Friday, October 20, 2006

Oldest Croatian Church Could Be Sold To Italians

America’s oldest Croatian church soon could be in the hands of an Italian company, despite efforts of Pittsburgh Croatians to buy the closed church and convert it into a shrine. St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, built in 1901 and worshipped in until it was closed in 2004, could soon be bought by the Follieri Group, which is based in Italy but also has offices in New York City.
Former parishioners and preservationists interested in saving the church still believe their plan will succeed. They said they hope an Oct.25 meeting between Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh officials, former St. Nicholas parishioners and preservationists could still resolve the matter in their favor.
Negotiations fall apart
Pittsburgh Diocese officials said the impending sale is the result of an intractable attorney representing the Croatian preservationists. The preservationists have said the impasse was the result of the Diocese requiring, as conditions of the sale, that no alcohol be permitted in the church building (eliminating the possibility of Masses, since wine is used in Masses), and that the Diocese would retain the right the take back the church for any reason at any time.
“We do have a signed sales agreement from Follieri now, and our lawyers are reviewing the agreement,” said Diocesan spokesman Rev. Ron Lengwin. “In the meantime, we’ll be meeting with the Croatian alliance, the parish council, and the pastor.”
But the parish council is not representative of those who once attended the North Side church, since the North Side St. Nicholas Church and the Millvale St. Nicholas Church, just a few miles away, were built when the parishioners could not agree on where to build a new church building. Consequently, both the North Side church (which was preceded by an earlier church) and the Millvale church were built at the same time. Though the smaller Millvale church was completed just months earlier than the North Side church, the Millvale church was destroyed by fire in the 1920s and rebuilt. Founded in 1894, the North Side parish was the first Croatian Catholic parish in America.
The alliance that Rev. Lengwin referred to is the Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance, which is the lead group that is working to save the church building and convert it into a shrine to St. Nicholas and the Croatian people. Until recently, representatives of CACEA were negotiating with the Diocese to buy the church and its sacred items for $250,000. The parties had a verbal agreement, when the Diocese broke off negotiations, CACEA officials said.
“We had come to an agreement, when a new [CACEA] attorney said he wanted to start the process over,” Rev. Lengwin said. “We’ve met with the parish, and they’re wanting to move on, because they’re in severe financial distress. The real question is, what if the [Millvale] parish goes under? Then we have no Croatian parish.”
Physical and spiritual obstacles overcome
St. Nicholas Church’s history is partly an off-and-on struggle with the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. In 1899, when members of the church could not agree on where to build their new church building, some agreed to build a new North Side structure, and others agreed to build their own church in nearby Millvale, just a few miles away. The Millvale parishioners successfully petitioned the Diocese to create their own church and parish, and later that church was decorated with the famous surrealistic murals of Croatian artist Maxo Vanka.
The Millvale church remained independent until the Diocese merged it with the North Side church in 1994. The Millvale church effectively became the last Croatian church in Pittsburgh after the Diocese closed the larger, cathedral-like North Side church in December 2004. The church once was the focal point of a thriving immigrant community that was named for the town in Croatia from which many of the residents hailed.
Little remains of Mala Jaska, Pittsburgh’s old Croatian enclave along what was once known as East Ohio Street, but now is State Route 28. Expansions of the road over the past century have left just a few clusters of row houses clinging to the hillside, as well as the still-imposing church, anchoring a ghost neighborhood. St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, closed in December 2004, still stands like a sentry, looking over the Allegheny River and downtown Pittsburgh.
The history of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in the North Side of Pittsburgh is also a 107-year-battle with the roadway. To accommodate the widening of the road in 1921, the church and rectory next door were lifted onto jacks and moved 21 feet back from their original location. The move required cutting back the bottom of the hillside on the northwest side of the church, and raising the elevation of the buildings by eight feet.
