a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Little hope for Donora

Welcome to nowhere, chapter 12

By Scott Beveridge

Donora was an unsightly mess by December 1967, with little more than a prayer for a brighter future. And the once-thriving steel town in Southwestern Pennsylvania had papers to prove its state of despair.

Those conclusions were drawn by the U.S. Economic Development Administration that year when it made public a plan for the small borough to recover from the loss of U.S. Steel and nearly 4,000 jobs. The federal government had come to the rescue because Donora was home to the first such mill to close in an industry that made the United States an industrial powerhouse across the globe. By every indication, however, Donora’s luck had run out.

Elected officials in the town along the Monongahela River had enacted wage and business taxes that made it unattractive to new companies, the report revealed. The movers and shakers in neighboring Monessen, Charleroi and Monongahela – municipalities that were just then beginning their declines - were not cooperating among each other, let alone with Donora, to tackle their problems.

Donora also had a poor library, one that was cramped into the back rooms of an old hotel. The town had inadequate schools, parks, sewers and employments opportunities. The major highways even bypassed that bend in the river, making it nearly impossible for big rigs to move goods in and out of town.

The laundry list of economic development woes was published at the end of a front-page story about the study in the local newspaper, the Herald-American, at the story’s jump to page two. As if burrying that part of the bleak assessment would make the situation go away. Meanwhile, the story led with the news that Donora needed to find $1.5 million to climb out of its hole.

The federal government said Donora needed to put a strip mall, health center, restaurant and motel on 28 acres of former mill property along the river. Part of good news came in the form of one sentence in the story that informed the borough that it had plenty of land to redevelop. The story went on to promise 2,800 new jobs if the plan came to fruition.

Unfortunately, the borough had only received $45,000 from the federal agency, and that money had already been spent on the study.

The local paper missed the big story at the time that U.S Steel had already surrendered the mill property, a 4.2-mile swath of it, to a new nonprofit organization that had its sights set on developing an industrial park. The Middle Monongahela Industrial Development Association, run then by a group of men who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, received from the company the rod mills, billet yard, lime storage building, roll shop and boiler, pump and cleaning houses. The property switched hands for a paltry $35,000, according to MIDA’s files that are now dusty in a loft above its offices in an old, gray mill building.

Yet, back in 1967, MIDA officials only had commitments from four firms that wanted to establish a warehouse, chemical plant, sandblasting facility and truck terminal at the nearly 70-year-old abandoned mill. They were looking at 215 jobs, at best.


Chapter 13

(The photos are courtesy of MIDA, reproduced from organization's U.S. Steel file from the 1960s)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Garden of glass

Please welcome guest blogger Dawn Keller. who recently visited Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

When you walk in each room, Phipps smells wonderful – the scent of a combination of plants from all over the world.
Now, there’s an additional reason to visit the Pittsburgh-based glasshouse full of plants. Until Feb. 24, the Chihuly blown glass exhibit will be on display. Renowned glass blower Dale Chihuly uses teams to develop complex and multipart sculptures.
I’m not sure what it’s like during the day. However, at night, the art is spectacular. The pictures here don’t do it justice. It’s something that you have to see for yourself.

Feeling love for this food

The Wooden Angel is worthy of praise

You’d have to be a log not to feel romance in the air at the Wooden Angel, a family-run restaurant in Beaver, Pa., which specializes in American wines. Angel sculptures appear to sprinkle love dust everywhere around the restaurant’s red walls to the point where the place exudes passion. A tacky spotlight in the shape of a heart shines on one wall leaving no doubt that love is in the air.

Kitsche aside, the outrageously great food and friendly staff make for a great experience in dining. The menu is famous among locals for its thin-crust skillet breads that have such names as Pierogi Bob and Duck Bread. The chef actually tops the bread with duck and a perfect compliment of apple, Brie and goat cheese.

Our waitress, Boni, also recommended the roasted five-onion soup. It arrived dripping in mozzarella and chock-full of red, yellow and white onions, shallots and scallions. For the main course, we selected smoked mozzarella raviolis and chicken with roasted potatoes and sautéed vegetables. A guy at the next table was dining on a beautiful, thick slab of rare prime rib. The food was so good that my friend practically stabbed the waitress in the hand with a fork when she tried to take away a plate with a few morsels of veggies. "My compliments to the chef," she said.

