Monday, December 28, 2009

Penn Lincoln Hotel Uses Studied by PHLF

Walking with Mario Noce around the Penn Lincoln Hotel in Wilkinsburg 4½ years ago, I was struck by the beautiful art deco light fixtures, wrought iron railings and the spacious ballroom that once hosted weddings and other affairs.
At the time the 70,000 square foot building had been empty for 13 years, but Noce was undeterred, and was having workers renovate the building’s lower floors. Since then, Noce has sold his stake in the building to Wilkinsburg nonprofit Deliverance, Inc. Under the direction of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and with $75,000 in funding from Allegheny County, the three groups are working together on a feasibility study to see what can be done with the historic building.
PHLF has been involved in the effort for about a year and recently selected one consultant for the study, which will be done in about six months, PHLF director Arthur Zeigler said.
The hotel project came out of discussions PHLF has had with borough stakeholders about the town’s various assets, Zeigler said.
The hotel is just one of the projects the foundation is working on in the borough. PHLF is working to revitalize structures along Hamnet Place and also along Holland Avenue in the borough. The hotel building was built in 1927 and hosted the Pitt Panthers football team in the 1950s. Back then, the team would stay at the hotel on Friday evenings before home games.
“It is the largest and one of the most historic buildings along the main street in Wilkinsburg,” Zeigler said, noting that Penn Avenue in that area also was the former Lincoln Highway.
The feasibility study, contracted with PHLF by the county, will include architectural, engineering, environmental and marketing evaluations of the building. It also will determine possible uses for the structure, which Noce previously had hoped to convert to housing for senior citizens.
"This was a nice place," Noce said when I met him at the hotel years ago. "I saw Mike Ditka [as a Panther] coming out of here." Noce's sisters had their wedding receptions in the hotel's 1,600-square-foot ballroom years ago, too.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Truth about Donuts and Journalism

I am unveiling a trade secret: I have my addiction to donuts to blame for some of the stories I pull out of my old hometown of Bellevue. I stop into the town with some regularity to get donuts from Lincoln Bakery, where as a kid I used to buy a dozen glazed donuts after delivering the Post-Gazette on Saturday mornings, then take them home and eat several, gorging myself with the sweet dough, washed down by large glasses of cold milk.
To me, Lincoln Bakery’s donuts—all of them—are like the cookie and tea were to Proust—the sight, smell and texture all combine in the first, second and third bites and sips that take me home again, to being a worriless kid finishing up my paper route on the rain-swept streets of Bellevue. Wherever I am, just a bite of one of those sweet Lincoln donuts and I’m home.
So I stop into the old hometown when I am in the North Hills area and occasionally for work visits. I was dropping into town for donuts several weeks back when I parked my car and ran into Sam DiBattista, owner of Vivo and former owner of the now bank-owned (it was foreclosed upon) former G. C. Murphy Building. He was coming out the building’s front door as I was walking across the street to go to the bakery. Sam has been a great source for stories for me in the past and I consider him a friend whom I wish well, so of course I stopped to talk with him.
I knew and know that though I might not always agree with Sam, I can trust him to plainly speak his mind. This time I spoke with him, though, Sam wasn’t in a good mood, having lost the building and having his own troubles with his restaurant, where he said business has been slow. We talked for a while and later I phoned him and we talked some more. He had a cold when I spoke with him over the phone, and that interview was part of the basis for the Post-Gazette story I wrote titled “What to do about Bellevue.”
Another journo trade secret: In walking through my old hometown, or in walking through any town where I might find stories, I have my news radar on. If someone walks up to me and tells me a story, as Sam did, I naturally pull out my notebook and start writing. That’s what I did when I talked with Sam on the street.
Some of what Sam told me at the time was disturbing, so I followed it up by speaking with a couple of merchants across the street from the old G.C. Murphy—Lincoln Barbershop owner Aaron Stubna and Larry’s Collectibles owner Larry Wilson.
“You would laugh,” Sam said ruefully of Wilson’s alleged struggles with the zoning office.
I went across the street, but Larry had so much to say that I had to call him later to get more of the information from him. While we spoke in person, Larry told me to talk with his business next door neighbor—Stubna.
Aaron told me about his then-plan (now instituted marketing device) of giving away two beers to customers as a way to draw in new business. A couple weeks later, the Post-Gazette’s John Allison wrote a little ditty about Stubna’s beer give-away. Allison got the idea for the piece from a PG photographer who was in Bellevue and had read a sign regarding the promotion on the front of the barbershop.
The negative comments coming from the three aforementioned merchants weren’t ad-libbed by me in either of the two stories I recently did about Bellevue's business district. The second piece is “Revitalization plan first step for Bellevue."
The merchants said their pieces and I recorded them, because that’s what reporters do. I have been criticized by some who believe I needlessly criticize Bellevue, but I am just doing my job.
The fact is, though, when we reporters are taken from the evil machines which conceive us out-of-wedlock, we are implanted with small devices behind our left ears that repeatedly offer helpful suggestions, like: “Listen to the little guy’s comments, no matter what,” and “If there is a crazy-man in the room, make sure you quote him.”
Trade secret three: We rabble-rousing reporters do it all because WE CARE—about getting our names into print. After 2,000 stories published in my name, I can’t get enough of it. For a writer, seeing your byline is like another hit to the drug addict, and we want the fix to never end, so we’re always looking for more stories.
We reporters learn early on that when everybody in the town council chambers says all is hunky dory and one little lady stands up to beg to differ with the crowd—Presto! We have a story!
Part of the reason is because the crowd is rarely entirely right, which is why the dissenting voice always should be heard, if not thoughtfully considered, simply because these folks are right at least part of the time.
That’s how some of these stories come together. They often are a “found art” sort of process of discovery.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Christmas Production, by Danny O’Leary