Today, the church’s foundation runs nearly against the edge of the road, as it has for decades. The shrine in the hill to the side and above the church seems to hang precipitously, a quiet observer over this holy place. The church has remained silent for nearly two years now, after being closed on St. Nicholas Day in December 2004. But to those who hope to save the building, its connection to the Croatian people and the history of Pittsburgh and America are paramount. Many of the would-be-saviors of the church never attended St. Nicholas.
Dr. Marion Vujevich is a Pittsburgh dermatologist who heads CACEA and did not attend St. Nicholas, but is committed to seeing the building preserved. His group’s lack of progress in buying the church was mystifying, he admitted.
“The Diocese gave us their sales agreement about a year ago,” Dr. Vujevich said. “If they didn’t want to negotiate, they should’ve at least let us know that they didn’t want to negotiate.”
Dr. Vujevich added that his group was hoping to work closely with the parish council in Millvale, and that he was looking forward to meeting with Diocesan officials to discuss the church.
Bernice Goyak, 63, was raised in St. Nicholas Church, and remembers well the many functions that the church once hosted. Now, former parishioners can’t even clean up the weeds that have sprouted around the empty church, or light candles at the shrine.
“It’s just heartbreaking. We don’t know what the Diocese is doing,” Goyak said.
Zora Spudic, who came to Pittsburgh in 1969 from Dugaresa, Croatia, and raised two children at St. Nicholas Church, said the church’s closing had devastated its former members, including some of the recent Bosnian immigrants.
“This church is very important—our kids came there to get together, and newcomers also came to that church. People are torn apart. Families are torn apart,” Spudic said.
Another agreement brings few answers
The tentative agreement between the Pittsburgh Diocese and Follieri Group has brought few answers to those who hope to save the church. Asked if he knew what Follieri Group planned to do with St. Nicholas Church if the company bought it, Rev. Lengwin said he did not.
“We know Follieri is in the business of buying church properties to be used in an appropriate manner,” Rev. Lengwin said. “They could turn [the church] into apartments, I don’t know.”
Down at Javor Hall, the local Croatian Fraternal Union lodge just blocks from the church, members of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation meet at least once a month to discuss the closed church. Many of the members that regularly attend the meetings were parishioners at the church, while others are preservationists who simply want to see the building saved. Named “Javor” for the maple trees that were prevalent in the area of Croatia from which the early residents came, the lodge also is known as the Croatian National Hall, and is another tangible connection to Mala Jaska, which was where the Croatian Fraternal Union began. The walls of the place are lined with yellowed pictures of sober-faced founders and old documents guaranteeing the right of those immigrants to associate together in the club.
Jack Schmitt, a board member of Preservation Pittsburgh and a board member of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Alliance who has no Croatian blood, said PCHF would like to see the church saved as a shrine to the Croatian people.
“It would be a wonderful thing if people from all over could come here to see this place, which was built with the pennies of the Croatian immigrants,” Schmitt said. “We know it can’t be developed for anything, because of its city of Pittsburgh histortic designation. We need to complete this effort to save the church as a shrine, as [former Bishop, now Archbishop] Wuerl intended.”
Like the industrial sites that once lined the Allegheny River around this part of the North Side, much of what made Mala Jaska was torn down long ago. The tanneries that once employed many of these first Croats on nearby Herr’s Island have been leveled and replaced by an upscale neighborhood called Washington’s Landing. College kids and yuppies practice rowing in the nearby back channel of the Allegheny River. Many of the folks who lived in Mala Jaska have moved away to the suburbs. Some, like the late Elsie Yuratovich, worked for years to preserve the church, then died before they could see their beloved worship site saved for future generations.
Others former parishioners, such as Susan Petrick, try to keep the faith.
“We teach our children about their ancestors, how poor they were and about the sacrifices they made to come to the USA, how they worked so hard to build such a beautiful church to worship in, so that they could pass this church on to their heirs,” Petrick said. “It is truly sad when we try to instill the importance of heritage to these young people, then the Diocese does everything to work against this.”