Reservations are recommended at the 40-year-old Wooden Angle that was full Saturday night of smiling people, some of whom embraced between courses. The staff worked tirelessly to please. After dinner, a waiter actually escorted me through the smoky bar and to the rest room that is hidden behind a wall. The menu is a bit pricey but it’s no wonder this place has won so many awards.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Church bells touch lives

MONONGAHELA, Pa. – Michael Milinovich was standing outside City Hall in Monongahela in 1982 pondering a career change after completing yet another boring municipal audit.

Then he noticed the melody from the set of bells that chime on the quarter hour across the street in the belfry at First United Methodist Church, and they inspired him to change his life.

It was his first calling to the ministry.

Milinovich joined the seminary and was briefly appointed to a Methodist church in nearby West Newton before fate sent him back to lead the Monongahela congregation that worships in the century-old building with those bells.

“You can’t make that story up,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how those bells play into people’s lives.”

The bells, 11 in all, were a gift from lumber mill owner Charles E. Stephens in 1925, when there were many wealthy residents of the small city hugging the Monongahela River, said Jim Barnhart, the church’s historian.

The bells weigh between 525 and 3,000 pounds each, and contain 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin. They were manufactured by McShane Bell Foundry of Glen Burnie, Md., a company that now charges $22,000 for just one bell. No other church in Southwestern Pennsylvania can boast such a collection except First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, which owns 12, Milinovich said. However, the bells at First Baptist no longer chime because the system malfunctioned, a church spokesman said.

The set cost Stephens an estimated $200,000, Barnhart said, as part of badly needed renovations to the building at the time. The steeple had to be removed in the 1920s because of damages from a lightning strike, and the brick tower it sat atop was about to collapse.

Originally, the bells were controlled by a small keyboard behind a hidden door at the altar until the miniature organ’s keys began to stick. Then the men of the church had to run to the bell tower and pull ropes to sound the bells, which were eventually electrified in 1969, Barnhart said.

Many modern churches play recordings of bells chiming because they cannot afford the real thing, he said. Some old churches have sold their bells for the value of their copper or brass in order to keep the doors open.

“It’s a landmark,” Barnhart said of his church. “Our church cares enough to keep those bells ringing.”

But caring for the belfry can be a challenge.

While the four-story spire stands as an impressive addition to the red-brick facade, its rough interior could serve as a backdrop for a Charles Dickens play.

A door in the second-floor choir loft, above the sanctuary, opens to a few stairs and a tall chamber lit by a couple of incandescent light bulbs dangling from chains. Exposed wood support beams criss-cross the room, some of which have graffiti left behind by children. There are three more steep climbs to the top. A darker, cramped level that would send chills down the spine of a claustrophobic can be found atop a set of 33 rickety, winding steps.

Visitors are wise to step on the edges of the stairs because of the wear on the middle of the wooden planks. A third, tight set of 15 steps spiral toward a ladder and a trap door to a narrow catwalk between the bells and belfry’s bricks walls.

“It’s an experience, especially when the bells start ringing,” Barnhart said. “It sort of blows your eardrums out. You get to the see the town from a whole different view.”

Click here to watch a short film about the bells.

Reprinted from the Observer-Reporter

Friday, January 18, 2008

No danger in this pizza

CHARLEROI, Pa. - Business owners in this borough fear the discovery last week of a body in a downtown trash bin is going to frighten people away from shopping in their stores. It’s kind of ironic because there really aren’t many places left to shop there anyway thanks to the collapse of the steel industry in the Pittsburgh region.

But in Charleroi’s defense, local and state police were quick to make an arrest in the brutal slaying of a woman who had just moved to town the day she was killed, allegedly by her boyfriend. Click here to read about the case.

And downtown Charleroi is not a Hell’s Kitchen or anything close to being infected with such blight as Aliquippa or Braddock, municipalities to the north and west along the Ohio River watershed.

