'TALKPGH': Mobile interviews reveal Pittsburgh residents' wish lists

A mobile 'talk show' is collecting 270 videos and surveys from 90 neighborhoods for the city's first master plan

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A man on a bicycle rolled past a baby blue, glass-sided truck on Gloster Street in Hazelwood one day recently and turned around for a second look. He read the truck and said, as if still not sure, "I was wondering what this was."

"TALKPGH: A 90-neighborhood mobile talk show" is traversing the city in what is typically an advertising truck. The Pittsburgh planning department has adapted it to get public input into the city's first master plan, specifically the art and design components.

Each day from April 6 through Thursday, the truck -- equipped with two white chairs, potted palms, cameras and lights -- sets up in four or five neighborhoods for an hour at a time, gathering videos of interviews.

The novelty was intended to enliven a process many people think is dry and wonky. City planners have held dozens of meetings since 2010, but only a smattering of residents have turned out.

The city contracted with Jon Rubin, an artist who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, to come up with "an artist-led outreach and an unconventional strategy to get Pittsburghers to talk about their neighborhoods," he said.

Mr. Rubin's previous projects included the Waffle Shop -- a real waffle shop with a talk show in the background, in East Liberty.

"I wanted a glass truck because the background would be of each neighborhood and so everyone can see the process," he said. "I typed 'transparent truck' online and boom, the actual truck we're using popped up."

By the time the talk show format has run its course, it will have collected about 270 people's reflections and written surveys. It has also been a head-turning reminder that TALKPGH.com is another vehicle on which people can contribute their thoughts for the master plan.

Community workshops for art and design are being held through April 30. A schedule of those and other plan sessions is posted under "outreach events" at TALKPGH.com. The interviews will be shown at art and design meetings in July. The budget for those two of 12 components is $585,000. Foundations are funding about half. The talk show budget of $90,000 includes truck rental, salaries and production costs.

Nina Sarnelle, assistant producer, spent three months finding people for interviews.

"I wanted to get people who aren't necessarily neighborhood leaders," she said. "This is about collecting stories."

Participants are asked what they like about their neighborhood and what they would change. They fill out a lengthier survey that asks about landmarks and the potential they would tap if they were in charge.

Three Hazelwood residents climbed aboard the truck in turn and sat in a chair beside host Matt Sandler, a Carnegie Mellon student who wore a loose tie over a shirt with stripes and a ball cap pulled down over a forehead of curls.

Nathaniel Robinson, the sound mixer, closed the back of the truck to shut out noise.

The first guest of the day was Alexander Jozsa Bodnar. He operates a reservation-only Hungarian restaurant at Second and Hazelwood avenues.

He said he has a longtime vision of "a boardwalk along the river with cottage industries, vendors and kayaking. I would like to see that open area" -- he pointed at a vacant, grassy lot along Second Avenue -- "turned into a parklet for gatherings and festivals."

Ruth Allen, the second guest, said she and her husband chose to stay and raise children in Hazelwood even though his employer at the time wanted them to move to a neighborhood in which their home could be sold quickly if they had to transfer him.

"I love the community," she said. "I told [Mr. Sandler], what I'd really like here is to walk down the street and go to a store, send my great-grandchildren to a swimming pool and have them be able to go to school in Hazelwood.

"And the people across the tracks and in Glen Hazel, they all want the same things I want."

Saundra Cole McKamey, the third guest, said she wants "to make sure the people here are included in redevelopment. We need jobs, unity and sustainability. Don't think you're going to build here without building the community."

The truck comes with two drivers. The crew includes a sound mixer, camera operator and two hosts -- Tracey Turner of Homewood splits the tour days evenly with Mr. Sandler.

Leaving Hazelwood, the truck rolled up Greenfield Avenue and found a space behind Magee Field, where Mitch Margaria, Jim Gregg and Gina Godfrey assembled to be interviewed.

Mr. Margaria said he and his family moved to the neighborhood 2 1/2 years ago "when property values were reasonable enough. We're concerned that the housing mix stays affordable."

He said he would like to see a link between Greenfield's retail districts and a coffeehouse.

"We have great views, but that's not what I want to sell the neighborhood," he said. "I want it to be people on the streets, walking their dogs and talking to each other."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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