Saturday, May 30, 2009

First Person: Back in the neighborhood

By Jonathan Barnes

Growing up in Bellevue Borough, we kids knew everybody "upstreet," and nearly everyone there knew us. We'd go to Young's Drug Store for a milk shake at the marble soda fountain counter, and old Mr. Young made our drinks as we marveled at the huge mounted swordfish hanging on the wall above him. In later years, Jack, Mr. Young's equally old assistant, would serve us.
Jack was a raspy-voiced character, dark-skinned and inscrutable, with an ever-present cigar nub hanging from his mouth. Every so often Jack would re-light the stub, drawing deeply and blowing blue clouds of smoke, giving him a shaman's aura. But Jack was a realist, and he kept an eye on some of my sticky-fingered friends.
"Hi, Jack!" we'd say, all smiles and middle-school mischief.
"Put your hands in your pockets and whistle," Jack said.
Upstreet was a second home for us Bellevue boys. Many of the merchants knew us, as did most of the cops. Mostly they all were warm, even protective of us, like a bunch of uncles and aunts who'd squeal on us if we screwed up, but help if we needed it.
Luigi Della Ragione, co-owner of Luigi's Pizzeria, put up with our fooling around outside his Lincoln Avenue restaurant on nights after football games, and we never forgot the homelike warmth that just the thought of some of his pizza brings to us. Now that we are adults and many of us have moved from the old neighborhood, we still visit Luigi when we are in Bellevue, enjoying a slice and a chat. He looks as youthful and happy as ever, though his hair is grayer. When you see him, he'll always ask about members of your family, because that's how he is.
With Luigi, Mr. Young and Jack, and with Al Benitz and his men's shop or the Lincoln Bakery folks or many others upstreet, we kids had an extended paternalistic network. Those folks kept an eye on us, to see that we didn't get into trouble. And if we did run into a jam, as when my little brother Harve had his foot broken by an unwary driver backing over it, one of the adults was there to help. With Harve, it was Bellevue Police Chief Bill Bracken who scooped him up in his strong arms.
Maybe that's part of why I am glad to once again live in a traditional neighborhood with its own business district.

For the past decade I lived in Blackridge, a sidewalk-less neighborhood of tidy brick and stone houses that covers parts of Wilkinsburg, Churchill and Penn Hills. While the folks there are wonderful, it was never my ideal neighborhood. My idea of a perfect neighborhood always has been a place I can walk to for a movie, or to buy some milk, or to enjoy a Penguins game with other fans. It's a place where I'm comfortable, and people know my name when I walk into their store.
Since moving to Regent Square recently, I'm again starting to feel the comfort of the old neighborhood, albeit in a different place, with different characters.
While Bellevue has Frankfurter's, Regent Square has one of Pittsburgh's original hot dog shops -- D's Six Pack and Hot Dog Shop. The place has some of the best hotdogs in Pittsburgh, and the best fries in town. Joel, Adam or any of the other nice folks there will get your order in a jiffy, and if you come often, they're liable to remember what you like.
But so will Karen, or Nora or Jay at Murphy's Tavern, down the street.
"This place was named Regent Square after the Regent bottling plant, which was where McBroom's Beer store is," Karen explained to me one night. It occurred to me that it's quintessentially Pittsburgh for a place to be named after something that's long gone. (I remember those big, dark-colored Regent pop bottles, and I believe we got a nickel -- or was it a dime? -- for them.)
There is a sort of closeness among folks who work at these town-square establishments and their clientele. For those of us on the consumer side, I believe it's comforting to know they are nearby. It's nice to know that Margie and Jess will be at the Map Room, that Ali will be at Braddock Avenue Express on the corner, or that Angela and her crew will be at Clipps Salon.