In fact, Charleroi's downtown was placed in November 2007 on the National Registry of Historic Districts because its storefronts and mansions are representative of a boomtown from the late 1800s. There also are plenty of restaurants and offices along the main drag that keep a steady flow of people who earn legitimate paychecks on the sidewalks. And many of those happy feet are heading to a fantastic pizza parlor.

If you live in the area and haven’t discovered Salatino’s Pizzeria, make it your life’s goal to eat there the next time you have the munchies for a pepperoni pie. Owned by Michael Coury, the restaurant at 532 McKean Ave. has drawn great reviews by Internet junkies as well as members of the local media with beer bellies. Coury is one of the friendliest businessmen around, and especially in Charleroi, where he has been selling pizzas for three years. He sometimes even passes out free samples of his yummy homemade baklava, a sheet of which is usually on the counter. In three weeks, Coury will expand his hold on the Charleroi restaurant trade by opening a new jazz club, River Café, in the old Miller’s women’s clothing store a few doors down from his restaurant.

Here's hoping the place sings. This stretch of the Mon Valley is screaming for a classy place with good food, a friendly staff and live mellow music.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Bells

The First United Methodist Church of Monongahela, Pa., boasts the second highest number of bells in any belfry in Southwestern Pennsylvania. It's an effort to reach to the top of the tower that has 11 McShane bells. The Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., will publish a feature story on the church Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Pulled from the trash

This portrait of brickyard workers in Monongahela, Pa., is part of a collection of antique photographs that was headed for the landfill in 1986. Pat Scurfield, the editor of the old Daily-Herald newspaper tossed them in her trash can while she was cleaning out her desk and preparing the newsroom for a takeover by the Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pa.

Scurfield didn't have much of a nose for news or interest in history but had somehow managed to hold onto her job. She was best-known in the small city as author of a column, Coffee Talk, that kept track of local birthdays and anniversaries long before Saturday Night Live began to air skits of the same name. It wasn't unusual for her to send birthday wishes to someone whose obituary had appeared several months prior in the newspaper.

She allowed me to help myself to the sepia-tone images when I noticed them in her trash can before taking on a new job with the O-R as a photographer. I took them home and filed them away until I began to occasionally post old photographs on my Flickr photo/blog. The response about these shots on the Web has been overwhelming from people who have an interest in old images or are looking to fill in the gaps in their family trees. The following is a comment from a descendant of the owner of the company whose workers are shown above:

Thank you Scott for saving this image.

John Tempest who was born 30 July 1859 Coxhoe, Kelloe, Co. Durham England and died 9 Jan 1921 in Midland, Beaver Co. PA. founded Tempest Firebrick. It was one of the oldest firebrick companies in the Monongahela valley, employing fifty workers in 1897. In 1924 it had a distribution center at 601 House Bldg., Pittsburgh. According to the Charleroi Mail newspaper the buildings were dismanted the first of May 1929. At that time the site was owned by Pittsburg Coal Company. John Tempest was my great grandfather. John does not seem to be in this photo. Maggie Boradori

I especially like this photograph because it shows immigrants in tattered clothes flanked by well-dressed bosses. It also documents child labor. Look for other images from this collection to appear here in the future.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A lazy way to bond at the office....

The pod of four desks brought us together but it was the Lazy Susan that sealed the bond. Heidi Price wanted a place for us to share our junk food at the Observer-Reporter newsroom in Washington, Pa. I wanted something efficient, and found a wooden Lazy Susan for $1.50 at a Donora thrift shop operated by the Washington City Mission.

It fit perfectly on the ledge where our four desks were merged together.
Popcorn Willy, a restaurant a few blocks from the newsroom that makes popcorn in such flavors as banana or Chocolate drizzle, provided the snack of choice.

Then came the many bags of Zenoba Turkish pistachios. “God they were good,” said Mike Jones, one of our podmates. If you would look around, you might find some shells or kernels of popcorn still hiding under our iMacs.

But then, Heidi started taping pieces of paper around the outer edges of the spinning wheel that helped to widen our waistlines. On them, she wrote the names of U.S. senators and congressmen to help her become more aware of the wider world around us. On other days, she substituted notes and phrases in Spanish, as she was trying to learn to speak that language. If that wasn't enough, she turned Susan into an herb garden one dreadful summer. Then she left us in June for a better job at Carnegie Mellon University, and, well, things have never been the same in our corner of the working universe.

