Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

Neighborhood Walk: Butler’s Institute Hill and Main Street

Wonderful neighborhoods

For background on the Neighborhood Walk, check out the Rust Belt Bloggers site. Find a list of others’ walks there too.

I took a walk through my neighborhood today. I timed it to coincide with the Veteran’s Day parade on Main Street, but I ended up taking photos of buildings and bridges instead of the parade. Still, that’s cool.

Looking at others’ walk photos, I realize that I took few pretty pictures and more photos of things that interest me for personal reasons. Again, not a bad thing.

See my pictures and accompanying descriptions in my Neighborhood Walk 2008 photo set on Flickr.

For another perspective on Butler, check out my brother Anthony’s walk (especially because his pictures are much better than mine at showing how pretty Butler can be). Uncle Crappy also took a nice photo of my street.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Neighborhood Walk, and to those who spread the word about it on blogs, Twitters, Facebook, and other sites. Thanks to everyone at the Rust Belt Bloggers and PodCamp Pittsburgh 3 who came up with the concept and fleshed it out.

Let’s do it again next year, shall we? Let’s make it even bigger. And in the meantime, let’s keep reaching out to each other to understand what makes our communities unique, and what they share, so we can continue to make them grand.

(Photo credit: Wonderful neighborhoods, originally uploaded by cynthiacloskey.)

Blogging on the edge

Pittsburgh at Night

I’m honored to be guest-blogging at Keystone Edge for a week. My first post is online: "It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood."

You’ve not heard of Keystone Edge? Well, it’s time you did hear.

Keystone Edge tells the story of the new economy in Pennsylvania–a narrative of creative people and businesses, new development, cool places to live, and the best places to work and play.

They have a different guest blogger each week. So far, the focus has shifted between the larger cities in the commonwealth: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg. My posts today and tomorrow have a Pittsburgh bent, but I want to work in the small town vibe too. Look for that next week.

In my post I wrote about the Neighborhood Walk that will happen on November 11.

I have been terribly lax in promoting this fun and interesting event, so let me put in a bonus plug: read about the November 11 Neighborhood Walk and start planning now to set aside a little time next Tuesday to walk around your neighborhood taking photos or shooting video or writing, and then to post that and show off the place where you live.

UPDATE: And (very important) please blog about the Neighborhood Walk in the days leading up to it — let’s see how many people we can involve in this.

(Photo credit: Pittsburgh at Night, originally uploaded by brunkfordbraun.)

Thinking Pennsylvanians, unite!

Regular readers of this site know I hold no love for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and this state’s monopoly on wine and liquor sales. I’ve thought about starting a movement to get these things thrown out. It turns out I don’t need to, because someone else already has.

As part of this, he’s compiling a thoughtful and well-argued list of reasons the PLCB should be abolished. Here’s part of one reason — one that particularly gets my goat.

Reason #4: The Ridiculous 72-Year Old Emergency Tax

You may find this hard to believe, so here’s the proof, right off the PA Dept. of Revenue website. You’ll see at the bottom of the page that the cite is "Emergency Liquor Sales Tax Act, Act of June 9, 1936." The emergency has been over for 70 years, and of course, the money hasn’t gone to the citizens of Johnstown (or…the contractors hired to help the citizens of Johnstown) for many, many years: it goes to the General Fund. It’s just money the State is taking from you every time you buy booze.

The Emergency Tax is an amazing thing, kind of the creamy center of a towering cake of taxes Pennsylvanians pay when they buy booze. First, there’s the actual cost of the packaged beverage. The federal excise tax is added at the producer/importer level. Then the fun starts. The State imposes its set mark-up (for "profit", which in the case of so-called "control states" is really an additional tax, since it all goes to the State) of 30%. Now put that luscious Emergency Tax in there, adding 18% of the cost, the federal excise tax, and the 30% mark-up onto your bill. Think that’s rapacious? Wait, there’s more! That’s right, folks, now you get to add the 6% State sales tax (7% in Philadelphia County)! [Cindy’s note: and in Allegheny County as well.]

Let’s look at that. Say you get a bottle of 100 proof bottled-in-bond bourbon. Cost from producer: $10. Federal excise tax of just about $2.50 (it’s a set amount per gallon of 100 proof liquor; that’s why we bought bottled-in-bond):$12.50. The State’s mark-up of 30% is $3.75: $16.25. Now add the 18% Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax of $2.93 (note that it’s more than the federal tax): $19.18. Top it all off with the 6% sales tax you pay on computers, cars, books, pets, toilet paper (whoops — turns out PA doesn’t tax toilet paper; make that kleenex…which, believe it or not, was what I had there originally, and for some reason, changed it)— $1.15 — and you get a grand total of $20.33. That is more than twice the cost of the whiskey.