George White, a board member of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, successfully led an effort to change plans for reconfiguration of Route 28 that would have meant the razing of St. Nicholas Church. He said the church is architecturally and historically significant.
“We were interested in saving the church, but also in saving it as a place of worship,” White said. “The challenge in Pittsburgh is not only to save traditional architecture, but to save it for respectful uses. Architecture, without people who use it, is just a museum structure.”

Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. Two of his great-grandparents immigrated to America from Zagreb.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


I began to work out again about two years ago, after quitting it for close to twenty years. I say now that I missed it every day over those years, and it’s true. There’s something about my physical makeup that is best suited if I work out hard at least a few times a week. But while I’ve been working out for two years, I didn’t start to really hit the weightlifting hard until a few months back.
I’d been intimidated by the meatheads in the weight room, that testosterone-thickened manly province of the gym I belong to. Early on, I had been crushed by the realization of how weak I was, compared to my strength as a twenty-year-old, but I had been working out seriously for a few years back them. So I shied away from the weight room, because I didn’t want to face my girlishly weak reality. It just seemed too tough a climb to begin to seriously work out again, and I wasn’t committed to it.
For a while I was afraid to go into that room. With its mirrored walls and beefy guys checking their poses in the mirror, going into that weight room meant having to admit to myself how weak I’d become. But I kept trying, making tentative forays into the room, doing some benches and curls. It was especially painful at first, because it seemed that I always made it to the weight room when it was full of people, which seemed to magnify my insecurities. I have learned since to get in there on the off-hours, when it’s mostly empty.
In the weight room, we weight lifters bond with sweaty handshakes. We spot each other during lifts and cheer each other on. We are of many cultures—blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, Californians—but the only race here is the slog against time. We are linked by barbells, and brought down to earth by heavy steel plates.
Over the past few months I’ve made it back somewhat into that old weightlifting rhythm. I find myself spending hours at a time in that weight room, enjoying the pump I get from lifting the steel. It just feels right, at least, that is, when my shoulder rheumatism isn’t acting up. And I realized recently that many of the strongest guys in the weight room also have shoulder problems, many from old football injuries.
Having gained some strength, I now readily admit to folks in the weight room that I am forty. I’m competing, as least somewhat, in a young’s man’s game, and I want them to know it. Some of us are former football players, and we talk about the Steelers’ losing streak.
“I think he’s afraid to get hit,” one guy says, regarding our former hero quarterback.
“They’re a team that does well as the underdog,” another says.
We have the team’s best strategy figured out, and it all seems clear as we pump our muscles full of blood and adrenaline. In that rush of testosterone anything seems possible, and I realize how wars begin.
Later, while watching a college football game with a friend who played for Pitt his freshman year, he asked me: “Do you remember playing?”
“All too well,” I admitted, thinking about how I missed the crush of helmets and shoulder pads that were the high points of high school and my college freshman year. “That’s why I’m lifting weights again. In my mind I was still a big strong guy, though I wasn’t one in reality. I don’t want to be a weak old man. But now, I’m getting stronger.”
Earlier in the day while at the gym, I had confided to a fellow weightlifter that, at least, I wanted to get as strong as I was when I was twenty. Even as I said it, the comment struck me as kind of silly, and maybe, utterly macho. Forty years old, trying to regain my lost youth. But I can’t help myself, because working toward the goal is too much fun. Maybe other guys now come into the weight room, and see me huffing and puffing, and think I’m a meathead. Man, I hope so.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Old plant “generates” business atmosphere

Pittsburgh’s former industrial backbone wasn’t built in a day, and rebuilding that shattered backbone won’t happen overnight. But for 17 years, Regional Industrial Development Corporation of Southwestern Pennsylvania has been beating the odds by redeveloping the former Westinghouse “mother plant” in Turtle Creek for industry and other business.
Brownfield redevelopment is the opposite of the initial purpose behind RIDC, which was started in the 1950s to develop suburban industrial parks outside Pittsburgh. In the last days of the Big Steel era, RIDC officials recognized the need to redevelop the old industrial sites for other business uses, and the company’s main interest became the acquisition and reuse of many of the region’s old mill sites.
