Localism | BLOGH: City Paper's Blog |
Thursday, October 1, 2015

Posted By on Thu, Oct 1, 2015 at 9:03 AM

Can't remember when recycling day is? There's an app for that. Gone are the days of searching the city's website for the trash-collection schedule. Now, it comes to you.

Thanks to the winners of 2014's annual Steel City Codefest competition, you can now get email and text reminders the evening before your neighborhood's garbage day. (Full disclosure: I've already signed up.)

Users can search their address and zip code at PGH.ST and then enter an email address and phone number. From there, the app automatically remembers a user's address when re-visiting the page, displaying that neighborhood's trash calendar. Email and text alerts are sent out at approximately 6 p.m. 

"My philosophy about PGH.ST, and other things, is that I’m interested in making Pittsburgh a cooler place," says David Walker, an academic-writing consultant, who was a member of the team that created the winning app. Other team members included Ady Ngom, Tricia Handke, Matt Marriotti and Quintin Lovicks.

PGH.ST's interface is visually appealing and user-friendly; it's colored-coded according to the type of trash the city plans to collect from each street that week. Also, there are no Central-Eastern, Northern-Southern maps to navigate, as is the case currently on the city's website.

"The idea of something that can be used by a lot of people, and can improve their daily lives even in a small way, is very appealing, and I also like the fact that it was something I could use myself," Walker says, who codes as a hobby and is interested in pursuing it professionally. "It really is easier to develop something that you’re going to use yourself, because you know exactly how it should work."

The City of Pittsburgh proposed the challenge to the participants of Steel City Codefest, an annual competition that began in 2013, in which teams have 24-hours to develop a useful app. Teams can bring their own ideas or take on a challenge from a local organizations, businesses or government.

"We do heavily push the nonprofit applications because we just found they have a wider diversity of interesting issues to deal with," says Jennifer Wilhelm, of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, which coordinates the competition. Google is a founding partner, and the event is sponsored by The Forbes Fund and the BNY Mellon Foundation, among others. Sponsors also offer grants for teams to finalize their projects once the 24-hour competition is finished — which is how Walker and his team finished their app.

The 2015 winner was 412 Food Rescue, which connects restaurants, caterers and large businesses to food banks and other organizations that can utilize unused food that would otherwise go to waste.

"It allows nonprofits to be able to get technology that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. We’re very careful to source challenges that don’t already have obvious solutions," Wilhelm says. "They’re [participants] creating something new that’s filling a void."

Ironically, the end result of Walker and his team's efforts is not exactly what the original challenge from the city entailed: The city wanted an app to alert people, not only about trash and recycling pick-up, but also of when street sweeping would occur in their neighborhoods.

Walker says that "motivated" him "more than trash reminders," but he says the city couldn't give him and his team a database of street-by-street cleaning schedules. He says that some day he hopes he and his team will have a chance to develop that app but that they "can't make any promises."

He says: "I think that would be a really cool if my phone could tell me you better move your car because the street is being swept tomorrow."

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Friday, August 28, 2015

Posted By on Fri, Aug 28, 2015 at 9:30 AM

It seems like everyday another scholar, journalist or parent comes up with a new way to "fix public education." See examples here, here and here.

 But what if a local school district could be helped by something as simple as pencils?

That's the idea behind #2MillPencils, a fundraising drive to collect two million pencils for students in the Wilkinsburg School District. The effort, spearheaded by local nonprofit Internationally Smart Is Cool, would provide enough pencils for 2,000 Wilkinsburg students to have 200 each for the next five years. 

"I hope that it shows that something very small can make a difference," says Jamillia Kamara, the organization's founder. "One pencil can write 45,000 words. You don’t need millions of dollars to help communities, you can give 10 cents."

According to anecdotal evidence and the results of a small survey, Kamara, a former teacher who taught first and fifth grades, says pencils are one of the main school supplies teachers say they lack.

