90.5 WESA Celebrates: Inventing Pittsburgh

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The people of Pittsburgh and the Western PA region have a deep pride and connection to our roots and an honor to those who came before us. Pittsburgh is a city that has much to be proud of. The growth of the area in the late 1800s-1900s is an achievement unprecedented in other parts of the country. As our region rises from the ashes of the mills, we will look back on the incredible people and events that lead us to this second birth as a powerhouse region. This series is made possible with support from UPMC . You can check out 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference here , which was also supported by UPMC. Subscribe to the podcast here.

Episode Date
Who Are We? Looking At Pittsburgh Through Public Art
The murals in the United States Post Office and Courthouse on Grant Street are pretty hard to get to. There’s security, now, unlike when the Department of Treasury’s Section of Painting and Sculpture commissioned the three works in 1934. Two of the octogenerian paintings survive on the 8 th floor; one disappeared. That’s the thing about murals, said Sylvia Rhor, associate professor of art history at Carlow University. They’re large, but they’re not immune to time’s vagaries. They can go missing, be discarded or painted over. “Some of the styles are outdated. Some of the topics don’t seem to fit with the community, so sometimes they’re painted over for that reason. Some of them are offensive. Some of the buildings were destroyed so some murals were lost. Many murals were lost,” she said. The murals Rhor referred to were part of a vast national output in the 1930s and commissioned by a number of agencies created by the federal government, the most famous of which was the Works Progress
Jan 08, 2016
How Nate Smith Forced Pittsburgh To Confront Discrimination
At the Carpenter’s Training Center just outside the City of Pittsburgh on the Parkway West, a class of nine learns how to build a level floor. Forty years ago, getting into the center’s apprenticeship program would have been a feat for a person of color or a woman. “Those days were, you know, the status quo,” said Harold McDonald, a representative for the Keystone+Mountain+Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters. In the 1960s, just two percent of the skilled trades and craft unions’ members were black. Without a connection to the trades, a family member, say, it was difficult to break in, said McDonald. “Nate Smith was an advocate for change for more minorities to be into the construction trades. And the acceptability of those minorities in the trades,” he said. Nate Smith was born in the Hill District in 1929. He joined the Navy at 14, saying he was older, and learned to box. As a professional boxer after the war, Smith taught himself how to operate heavy machinery. In 1951, he traded
Jan 01, 2016
Latinos Have A Rich History In The Pittsburgh Region
From one of the file folders arrayed on her kitchen table, retired Spanish professor María de los Ángeles Stiteler pulls out a lyrics sheet.
Dec 28, 2015
Kaufmann’s Aimed To Provide A Home Away From Home For Immigrants
“There’s Florence and London and Paris and Prague and Brussels.” Lina Insana, chair of the department of French and Italian at the University of Pittsburgh, points to a spread from the Kaufmann's department store’s in-house magazine, Storagram, which proclaims the 30th anniversary of the “Foreign Office.” “They used these foreign offices as proof of the quality of their merchandise—how up to date that merchandise was, how up to the minute the styles were,” Insana said. At the time, many department stores had buyers overseas. But Kaufmann’s had something else, the inverse of its Foreign Office with its buyers in Buenos Aires and Shanghai and Bombay: the stateside Foreign Department, smack dab in the middle of Pittsburgh. “In this Foreign Department, all of the sales clerks, who were both men and women, were available to a huge range of immigrant customers,” said Insana. Fourteen clerks spoke just as many languages: French, Italian, Serbian and Croatian; German, Russian, Greek and Polish
Dec 18, 2015
Still Working: Why Pittsburgh Is Really The 'Glass City'
Walking down Penn Avenue in Garfield, people likely don’t see Jason Forck through the window two stories up as he balances a near-molten glass tumbler at the end of a steel rod.
