Parting images of Pittsburgh…


I was sad to say goodbye to Steel City, though I caught some major highlights during my visit, including the Smithfield Street Bridge, which has crossed the Monongahela River in one form or another for almost 100 years.


Here it is again, viewed from the vantage point of another mill artifact…


A pedestrian walkway on the bridge is industrially practical and yet so imbued with the history of the people who built it, that it is undeniably poetic.


It enabled several Crayola-happy images for me.


But I  said my goodbyes in the midst of the G20 Summit, an international economic thinktank that for two days pitted protesters against police and turned downtown into some sort of Orwellian seeming ghost town, since all the bridges in and out of the city were closed to regular traffic.


Here's one of several troupes of patrolling officers in the South Side neighborhood, the eve before the event.


The South Side is a colorful, eclectic district. I got Mahalia Jackson and Wumpscut CDs at an awesome used music store, saw draft beers advertised for as little as 86 cents on game days and pitied the owner of this RV and trailer combo, after experiencing my own harrowing driving experiences on Pittsburgh's crazy side streets.


My great aunt, Ann Donoghue, left, and Irene Toma (Sam Toma's wife) shared a wonderful Lebanese dinner with me in the South Side.


Earlier, I'd had my first ever taste of Lebanese food on Squirrel Hill with Kevin and Krista Mallon, who lead a vibrant Calvary Chapel just outside the city.

Kevin and krista

When I got to Pittsburgh, my hair was blue. When I left, it was back to boring brown. Think I'll blend in better this way.


Another notable (if creepy) church in Pittsburgh (not Europe)


Not far from St. Nicholas parish, Saint Anthony's Chapel on Troy Hill  houses more than 6,200 relics — the largest collection outside the papacy in Rome, and the largest worldwide that is open to the public.

Lining the sides of the chapel are large wooden statues in scenes depicting Christ's life.Relics, as you probably know, are actual pieces of saints' bodies, or sometimes their personal belongings.

Supposedly authentic and still being added to, the collection is housed in ornate casings.

The chapel, built in 1890 by a rich priest, allegedly has a splinter of the "true" cross and a thorn from the crown of thorns.

No photos were allowed in the building, and to be honest, the whole thing sort of creeped me out. But how interesting that Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States is a pilgrimage site for the entire Catholic world.

An immigrant artist’s gift to Pittsburgh


St. Nicholas Church is a small Romanesque cathedral in Millvale, a traditionally working class neighborhood, where houses were built smashed against one another, and narrow streets climb crazily up, down and around hills.IMG_3926

Nearby, an artist paints peacefully beside traffic on a one-way street lined with parked vehicles whose e-brakes, hopefully, are on.

The Roman Catholic parish serves a Croatian-American population whose ancestors arrived near the turn of the 20th century, along with a recent influx of immigrants from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina who fled the ethnic wars of the 1990s.

Though it's exterior is humble brick, inside, the church is covered in provocative murals by Croatian artist Maxo Vanka.

Vanka was born in 1889 and immigrated to the United states during the 1930s. The artist was spiritual, but did not claim a religion. Still, the priest who commissioned the paintings gave Vanka free reign.

According to Vanka's daughter, Peggy Vanko Braska, the artist worked 16 to 18-hour days, often accompanied by a small sparrow he'd rescued.

He painting powerful scenes that mixed traditional biblical imagery with modern details from Croatia, Pittsburgh and World War I.

The murals were done in 1937 and 1941, with the latter batch reflecting Vanka's pacifist beliefs and anguish over what was taking place in Europe.

Legend has it a prominent Pittsburgh family took offense at this depiction of a wealthy man reading a 1941 stock report while being served by a black man and ignoring a beggar beneath his table. The family allegedly offered the parish a large sum to paint over the mural, but the parish refused.

Vanka rich man

In other paintings, Vanko shows how Croatian mothers raised their children for war…

Vanka croatian mothers

…while Pittsburgh mothers raised their children for industry and still faced tragedy.

Vanka pittsburgh mothers

Above the alter, Mary is dressed in traditional Croatian garb and is surrounded by regular Pittsburgh folks and the Millvale priest who commissioned the work.

Vanka alter

In ceiling murals, Jesus tries to intervene between soldiers and is pierced in the process…

Vanka jesus separates

…while a horrified Mary grasps weapons of war.

Vanka mary separates

The church is open to the public and holds regular mass services, including one each month in Croatian.

A second life for ‘disposable’ athletes


The first few days I was in Pittsburgh I saw several greyhounds, which piqued my curiosity.

I met Andy Callaghan at a A Fair in the Park in the Shadyside area and found out why.

Turns out there are a couple tracks nearby and also rescue organizations that help rehome dogs who would otherwise be killed after their racing days are over.

Callaghan rescued Monty (left) and Skye from Pittsburgh-based Steel City Greyhounds.The dogs are pretty well adjusted and let lots of strangers pet them. Both have raced at one of the area tracks. Skye tore her cruciate ligament at some point, but it was never mended.

Callaghan disagrees with the way the dogs are considered disposable in the racing industry and are routinely killed once their 'career' is over.

Though racing is what they are bred for, they are fundamentally hunting dogs and could be happy serving other purposes, he believes. He says its amazing to watch them run for the fun of it.

There were lots of interesting dogs running around at the craft fair. Monty made friends with a pit bull named Fig.