From mother plant to incubator
RIDC’s greatest success may be Keystone Commons, which is the old Westinghouse plant in the valley beneath the Westinghouse Bridge. The 92 acres there spreads through Turtle Creek, East Pittsburgh and North Versailles, and includes 4.2 million square feet of leasable space. Tens of thousands of workers once labored there, when the place was the “mother plant” of Westinghouse and manufactured large generators for other plants.
In its heyday in the 1940s, the plant employed 20,000 people, but by the time the place closed on Dec. 31, 1988, it had a skeleton crew of 1,000 employees. RIDC bought the property for $12 million from Westinghouse the next day, on a twenty-year note. Now the sprawling old plant is a business incubator, housing companies involved in traditional manufacturing, such as tool and die companies, as well as white-collar workers and high-tech ventures and a variety of other types of businesses. Keystone Commons is the home of fifty companies that employ more than 2,000 people. The ends of the long riverside property are anchored by two traditional manufacturing companies: Nextech, and Value Added Processing, which was Metro Metals and is one of the original tenants of the property, post-Westinghouse.
The place’s newest tenant is a gym with a small café, a business that has leased 20,000 square feet of space in the West Shop Industrial Mall. RIDC’s success in attracting a diverse group of tenants to the complex highlights the company’s larger success in working to revitalize numerous former industrial sites in and around Pittsburgh. Historically, RIDC has kept a low profile in the media, preferring to follow Henry Hillman’s adage that “the spouting whale gets harpooned first.” But recently, RIDC vice-president Brooks Robinson Jr. discussed the century-old former Westinghouse plant while touring Keystone Commons.
Room to grow
“We had to selectively demolish some buildings for parking. But we kept most of the buildings, because Westinghouse kept them impeccably well,” Robinson said while standing in the main entry road to the plant, old red brick buildings looming around him.
He revealed a vision for the space between the old West Shop and the South Shop: “In this area, I see a fountain in here, and I see green space,” he said, smiling and waving his hand as if painting a landscape.
Walking into the building now known as the West Shop Industrial Mall, Robinson noted that the 500,000 square foot building is about 60 percent full, and 70 percent built out. The typical small tenant space is just 2,500 square feet, though many are considerably larger. And some have grown significantly since moving to the old mill site, he added.
“We don’t create jobs, we create the environment in which to create jobs,” Robinson said as he walked down the center of the ground floor of the large building, noting how companies of various sizes and interests have found space conducive to their needs. Amidst the grinding of metal coming from an industrial shop, Robinson stopped to chat with long-time tenant Steve Cocis, owner of Precision Parts and Machinery. The company has nine employees and moved from Homestead to Keystone Commons in 1990. The firm does a lot of work for U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson Works, fabricating many items for the plant’s caster, Cocis said. “We’ve enjoyed being here because of the closeness to U.S. Steel’s plant. U.S. Steel likes the closeness, too,” he said.
A little bit further down the “road” that is the center of the first floor of the sprawling building, the sweet warm smell of fresh baked cookies unexpectedly wafts through the place. The smell emanates from Apple Cookie & Chocolate Company, which has been a tenant in Keystone Commons for 15 years.
Lynn Mamakos, who owns the business along with her husband, Bill, currently rents 12,000 square feet of space. Begun as a retailer specialty baker in downtown Pittsburgh, the company transformed into a mail-order business and relocated to Keystone Commons, Lynn Mamakos explained. “Somebody from RIDC kept coming into our store and talking to my husband. Actually, I didn’t want to come out here. But then we sold all of our stores and moved, and all of our business became mail-order,” she said.
Since moving to the industrial mall, the company has expanded twice, and moved from the second floor of the mall to the easier-access first floor. Apple Cookie & Chocolate Company now employs 15 full-time employees and several part-time seasonal employees.