"Students don’t have pencils ever," says Kamara. "It was identified that pencils were the number-one item that students didn’t have by teachers." 

The Wilkinsburg School School district has long struggled with poor student achievement. In 2014, the state Department of Education ranked all four Wilkinsburg schools among the lowest-performing in the state.

"We were looking for schools to partner with, and Wilkinsburg schools were really receptive," says Kamara. "There’s a great sense of community there and collaboration that I found attractive."

The pencil drive will run from Sept. 7 to Dec. 3, but right now Kamara is calling on businesses and organizations to serve as drop-off sites. Each drop-off site will also need two storage bins. Those interested in helping can donate a bin or funds to buy one. Donors can also contribute to a Go Fund Me campaign. Later, Kamara will need volunteers to help count and box the pencils and transport them.

"Right now, to get us up and running, the biggest source of help we need is funding and sponsorships," Kamara says. "The barrier to entry is low. It’s something that everyone can grab on to."

Beyond this effort, Internationally Smart is Cool is focused on serving middle-school students, a group Kamara says receives the least attention. 

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Posted By on Fri, Aug 14, 2015 at 3:00 PM

The New Bohemian, an arts venue in an old North Side church, is closing.

click to enlarge New Bohemian arts venue to close
Photo courtesy of Bill Gilliland
The venue's operator, Bill Gilliland, announced the closing today on Facebook. He is putting the business up for sale, including the furnishings and sound equipment. But he tells CP that he is also taking phone calls from people interested in possibly taking over the venue, located in Deutschtown between East Ohio Street and the Allegheny River.

Gilliland, who goes by Bill Earl, tells CP he is closing the space he opened three years ago largely because the maintenance on the 115-year-old former St. Wenceslas church that he leases from its owner has become overwhelming.

"I'm a little bit tapped out of resources," says Gilliland, 33, who also lives in the building. "It's become too much. ... It's gotta be more than just one guy running the show."

"It's been really positive and really successful in a lot of ways, but it hasn't been a [money-maker]," he adds.

Recent troubles at the New Boho have included plumbing problems and the receipt of a letter from ASCAP, an organization that licenses and distributes royalties for songs. Gilliland says that ASCAP told him he needed to begin paying annual dues of $1,400 because live music is performed at the venue.

Gilliland, who grew up in Harmony, Pa., is a graphic designer, tattoo artist and musician who took the lease on the former church in 2012. He says the building was last used as a church in 1989. Its subsequent uses included life as a day-care center that served employees of the nearby Heinz plant.

In the past year, the New Bohemian has been home to everything from monthly square dances to experimental theater, monthly meetings of a humanist church group, and a rock-music summer camp for kids.

Gilliland told CP this afternoon that other than his Facebook message, he hadn't contacted any of the organizations that use the New Bohemian.

Among those renters are Steel City Squares, Sunday Assembly, Weather Permitting (an outdoor music series that moved indoors last winter), life-drawing group Draw Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Fringe theater festival. Gilliland teaches at Rock School Pittsburgh Summer Camp, which used the New Boho this past winter.

Gilliland says he viewed the New Bohemian as something of a successor to the Shadow Lounge, Justin Strong's long-running East Liberty coffeehouse and performance space. Gilliland said some of the New Boho's furniture and sound gear came from the Shadow Lounge when it closed in 2013.

While he says that the New Boho's closing reflects the difficulty of running a small, independent arts venue in a rapidly changing city, he acknowledged that someone else, preferably a team of folks, might be able to do the job better.

"Maybe I'm not the best person at this point to run this place .... I was being run ragged," he says. "I'm hoping [that] fresh bodies and minds can come into this and propel it."

Interested parties can contact him at billearl@billearl.com.

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Posted By on Thu, Jul 16, 2015 at 11:54 AM

Award-winners at the 2015 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards – the industry’s top honor – include two Pittsburgh talents.