From Why The PLCB Should Be Abolished.

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Defining irony

From Monday’s Post-Gazette:

Meanwhile, Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, said this morning that
there’s a “confidential draft” of a statewide bill that would throw out
Philadelphia’s smoking ban. Mr. Fumo said Philadelphia and any other
town or county in Pennsylvania should be allowed to enact their own
laws, a process called “local option.”

He said he would vote against the proposed new state law if it bans
the local option. Banning local option also would prevent Allegheny
County from reviving its anti-smoking law, which was thrown out in
court because right now, only the Legislature can enact such a smoking
law. Philadelphia’s local law has apparently survived because no one
has yet challenged it in court.

In Italian, “fumo” means “smoke.”

(Thanks to Brother Anthony for pointing this out.)

Important for one day

Pennsylvania Welcome Sign

Pennsylvania Welcome Sign, originally uploaded by WestendRaider.

Today I had this email exchange with a friend who lives in San Francisco:

San Fran Friend: So how does it feel to be the center of the country’s attention?

MBM: I love it. I’m going to be so bummed Thursday when everyone starts ignoring us again.

I really expected at least one of the candidates to come to Butler. They did visit towns in Butler County, and I got invitations to attend some events, but no one came to the city of Butler. Hillary didn’t even send Bill to talk to us.

I saw Hillary Clinton in the lobby of the Omni William Penn one morning though. Walked within a few feet of her. Expected to be blocked by security but they seemed unconcerned. I don’t think I look like I pose much of a threat.

How does PA look from the outside today? Bitter? Full of itself?

SFF: regardless what I might think, I would never say anything bad about PA…you never know when a bitter gun-crazy god-fanatic might take it the wrong way.

seriously though, it’s kind of cool that PA is getting all the attention given that they didn’t play the "move up the primary" game.

what does hillary seem like in person? who in your family has been designated to meet Chelsea? you seem to be hitting the entire family.

MBM: Apparently Barack Obama has been a Steelers fan all along. Who knew?

You make an interesting point about PA mattering a lot now precisely because the primary date wasn’t changed. Take that, Michigan and Florida!

For the few seconds when I saw Hillary, she looked a bit too alert and very eager to seem interested. It was 9am on a Saturday, and she was on her way to walk with the mayor and gang in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. I assume she had been stopped by a random passerby and was talking with her, and that’s why she was smiling so much. She looked exhausted, frankly, but unwilling to let tiredness stop her. I think ability to go without sleep will turn out to be the most important asset of presidential candidates from here out.

I had assumed that Chelsea would call me up to go for a drink by now. She probably couldn’t get through on my phone because all the state and local campaign candidates were tying up the line.

As much attention as everyone inside and outside of Pennsylvania is paying to the Democratic primary voting, other campaigns will probably have a greater effect on our day-to-day lives. Today I voted for candidates for State Senate, Congress, State Treasurer, and a couple other posts.

Sadly, I was not given the chance to vote on who should head the PLCB. If that were an elected post, you can bet I would run for it.

Also today, I found this interesting map graphic showing how much news is reported around the U.S. (thanks to the ever-interesting Coudal Blended Feed). It makes very clear how much less attention news media pay to the flyover states; it’s not that we have so much less going on, but that they don’t bother to cover it. Brad King at The Modern Journalist has already written a nice, to-the-point rant on the topic, so I’ll settle for a simple "pffffffft" to all y’all who think news only happens in NYC, D.C. and Los Angeles.

And now I’ll go work on making my hyperlocal news/community content site a force to reckon with.


All of this took less time than it took me to explain to a clerk at a PLCB “Premium Spirits” store what Armagnac was.

Peterb of Tea Leaves finds the mecca of quality liquor. It’s in Kansas City.

Actually, I’m confident that it’s just anywhere outside of the borders of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

To catch you up on the latest developments in my on-going saga to purchase creme de violette: I sent an email to the special order people of the PLCB and asked if I could order three bottles (the minimum order Peterb mentioned) of Creme de violette, even though it was not listed in the special order database. Within a few hours, I got a phone call from a nice-sounding young lady, checking the details of my order, finding out which retail store the order should be shipped to, and taking a credit card number for the deposit. A slow process, but not altogether painful. I rejoiced briefly and prepared to wait.

