Monday, November 21, 2011

In The Wake Of The American Dream

Writer's note: I wrote a version of the following story about the work of Pittsburgh photographer Ross Mantle a couple years back for In Community magazines. Ross's poignant observations of life in the Mon Valley were striking to me then, and now they will be seen by much wider audiences, thanks to 707 Penn Avenue Gallery in Downtown Pittsburgh. A showing of his "In The Wake" project, which was partly inspired by his familial ties to the Mon Valley, begins at the gallery at 6 p.m., Nov. 25. Please see Ross's work; a couple of his photos are here.

Driving around the Mon Valley a few years ago, photographer Ross Mantle checked out old mill sites and aging buildings, sauntering around people still pursuing their versions of the American Dream in places including McKeesport, Duquesne and Braddock. While wandering the Mon Valley with no goal but a possible documentary project on the area, somewhere deep in Mantle’s creative soul, a fire was started.

It could be the atavistic yearning of a McKeesporter’s child (his mother and maternal grandmother are from there) or the rusty view of a native Pittsburgher, but something beckoned Mantle to chronicle the people and places that make up the Mon Valley. He had been thinking about such the project for a while.

While attending Ohio University, Mantle had thought often of doing some sort of photo project when he came back to Pittsburgh. A 2004 graduate of Bethel Park High School, the freelance photographer began to practice his craft by shooting photos for the high school paper. He threw his heart into photography while in college. After earning a B.S. in Communications with a photojournalism focus from Ohio University, Mantle came back to Pittsburgh and it wasn’t long before he was pursuing his dream of a Mon Valley documentary project.

But don’t call Mantle’s project the American Dream, because he doesn’t believe there is such a thing.

“I don’t think the American Dream is real,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people who buy into it, but I don’t think it’s really there at all.”

Even so, he’s spent countless hours photographing some of the aftermath one aspect of what some would call the Death of the American Dream. So far, he’s photographed about 8,000 images, which he expects to be part of a published book some day.

The photos include people and places, rusty spots and care-worn faces. They all appeal to Mantle, who finds his subjects by going to spots he thinks he might find interesting and wandering around until something strikes his fancy. Often, observe people and if he wants to photograph a person, he’ll approach them.

“Usually people are pretty open,” Mantle said. “The people here [in the Mon Valley and Pittsburgh] have a rawness that inspires me. There’s a straightforwardness of the people… There aren’t many places where you can speak your mind and still remain friends with a person.”

Mantle has not yet found a publisher for his Mon Valley project, which means he’s working on it pro bono for now. The work is something of a vocation for him.

“I think it’s an important time in this country. What’s happening in the Mon Valley is the same stuff happening in Detroit. It’s an important thing to look at now,” Mantle said. “Hopefully, the project changes the way people think about the people who are living in the Mon Valley and how things are working.”

While he has taken some photos of the bustling Braddock U.S. Steel mill, Edgar Thompson works, Mantle is mostly shying from the newer businesses in the Mon Valley. He said he would like to speak with Mon Valley residents who want to offer suggestions. Some of those people, he conceded, no doubt feel they are living the American Dream. “Somebody might have no money, but be living somewhere with his family and feel that he’s living the dream,” Mantle said.

Having grown up visiting his grandmother in McKeesport and hearing the stories from his mother of taking the trolley into downtown when the place was happening with throngs of people, Mantle had an idea of what things were like there in past decades.

“‘I can’t believe what McKeesport’s like now,’” Mantle recalled his mother, Monica Mantle saying.

Much of the impetus for his work, which is informed by his admittedly left-of-center perspective, is an attempt to get at the quirkiness that is the Mon Valley. “I shoot a photo because it makes me think, or laugh,” he said.

The best part of the work itself is that it gives him a chance to wander around, Mantle said, laughing at the thought. “It is liberating to not have to focus on anything but these ideas I want to photograph,” he said.

Despite the somberness of his project’s title, Mantle believes that part of what he is chronicling is the vibrant life in the Mon Valley.

“Somebody from California might not think it’s so vibrant,” Mantle said, “but there’s a character to it, a toughness, that’s still there. You have to have been emotionally and mentally tough to have survived there.”

Mantle has worked for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, but the project isn’t exactly journalism, he said. In fact, he doesn’t call himself a journalist. But he does find the layers of history of the Mon Valley to be compelling—even with its towns partly shaded by long-vacant houses. The many vacant homes—some of them obviously once grand—in parts of the Mon Valley astound him.

“I can’t imagine being so desperate that you just up and left a house. It’s mind-blowing,” Mantle said.