Ed Piskor won Best Reality-Based Work for volume two of his uber-successful Hip Hop Family Tree series (published by Fantagraphics). (Here’s our interview with Piskor from back when volume one came out.)

And Jim Rugg won Best Publication Design for Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream (Locust Moon). The book compiles work by contemporary artists inspired by newspaper-comics pioneer Winsor McCay. The book, edited by Josh O’Neill, Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens, also won Best Anthology at the Eisners, and was recently the basis for an exhibition at Pittsburgh’s own Toonseum.

(Here’s an article I did on Rugg in 2010, when he published, with Brian Maruca, his great comics pastiche Afrodisiac.)

The awards were handed out July 10 in San Diego.

Both Piskor and Rugg are area natives who, despite their growing national reputations, still live and work here. And we’re pleased to say that both of them have also done illustration work for CP.

Here’s Rugg’s June 2012 parody of an infamous Time cover, this one illustrating our article about former Gov. Tom Corbett’s friendly treatment of big business.
And here’s Piskor’s cover for our Spanish-language issue, from October 2011.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Posted By on Tue, Jun 16, 2015 at 7:16 PM

Jim Krenn is making his long-awaited return to morning radio next month when he takes over the morning airwaves at Steel City Media's Q-92.9 WLTJ-FM early next month.

An official announcement is expected later today.

“The place is a perfect fit because they know radio and love the people of the city,” he says. “They’re on the same wavelength as me.”

Krenn, who has been spending time working on his stand-up comedy between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles and producing a podcast called "No Restrictions" since his surprise firing from WDVE-FM in 2012, says the format of his new morning show will be like "Saturday Night Live or Second City on the radio."

“It’s going to be the same, but different, as what I’ve done in the past,” says Krenn, who spoke to City Paper Tuesday following a tour of his new studio. “I’m not going to live in the past. With the podcast, we created new skits and characters. The idea is to be doing two new characters for every old character.”

Some characters Krenn hinted at include a regular caller from the fictional Crying Cow Vegan Butcher Shop in Lawrenceville, which will play on hipster culture, as well as "Ryder Smoov," a jitney driver battling Uber.

His format will include about four to five songs per hour, and a news and sports report; Krenn promises "the facts and stats will be right" but makes no apologies for what will be a comedic and satirical take on the day's events.

Local comedians — who also produce the podcast with Krenn — Terry Jones, Mike Sasson and Mike Wysocki will be in the studio with Krenn as well as Q's own Debbie Wilde.

"I'm excited to come back [to radio] ... I love the people, the listeners. The podcast doesn’t completely fill that daily connection," he says. "Even though I've gotten to travel to L.A., home is Pittsburgh."

Krenn and his crew debut on Mon., July 6 from 6 - 9 a.m.

Editor's note: Q-92's parent company, Steel City Media, is also the parent company of Pittsburgh City Paper. 

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2015 at 5:10 PM

At the end of March, City Paper reported on an increase in complaints against the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. The complaints centered around sky-rocketing water bills, and as a result, one PWSA ratepayer filed a lawsuit against the authority on May 18.

"There’s a problem with the system. There’s a significant problem, and it needs to be resolved," says John Corcoran, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Millvale resident Susan Newman, who is seeking $5.2 million in damages.

The complaint claims water bills for some customers have increased by as much as 600 percent. Corcoran says the lawsuit will benefit anybody who is a PWSA rate payer. 

"I’d been contacted by the plaintiff and other people in the area who have been receiving increased bills," says Corcoran.

PWSA has acknowledged that approximately 14 percent of customers have experienced problems as a result of new advanced meter reading infrastructure. But, acknowledging the problems hasn't kept them from shutting off some residents' water.

"PWSA is pretty much aware that what they’re doing is wrong, they’re aware of the issues," says Corcoran. "If someone tells you they’re shutting your water off, that’s pretty harsh."

PWSA declined to comment.

"PWSA does not comment on pending litigation," says PWSA spokesperson Melissa Rubin.