In the neighborhood
For tenants of Keystone Commons, location is everything. This was particularly true years ago when many of the companies there benefited by getting extra work while much of the movie “The Silence of the Lambs” was filmed in an empty building on the site. The building has a huge room with a high ceiling that was perfect for filming scenes with sets, and many of the companies got a lot of work out of that film production crew, Robinson said.
Walt Minnick, owner of Minnick Electric, moved his company from McKeesport to Keystone Commons in 1990. He’d done electrical work on the West Shop Industrial Mall, and he found that the place suited his needs, Minnick said. The location was key in his decision to relocate. “It’s a central location, close to Pittsburgh and Greensburg, where I do a lot of work,” he said.
Minnick Electric, which has 12 employees, has done electrical work for about 90 percent of the tenants in Keystone Commons, Minnick said. His company’s experience of getting work from his neighboring tenants is not unusual, Lynn Mamakos said.“We specialize in chocolate gifts for businesses,” she said. “A lot of the tenants here buy from us.”
Robinson said RIDC’s success in drawing companies to the old Westinghouse mill site was partly the result of the creativeness of the people and companies in this region, which are seeking good locations where they can build their businesses.
“This region is good at making things, which is a sustainable economy. We have the skills here to re-grow the manufacturing economy,” Robinson said.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Public input on Route 28 project saved big bucks, and St. Nicholas Church

Though none of the mainstream media in Pittsburgh have chosen to point it out, public comment on the $200 million Route 28 road reconfiguration helped PennDOT to reduce the cost of the project by a third, to the $130-140 million range. Now, PennDOT is wrapping up preliminary designs for the roadway, gearing for the final design phase this fall. Construction is slated for 2009.
Plans for the reconfiguration of Rt. 28 initially included excavating part of a steep hillside and removing St. Nicholas Croatian Church, a historic century-old church that was the first Croatian church in America. Various parties interested in minimizing the road’s impact provided alternate plans for the road’s reconfiguration, and one of those plans was used as the basis for PennDOT officials to re-envision the project. Now, the new design for the road includes about half of the 2.25-mile roadway project running alongside railroad tracks beside the river. Norfolk Southern Railroad will move 5,000 feet of tracks to accommodate the change, said Dan Cessna, executive director of PennDOT District 11.
A road reconfiguration plan submitted to PennDOT officials by Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation board member George R. White in 2003 was the basis for the new road plan. White, a retired electronic engineer who designed copier machines for Xerox, submitted the plan to PennDOT officials on behalf of the PHLF, said Foundation president Arthur Zeigler. “The plan that George submitted on our behalf has been largely adopted,” Zeigler said.
The heavily used, narrow four-lane artery that connects Pittsburgh to parts of its suburbs in the northeast part of Allegheny County has long been the focus of engineers’ efforts to provide faster access to the city. Plans to reconfigure the road have been in the works for more than a decade.
PHLF’s road plan was part of an effort to convince Norfolk Southern Railroad officials to give to PennDOT at least one unused railroad track (a 10-foot-wide strip of land) along Rt. 28 to be used for reconfiguring the road. The second part of the effort involved soliciting the help of state officials, who sponsored two legislative bills that would allow counties to reclaim unused railroad land. PHLF officials wanted St. Nicholas to be saved, despite the fact that the church was slated for demolition in PennDOT’s original Rt. 28 reconfiguration plan.
The preservationists got some help from some PennDOT officials, including then-district engineer Ray Hack and then-traffic engineer Tom Fox, White said. “Ray and Tom advised us that if we got sponsorship of the legislation, the railroad would change its tune,” White said. “We enlisted the help of legislators, and that induced Norfolk and Southern to negotiate.”
Cessna downplayed the significance of any one group’s input in changing plans for the road project. “This final solution is the culmination of a lot of input from a lot of people,” he said. “Norfolk Southern and PennDOT worked together, to be helpful to each other.”

