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A Conversation with Anita Kulina

A Squirrel Hill resident and native of Greenfield, Anita Kulina is the author and publisher of Mill Hunks and Renegades: A portrait of a Pittsburgh neighborhood. Released earlier this year, the book celebrates the heritage of Greenfield...

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Who were you writing this book for?

My goal was that some grandmother would have this book on her coffee table and her 7-year-old grandson would pick it up and be interested. I think it's really the story of any town -- the ethnic groups might be different but you find the same stories and prejudices. When I was in school I hated history. It's like a big secret that history is about people. History's a living and breathing thing. It's not something Andrew Carnegie invented.

 

I can't tell you how many times people would tell me, "Oh, I have nothing to say. I'm just a housewife, I'm just a plumber." And then they'd have these rich stories. There was a woman I talked to in her 80s who told me about how when she got married it was during the Depression. So after her wedding she went down to this [tailor] and the lady cut the skirt off her wedding dress and made a purse out of it, and made the dress street-length. So she got a lot of wear out of it.

 

Who did you talk to for the book?

I ran the gamut. The first person I interviewed was 96 years old, and I also interviewed a 12-year old. The oldest person was Old Mike Rafferty. He was called Old Mike because there was a Young Mike, who was in his 60s. Everybody was so frank with me. I asked what he did in the evenings for fun, and he said, "Oh, we fought. We're Irish. That's what we did."

 

Greenfield's always had a tough reputation. I mean, I remember being 8 or 9 years old and a girl telling me what to do if I get in a street fight. She told me that girls go after your clothing because if they can get it off of you, they'll embarrass you and you'll quit fighting. So she said you need to wear a lot of layers of clothing -- like 10 shirts. She said, "It'll be very frustrating for them."

 

What do you think is the most important thing about Greenfield's history for people to know?

I think the most important thing is the immigrant groups that came in -- the Italians, the Irish, and the Slovaks. They each made these little towns within the town. The Run is where the Slovaks settled, and it was like a little village the way they had it at home: They had two churches, which are still there, which were the center of the community. The Irish Catholics lived next to St. Rosalia's. When I went to school there, we started practicing for the St. Patrick's Day parade the day we came back from Christmas vacation. I can sing five verses of "Galway Bay," which a lot of Polacks can't.

 

How has the neighborhood changed over the years?

It's getting yuppified now. But one of the things about a neighborhood corner is that if you go away, you might get married and have kids, but you come back to the same corner. Young Mike Rafferty told me that as a kid he hung on the corner where [local bar] Pickles is. That used to be a drug store and an ice-cream parlor. Then it became a bar, and the same people that hung out at the drug store were older, so they hung out at the bar instead. The people were a constant.

 

I was in a bar in Greenfield once -- I hadn't lived there for 10 years, and nobody knew who I was. When I went to bathroom, two women followed me. They said, "Who are you?" And I said, "I'm Timmy Kulina's sister." And then it was like, "Oh, OK." I don't think they were going to harm me. I think they just wanted to know what I was doing in their bar. People are territorial about the places they love.

 

A lot of people might say that proves Pittsburgh is insular, and that outsiders have a hard time feeling welcome.
Well, I think that in a neighborhood like that, all you need is an in. For you to be a part of that place, they just need to know you'll respect their culture. And there is a culture -- even in different parts of Greenfield there are different cultures. I moved into Hazelwood, which is a mile away from Greenfield. Back in the 1970s, in Greenfield a woman could shop in her shorts. In Hazelwood, you couldn't go to the store in your shorts, or you were considered -- how do I put this? -- loose. So I put on long jeans when I went to the supermarket there. When you go to a place, you should take on the customs. That's your responsibility when you move somewhere, I think.

 

(Mill Hunks and Renegades: A portrait of a Pittsburgh neighborhood can be ordered from Kulina's Web site, www.brandtstreetpress.com.)

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