A few days later I got another call from the nice-sounding young lady. This time she was apologetic. "I’m sorry, but our distributor says they don’t have any creme de violette and they don’t know when they are going to get any."

Seeing no other option, I said, "OK."

Yesterday, when Peter Twittered that he was in a fabled land where the unobtainable could be obtained, I asked if creme de violette was available. It was, and I rejoice again. 

AlphaLab launches in Pittsburgh


seedlings, originally uploaded by paul goyette.

A new and interesting product development accelerator has been launched in Pittsburgh:

Innovation Works announces the launch of AlphaLab, a catalyst for the next generation of software, interactive game design and Internet-related companies.  Innovation Works created AlphaLab to help companies rapidly develop their technology, gain user feedback from early alpha or beta releases and move toward successful commercial launch.  An intensive six-month program in Pittsburgh for up to six companies per cycle, AlphaLab will provide funding, free office space, expert business advisors and services.  Innovation Works engaged an extensive regional and national advisory group of industry experts, entrepreneurs, investors, academics, students and others to help shape the AlphaLab program.  To learn more about AlphaLab, please visit www.iwAlphaLab.org.

AlphaLab is now accepting applications for the 2008 Summer/Fall program.  The application deadline is March 31, 2008.  To apply or sign up to join the user testing community, go to www.iwAlphaLab.org.

In addition to launching AlphaLab, Innovation Works remains committed to the hands-on assistance, investment and resources we provide to our portfolio companies and other businesses.  This commitment has made Innovation Works one of the nation’s leading seed-stage investors. To learn more about Innovation Work’s programs and services, visit us at www.innovationworks.org.

What I especially like about this is how it fills a void in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. There are a number of services for aspiring entrepreneurs in this area, but I believe they are best suited to biological, medical, and manufacturing companies. The software and Web world is a bit of a special case, and while this area has many of the elements a startup would need, early-stage guidance and seed funding aren’t among them. 

I spoke recently with the folks at AlphaLab and I’m impressed with their plans. They seem to have a good grasp of the issues a software or Web startupfaces in its earliest days, and they have concrete plans for helping their companies succeed.

If you’ve been toying with the idea for a killer app or the next big website, this is a great new resource for you.

Violets for your furs


Violets, originally uploaded by Il conte di Luna.

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the comments from my post on Monday about the question of privatizing the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Do take a look and chime in with your views.

In the meantime, I want to add an example of what frustrates me about the PLCB: My inability to buy creme de violette in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Creme de violette is a violet-flavored liqueur. It’s an ingredient in various old-fashioned cocktails, where it adds a light flowery element and violet hue.

Or so I’ve read. I’ve never tasted or even seen the stuff.

I’ve asked for it at PA Wine and Spirits stores and no one I’ve spoken with has ever heard of such a thing — nor has anyone offered to help me order any. Of course it’s not listed in the PLCB retail website. It is conceivable that I can special order it, somehow, although I’m wary of the process.

To be fair, creme de violette is not available everywhere. Even famous bartenders brag about having five varieties.

But creme de violette is distributed in the United States, and it seems reasonable that I should be able to buy some. In Boston I could buy it. Or in New York. Or in California, although I guess that’s not too surprising — them hippies are crazy out there.

Is there any reason I shouldn’t be able to order a bottle over the internet, just as I can order a bouquet of actual violets? I can’t think of one. But order it I cannot.

My best options are to drive to New York and smuggle a bottle back (which is illegal — can’t bring bottles into our fair state), or to buy some flowers, pluck off their petals, and marinate them in alcohol to make my own violet liqueur.


Privatize the PLCB

Sad looking liquor store

Sad looking liquor store, originally uploaded by camera_obscura.

Two weeks ago, Steve Twedt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette authored a series of articles on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board: what it is, why this state says it needs to hold a monopoly on wine and liquor sales (but not beer sales), alternative reasons why it does this, and how the system affects businesses and individuals. The series starts with this article, and there you can find links to the rest of the coverage.

Pennsylvania’s liquor laws drive me absolutely mad, both because they make it impossible to find wines and liquors I want and because they’re clearly inefficient from a market standpoint.

I’d planned to write a rant about this, but I get so angry even thinking about it that I can’t write straight.

Fortunately, John McIntyre wrote a perfect column on this very subject, "Hitting the Bottle," in the Feb. 7 issue of City Paper.