These regular transactions that we small-town consumers have with our local merchants give us a bit more for our buck. For some of us, buying a handcrafted stained glass window from Glenn Greene, or a meal at Square Cafe, is a little more than just the cold hand of commerce. It's more than just an exchange of dollars and goods across a counter. It's about building and maintaining relationships.
For me, it's nice to know that when I pay that bill, part of the money is going to Peggy at Katerbean, or to Julie, owner of East End Fitness. The money isn't going to some heartless corporation based far away, but to someone here whom I know a little, and whom I like.
Through our purchases, we village consumers fill our daily needs, but we also fill a much more basic need -- to feel connected to others, to feel like we're part of a community. That's why I'm at home in Regent Square.
Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer (
First published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Saturday, May 09, 2009

CACEA helps Croats here and abroad

For those going through rough times in their lives, asking for and accepting the help of family members and friends during a crisis can be humbling. But when people who are close can only give so much to those needing help with difficult medical conditions, those in need can be forgotten by others. A new program now enables people in the U.S. to help such Croatians here and abroad.
For Croats in dire need, The Angel’s Fund can provide the help that others cannot. The program, a partnership of Pittsburgh-based Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance and the Croatian Fraternal Union, was the idea of Dr. Marion Vujevich, president of CACEA and a prominent Pittsburgh dermatologist. Dr. Vujevich recently met the parents of Antonela Kacic, a Croatian girl living in Pittsburgh who is here with her parents to get medical treatment for her condition.
Dr. Vujevich learned of Antonela’s situation through the CFU, and he sympathized with the young girl, who has had health problems since shortly after her birth. Antonela’s situation was relayed to the CFU in 1999 by the Rev. Grgo Sikric, who at the time was priest of the now-closed St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh’s North Side. CFU also was informed of the Kacic family’s situation by architect Louis D. Astorino, a longtime friend of the Croatian community who designed and built the addition to the CFU headquarters outside Pittsburgh.
Dr. Vujevich was moved by the Kacic family’s plight. His recognition of the hardships of the family compelled him to act.
“After talking with Antonela’s parents and learning of the severe medical status and great financial and personal hardships they have endured, I felt overwhelming compassion. As a physician, and as a person of Croatian heritage, I felt compelled to help establish some type of assistance program for Antonela and other children, and for people like her with serious medical conditions,” Dr. Vujevich said.
The unusual problems of Croatia, which survived through subjugation as part of Yugoslavia and which was hard-hit by the subsequent war for Croatian independence, have contributed to some of the dire needs of the country’s citizens. The war has informed the views of many Croats, who have had to stoically deal with hardships that others cannot imagine. Croatia, partly impoverished through the war, also has sometimes had a difficult time being able to care for its own. But The Angel’s Fund is tending to the needs of Croatians harmed by the war, as well as those hurt by life’s sometimes unfortunate circumstances.
Frano Kasic survived the war, but he still sees devastation. He was hardened by the many tragedies he witnessed in the conflict, but the war wasn’t as harrowing as witnessing his daughter’s suffering, he explained. “None of this can get you prepared to watch your own daughter die a slow death,” he said.
Antonela is the only daughter of Frano and Mirela Kasic, and was born in Metkovic, Croatia. Antonela has been ill since she was 16 months old. Her intestine became twisted and gangrenous, and most of it had to be removed. Surgery took all but 15 centimeters of her intestine, after which Antonela recuperated for months in the hospital, being fed intravenously.
Her doctors initially believed she would live less than a week. Antonela now is twelve, and as beautiful a child as a parent could hope for, but her medical problems persist and she must get nutrition through an IV in her chest.
The Kasic family relocated to Pittsburgh 10 years ago to be near Children’s Hospital, where Antonela is receiving medical care. Antonela often must stay in the hospital due to complications of her condition, which makes her prone to getting infections. And though she is an otherwise active adolescent, she cannot play sports or engage in activities that could cause her undue strain.
So the Kasic family waits, staying in Pittsburgh and hoping for an improvement in Antonela’s condition and the cure for her medical problems. They are dependent upon others for help, and thus far, most of that help has come from Croats in Croatia. Even so, the family is relying upon charitable contributions to make her transplant possible.
Fortunately, the CFU, CACEA and The Angel’s Fund intervened. To initiate The Angel’s Fund, CACEA president Dr. Vujevich, who is an Honorary Consul to Croatia, gave $12,000 to the Kasic family. The fund, with the help of Rev. Skiric and Astorino, was able to raise a total of $90,000 for Antonela’s first transplant.
