There are plenty of reasons for musicians to know of Steubenville, Ohio, just a 35-minute drive west of Pittsburgh: Dean Martin hailed from there; it's where the RZA spent youthful summers; and back in the day, Steubenville offered an alternative to Pittsburgh if a musician found himself or herself in the area on a Sunday. (Pennsylvania's blue laws forbade Sunday alcohol sales).
Unfortunately, the 'Burb of the 'Burgh has come upon a certain negative notoriety as well. The decline of the steel industry has decimated the local economy, and gang violence has plagued the downtown area, leaving little incentive for local business or real estate to take root. The much-publicized "Steubenville rape case" is yet another harbinger of the decline of what was once a proud, economically and culturally vibrant, blue-collar town.
Despite all that bad press, a group of students from the Franciscan University has decided to open a venue for live music in that same cultural void that is downtown Steubenville.
"Music does amazing things for people," says Patrick Walters, one of a handful of students who are spearheading The Harmonium Project, the venue opening on Steubenville's historic North Fourth Street.
Walters seems aware of the potential for the project being viewed as just another move toward gentrification. "We're not just looking to move the university into downtown; we also want to attract the local population for our shows — to give them an alternative."
The Harmonium Project is still in the legal stage of things setting itself up as a nonprofit, but it will soon be offering shows that appeal to a broad range of audiences, from singer/songwriter nights, to hip hop, dance and rock. The project is also reaching out to national acts who are touring through the area. When asked exactly what the clientele might look like, Walters chuckles and admits that no one really knows — or cares.
"We're interested in truth and goodness," he says. "Anyone else interested in those things is welcome."