Dec 11, 2015
Still Working: What Comes Next? Remaking A Life In The Mon Valley
The main building on Carrie Furnace’s 80-acre site in Braddock looks like a giant has just scattered its playthings and stomped off, not too far away, to eat a few goats. Inside the blowing engine house a 48-inch universal plate mill lies in 40- and 50-ton pieces on the concrete floor. A sign hanging at the south end lists the safety guidelines (“6. Be aware of crane movements”). Bill Sharkey sits on a few benches meant for visitors. Sharkey isn’t a visitor, really. He worked as a foreman at Carrie from 1974 to when it shut down in 1982. At its peak, the plant produced 1,250 tons of iron a day to send across the Monongahela River to the Homestead Works and refined into steel. It’s quiet now. The sound of the trains passing by to the north competes with the faint whistle of wind moving through the big doors a volunteer fashioned from found steel. “In the old days it was all noisy—there’s whistles going all the time, steam hissing, ah, there's railroad engines going all the time, moving
Dec 04, 2015
Still Working: What It Takes To Keep The Lights On In Western PA
A black and yellow helmet sits on the floor of Janet Hoover’s kitchen. It’s perched on top of a pair of boots and an old miner’s lamp. The helmet label reads, “Fasloc : Keeps the Roof Over Your Head.”
Nov 27, 2015
Still Working: How A 100-Year-Old Navigation System Keeps Pittsburgh Running
Don Zeiler stands on a wall in the middle of the Monongahela River. In work boots and a bright orange jacket, the lockmaster at Braddock Locks & Dam is dressed for dance. “When you’re dancing with your partner you take a step, they need to know where to go: when I’m doing this, then you do that, then I’ll do this, then you do that. So that’s basically what locking is,” he explained. Rivers are finicky. They twist, they turn, and their water levels vary, so “locking” (not to be confused with the actual dance style, popping and locking) is how a boat moves from one level to the next. Think of a lock as a water elevator, with two sets of doors. A boat steers through one gate, which closes behind it. The lock fills with water. Once it’s high enough, the boat continues out through the second gate. Like dancing, locking a boat is an activity for two. A leader and a lock operator, working at different ends, coordinate the passage of boats through the lock. For their safety, and for the
Nov 20, 2015
Hey, Steelers, Where'd You Get That Logo?
The love Steelers fans have for their team is the stuff of legend: hordes of faithful waving Terrible Towels, wearing logo-emblazoned pajama pants, cheering in one of the nation’s more than 700 Steelers bars. So I figured the best way to learn the back-story of the logo was to go right to the source: Heinz Field, on a Sunday, an hour before kickoff.
Nov 13, 2015
They Don't Just Sell Medicine Here, They Make It
Anchored at the corner of Fifth Avenue and McKee Place in Oakland, Hieber’s Pharmacy sports a glass block window that reads, “We Create Medicine For Your Family.” Inside, white cabinets hold powdered chemicals and a rainbow assortment of empty capsules waiting to be filled. Hieber's is a compounding pharmacy.
Nov 06, 2015
A Very Quiet Menagerie: Taxidermy At The Carnegie Museum Of Natural History
It would be easy to breeze past the mountain goats on their sliver of vertical cliff in the Hall of North American Wildlife or to step around the black rhino milling about in the hallway. But these are not just any animals: they’re animals remade by humans.
Oct 30, 2015
'Poison Death' In The Liberty Tubes: How The South Hills Commute Could Be Worse
It’s hard to miss the four brick stacks of the Liberty Tunnel Fan House towering over the houses on Secane Avenue in Mount Washington. “There are two exhaust shafts,” said Bill Lester, Assistant Director of Construction for PennDOT’s District 11, pointing them out. “And there are two intake shafts where we draw fresh air in from up here. We push it down into the tunnel and then we turn around and we drag the bad air back out.” The fan house is the beating heart of the Liberty Tunnel: that exchange of air—out with the bad and in with the good—is what makes it possible to safely travel the 5,984 feet through the side of a mountain, says Lester. “You can drive through the tunnel without passing out,” he said. Every day, more than 34,500 cars pass through the Liberty Tunnel. When it was built, it was the world’s first tunnel specifically designed for automobile traffic and the first to be artificially ventilated. Lester stands with Joe Edwards, the tunnel’s Lead Electrician, at the fenced
Oct 23, 2015
A State Mandate And A Larger-Than-Life Raccoon: Recycling In Pittsburgh
Let’s get this out of the way: The stuff you put in the recycling bin does get recycled. “Yes, we do. We recycle. That’s the name of the game,” said Robert Johns, plant manager of a single-stream material recovery facility, MRF , owned by Waste Management. From the main office on the site’s eight-acre campus on Neville Island, located in the middle of the Ohio River, Johns sits surrounded by posters about what can and can’t be recycled, bright yellow safety belts and hard hats. The MRF hosts tours multiple times per week from middle schools, high schools, colleges and businesses interested in how best to dispose of their stuff. On the plant’s tipping floor a bulldozer herds detergent containers, pop cans and newspapers onto a conveyor belt toward a small team of three or four employees who pre-sort the debris of daily life, pulling out objects that can’t be processed by the plant’s machines. “I've seen them pull out things like bowling balls, flip flops, coolers, curling irons, car
Oct 16, 2015
An Industrial Ecosystem: How Leather And Wool Fueled Pittsburgh's Early Growth
Georgie Kovacosky leaned on the fence surrounding a sunny enclosure on her 230-acre farm in New Bethlehem, about 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.
