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Bonnie Pfister

Café Con Leche, an innovative nonprofit startup that celebrates and promotes Latino culture in Pittsburgh, is running at full tilt this month with un montón of events at Assemble Gallery on Penn Avenue in Garfield.

Free and open to the public Mondays through Saturdays is Aqui (“Here”) an exhibition of paintings, photographs, collages, screen prints and drawings curated by artist and educator Maritza Mosquera, an Ecuadorian native who has lived and worked in Pennsylvania since 1988.

Other highlights include classes in Afro-Caribbean dance, music and drawing, a Brazilian dance party, and several musical performances, including by Machete Kisumontao, a popular 10-year-old “salsa riot band” fronted by Geña Nieves, originally of Quebaradillas, Puerto Rico.

Various related community events continue through the summer in Garfield and beyond, including Dance Africa July 17-18 at the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre, the Latin American Cultural Union’s annual picnic at Schenley Park on Aug. 1 and a benefit for Café Con Leche itself on Aug. 16. 

Café Con Leche was founded by Tara Sherry-Torres, a Brooklyn native of Polish and Puerto Rican descent who fell in love with the region and decided to put down roots after earning a master’s degree here in 2010. Early last year she launched Café Con Leche to create a space in Pittsburgh where Latinos can connect with each other and their culture, share that culture with others and nurture dialogue and creative problem solving. Since then (with support from The Sprout Fund), the organization has hosted a dozen pop-up events around Pittsburgh attended by more than 1,000 people. The Pittsburgh Community Redevelopment Group recognized the organization with its 2015 Community Development Award, and Sherry-Torres has been recognized as one of Pittsburgh Magazine‘s 40-Under-40 and one of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Ten People to Meet in 2015.

Learn more about the organization and sign up for email updates at CafeConLechePgh.com. July’s events are at Assemble, which connects artists, technologists and makers with curious adults and kids of all ages through interactive gallery shows, community talkbacks, learning parties, and workshops focused on teaching STEAM principles (science, technology, engineering, art and math). 

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Graffiti. Wheatpastes. Stencils. Murals. Once renegade and considered urban blight, street art is now a cultural movement showcased in sold-out museum exhibitions and co-opted by brands from Adidas to Dolce & Gabbana.

We’re not talking about the aimless tagging that litters public and private spaces. Think instead of the more famous urban street artists, from Banksy and Basquiat, to Blek Le Rat and Espo.

Or locally think of Tim Kaulen, one of the most recognized street artists-turned-legit. His works–the iconic Deerhead at Carrie Furnaces and his classic Amaco Bulls–were among the first urban art fixtures in the city. Today, his commissioned work appears throughout the city, including  The Workers, a 20-foot sculpture honoring Pittsburgh’s heritage located along the South Side riverfront.

John Rodella rides by The Workers by Tim Kaulen. Photo by Tracy Certo.
John Rodella rides by The Workers by Tim Kaulen. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Our city’s architecture provides a rich canvas for artists—both authorized and transient. And there are some areas where the art is  so concentrated that it’s like walking through an outdoor gallery.

We spoke with Shannon of PGH Murals, street artists Jeremy Raymer and Shane Pilster and visited many neighborhoods with great street art. Here are some of the best places we’ve found and a good start to your Pittsburgh street art tour.

At the Carrie Furnace. Photo by Shane Pilster.
NSF Crew graf at the Carrie Furnace. Photo by Shane Pilster.

1. Carrie Furnace

In 2012, Shane Pilster, a San Francisco Bay native who moved to Pittsburgh over a decade ago, took a tour of the Carrie Furnace.  Pilster, who has been painting graffiti, marveled at the rich “collection” in the historic site—pieces by artists like Hert, Prism, Mfone, Necksi, Onorok, and 21Rak, to name a few. He convinced Ron Baraff, who directs the furnace’s archives, not only to preserve a few of the works but also to designate a couple of spaces for street artists to produce new ones.