Millions of people came to this region to for jobs in which they created things, Mantle said. “You can’t erase a century of ideals,” he said.

But what happens when the promises of some of those ideals seem to have been broken, and people’s lives are ruined in the process, such as happened in the collapse of Big Steel in the 1980s? It appears to be up the following generations to consider. To Mantle, the American Dream is a myth; an idea that many people build upon.

“When the economy collapses, you have to realize that the American Dream wasn’t there to begin with,” Mantle said. “What I’m looking at now is the values and traditions that are left over. The idea of home, a sense of place and how people fit into that place.”

While Mantle is not a believer in the American Dream per se, he would not argue that Mon Valley folks don’t believe in the dream.

“I think the dream is not gone there, but it has changed forms. I think it needs to be evaluated,” Mantle said.

Many people in Western Pennsylvania are so tied to their history and so close in their identification with a specific place, that it makes them unique in this country, Mantle noted.

“The stuff I’m shooting has a lot to do with place and how it reflects the people,” he said.

Images from “In the Wake of the American Dream” can be viewed at Mantle’s web site, For more information on his project, email Mantle at

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Middle of Nada?

Mark Roth's series in the Post-Gazette, titled Middle Of Nowhere, couldn't be more timely in Pittsburgh or the nation. It's a must-read (this is the first installment, this week there was a second):

Th P-G's timely focus on this largely undetailed problem couldn't be more appropriate in Pittsburgh, capital of the Rust Belt. The series reminded me also of local photographer Ross Mantle's work, which will soon be shown locally but is here right now:

Please check out both of these collections.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Barnestorminism #23

"Vegetarians should avoid havin beefs." Jonathan Barnes

Barnestorminism #22

"Please refer to me as 'The Jonathan Barnes,' so the others won't be confused." Jonathan Barnes

Monday, November 07, 2011

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Ornery Tribesmen

I spent most of Wednesday afternoon watching Croatians yell at each other as politely as they could. It was tiring, listening to septuagenarians and octogenarians with such high levels of POCB (Pissed Off Croatian Blood), while exercising self-denial and not joining in to woof on somebody (I am part Croatian). I wasn’t interested in making myself part of a story I was covering. But for the several years I have been writing stories about St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in North Side, I’ve had this gut feeling I am part of the story.

By the end of all the commenting I was drained. I hadn’t slept enough the night before or had lunch prior to attending the city of Pittsburgh’s Historic Review Commission meeting Downtown. The HRC was hearing testimony to consider allowing the Diocese to demolish the city designated historic building, St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in the North Side. Still, while the real-life drama played out in front of me, it felt strangely satisfying to see people in their roles and to recognize how energetically everyone took up his part.

Some of those testifying before the Commission to support demolishing the church were members of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. The small Romanesque brick church, which is perched above Rt. 28 a few miles from the other St. Nicholas church, is known for its world-famous collection of murals, painted by artist Maxo Vanka in the 1920s and 1930s. It has about 220 active members and is struggling, and part of that financial hardship includes maintaining the closed North Side church, which is costing the parish about $1,700 per month.

St. Nicholas Millvale parishioner Darrell Woodrow said it pained him to think of the amount of money diverted from the word of Christ. “If we continue on this path, our future as a viable parish is in serious danger,” he said.

The Millvale church’s finance committee chairman, Bob Ehrman, said the burden of the East Ohio Street church on his congregation began before the North Side church’s closing. Millvale’s parishioners had to subsidize it for years, he said. In 1994 the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese joined the Millvale church with the North Side church and created one parish. Ehrman noted that $360,000 has been spent maintaining the building since it was closed in 2004.

“These expenses have already threatened our church in Millvale. Without relief, our church, a national historic landmark, faces the fate of the East Ohio Street property,” Ehrman said. “We are pleading to demolish the East Ohio street building and reduce the financial drain.”

St. Nicholas Millvale’s priest, Father Dan Whalen, said he’d seen “the continual strain that this building has had on our parish… We do not have a reasonable use for this building. We’re barely maintaining it at this point. There’s no reasonable return on this building for us,” he said.

Mary Petrich, 83, a lifelong St. Nicholas Millvale parishioner and one of the leaders of the Society to Preserve the Murals of Maxo Vanka, said six of the church’s murals have been restored since being damaged from Hurricane Ivan in 2004, but more work must be done. “You never want to recommend razing a church… The Millvale church is representative of immigrants who came here to the Northeast,” she said.