By reaching out to support the Kacic family, The Angel’s Fund is connecting Croats with other Croats. The charitable fund is bridging the cultural divide between Croatians in America and those in Croatia, by providing medical assistance for Croats who need it.
Founded in 2002 in Pittsburgh under the leadership of Dr. Vujevich, CACEA’s mission is unique among Croatian organizations in the United States. The group works to promote and enhance economic, cultural, educational and community collaboration and development between the two nations. Its goal of introducing U.S. companies and organizations to Croatia’s resources, and of introducing Croatian companies and groups to opportunities in the U.S., demonstrates CACEA’s fraternal thrust. CACEA believes Croatians should help each other, as good family members do.
Through strengthening collaborative efforts between Croatia and the U.S., and by building a network of chapters across the U.S., CACEA members hope to reap benefits in both countries. Thus far, one obvious benefit has been the organization’s work to encourage the exchange of educational and arts opportunities between Croatia and the U.S. CACEA also serves as a vehicle for successful Americans to help others reach their economic and cultural potential. Numerous individuals have taken the opportunity to help the nonprofit group, such as prominent Croatian Americans including Nadine Bognar, Drazen Jukic, Dave Klasnick, Joseph Katarincic, Bernard Luketich, Zoran Micetic, Edward Pazo and Bernadette Sikaras, to name a few. Many other Croats also have provided aid to the charitable group.
CACEA’s cultural focus has led its members to host exhibitions in Pittsburgh of naïve art from Croatia. The organization also has been a major player in the plan to save St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh’s North Side, which is the oldest Croatian church in America. The nonprofit has worked to preserve Croatian cultural heritage in Croatia, by aiding in the preservation of the Church of St. Eusebius and Polion, in Vinkovic. CACEA also has forged contacts in Croatia and in the U.S. to develop agreements that could lead to more collaboration between professionals in the biomedical and informational fields.
CACE’s insignia, The Dove from Vucedol (which is the oldest dove in the world, at 5,100 years old), is reminiscent of the ceramic sculpture found at a Neolithic site in Croatia. The Vucedol dove, which is an ancient symbol of peace, exemplifies the fruits of CACEA’s mission—caring for others and goodwill in the world.
Since its inception, CACEA’s purpose has broadened to include the edification and enhancement of the cultural assets and living conditions of Croatians in Croatia and in the U.S. CACEA is a nonprofit, community-based foundation that built its endowment largely through donors in Southwestern Pennsylvania. One purpose of the group is to enable individuals to become involved by investing in the people and resources of Croatia and the U.S. The organization’s decisions are made by a community-based board of directors.
The Croatian war of independence affected many families, especially those with kin involved in the conflict. Anto Bosnjak, of Zupanja, Croatia, is still dealing with problems from his 1993 injury in the war. He was wounded when a mortar shell exploded next to him, and fragments from it tore the artery in his upper right leg.
Captured by Muslim soldiers, Bosnjak was taken to a hospital in Tesanj. There he received minimal care, and his right foot had to be amputated. Irregular re-bandaging and cleaning of the wound created the need for seven other amputations. Two of the surgeries were done without anesthesia. In December 1993, with the help of a Croat from Usora, Bosnjak escaped from the hospital and found his regiment. He was transferred to Zagreb, where he received proper medical care and his first prosthesis.
With the help of Croatia’s Ministry of Defense, Bosnjak attended college and earned an engineering degree. He has yet to find employment in his chosen profession, and his hopes of finding a job already have been damaged. Since he was wounded in the war in Bosnia-Herzgovina as a member of the Croatian Army, Bosnjak petitioned the government for a pension and a job, both of which he was promised. But his requests have been ignored. He must pay all of his medical expenses out of his own pocket, and partly because of that, recently he was in need of a new prosthesis and could not afford one. But the transcontinental connections of CFU and The Angel’s Fund made the difference for Bosnjak.
Damir Bacic, president of the CFU lodge in Zupanja, Croatia, asked the fraternal group to help Bosnjak. As a way to assist immediately, Zajednicar, the CFU’s newspaper, published an appeal for aid for Bosnjak. CFU members sent $1,655 in donations. The Angel’s Fund covered most of the cost for the new prosthesis, by providing $10,000 for it. The $11,655 provided to Bosnjak covered all expenses for the prosthesis.
Bernard M. Luketich, president of the CFU and a co-founder of CACEA, said that though the group is new, it has received a lot of support. Part of that support can no doubt be attributed to the group’s altruistic mission. “It was organized to help our people,” he said.
To donate to The Angel’s Fund, please make checks payable to CACEA, and send them care of Bernard M. Luketich, president, Croatian Fraternal Union, 100 Delaney Drive, Pittsburgh, PA, 15235.
Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh freelance writer who is part Croatian.
This story was published in the Croatian Chronicle.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Patriotism Is Spendy