Some days we wonder who will lead us to the next kooky diet. Amanda Gillooly, to my left, now wants to take up clog dancing for 15 minutes after lunch to improve our karma and stimulate our heart rates. Instead, I drop a bag of the new Life Savers Gummies Wild Berry Sours onto the spinning serving platter. We gorge ourselves to a new sugar high. A part-timer and our pod's newest Wannabe, Erin Faulk, takes a seat at an empty desk to write a story about municipal sewers. Nod.

Hey Heidi, we need some serious cheering up. Come and visit us soon and don’t forget to grab your clogging shoes and a few bags of pistachios on your way.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

An amazing read

Valentino Achak Deng’s entire body ached as he and some 27,000 other boys were chased for hundreds of miles from their homes after the Second Sudanese Civil War began in late 1983. Those who survived became wafer thin while dodging bombs and being chased by wild animals as they trudged to Kakuma, Kenya, and created a sprawling refugee camp.

Deng’s life is intensely told in epic proportion in a book, “What is the What,” that is now in paperback. The story was written by Dave Eggers and published as fiction because Deng was too young to accurately recall some of his horrific experiences while crossing three deserts to find safety and eventually reach the United States with 3,800 others who became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.

The story is funny at times and quite disturbing at others. Their experiences in the United States are not so pleasant, either, as some fell victim to murder and assaults over misunderstandings about a strange culture. While on the run in Africa, most of the boys had some idea about where they were headed, Deng related in the story. But in America, he said, "we are unsure of where exactly we are going."

Lev Grossman of Time said it best when he noted that the story was told in “a moving, frightening, improbably beautiful book.” Anyone who complains about life’s little problems would surely be humbled after reading about how bad the world can become for kids like Deng who are caught up in war.

And what’s troubling, today, is the fact that at least 100 people have been killed in Kenya in rioting amid allegations of a rigged election. The death toll is sure to climb. So some Kenyans have become refugees, themselves, from a country that has historically been kind to its neighbors without a home.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Feel this mojo

There has been a lot of buzz about Mojo Bistro just north of Pittsburgh, Pa., in Bellevue, even though the restaurant/coffee house has only been open for 11 months. Reporters from the local big-city newspapers have been gushing about its interesting assortment of Thai/Southern U.S.-flavored soups, salads and sandwiches. So, I decide to take the drive along Route 65 to the borough for a late lunch to judge for myself whether the place is worthy of all this attention.

The owners, Paige McGarity and her husband, Matthew Lydic, opened the restaurant in an old bridal shop in a duplex at 172 Lincoln Ave., and, while it's a challenge to find, the place is pretty darned hip. The inside has warm-toned walls covered with mirrors and shelves, and sports a tin ceiling painted white, hardwood floors and mix-matched tables and chairs. I'm salivating.

After studying the menu, I select bruschetta ($6) and an asparagus panini (8.50) and wait and wait while thinking about my hunger. The chef jogs to the basement for a loaf of bread. The waitress apologizes three times for the delays in the kitchen. A postman enters with a wind of cold air and delivers a smile with the mail. Then, an older couple joins the 10 or so customers in the room.

My bruschetta finally arrives, stacked high with caramelized onions, prosciutto and aged cheese. It's excellent. So is the asparagus rolled with ham and toasted with pine nuts and cheese between two slices of seasoned bread. I am impressed by the edible garnish of two mini cheese sticks with a tablespoon of marinara sauce.

If you’re looking for tasty, unusual food served with style and ambiance, Mojo Bistro will not disappoint you. But the security cameras, which were not hidden among the fake plants, freaked me out. Who on earth wants to be seen on youtube pigging out or stealing flatware?

Also, beware of a lack of heat in the dead of winter. Even the cashier was clad in a scarf and white down coat. It was cold enough in there to keep the lettuce chilled in the accompanying side salad sprinkled with walnuts and poppyseed dressing. The leftovers were enough to convince me to take home a doggy bag to reheat the grub. It was too good to leave behind.