Thursday, February 05, 2009

A People of Color

I am trying to convince my classmates that I’m black. Or at least not completely white…
I once began a college essay with the words above, titling the piece “On Whiteness.” The phrase “person of color” was getting very popular at the time, and I was taking a Black World Literature class. I’d become more aware of the divisions that the language surrounding race can create. No longer were we referring to a Caucasian with one-eighth African blood as an “octoroon,” but everybody who is white now belonged to one class (white=oppressors), and everyone else was “of color” (colored=oppressed). Something about that approach, perhaps it was the exclusivity of it, irked me. So I penned the piece on whiteness.
I thought of all of this recently, of course, due to the election of Barrack Obama, for whom I voted. Over the course of his campaign, Obama made a believer out of me. (I’ll admit it—I have a “Hope” pin.)
Pundits now are talking about a “colorless” society, but I think they’re getting ahead of themselves. We need to reflect on how far we’ve come, but also how far we need to go.
To start, consider how the “white” race used to define and segregate itself. Just a century ago, Slavic peoples who helped settle Pittsburgh were referred to in the city’s newspaper as “mixed race”—they weren’t regarded as fully white.
My late grandmother, Helen, whose father, Franjo, came from Croatia before World War I, suffered discrimination for her ethnicity when she was a kid. With some prodding, she told me how some of her classmates had called her a “Bohunk,” and that some also had done so while throwing mud on her dress. (Croatians particularly hated being called “hunky,” because they were ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) Her father, Franjo, was fired from his job at the iron ore mine because (in part) he voted for a candidate opposed to the mine owner’s candidate in a local election. My grandmother's people are olive-skinned, and lived in the part of their Minnesota mining town in which the Italians lived. Not exactly white?
Nowadays, few people outside of the Aryan Nations would consider a white person with the name Cervac, or Zivic to not be white. Generations before most Croatians arrived in America, the Irish, who’d been brutally ruled by the English for centuries, were the ones who weren’t quite white. The Emerald Isle’s sons and daughters realized this when they went job-seeking in the New World, and were confronted with Help Wanted signs that stipulated “Irish Need Not Apply.” They also saw it in the racist depictions of Irish people in newspaper illustrations.
Given all of this baggage—I am Irish and Croatian, plus many other nationalities, which makes me particularly mixed—I’ll have to do it again. That is, claim kinship to the phrase “Person of color.” Call me Kubla Barnes. I am part Slav (original meaning=slave), as anyone who looks into my eyes and notices their deep setting and their slant can see.
As a kid growing up in Bellevue with my eleven brothers and sisters, we all recognized which of us had more “Chinese” eyes. One of my brothers, whom I’ll just call “Cato,” is one of the few kids in the family who most resembles his Croatian heritage. With his olive skin, black hair and deep-set eyes, Cato could pass for a full-blooded Croat, though we kids are just one-quarter Croatian. All of us are Croatian Quadroons, so to speak, but Cato would be what white people used to refer to as a “throwback.”
Another of my brothers, whom I’ll call Chun King, also is olive-skinned, and has a Roman nose, so even more than Cato, he could pass for Italian, and has been mistaken for one. Cato and Chun King’s resemblance to Croatians, and Italians, reminds me of the mixed background of Croatians. Depending upon which scholar you believe, Croatians originated in western Afghanistan and migrated to central Europe more than 2,000 years ago; or they originated in the Caucasus region, the ancestral home of Slavic peoples. Since the time of the Romans, Croats have been known as Slavs, who are mixed race Eurasians.
The Croats made their way to the Balkans around 600 AD, and mixed with the Romans who were living there. The Romans had mixed earlier with the descendants of the Celts and Illyrians, who’d settled the Balkans long before. Croatians are just one small tribe or Europe, but I think they are as purely “white” as any European tribe. As DNA research moves forward, racial and tribal distinctions seem to blur. Scientists recently concluded that the ancestors of the people of the British Isles—Irish, English and others—originated in what is now Spain, 10,000 years ago.
So is it a wonder that there are darker-skinned “Dark Irish?” They were probably all dark at one time. And some day, most Irish might be dark once again. Experts say that’s where the world is heading. Eventually, they say, most of us will be part of one big mixed race.
Now we have a black president, and I think that’s a good thing. But we still haven’t had a Slavic president, or an Italian-American president, though Kucinich and Feraro tried. One hundred years from now, will our first “mixed race” president be viewed as the first truly “American” president? I hope not. Maybe in a century or so, we’ll all see each other as people of color.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

