Walkabout: McKees Rocks is doing just fine in students' eyes

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As a microcosm of post-industrial Pittsburgh, McKees Rocks has had an image problem much like the one Pittsburgh is overcoming and much like the one a slew of regional towns are struggling to defeat.

If perception is half the problem, maybe it's half the solution.

Last fall, media arts students from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh took on a project in which their perceptions of McKees Rock are on exhibit at the Father Ryan Art Center on Chartiers Avenue. The show runs through the end of this month.

Called "Outside Eyes," it is a collaboration of students and faculty "to reframe an area that desperately needs it," said Angela Love, an instructor in the school's Media Arts & Animation Department. The show is an outgrowth of "an entire rebranding campaign" for which art students produced brochures, logos, maps, tours and interactive social media, she said.

What does the general public think about McKees Rocks? Maybe that it is rough, depressed and not a place to go house-hunting?

Student idea sessions brought out positives, including that it is an ideal place for young artists and students to seek housing: "It's a five-minute drive from Downtown, houses are affordable and there are miles of riverfront," said David Pienaar, a junior at the Art Institute.

In one idea session, Ms. Love said, "We started calling this East Carson West," not to suggest a replication of the excessive revelry that occurs on the South Side, but to note that McKees Rocks could become a destination.

It has great architecture, a colorful history and heritage, and is already a food destination -- home to Pasquarelli's Pizza House, which pioneered the stuffed-crust pizza in 1973, the original Mancini's Bakery, Pierogies Plus and the Primadonna Restaurant.

The McKees Rocks Community Development Corp. has a vision to make Chartiers Avenue a destination, and one of its projects is to renovate the Roxian Theater, which has been closed for eight years.

Taris Vrcek, executive director of the community development group, said the goal is to turn it into a 1,500-seat concert venue that would attract national acts that are bypassing Downtown.

The Roxian project will require $3 million, $750,000 of which has been raised to buy the building, stabilize it, hire drawings and prepare the inside for renovation, Mr. Vrcek said.

Last year, residents and other stakeholders from the Rocks, Neville and Stowe got together to create a multicommunity plan in which they would share resources to base each community's growth on the other's. They started with harsh realities: 30 percent of industrial land is vacant, population is down by 40 percent since 1970 and 40 percent of all households are on government assistance.

Father Regis Ryan, the art center's namesake, allowed that positive things are starting to happen, "slowly, slowly."

The Art Institute's involvement will continue, Ms. Love said.

"Our goal is to sustain this," Ms. Love said. "In April, we will pick up the thread."

Mr. Pienaar and fellow student Ayla Zimmerman launched the gallery show, which opened last Friday and completely surprised their instructor.

"They put down money they didn't have to rent this space," said Ms. Love, who sought help raising money from her fellow members of the Animation Club. "We sold a lot of cookies," she said.

Father Ryan, who has spent 37 years in McKees Rocks, arrived at the gallery on Monday -- when it is normally closed -- to take a closer look at the art he could only glance at during the show's opening.

"It's really fantastic," he said. "It captures a lot of the diversity here and is a great collection of the past and present."

The images include the former St. Mark's Church, the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church, juxtapositions of buildings and bridges, spattered headlines, an impressionistic panorama, a portrait of Billy Mays -- the late TV pitchman who was a native son -- and a rusted-out building that used to be central to the concrete business of Frank Bryan Inc., which established in McKees Rocks in 1883 with a horse and wagon.

Mr. Pienaar's work is called "Crowned Choices." It depicts six hands coming out of a man's head, one holding a gun, one as a fist, one with an eye in it, one clutching a wad of cash and the other two together in prayer.

"There are various influences on us," he said. "Violence, power, government, money and religion. But we are kings over our choices."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk . First Published March 13, 2012 4:00 AM


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