Writer’s note: I originally penned this story in October. It’s one of a handful of posts I have long-handed but not posted because I’ve been busy with writing for which I’m paid. But with the cutbacks some time ago at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and then this story in the Pittsburgh City Paper regarding print journalism, I figured I’d better get this post up sometime soon.

People, please read a newspaper, for the good of the nation, and I promise you'll feel better immediately about the economy, knowing that you've just helped it some. Right now, I’d love it if at least some of you would blow off reading this piece, and move on to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pittsburgh Business Times, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review or the Pittsburgh City Paper. Buy a subscription to a newspaper, or buy another subscription to a newspaper. Or if you have a business and you advertise, please do so with a newspaper, or even with a magazine.
Why should you advertise in or read newspapers?
Patriotism – People talk a good line about patriotism, about how great the troops are and on and on, but when it comes to the bottom line, those same folks often are Scottishly tight-fisted. Open up your wallets, Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Buy more newspapers and magazines, and advertise in more of them (especially newspapers). You’ll see a cyclical effect of strengthening our economy. More newspaper and magazine pages printed equals more work for those in the industry, but it also means more advertising, which amounts to more sales and more employment.
Self-edification – Many people seem to be able to barely think, much less speak well or write well, so it’s no surprise that newspaper readership is declining. We should all fight this glacial ignorance freezing discourse across the land, by educating ourselves, and when possible, educating those around us. Newspapers and magazines help in this process.
Keeping up the discourse – As a freelance writer, in the past the majority of my work has been with newspapers. I cut my teeth in the profession 15 years ago, stringing for the nascent Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and also for the Pittsburgh City Paper. As a stringer, I’ve contributed more than 830 stories to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This is just part of my professional experience, and it is meant to illustrate the help I have been given in learning my craft by being able to work with local newspapers.
To whatever degree I am successful as a writer, part of that success is attributable to my experience as a newspaper reporter. I like to think I bring something different to the public’s discourse on a variety of issues. I believe that other trained journalists who also blog (and who also may now be working in PR or marketing), such as Jonathan Potts and Jason Togyer, bring something to the buffet of editorial views that others, many of them well paid, don’t. If we lose those perspectives, which are partly the result of the level of training such people receive, how effectively will we communicate with each other?
What spurred this post was a conversation I had with a former editor of mine, who’s employed by one of the dailies here. I asked him how it was going, and he was, as usual, sour.
“The newspaper business stinks. Unless someone across the country figures out how to make money on their web site, I don’t see it getting better,” he said.
This guy always was uplifting to work for. His paper is losing money, and it makes him nervous, as it should.
Generally speaking, newspapers provide more in-depth, knowledgeable coverage than any other media (other than some magazines, and some web sites). When we lose more smart, trained newspaper reporters and editors, some of those jobs never come back—like the formerly standard position of copy editor, which all newspapers once had. Fewer and fewer copy editors are working these days, and it’s helping to bring newspapers, as a product, into decline.
And who, with all of these job cuts, will be left to guard the henhouse of the Treasury as legislators raid it? You think this bailout fiasco is news? More like old news repeating itself, on a grander and uglier scale. We could’ve predicted our current problem with the banks by examining the Savings and Loan bailout in the late 1980s.
Please, do something patriotic, while helping the economy at the same time. Help to save the struggling print journalism industry by subscribing to a newspaper, or by advertising in one or two. And don’t forget to pick up one or two of your local magazines, too.
Here are links to some of my favorite publications, all of which I contribute to, except for the Trib (which I’ve worked for):