarzynka, an independent creative director and consultant with a background in design and marketing.

The artists featured include Ruthanne Bauerle, Richard Claraval, Rae Gold, Paula Garrick Klein, Mark Panza, Christopher Ruane and Bob Ziller.

The opening reception runs 6-9 p.m. this Friday at the Framehouse/Jask Gallery. The building, located at 100 43rd St., is the IceHouse complex, which also houses AAP itself.

The show runs until April 17.

AAP, at 102 years old, is among the nation’s longest-running artist-member organizations.

Tags: , , , , ,