The Community Campaign to Reform PWSA is holding a public forum from 7-9 p.m. on Thu., July 23 at the DoubleTree Hilton in Green Tree. The event will serve as an opportunity for other PWSA customers to get involved in the lawsuit. 

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2015 at 11:33 AM

click to enlarge Omni William Penn Hotel is kinda, sorta bringing Joe Negri back
Photo by Alex Zimmerman
Joe Negri
After outcry from the local jazz community over the Omni William Penn's decision to end Joe Negri's residency there, the hotel is bringing the venerable guitarist back for at least three shows later this summer.

It was "never the case" that the hotel was completely severing its relationship with Negri, explains Bob Page, the Omni's director of sales and marketing. "We just needed to make a change in entertainment for a little bit of variety to stimulate some additional business," he told City Paper last month.

And that's exactly what they're doing: Unlike the monthly gigs Negri played in the hotel lobby, the three summer shows will happen in the Terrace Room and cost $40 a head, which includes dinner.

"We are excited and hopeful that the Jazz community will come out to support Joe at the level that they did on his last gig in the Palm Court and feel that this will be a really great venue for this type of performance," Page wrote in an email.

The shows will happen June 25, July 23 and Aug. 27 and will run from 6-8 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made at 412-553-5235.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Posted By on Thu, Apr 23, 2015 at 5:07 PM

Bloomfield residents up in arms over bike share stations
#KeepBloomfieldBikeShare Facebook Page
A group of Bloomfield residents, who say bike share stations will disrupt businesses, have sparked the furor of cycling advocates.

In a meeting earlier this week with city officials, Bloomfield Citizens Council head Janet Cercone Scullion, along with Gloria LeDonne of the Bloomfield Business Network, said the three bike share stations along Liberty Avenue "would cause disruption on the sidewalks and disrupt the businesses there," according to mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty.

The city, along with non-profit Pittsburgh Bike Share, are set to launch a program called Healthy Ride in May that will for the first time allow residents to rent bikes and return them at any of the proposed 50 docking stations around the city. Three stations are planned for the Bloomfield area on Liberty Avenue.

News of Scullion's meeting made its way to local bike supporters who expressed concern that the city might re-think the placement of bike share stations in Bloomfield. 

"Liberty Avenue is a very Pittsburgh street," says Bruce Chan, a Bloomfield resident and chairman of neighborhood group Bloomfield Livable Streets. "It runs through so many neighborhoods; it’s very crucial to the network of the city and cultural aspects of the community. We have a bike lane on Liberty Avenue – what better place to put a bike-share station?”

Scullion, who apparently objects to the placement of bike stations in Bloomfield, would not explain precisely what those objections are. Reached by phone, a woman who identified as Janet Cercone said “I don’t have any information on that for you,” before hanging up. She did not return messages.

"We’re trying to show the mayor and city administration that this small group doesn't speak for the entire community,” Chan adds.

For its part, city spokesman McNulty says placement of bike share stations have "always been in flux.”

City Planning Director Ray Gastil wrote in a statement that the meeting with Scullion and LeDonne "was a meeting that, frankly, should have happened earlier in the process of designing the network of station locations. Given the serious concerns we heard, we are now reviewing station locations and will be looking at options with the Bloomfield community.

"We have also heard your strong support for the Bikeshare program, and its importance to you," the statement continues. "We will be working with everyone to create the best opportunity for residents, businesses, and cyclists."

Bike Pittsburgh Executive Director Scott Bricker says “it’s a very hot button issue,” but did not immediately want to comment further.

A Facebook page in support of the bike share stations in Bloomfield had 231 members at press time and Chan is organizing a meeting to discuss the issue 6 p.m., Tues. April 28 at the East End Book Exchange.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Posted By on Wed, Dec 31, 2014 at 12:35 PM

click to enlarge Ringing in the New Year with the re-opening of Penn Avenue (3)
Photo by Al Hoff
Penn Avenue between Mathilda and Evaline streets re-opened to two-way traffic this morning.