With pit bull

A righteous worker at Poale Zedeck


At Poale Zedeck, an active Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill, janitor Michael Hommel showed me around just before sundown, Friday.

He's not Jewish, but has been attending services regularly since
July. It's a good place to pray and lends structure to his life, he

"I love my job here. I'm taking care of one of God's houses."

He's thought of converting, but then someone else would have to turn out the lights and operate the elevator on Saturday.

Poale Zedeck means "workers of righteousness." The synagogue was built during the Great Depression by an Austro-Hungarian
Jewish congregation that formed in 1881. Today its stained glass windows
are assessed at $450,000.

Women sit in the balcony or in a section on the side
of the main sanctuary that is separated from the men by a window. I'd probably choose the
balcony so I could be as close as possible to the dome.



Taking a bite of Pittsburgh

City cross section

Pittsburgh is layered in steel and bricks and flavored by sweat and ethnicity. Until the mid-70s it was perpetually coated in coal dust from the steel mills that dirtied even the shoes and collars of office workers.

Steel from here helped build the country and fight two world wars.

Today, only one plant operates on the outskirts of the city; the cutting-edge technology and manufacturing have moved overseas.

Health care, education, technology and financial services make up the primary industries, yet Pittsburgh retains its blue-collar soul.

It is a juxtaposition of the mid west and east coast, culturally, and the birthplace of public television and its early ambassador, Fred Rogers; along with hipster artist Andy Warhol and Heinz ketchup, the source material for one of Warhol's installations in the sixties.

There are an estimated 2.4 million in the metropolitan area and just over 300,000 in the city, where multiple bridges span the convergence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers into the Ohio River — a geographical triangle that anchors downtown.

The city also is sectioned into a 90 distinct neighborhoods, with dozens of unincorporated suburbs just outside.

For a west coast chiquita like myself, Pittsburgh was a lot to bite into.

Churches, bars, bridges, tunnels and hills coalesce into the skyline. Dense and architecturally diverse, it's a back-alley photojournalist's dream.

But I quickly realized I wouldn't be able to capture everything. I can only offer you a taste.

We ship 

Above and below, buildings in the colorful, ethnically diverse Strip District


In the touristy part of downtown, near the rivers, "tomorrow" is a tantalizing promise that never comes and steel mill artifacts are repurposed to make a dancing water fountain.

Free crab 


The houses here are all very different. A lot of humble (but colorful) brick…


…next to turn-of-the-20th century romanticism.


Synagogues punctuate the traditionally Jewish neighborhood, Squirrel Hill.


And there are so many old churches here, some have been converted to restaurants. At least one that I saw is now a bar. (The sacrilege!)

The alter 

At the University of Pittsburgh, the Cathedral of Learning is an impressive testament to working class residents who donated money during the Great Depression to help build what, at 42 stories, is now the tallest "school room" in the western world.

It's an inspirational place to study, though I was more excited when I thought the stars were as "dew," than when I realized they're as "new."

Sign bones 

Oh well! Here is a closeup of the Cathedral's bones

Cathedral bones

And a detail shot of the Ukrainian classroom, one of several dozen rooms decorated in a distinct historical ethnic or national style

Ukranian room 

Pittsburgh is the start of older United States history on my journey. Old and new are integrated…

New cathedral

with varying degrees of success, aesthetically.


U of Pitt's mascot is the panther, which just so happens to be my soul animal. Go Pittsburgh!


Interesting city, boring beer


One way to experience a city's culture is through its cuisine.

At the first two restaurants I went to in Pittsburgh, waitresses told me they carry a local beer called Iron City, but they do not recommend it.

So I tried a Pennsylvania Brewing Company Hefe-Weisen that was decent. But after the second non-recommendation for Iron City, I got curious.

"What's so bad about it? Is it made with river water?" I asked.

The waitress assured me it isn't made using polluted water. But she couldn't explain what was wrong with it, either, so I placed my order.

Iron City isn't awful. It's just not good. No complexity, no after taste. Kind of how I imagine "Duff" might taste.

"So, who drinks this stuff? I asked her when she returned.

"Old men from Pittsburgh," she said. "And they love it. They order it by the case."

(Behind the beer bottle, check out a decidedly non-boring building: the gothic-like, glass-sheathed skyscraper that houses Pittsburgh Plate Glass Industries.)

A Steelers fan


Ben Sheets, 28, watches the first game of the season against Tennessee at a bar in Mt. Lebanon, an unincorporated suburb of Pittsburgh.


A network administrator, Sheets has been on the waiting list for Steelers season tickets since he was 16. He should be eligible in eight years. Of course, season tickets today cost about $30,000, so he may end up selling his spot on eBay.

Red Bull and vodkas were his drink of choice the evening of the game.

After seeing his head in his hands for a little while, I got worried.


"Umm, dude, are you O-"

"Am I praying?" he said. "Yes, I am."

The Steeler's took the game in overtime.


America: ‘the amalgamation of all cultures’

IMG_3740 Pittsburgh resident Sam Toma has a PhD in Physics and Chemistry. He moved to the United States from Baghdad when he was 16 and has an interesting take on what it means to be American:

"I think the heart of being American is how fast you get over your ethnicity. The legal definition of an American is very simple. It's who you pledge your allegiance to. Even if it's not in writing, it's a contract.

To me, the triumph of that was Barack Obama, because we overlooked his race. The hallmark of being American is the amalgamation of all cultures. These are huge jumps that are not easily achieved in other countries."