This testimony was a bit hard to take. I had worked very hard with Mary and others to bring attention to the production of Dave Demarest’s “Gift To America,” and for the preservation of the murals in general a few years back when the play about the murals’ creation was staged again after it’s initial airing in 1981. I wrote web site copy, magazine and newspaper stories, press releases, fundraising letters and other stuff, and called people for donations and support. I contacted editors and reporters in print, radio and TV news to ensure that the production got plenty of attention, and it did—four sold-out performances, and lots of funds raised and media attention, and many supporters gathered.

When I’d been working with the murals folks I had recognized a less-than-charitable attitude among some regarding the North Side church, and it bothered me. Some of the Millvale parishioners viewed the North Side church as not unique, and it hurt to hear that. How could you be so wholeheartedly dedicated to preserving Croatian heritage in one place, and be heartless towards your tribesmen down the road, who are in many cases your kin, I wondered. If you talk about Balkanization, Pittsburgh’s Croatian community should be referenced.

I am a quarter Croatian—my mother is half, and her mother was a child of Croatian immigrants from Minnesota by way of Zagreb. I am a native Pittsburgher, born in Bloomfield, raised in Bellevue and a resident of the city part of Regent Square. I am not religious and was actually raised Presbyterian, but just as I view the home of the Vanka murals as a unique Pittsburgh treasure worthy of working for, I see the closed St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in North Side in a similar way, and also as a testament to the dreams and ideals of all of our immigrant forefathers.

Members of North Side Leadership Conference feel this way, too, and are attempting to buy the church from the Diocese, with a plan in place for making the church into a museum dedicated to the immigrant experience. That museum would be the centerpiece of a thin park running alongside Rt. 28, connecting the museum and a parking lot with the nearby riverside trail in two spots—giving greater accessibility to the trail and connecting the neighborhoods of Troy Hill and East Deutschtown with the other nearby neighborhoods. Supporters of the idea say it could attract 50,000 new visitors to the area each year.

Reusing the closed church as an immigrant museum is a way to stimulate economic growth in Pittsburgh, and also will compliment nearby historic structures such as St. Anthony’s Chapel (with its world-class reliquary) in Troy Hill, and the Maxo Vanka murals at the Millvale church, PCHF member Richard Sestric said to the Commission. “We care about out shared community heritage, and want to honor our great-grandparents who settled in this region from Eastern and Central Europe including Croatian and German immigrants of North Side, and the Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Swiss, Slovak and other groups who populated Pittsburgh as a whole,” he said.

Others said that the North Side church’s supporters would be generous to the Millvale parish if it would finally sell the church to preservationists, who for years have been trying to save the church building.

“Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation is ready to produce substantial financial resources to the parish,” PCHF Foundation president Bill Vergot declared in a booming voice to his fellow Croatian-Americans from St. Nicholas Croatian Church in Millvale. “We are looking for a commitment that the people of both sides will support fundraising efforts for both sides and for the parish in general.” Then he read from a letter sent several years ago to the Millvale church by Peter Karlovich, a strong supporter of the cause. “‘It’s our desire to heal old wounds and save Croatian heritage.’ I want my fellow parishioners at Saint Nicholas to know we made every effort to work together, but we were refused.”

St. Nicholas North Side church supporter Bronco Benardic, a construction contractor, testified to the Commission, which was considering whether to allow the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to demolish the church building, though it was given historic designation by the city 11 years ago. The building is in decent shape, he said, and should not be demolished.

Anthony Benvin, chairman of the Troy Hill Citizens, said his group is against demolishing St. Nicholas North Side. “We see it as a very important part of our neighborhoods,” he said of the church at the base of his neighborhood’s hill, directly connected by a small stairway ascending the hillside. “It’s a gateway to our neighborhood.”

People don’t like to be bullied, whether they are ancient Hebrews, shouting “Let my people go!” or modern-day Croatian Americans saying “We will never give up!” And some people just won’t tolerate their holy places being desecrated, either, though this has been repeatedly been done to St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in North Side, known partly for the fact that you speed by it and it is literally feet from your car.

And so to some, it seems the lies stink to high Heaven, as the Croatian blood burns here on Earth. The Roman Catholic hierarchy is the original Old Boys Club, they say, but the Diocese puts the burden on the parish. Still, they add, we will get our church back.

Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation’s motto is “Saving our place in the future.” Amen. But a more earthly treasure could be at root of this years-long question of ownership of the church building. The longer trail of this story could lead straight to the bank.

It’s not about economic hardship, it’s about profit, PCHF member Jack Schmitt said. “The issue is about money and profit. PennDOT needs two slices of the property [for its planned rebuilding of Rt. 28]… For the sake of profit, we cannot allow our landmarks to be demolished one-by-one," he said.