As the ball drops and midnight kisses ring in the New Year, residents in Garfield may be celebrating for a different reason — the re-opening of the neighborhood's main artery, Penn Avenue, to two-way traffic.

"We're glad that the roadway is going to open, and we're blasting it [the news] everywhere because people are bypassing the entire avenue, not just where the construction was," says Aggie Brose, Deputy Director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, a non-profit that advocated for the reconstruction.

This week, Mayor Peduto's office announced that the street construction between Mathilda and Evaline streets is complete and that Penn would re-open in the wee hours of New Year's Eve day. Improvements to sidewalk, street lights and traffic signals will continue until the summer, which may impact street parking, a press release from the mayor's office says. The project, which has been ongoing since August 2013, ran into several obstacles causing delays that wreaked havoc on local business and drivers alike.

"People who don't know what's on this side of the door [of his storefront], it was kind of daunting for them to come by with one-way traffic, no parking and an eight-foot fence in front," says Jerry Kraynick, owner of Kraynick's Bike Shop on Penn Avenue.
click to enlarge Ringing in the New Year with the re-opening of Penn Avenue
Photo by Al Hoff

Crews ran into rusted, paved-over trolley tracks, which contaminated the soil, and hit into water lines, including a main one running to Children's Hospital that could not be shut down, according to Brose.

"It was a very well-planned out project, but the street didn't have any maintenance for decades," and crews didn't even know what they were going to run into underground, Brose says.

Brose compared the project to the re-vamped Brookline Boulevard in the South Hills. Once completed, Penn Avenue is slated to have benches, new lighting, new trash and recycling recepticles, and businesses will have the option to either get rid of or get new sidewalk vaults — the double doors that lead to basement steps from the street level.

"It's dragged on long enough to have people very upset," Brose says. Even with the "financial harm" done to businesses, she hopes that people will remember what the avenue used to look like.

"There were gigantic potholes, old trolley poles all rusty and brown.  The sidewalks were deplorable; curbs were swallowed up," she says. "We have parking meters, and I lose track of time, but some 15 years ago, someone came and sawed off all the tops for money. Just the poles were left."

Brose says the mayor's office was cooperative and even provided loans to businesses that experienced financial hardship because of the construction.  The mayor's office was contacted for the piece but didn't respond.

Phase two between Evaline and Graham streets will begin in 2017. Brose says this section of Penn received much more maintenance and investment over the years and should be a quicker fix.

"This has been a long journey and will have great results at the end once everything is finished," Brose says.


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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Posted By on Tue, Dec 16, 2014 at 5:33 PM

Bananas and pretzel sticks were all the rage at story time on Sunday morning - and not just because they're awesome snacks. Kids had the run of the Levinson room at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, making menorahs by stabbing the little pretzel candles into banana chanukiahs...and then gladly chowing down.

"I think at this point, it's for her to have a good time and enjoy the activities that are associated with each holiday," says Michael Coblenz, who brought his toddler daughter. 

PJ Library, an organization that promotes Jewish literacy in the U.S. and Canada, sponsored the story time event. This year, the Hanukkah story was The Hanukkah Trike by Michelle Edwards.  The PJ Library began in 2006 with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation out of Western Massachusetts but relies on partnerships with local organizations, like the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

"It's a lot more than just books," says Lauren Bartholomae, local PJ Library coordinator. "It's really an engagement strategy to bring Jewish families out of their homes and into the community...It starts with the books, but then it really builds from there."

Pittsburgh has been involved in the program since 2008, and nearly 700 families receive free Jewish books for children ages 6 months to 5-and-a-half years old. The program plans to expand to age 8.

"The man who began the program believed that families are having very snuggly moments," says Bartholomae. "No matter how young those children are, why not make those moments Jewish moments. That's how it started."

More information can be found at www.pjlibrary.org.

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