On a crowded convention floor, young men are kicking impossibly high and shouting in Japanese; burly dudes are deadlifting 200 pounds, fitness models in bikinis are showing off bulging biceps and a 9-year-old girl is whipping around a skinny bo staff with a panache that would make Donatello (the Ninja Turtle, not the painter) blush.
And 20 kids from the North Side are taking it all in, seeing where they could go.
The kids are part of a new program called MAASV -- Martial Artists Against Street Violence. They're at the Kumite Classic, a martial-arts expo and competition, as a field trip after two weeks of karate lessons. (With only a few hours of instruction under their white belts, the kids are here to watch, not participate.)
"[The idea] started about two years ago," says Seth Cullen, founder of MAASV. "I took my son to the park and it was full of broken beer bottles. I had to take him out -- it upset him." But Cullen wasn't sure how else to keep his son occupied: He didn't see a lot of other recreational opportunities in the city's northern neighborhoods.
He started getting involved with neighborhood betterment organizations. At an ACORN clean-up, he met Yusef Owens -- a tae kwon do blackbelt since 1978. Both wanted something better for North Side kids -- something that would instill discipline, create friendships and keep kids off the street.
The two teamed up, with Owens instructing the kids and Cullen handling the administrative tasks, and classes began about a month ago. The kids -- 44 are registered, ranging in age from 6 to 17 -- practice in the Riverview Presbyterian Church basement on Saturday afternoons. So far, it's basics -- how to address Owens respectfully, how to tie their white belts, plus a few punches and kicks.
"I emphasize being humble," says Owens, in a black-and-gold gi with a Terrible Towel hanging from his belt.
The class is free for the kids, thanks to a $10,000 mayoral grant administered by the North Side Leadership Conference.
"We bear the administrative burden so they can focus on working with the kids," says Mark Fatla, of NSLC. Fatla and his organization are seeking more federal aid for the program, which is already running over capacity.
Cullen says he'd love to offer the classes to more kids, and there's no end date built into the program -- kids can go all the way up to black belt if they stick with it.
Kristal Owens, of the Empowerment Center in Washington, D.C. (and Yusef's sister), hopes to expand the program to include more life-skills instruction, including parent education and self-defense for women. Next summer will hopefully start with a summer camp, she says.
Cullen says that future practices will include an officer -- possibly a SWAT member -- from the Pittsburgh Police's Zone 1. An interaction like this, Cullen says, can help foster mutual respect between North Side kids and the police.
"It teaches them discipline and respect," says John McConnell of his son Damian, 14, and daughter Taylor, 9, who've been enjoying the lessons and spending time together.
"What MAASV really teaches young people is discipline and self-esteem," says Paradise Gray of OneHood, a violence-prevention program. "If you train kids, they'll be much less likely to pick up a gun. You start to break down those invisible boundaries and forge bonds based on mutual respect."
K-Juan Walton, 12, has added karate lessons into his rigorous routine of playing football. He's at the tournament with his parents, sisters, brothers and a neighbor.
"I think this is harder than what we do in football," he says. There's more stretching, and a mental component, "which I like. I wanted to join up because I had something of an anger issue. This helps me get it out."