PennDOT is considering destroying historic church

In the struggle over the fate of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh’s North Side, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials are caught between preservationists and the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. So it’s déjà vu all over again, in the fight over this holy place.
PennDOT planned to raze the church, built in 1901, to make way for State Route 28’s planned reconfiguration. The plans to remove the church were canceled after preservationist George White devised new road plans that wouldn’t require removing the church, saving $50 million from what was initially estimated to be a $200 million road project. Now, PennDOT may buy the church to tear it down to make it easier to replace an $180,000 section of sewer line.
PennDOT officials say they are considering buying the church property at the urging of the Pittsburgh Diocese. Dan Cessna, district executive of PennDOT District 11-0, said there’s no immediate need for the church to be removed to make way for the road reconstruction, but his organization still is considering the idea. “The Diocese approached us and opened up the dialogue,” Cessna said.
Officials of the Pittsburgh Diocese agree that they broached the idea of selling the church to PennDOT. Father Daniel Whalen, diocesan administrator for St. Nicholas Church in Millvale and acting priest for the parish, which owns the closed St. Nicholas Church, said the sale of the church to PennDOT would be the best outcome for the long-running dispute.
“The idea is if we sell it to PennDOT, they’ll probably demolish it,” said Whalen, who is part Slavic, but not Croatian. “I just got off the phone from talking with someone about the malfunctioning security system” at the closed church.
Cessna said PennDOT is moving forward slowly on the issue. “We’ve had several meetings with preservation groups and with the Diocese. At this point, we’re not sure what we’re doing right there…The Diocese asked us to buy the property. We have a tentative plan to meet this month with preservation groups,” he said.
Those organizations include members of Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, a group comprised mainly of former parishioners of the closed church; representatives of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation; and members of the newly formed nonsectarian Friends of St. Nicholas preservation group. The new group was founded by PCHF member and Preservation Pittsburgh board member Jack Schmitt. Friends of St. Nicholas plans to buy the church and its hillside shrine and surrounding property and rehabilitate the structures to serve as a museum to the immigrant experience, while honoring the site’s Croatian heritage.
Schmitt recently met with Pittsburgh Bishop Paul Bradley, who confirmed that the Diocese thinks tearing down the church is the preferable outcome of the dispute. Whalen agreed with the assessment.
“That church is a monument to the fact that Croatian Christians could not come to agreement about it,” Whalen said. “The old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ applies.”
Schmitt is a lifelong Catholic who is not Croatian, but for years he has been working shoulder-to-shoulder with members of PCHF, Preservation Pittsburgh, PHLF and other organizations to save St. Nicholas Church. Over the years, the Diocese has aggravated the unresolved situation with the closed church, he said. “For the Catholic Church to blame the Croatians, is really sad,” Schmitt said.
Friends of St. Nicholas is raising funds for a feasibility study, which will determine the cost to repair the church property. The study will cost $50,000. Schmitt said he believes the investment is appropriate, given the preservation group’s plans for the church. “It’s really a historic place. It’s a place where things have happened,” he said.
The refurbished church/museum would be tied to the North Side proper by a park running along the narrow strip of land between Rt. 28 and the steep Troy Hill hillside. A recreational trail would wind from the North Side’s Deutchtown neighborhood, past the grotto and the church, to nearby Rialto Street. Originally, preservationists had sought to transform the church into a shrine—an idea that former Pittsburgh Bishop (now Washington, D.C. Archbishop) Donald Wuerl first voiced. Of late, the Diocese has nixed that idea.
“Making the church an immigrant museum has potential,” Schmitt said. “It could have a gift shop, and a series of ethnic concerts.”
Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, a powerful broker in preservation politics in the Steel City, has been supporting efforts to save St Nicholas Church for nearly a decade. Arthur Zeigler, president of PHLF, said his group still wants to see St. Nicholas Church saved. “It’s a fine example of its type of architecture,” Zeigler said, adding that he is looking forward to a positive outcome. “PennDOT and the Diocese have been cooperating.”
Meanwhile, some of those who grew up with St. Nicholas Church are hopeful. Bill Kurtek, a member of PCHF whose parents and grandparents were married at the church, said he’s more optimistic about the church’s future than he has been for some time.
“Now, it seems like things are more positive. Especially since the effort has a broader base,” Kurtek said. “From what I understand, there are different legal aspects that would make demolishing the church difficult.”
The church is a designated City of Pittsburgh historic landmark. Demolishing the structure would require approval through the city’s Historic Review Commission.
Kurtek recalled St. Nicholas Church being a gathering point for Croatians throughout the Pittsburgh region, not just for those in the North Side. He recalled having the family food blessed by the priest there at the church at Christmastime, and other warm memories of fellowship at the church. “I’m excited about anything that can be done to save the building,” Kurtek said.
Other supporters of the church said the church’s place in American history is significant. Bernard Luketich, president of the Croatian Fraternal Union, noted that the closed church and the CFU share the same roots.
“The parish began in 1894, the same year as CFU was organized, started basically by the same people,” Luketich said. “CFU was organized to help our people.”
CFU, a fraternal benefit society, has been publicizing efforts to save the church in its weekly newspaper, Zajednicar, which is sent to the organization’s 40,000 members. To Luketich, St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh’s North Side, though closed for more than four years, has a prominent place in Croatian history in the New World.
“Pittsburgh was one of the main gateways for Croatians before and after World War I,” Luketich said. “A lot of those people went to those coal mining towns.”
To learn more about the effort to save America’s oldest Croatian church, contact the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, PO Box 5812, Pittsburgh, PA, 15209, or check out the group’s web site at Photos of the church in its present state can be viewed at