Last Tuesday, a state Senator introduced a bill to privatize liquor sales. No word yet on the PCLB’s response. I suspect that bill will receive hard opposition.

In the past, state lawmakers have said there’s no reason to change the system because no one complains about it. The letters to the Post-Gazette seem to indicate there’s an unheard majority who want the state to get out of the business of selling wine and liquor. Let’s make our voices heard in Harrisburg.

Comeback Season

Comeback Season book cover

Consider this excerpt:

With a heavy heart I watch that Sunday’s game between the Colts and the Jets. With 2:24 remaining in the game, Peyton Manning completes a 2-yard pass to tight end Bryan Fletcher, ending a 68-yard Colts drive. Colts 24, Jets 21. The Colts offense retreats to the bench, but before they can even sit down, the Jets kick returner Justin Miller runs the kickoff 103 yards to give the Jets a 28-24 lead with 2:20 remaining. Peyton Manning has just picked up the phone to talk to the quarterback coach Jim Caldwell when he looks up and sees Miller run down tiny little Martin Gramatica, the Colts temporary replacement kicker for Adam Vinateri. Manning hangs up the phone and quickly puts his helmet back on.

That may not sound like a paragraph from a woman’s memoir about trying to find true love in Pittsburgh, but it is. And amazingly, it works.

The book is Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love, by Cathy Day. It tells her story of what it’s like to be successful but single — or possibly single because you’ve been so busy being successful. But it also tells the story of coming back from failure, whether that failure is losing in the NFL playoffs or being passed over, yet again, by someone you cared for and who you thought cared for you.

The NFL comeback in question is that of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, who lost (to the Pittsburgh Steelers, rah) in the playoffs of the 2005 season and then returned in 2006 to win the Super Bowl. We know from the start what will happen with the Colts, but we don’t know whether Cathy will be able to mend her broken heart and find someone to love. Therein lies the story.

And it’s great fun. Granted, I may be a bit biased in this assessment, being a somewhat successful and chronically single woman in western Pennsylvania who also happens to adore NFL football. My first thought on hearing about this book was, "Damn, I should have written that."  I started reading, and I had repeated jolts of recognition: Hey, I’ve been set up at parties too! Ooh, I thought I needed to write polite responses to everyone who wrote to me on Match.com also! Yes, I judge people by their command of spelling and grammar as well! After only a dozen or so pages, I was enjoying the book so much I was glad I hadn’t had to write it.

Then as I read further, and I saw where the story was going, how smoothly the storylines were woven together, how real the people were, how perfectly it all worked. And I started to feel a little envious again, this time because I knew I couldn’t have written this book — not as well as it’s written. Boy, it’s good.

I’m not the only one who enjoyed it:

“Cathy Day’s gutsy memoir is the stuff of a great Lucille Ball episode. Comeback Season is funny, sad; wise, idiotic; realistic, hopelessly romanticized. It’s a book to read all the way through — no flipping and skimming…How her season plays out is the stuff of good living presented as artfully as did the Queen of Comedy, who taught us misadventures have a place in prime time." —Nuvo: Indy’s Alternative Voice

If you know Pittsburgh, you’ll find little treats along the way: the Church Brew Works, Polish Hill, the Beehive on the South Side, and the Gist Street Reading Series all make cameo appearances, along with so many other local haunts. Pittsburgh’s sudden, stunning vistas pop up, just like in real life. And although she’s not from ’round here, Ms. Day paints a fair picture of those of us who are — which is impressive, considering she’s a lonely Colts fan stranded in Steelers Country.

(She does make one unfortunate reference to black and gold garb making local fans look like bumblebees. I’m only glad that the Colts and the Steelers never played each other during the season she chronicles, or there might have been real trouble.)

Comeback Season starts out as a clever premise but grows into a thoughtful treatise on the intersection of romance, success, confidence, and identity. Does Cathy win in the end? You’ll need to read the book and find out.

Order Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love online or buy it at your favorite bookseller.

Cathy Day currently teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, so there’s a chance you’ll bump into her wandering around the Burgh. You can find her website at www.cathyday.com.

Better yet, you can hear her read from Comeback Season on Tuesday, February 12 @ 7PM, at the Joseph Beth Booksellers in the Southside Works, 2705 East Carson Street. UPDATE on Feb. 2: Due to a big ol’ winter storm, the reading is postponed. I’ll post the rescheduled date when that’s set. Stay home and stay warm!