Monday, October 02, 2006

Graying Agelessly

I was at the gym the other day, buying a drink at the front desk, when a beefy young brother who was flirting with the attendant threw out a joke that caught my attention.
“You know Don has a girlfriend?” he said to us.
He was referring to a fellow who is in his sixties and who after his workout hangs out around the corner from the desk, near the weight room. Don has a bum leg and uses a cane to get around, so I give him credit for making it to the gym at all.
I didn’t respond to the brother’s comment, since I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Yeah, Don’s got a girlfriend. He’s dating Miss Clairol,” he said, laughing.
I chuckled politely.
“You know why he dates Miss Clairol?” he asked me. “Because she dyes the hair,” he said, laughing and shaking his short, jet-black dreadlocks. He gave me an elbow to the side, to make sure I knew he was kidding.
“See how you gotta be?” I said to him, laughing and shaking my head at him.
“Any guy who’s in his sixties and has no gray hair, you know he dyes it,” the young man said with a big grin.
“That aint right,” I said to the young man, shaking my head at him. “It’ll happen to you, you’ll see.”
Walking away from the hairier-than-thou young man, I was annoyed by his comments. I considered the fact that just the day before, I’d made a remark about my gray hair. Upon being asked how I was doing by Darren, another gym employee, I didn’t want to sugar coat my response. I was feeling some flu-like aches, and working out was a bit of a struggle in the cold, drafty gym.
“I can feel all of my gray hairs,” I’d said.
Launching back into my workout, I thought of when I started to see gray hairs on my head several years back. I remembered how shocked I was that this natural aging process was happening to me. Then a while back, I realized that I had not just a few gray hairs, but many. While those grays don’t seem obvious in normal lighting, if I am standing under lights or in the full sun, my long curly locks make my head look like a gray-brown Chia pet.
I realized that I was going gray a few years back after I ran into a friend who is a little older than me, at a Pirates baseball game. My wife and I were enjoying the gloriously sunny day, excited that we had beautiful seats just a few rows from the field, when I ran into my buddy Chaz. He wasted no time reminding me that I was aging.
“You know with your hair long, in the full sun, you can see a lot of gray,” he said, laughing. Chaz also is follicly challenged, but his challenge is loss of hair, rather than graying hair. Because he wears his hair long, his hair loss is not so obvious.
When Anne and I went home that evening, I scrutinized my head under the remorseless sconce lights in the bathroom. I had enough gray hairs to drive a middle-aged woman to distraction. Talking to my wife a bit later, I lamented the fact that I was going gray.
“Maybe I should use ‘Just For Men,’” I said to her, half-joking.
“You can if you want,” she said, smiling as if the joke were on my crown.
I was at a hair crossroads. I had to decide whether I should dye my hair, and risk people calling me vain behind my back, or just let the gray all hang out. I considered how little hair my late father had, and how much hair some of my brothers had lost, and I counted my blessings. I might have gray hair, but at least I still had a lot of hair, I reasoned to myself.
If I began to color my hair at nearly forty, I’d have to do so for years to come, I thought. Who would I be fooling, and why, I wondered. I already had a beautiful wife, so it’s not as if I would be trying to attract some younger gal, I thought. So I decided against dyeing my hair.
While I’ve stuck with that decision, I can relate to men who do color their hair, and I would never fault them for it. After all, who wants to look older? No one who is over twenty wants to look a day older.
Thinking about all of this appearance nonsense, I am reminded of a comment my youngest brother, Harve, made the other day when he was in town. While we were enjoying a slice at a local pizza joint, Harve saw one of the owners, who we’ve known for a few decades.
“Yeah, Butch is still dyeing his hair,” Harve said, laughing.
Harve didn't understand the need, it was clear. His comment reminded me of something my mom used to say when I was growing up. “Youth is wasted on the young,” she would say ruefully to us, her beer-swilling sons. Now I understand what she meant. Young people usually have all of the vigor of life, but often, they lack the wisdom and compassion that only age, and experience, can bring.