Monday, February 02, 2009

Steelers City

I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, my fingernails already whittled to nubs, my stomach tied up with dark, cold, Steel City angst. Arizona is about to score on our beloved Steelers, and they’re nearly in the end zone. It could be the last call, of sorts, for the New Steel Curtain.
“OK, guys, what we need is a turnover, and run it back for a touchdown,” I said aloud to the television, as if voicing the words would make it come true. I reminded myself of my late father, who also yelled and hoped vocally at the TV during Steelers games.
“Confess it and you’ll have it,” he would tell us when we were kids. He was a big believer in positive thinking, and he meant that you should voice your dreams and thus make them more likely to come true. So maybe that had something to do with James Harrison’s spectacularly timely interception and runback for a touchdown; a feat he accomplished the moment after I had voiced my hope for the Steelers to do so.
I believe I was part of a collective prayer group, so to speak, who was confessing our desire—or maybe our need—to see the Steelers win the game. Many members of Steelers Nation were no doubt voicing the same wish at precisely the same moment, sending out good vibes that God heard, or that made the stars align, or that enabled Harrison to play like one of the finest players to ever work the gridiron.
We won. Again. And I think for some of us, the Steelers victory is an affirmation of Pittsburgh’s greatness. Our hometown region might not be as populous as it once was, but it’s still the home of a lot of exceptional people, businesses, and recreational activities, as well as being the home of the Super Steelers. It may be a bit cocky to think so, but we Pittsburghers believe the Steelers are emblematic of our region’s greatness.
That greatness we so enjoy witnessing in the Steelers excellence on the field also is a reflection of the perspective of the Rooneys, and of the character of the players. Pittsburghers aren’t usually braggarts, nor are they totally full of malarkey. Pittsburghers generally just do their jobs, and try to do them as well as they can.
Case in point: Willie Parker. In the off-season, the Steelers’ star running back occasionally works out at the gym where I work out. The place is not at all a glitzy gym, but it is evenly mixed, with both black and white members. I’d seen Parker a few times while I was lifting in the weight room, and I nodded hello, not because I knew who he was, but because I’m friendly. He’d work out with a buddy or two, and hardly speak a word. Then one day after he left, a friend asked me if I knew who that guy was. I said no.
“That’s Fast Willie Parker,” he said.
L.C. Greeenwood, from the old, classic Super Steelers, works out regularly at the gym. He’s about one of the most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet.
Maybe people like Parker, Harrison and many others on the team typify the varieties of greatness that makes the Steelers. Or perhaps they are just the best football team of all time, with some of the greatest players of all time, like Big Ben, and Santonio.
We are lucky. We’re lucky to have thrived through the last two recessions, and to now be a model of economic strength that the rest of the nation is admiring. And we are so very fortunate to have the Steelers as our team.
My brother Harvey, who lives in Seattle, would love to be at the celebration that will undoubtedly take place downtown this week. Because he, like so many in the Steelers Nation outside of Pittsburgh, would love to be downtown for that event, I just might go. I'm hoping to run into Mike Madison there.