Pittsburgh housing authority production studios appeal to all ages

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Michelle Jackson wanted to encourage the positive aspirations of youth in public housing when she initiated the Pittsburgh Housing Authority's first multimedia production studios in Northview Heights.

The housing authority, for which Ms. Jackson is chief community affairs officer, dedicated the Creative Arts Corner in 2006. Three years later, it opened a second one at Bedford Dwellings in the Hill District.

Hundreds of youth have been plugged into career opportunities since learning to make commercials, produce film, record music videos and engineer sound. Access to the studio has inspired older residents, too.

Housing Authority studio helps youths develop multimedia skills

Pittsburgh Housing Authority???s multimedia production studios at the Bedford Dwellings, Hill District, give youths an opportunity to develop career skills in film production and music recording. (Video by Andrew Rush; 7/1/2013)

Residents of all ages came together last year to produce a film about Schenley High School, its history and the story of its closing. The film, "Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve," was screened for a private audience at Pittsburgh Filmmakers in Oakland recently and will be available for viewing at www.hacp.org.

Many residents of Bedford went to Schenley, which closed in 2008, and several turned up at the studio after seeing the housing authority's notice about the production, which was funded by the McAuley Ministries.

"I graduated in 2008 and I wanted to get on board for this," said Lacal Turner, 25. "Video interested me. I learned how to prepare for interviews here and I got to interview Linda Lane [superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools]. We had a lot of alumni come out and we got their memories."

Eric Epps, a 1991 Schenley graduate, said he did a music track for the film and was one of those interviewed.

"I use this studio from time to time, but it's booked a lot. It is a great thing for the neighborhood. A lot of people think, 'Let 'em play basketball' " as an outlet, he said.

"A lot of guys I went to school with were great athletes, but most are working 9 to 5 like me," he said, waving his cap to show the logo of a security company.

The target audience is teenage boys, and the studio is a channel for their interest in hip-hop and rap, but the experience also exposes them to patience, collaboration and peer-group mentoring, Ms. Jackson said.

Chuck Rohrer, a spokesman for the housing authority, said the two studios annually cost $110,000, which includes the instruction contract, equipment and maintenance.

The housing authority contracts with Mike Strati, a veteran of film and video production, and Preslav Lefterov, a partner in the company Machine Age Productions, to teach studio skills three days a week at Bedford, two at Northview Heights.

Nathan Williams, a musician who served in the U.S. Army, is the manager who insists that participants be on time and speak respectfully.

"We have 56 students signed up here" at Bedford, Mr. Williams said. "They come at various times," some sporadically, others regularly. "Once we get that core group, they police themselves and each other."

Mr. Lefterov said he has hired a few students to work in the studio and that another is in training as a cameraman for a local television station.

One recent afternoon at Bedford's Hope Center, Kent Bey, a 46-year-old resident who had some skills when he started learning at the studio in 2011, was cleaning up video for his show "Stand Up Now," which airs on PCTV-21 at noon Saturdays and features interviews and performances by youth from the studio.

"Part of my interest in being here is to mentor kids who have a lot of free time and could get in trouble," he said. His regular job is to promote hip-hop shows, he said, "but positive ones as a way to encourage young people to use their gifts and talents."

Jory Strothers, 12, struggled into the studio between a pair of crutches, having hurt an ankle playing basketball. He was soon at work "brushing up one of my videos," he said. "I used to do poetry a lot, and my friend said, 'Come up here and use one of your [poems] as a song,' and he put a beat to it and it was a good song.

"A lot of things changed since I started coming here. I'm not part of the in-crowd, but you can do many things without being popular. If I could do anything in the world, I'd do this. Music's my passion."

Bryant Garrett learned about the studio two years ago, when he was 74 and well into his long tenure as the host of "Ghetto Chef," a show he produced, "doing the best I could" on PCTV.

"A lady told me about this place and when I came in here, it was like heaven," he said. His show is on hiatus, but he wants to resume it now that he knows more about production. Considering what it would cost to rent studio time, this is a great gift, he said, adding, "I wish I was a teenager again."

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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. First Published July 5, 2013 4:00 AM


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