North Sider John DeSantis, who was chairman of the Commission for 13 years, said the Diocese had not presented a good case for demolition. “There are in fact people who can provide reasonable use of this building. Right there, it’s an open-and-shut case,” he told the Commission. “It’s not a matter of how much they can get. This building has to be found to have no use.”

Susan Petrick, a former parishioner of the closed church and a member of PCHF, said her group had covered the costs to board up the closed church. Despite their efforts to secure the closed church, three people caught stealing from the church were not prosecuted by the Millvale parish. NSLC is in negotiations with the Diocese for the church building, but an agreement hasn’t been reached, she said.

“If the parish is truly experiencing financial hardship, you have to ask yourself, why haven’t they signed this agreement?” Petrick said.

HRC Acting Chairman Ernie Hogan said based on the ordinance, there are more questions raised that the HRC needs to have answered. He said the Commission would have its staff ask those questions, and after they receive answers, a decision will be made. He continued the hearing on the matter for 30 days. The issue will be discussed at HRC’s December meeting.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Demolish This?

Following is a beautiful, snow-covered panoramic view of the closed St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in the North Side, photographed by a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer from the (now empty) hillside shrine. Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese officials and members of St. Nicholas Millvale want to tear this all down. I wonder if anyone remembers the commandment, "Love one another?"

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Protecting St. Nicholas

In an age when profit trumps pride, place and position elbow out posterity, and when spaceship-like buildings supposedly owned by the public are discarded to cater to sports franchise owners, saving something as simple and unimportant to most people as St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh’s North Side might seem the fancy of a graying blue collar apologist. But those who love the old church, which welcomed Croatians for more than a century to their New World, believe it’s worth a thousand Civic Arenas, and then some.

Saving St. Nicholas Church has always been the task of a hardcore group of former parishioners and preservationists. Closed since St. Nicholas Day 2004, the fight to save the venerable old church has always been a war that’s been fought battle by battle. Those trying to preserve the 109-year-old church building, which is the oldest Croatian church building in the Americas, have another uphill battle: passing again through a city of Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission meeting unscathed.

Today, at 1:30 p.m., the Historic Review Commission will consider the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s request to demolish St. Nicholas Church because of the economic hardship placed upon the Bishop, who is the owner of the property. The meeting will happen at 200 Ross Street, on the first floor. Everyone is invited. Please come if you love Pittsburgh’s unique history, or if you’re Croatian and proud of it, or if you simply can’t stand to see another of Pittsburgh’s great landmarks torn down.

That designation won’t happen if North Side Leadership Conference chief Mark Fatla has anything to say about it. Fatla, who is Polish American, sees the closed church as potentially a strong draw that could bring 50,000 new visitors each year to the Deutschtown and East Deutschtown neighborhoods. The plan his nonprofit and other St. Nicholas supporters have put together would create a green park-strip alongside Rt. 28, from East Deutschtown by the Penn Brewery, with a trail system that would connect at two separate points with the existing riverfront trail. The plan would also create a new space for parking for the trail, by the old church. He called the infusion of so many new visitors into the North Side “a game changer.”

Fatla, NSLC, members of Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation and others are clamoring to save the church to convert it into a museum dedicated to the immigrant experience in America. Built with the pennies, nickels and dimes of Croatian immigrants, the church has been stripped by Diocesan officials of its religious items, and the hillside shrine beside it which seems suspended above the church no longer has its statues. But the tangible collective memory of generations of new Americans striving to make a home in a strange land, sweated and prayed into this church built against a hillside in Pittsburgh-esque fashion, will never be forgotten and forever will imbue the place with an earthly reverence that most would find ineffable.
The Rev. Dan Whalen, priest of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, said the Diocese needs to have the option to demolish the church because the costs to pay for it are too much for his small congregation to continue to bear. “We have to try to stop the financial bleeding,” he said.

Rev. Whalen added that neither his parish, which owns the church since it was closed and was part of the parish at that time, nor the Diocese are opposed to the church being used as an immigrant museum. “The problem is, nobody can come up with any money,” he said.

But according to Fatla, St. Nicholas supporters have money to buy the building and have tentatively agreed with the Diocese on a price for the property.

“We’re not really there yet,” Diocesan spokesman Rev. Ron Lengwin said of the would-be deal to sell the church to preservationists. “We’re covering all of our bases… We’re doing this on behalf of the parish.”

To make the museum a reality, supporters must raise a $5 million endowment and $10 million capital fund, Fatla said. “We’ve been trying to acquire the site for two years,” he said.