Self-absorbed writer's note: I wrote this holiday piece a couple years back and posted it here on Barnestormin, but I was reminded of it this summer when I had the pleasure of going to a Northgate High School reunion (though I didn't finish there, and graduated from Kiski School). I ran into a lot of childhood friends, including Dan O'Leary, whom I hadn't seen for many years. It was like coming home, in a way. Dan and I are in the picture--we met for lunch in North Side after the reunion.

When I was an adolescent we used to go Christmas caroling. If it was snowing, with large snowflakes blowing wildly, it was an even better time to do so. Back when we were about 13, a group of 10 or 12 of us would walk around Bellevue, sometimes from door to door, singing carols to raise money for charity. Some of the times the money would go to benefit Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital, where my younger brother Pete had recuperated after being hit by a car and nearly killed six years before. That fact alone might have been part of the reason why I was so easily suckered into going caroling, when I would’ve rather have been raising Cain somewhere. The other reason I was so easily convinced was that the girls were involved. Danny O’Leary, who lived a few blocks away from me and whose mom was our Cub Scouts den mother, seemed to always be the ringleader of our caroling expeditions. Like some salesman of the art of performing, Danny would talk a bunch of us childhood friends into doing something selfless and fun for Christmas. For a time, he always succeeded in getting us to go caroling, and now I look back at the memory as sort of a quaint reminder of a bygone era—back when milk was delivered to our doorsteps in the morning, and when kids delivered the daily newspaper. Even back then, at least some of us thought that caroling was corny, but Danny could sell it. “It’ll be fun!” Danny would say, wide-eyed and grinning, his enthusiasm reminding me of how he had led our childhood games of Planet of the Apes years before, hanging off of tree branches and acting the perfect monkey. “And we’ll raise money for charity! It’ll be great!” Danny’s charm would invariably talk me into going, and soon I’d be singing harmony with Penny Balouris, Kim Stewart, Karen Ehlinger, Pete Sourlas and other kids I’d known since kindergarten. We’d walk up the steps to the front porches of the old Victorian homes in Bellevue and ring the doorbells, sometimes anxiously beginning to sing just after we rang the doorbell, other times waiting for the homeowners to open the front door before we started. Bundled up in out thick wool coats and scarves with the soft snowflakes falling, we almost looked like a greeting card scene as we sang “Hark the herald angels sing” and other well known tunes. Most often, people would hear us out for our first song, then we’d tell them we were singing for charity. Usually, they’d give us a donation and we’d sing another song or two. I can still recall the kindly smiles on some of these folks’ faces as they watched us sing, noticing how our harmony was perfect and our delivery was nearly professional. For some of the old ladies, it was no doubt the first visitors they’d had all day—a sad fact that we realized as we moved from home to home, spreading our Christmas cheer. Danny had a lot to do with the entire productions. He would warm us up and go over a song plan before we began to carol. We’d loosen up a bit as we began to sing together, hearing again how well we harmonized. “We sound good,” Danny would coach us. “They’re going to love us.” Danny went on to study musical theater at Point Park. Last time I heard about him, years ago, he was working as an actor in off-Broadway productions. Back when we were Christmas caroling, though, Danny was the star.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

