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Making History

How to get involved in Pittsburgh's birthday celebration

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Unlike a lot of birthday parties, Pittsburgh's 250th celebration offers opportunities to be more than a guest. Some of those opportunities are offered by the corporate-sanctioned Pittsburgh 250 initiative; others are more grassroots.

Through its "Community Connections" grant program, Pittsburgh 250 is soliciting gift ideas from all over Southwestern Pennsylvania. The program hopes to award $1 million to proposals that embrace or celebrate their community assets. Many of these suggestions will come from community groups, says program coordinator Dustin Stiver. But he is also seeking input from "affinity groups," like outdoor enthusiasts who have plans for improving, say, river access.

Learn more by calling Stiver at 412-325-0646, or do a search for "Community Connections" at the Imagine Pittsburgh Web site, www.imaginepittsburgh.com.

Other organizations are already planning events of their own.

Inspired by labor historian Charles McCollester's call for an open-source birthday celebration, Bernie Lynch and a fellow Mount Washington resident, documentary filmmaker Lynn Squilla, decided to convene such an event themselves. With help from state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Highland Park), they have reserved the lobby of the City-County Building on July 23, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. (For details, e-mail peoplespittsburgh@googlegroups.com or visit http://groups.google.com/group/peoplespittsburgh.) The inaugural meeting, says Lynch, "will be a call to action for anyone who wants to get involved, and create the framework for everybody to get together."

Lynch expects attendees to create smaller subgroups according to their interests. Some likely participants, she says, have already expressed interest in "renaming and reclaiming" city landmarks. Citing an example proposed by McCollester, Lynch notes that Grant Street is named after Major James Grant, who was massacred in a badly botched assault on Fort Duquesne before the French deserted it. The city's political and corporate Main Street, in other words, is named after one of the greatest blunderers in Pittsburgh history. Which makes sense, perhaps ... but why not campaign to have the street renamed after someone like Martin Delaney, a 19th-century African-American newspaper publisher and abolitionist?

The goal of People's Pittsburgh, Lynch says, will be to compile a calendar of events "through 2008 and beyond." Throughout the process, Lynch says, participants will be asking, "How do you make the city's history engaging and participatory? How do we make it fun? How do we tell our rich historical story through all the people who have come here?

"I just want to see the right stuff happen," Lynch says.

Similarly, Rivers of Steel has the express purpose of documenting the history and everyday life of Pittsburgh's working classes. And archivist Ron Baraff says the organization is planning a community-based exhibit tentatively called "Seeing Pittsburgh."

The exhibit "will ask what makes us who we are, rather than Duluth?" Baraff says. "There's something distinctly Pittsburgh that we never lose, no matter where we live."

To Baraff, the best place to find that Pittsburgh essence is in the places even Pittsburghers often overlook. "There are these really isolated places where you have generations of families living together -- places that peaked 50 years ago" but that have retained their character. Obscure locales like Preston and Four Mile Run, he says, may reveal traditions we've inherited without realizing it. Such places, he says, are "like the Galapagos Islands," where researchers can discover how Pittsburgh has evolved over time.

Relying heavily on photos and other community-submitted artifacts, Baraff hopes to document these communities with an exhibit and a book. "I'd like it to be as diverse as possible, across all the demographic boards," says Baraff. "I want the senior citizen's voice, my generation, my kids' generation."

Those with leads can all Rivers of Steel at 412-464-4020. Funding sources are unclear, Baraff allows. "But we're going to move ahead whether we get money or not."

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