Oct 09, 2015
Voting Has Always Been A Beginning, Not An End
It was October 1916. The Brooklyn Robins, later the Dodgers, played the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, making it possible to forget, for a little while, that summer was over and Europe was at war. Pittsburgh newspapers posted the scores in their office windows and so many people crowded the streets to keep tabs that City Council supposedly passed an ordinance prohibiting the papers from doing so. “The suffragettes saw this as an opportunity. They went to a gentleman who owned an arcade Downtown, with several floors of balconies and an atrium. And they got the newspapers to telephone them the play by plays. So they were in there providing this ongoing announcement, but in between the plays they would jump up on the soapbox and say, ‘Women should have the vote,’” said Eliza Smith Brown, granddaughter of Eliza Kennedy Smith, a Pittsburgh suffragist in the early 20 th century. Kennedy Smith and her sister, Lucy Kennedy Miller, helped form the Allegheny County Equal Franchise
Oct 02, 2015
Caretakers Still View Pittsburgh's Earliest Cemeteries As 'Respites For The Living'
Michael Joyce started working at Homewood Cemetery in 1978, cutting grass. “I live real close to here so it was just a summer job,” said Joyce, now the tie-wearing superintendent of the more than 200-acre spread. He’s responsible for everything that happens outside.
Sep 25, 2015
Why City Farming Brings Pittsburgh Full Circle
After a long day of moving goats around the city, Doug Placais stood – sweaty, covered in dirt – a mile from Downtown Pittsburgh at Arlington Acres, the one-tenth of an acre urban farm he owns and operates with Carrie Pavlik . “Well, UPS is funny because, you know, they ask you what’s in there. So the first time I said, ‘goat blood,’ and he actually didn’t blink, to his credit. I don’t know how he held a straight face.”
Sep 11, 2015
A Place Where Stories Live Forever: The Department Of Real Estate
Richard Williams glances at the request sheet from behind a chest-high counter and gives the book in front of him a quarter turn. With a pair of pliers, he latches onto a metal wire and pulls, flopping open its spine stacked high with crinkly, worn pages. “What I find fascinating, especially in these handwritten ones, is the lack of errors,” Williams said. He regards the long page covered in careful, legible script as he steps toward the copier, deed in hand.
Sep 04, 2015
Pittsburgh Jazz Ain’t What It Used To Be: It’s... Something Else
Stephanie Wellons sings as easily as most people talk. As though it were a parenthetical statement, Wellons changes from speech to song, climbing the first hill of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Aug 28, 2015
Cycling In The City: A Brief History Of Bikes In Pittsburgh
More than 3,000 bikes line the floors and walls at Bicycle Heaven in Chateau. Just inside the entrance hangs a bike made entirely of wood. “It’s called a boneshaker bicycle,” said owner Craig Morrow. Past the gleaming Schwinns and Raleighs and the spot usually home to Pee-wee Herman’s iconic ride (it’s being repaired right now), Morrow points out two bikes from the turn of the 19 th century, both with “lights” suspended from the cross bars.
Aug 21, 2015