R.I.P., Honsman

Wow. I used to enjoy his angry scowl on his TV show on weekday mornings, taking pleasure in Fred Honsberger’s displeasure at all sorts of things. I rarely agreed with him, but sometimes I actually found myself nodding along with the Honsman, finding something he said to be on-target, all my leftie views be damned.
So I guess I am one of the last to learn of the death of local radio/TV personality Fred Honsberger, whose angry conservative indignation made Rush Limbaugh look like a wimp. Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato's office let me know, with Onorato stating:
"This region has lost a broadcasting icon and a great independent voice for our region. I had the pleasure and honor of working with Fred my entire political career and whether you agreed or disagreed with him, he was always fair and a consummate professional. We will all miss Fred and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
I liked the Honsman, though a lot of his politics weren't to my taste. In fact, one of the first blogs I ever wrote was about calling in Honsberger’s talk show. I posted “Joining The Conversation” in June 2005, so I guess you could truly say that Honsman actually inspired me. In homage to Honsman, I have reprinted the piece here:
Joining The Conversation
Under the influence of too much coffee in the morning, I sometimes say or write things I wish I hadn’t. The other day it wasn’t the coffee that had me out-of-sorts—I think the late dinner I’d eaten the night before had made me fuzzy.
So while tuning into Fred Honsberger Live, which is my favorite television show to hate, I acted a bit impulsively and called up “The Honsman.” I called despite my better judgment, and despite the fact that I never call talk shows.
While I disagree with mostly everything Honsberger says on-air, and I have been known to pitch a liberal’s fit while listening to him talk, for some time I have taken a perverse joy in occasionally watching his show. I can only attribute that enjoyment to a desire to hear people yell at each other in argument, which brings back warm memories for me, because that’s how I grew up eating dinner with my family.
Also, I had covered Lynn Swann’s press conference the day before, and I wondered what Republicans thought about the possibility of Swann becoming a gubernatorial candidate. Not having a Republican sibling handy to ask about a Super Steeler governor, I called Honsberger. Perhaps it’s not surprising, since I recently started my own weblog.
* * *
I capitulated. I got tired of all the attention bloggers have been getting, so I started my own.
A couple weeks back I joined the blogosphere by getting my own punk pulpit. I now am a member of the dorky world of webloggers, and I can’t say I’m exactly comfortable with my new affiliation.
My friend Geoff confirmed my discomfiting suspicions when he responded to my e-mail announcing the launch of my blog.
“You e-writing weenie!” he wrote.
As a journalist, I have learned to check out blogs to look for news tidbits, but I have been wary of joining the blogosphere. I will admit that I have been thinking about it for a long time, though. I just didn’t like the idea of being part of the world that enables people to make unfair personal attacks on individuals. I didn’t want be considered like one of those nerds who lambastes others on his blog, using the medium against those he hates.
Leaping into the blogosphere was an act of faith, because over the years I’ve developed a mistrust of blogging. I have been insulted online by at least one blogger who personally attacked me in a few instances.
Full disclsure: I was attacked for having been in public relations at one time, and also for supporting the plan that built two sports stadiums on the North Side. Some people in Pittsburgh can’t get over the fact that those stadiums were built. Because of my stance on the issue, I have been called everything from a “hack” to “unethical.”
Still, I figured a blog would give me a place to publish essays that I have been writing that wouldn’t fit into other publications. I felt that a blog also hopefully would, to some degree, bring me into the ongoing conversation happening in the blogosphere.
While I was commenting indiscreetly on a blog titled “The Conversation,” an anonymous poster attacked me. This pusillanimous poster tried to smear me with the same lies that another blogger once had employed. The right-winger Honsberger treated me more respectfully than I was treated by a fellow blogger who also is opposed to the Drug War, but afraid to sign his name to the statement.
* * *
Maybe it was the mind-addling effect of too many pasta calories still dumbing me down from the prior evening that made me call. I can’t really explain it, except to say that for some strange reason, I couldn’t resist jumping into the argument.
My call was patched through almost immediately.
“I’m from the left side of the world…” I began, in a voice softer and more timid than I expected, realizing suddenly that I was out of my element. I asked Honsberger what he thought of Swann, an “incredible athlete,” possibly running for governor, and if he thought the former Steeler had much of a chance of becoming governor.
Honsberger responded sneeringly that he also thought Swann was an “incredible athlete” and that Swann stood a good chance of winning if he decided to run for governor.
“What do you think of him running?” Honsberger asked me.
“I think it’s interesting,” I said in an uncharacteristically soft voice. He went on to complain about how lousy the governor had been performing, and about how many people Rendell has pardoned since he took office.
I realized Hons wanted a fight, but though I am pugnacious by nature, I didn’t feel so confident, since television and radio are his “neighborhood,” so to speak. I let him talk, without adding much, and I thanked him for his thoughts and hung up.
I had joined the conversation and become one of those “cranks” that you hear on the radio or television. It was a natural step, after starting my blog.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Lamar Advertising Could Save St. Nicholas

