Every year since 2007, Mike Dillon's magazine journalism and Society of Professional Journalism students at Duquesne University have put out a magazine that features a different Pittsburgh neighborhood.
Off the Bluff contains articles about unique characters, places and history of the neighborhoods, all in roughly 60 pages.
Last week, the Duquesne students held their magazine release party in their 2012 neighborhood, Lawrenceville. They remet some of their subjects at Nied's Hotel on Butler Street, where Jimmy Nied provided appetizers and discounted drinks.
College students have their world of people and places and cross to the "real world." There's an invisible divide that feels like the space between two magnets that you can't push together. I remember that sense of separateness. Even in town, where all the bars were, a student's path was so prescribed that when we did go somewhere off course, like to a pumpkin patch full of townies, it seemed we were intruders.
Mike Dillon challenges his students' perimeters. As a result, they cross that invisible divide and learn authentic things about the city they may not have considered when choosing a college.
"It's fun to see the city through their eyes," said Mr. Dillon, a former newspaper reporter who grew up near Wilkes-Barre. He began teaching at Duquesne in 1998. Magazine journalism students do the reporting and photography in the fall, and the SPJ students handle production work to turn out the publication in the spring.
Now a graduate student, Anastasia Farmerie found a Lawrenceville character to profile by venturing off Butler Street. "I found a roofing contractor," she said. Reading the name on his truck, she called up to him and he came down.
"He grew up in Lawrenceville," she said of Ronald Schiavo, who, she wrote "can name every person who lived on 46th Street when he was a kid."
The gathering at Nied's, she said, "meant a lot to me in many ways" but mainly because the spirit of the magazine was represented "in the back of a timeless bar in Lawrenceville with people talking [as] a community."
The group of students this fall are exploring the Strip District.
"Zach and I walked to the Strip on a Saturday," said Wes Crosby, a senior. He and Zach Brendza, a junior, are also editors of the school newspaper.
"We stopped at Farmers at the Firehouse and talked to the person who was giving out squash stew," Mr. Brendza said. "It was pretty good. She told us about Lucy, who makes sandwiches on the sidewalk and goes back to Vietnam in the winter. Lucy is a possible profile" for next spring's edition.
Mr. Crosby said that, although he is from Penn Hills, he hadn't experienced the Strip before.
"Saturday mornings for me were being in my PJs watching college football. Having to shove past people and being able to get anything you wanted ... it was really festive."
Sarah Blaisdell came from Harrisburg to attend Duquesne University with no impression of Pittsburgh, she said. "I wouldn't have gone to Lawrenceville" without the magazine assignment. "Now I love Lawrenceville.
"Pittsburgh's a city and I'm used to suburban life, but there are so many unique areas here. It's important to take time to walk around."
Mr. Nied said he was "really impressed with the product. It's a first-class job, and I was thrilled to death to see our neighborhood highlighted.
"There's a lot of old-time businesses that laid the groundwork for the renaissance here, and [the students] did a good job of finding some of them, finding local characters."
They were a little too late getting to Lawrenceville to meet Six-Pack Sally, who used to roll her hair in Iron City beer cans, and Russian John, a man so loud and gregarious that bartenders would give him $5 to buy drinks elsewhere, Mr. Nied said.
But he learned things he didn't know.
"You know that tea room (the Purple Rose tea Room on Penn Avenue)? I think two people have gone in there" since seeing Ms. Blaisdell's article about it.
There's a sense among some longtime residents that the neighborhood's transition has brought places that are "not for them," Mr. Nied said. "I have heard that said, and I think it is a fear." Looking at the magazine with a long-timer, he came across the article about the tea room.
He said his friend said, "'I'd like to go into that place,' and I said 'Well, go in then.' "