It’s an old journalism axiom that when writing a story, a reporter should always get a second source. Another rule is that a journalist should work to confirm the veracity of information before going to press with it in a story. That fact alone is often what separates blogs from real journalism—publishing verified facts versus rumors.
Recently I acted like one of those jagoff bloggers out there and jumped to a conclusion in e-print, for the world to see. After catching a brief TV news story on St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in the North Side possibly being sold to Lamar Advertising, who supposedly would tear down the building, I went off half-cocked and wrote a piece for Barnestormin in which I said Lamar must hate Christians and Croatians.
I should’ve known the company wouldn’t be iconoclasts in this matter. I actually thought to myself that it made no sense that an advertising firm would invite such public ill will, since of course, advertisers know all about image-making. I thought of calling Lamar for an interview, but I was angry and hot to write my story, “A Multi-hued Capitalistic Glow.” I have since removed the piece, because I was embarrassed at the falseness of it and I didn’t want to continue to cast any pall on Lamar’s reputation.
I couldn’t have been more wrong with the now-yanked blog story. And though I had expected a reaction from the piece, I am embarrassed that I so wrongly depicted Lamar Advertising’s motivations in wanting to buy the church. It turns out that Lamar could be the savior of St. Nicholas, just in time for Christmas.
Stan Geier, vice- president and general manager of Lamar Advertising, sent me an email to let me know that I got it all wrong and to appeal to my sense of Christian brotherhood to do the right thing. He said he is meeting with members of the North Side Leadership Conference, the Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance and Preserve Croatian Heritage this week, with the goal of finding a way to preserve the church.
“All I need is a three-foot diameter area to relocate one of the forty nine billboards that PennDOT is taking. I have never intended to knock down the church, simply to find a home for one of the forty nine billboards impacted by the expansion of the state’s Rt. 28 project,” Geier said. “I have 70 employees that count on their jobs to feed their families. Losing 49 billboards could affect some jobs. Relocating just one billboard to a viable location like the St. Nicholas Church property could preserve a job for one of my employees. That’s why I bought the property.”
In explanation, but not as an excuse, I will say that I was quick to jump the gun about the church because I am emotionally vested in the issue and a little bit hurt by how it has been handled. I have been told by representatives of the Pittsburgh Diocese in the past that the Diocese would like to see the oldest Croatian church in the Western Hemisphere torn down, and that has clouded my perspective on this issue. The added hurt I feel at seeing some of the attitudes of the St. Nicholas Millvale church people, some of whom seem immune to their Croatian kin’s pain in having their old church and its sacred objects in limbo, also is disheartening.
But I am hopeful that Stan Geier, Lamar Advertising and the preservationists can come up with a plan all parties can agree on to save St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church. Godspeed, folks.