Local artist Ryan Keene did this for the Alloy Pittsburgh show in 2013. Photo by Tracy Certo.
Ryan Keene for the Alloy Pittsburgh Show 2013 at the Carrie Furnace. Photo by Tracy Certo.

In these new walls, Pilster and artists like Kaff-eine have created work that is a sight to behold. Pilster holds Urban Art Tours and Workshops at the Carrie Furnace, a great immersive experience to get a broader understanding of street art’s culture and wide-ranging style.

Art by Kaff-eine. Photo by Jeremy Raymer.
Art by Kaff-eine. Photo by Jeremy Raymer.
Art by Matt Gondek. Photo by Jeremy Raymer
Art by Matt Gondek. Photo by Jeremy Raymer

2. Lawrenceville

Of course, uber-hip Lawrenceville makes the list. Start at Doughboy Square to check out Kaff-eine’s work on a boarded-up building.  It reflects the street artist ethos, says street artist Jeremy Raymer. “Note how she preserved a Shepard Fairey ‘Obey’ wheat paste by incorporating it in the creature standing.” Raymer’s work, both commissioned and otherwise, can be seen around the city, including the street art gallery on the walls of houses on 35th St. and 42nd St.  Don’t miss the“Exploding Homer” by Matt Gondek on Dresden Way between 54th and 55th St. PGH Murals lists 23 works in this area alone.

Art by Swoon. Photo by PGH Murals.
Art by Swoon. Photo by PGH Murals.

3. Braddock and North Braddock

With 33 works listed on PGH Murals, a street art tour is just one more reason to check out Braddock. Works by James Simon, Anthony Purcell, Kaff-eine, Swoon, and the 30 artists collective enliven the one square-mile town. Make sure you veer off Braddock Ave. to check out Lady Pink’s Brick Woman under the bridge on Library St. along with Maya Hayuk’s pattern on 809 Talbot Ave., and portraits of local residents by Swoon under the railroad on 505 Verona St.

Since you’re in the area, head over to North Braddock for a short stop. Street art royalty Swoon and the Transformazium art collective have taken over an old church in North Braddock to launch theBraddock Tiles project.  You can see some of her work outside the church, on 798 Hawkins Ave. including a super adobe structure at 714 Jones Ave.

4. The East Busway

At 5880 Centre Avenue on the Busway is one of the most detailed murals in the East End (see top photo).  “This mural is only visible from the busway or from Tay Way or College Ave where it wraps behind the Tokyo Japanese Food Market off Ellsworth Ave in Shadyside. It’s worth the effort to find a vantage point to see it,” notes PGH Murals. Multiple artists contributed to the work but Ashley Hodder’s Mother Nature image on the left is especially noteworthy for its breathtaking detail. Bring binoculars or a telephoto lens to catch every element that makes up this beautiful work.

And not to miss: On the busway’s North Homewood Ave. end, Hodder and other artists have created “Peace Over Pittsburgh” an exceptional mural under the overpass.

Various artists. Photos by PGH Murals.
Various artists. Photos by PGH Murals.

5. Wilkinsburg

Wilkinsburg may not have the most concentration of street art but it does have a great mix of murals and graffiti. Start at 1105 Franklin Ave. to see Lucas Stock’s and Kyle Holbrook’s graffiti-style mural,Wilkinzburg. Trace the busway route and go off on the side streets to catch other great work. Don’t miss 701 Wood St. where multiple artists including Colleen Black have covered five large walls and a gazebo. There is so much detail in this dense collection that you can spend hours just taking it all in.

Artist James Simon. Photo by PGH Murals.
Artist James Simon. Photo by PGH Murals.

6. Uptown

It’s no surprise that artist James Simon’s neighborhood is on this list. Simon’s work can be seen throughout the county, but along Forbes and the short expanse of Gist St. is a concentration of his work and that of his colleagues. Don’t miss the the whimsical Base Man with Moon and the toweringUrban Rhythm along Forbes Avenue. Exploring the street art is a good way to get acquainted with this up and coming neighborhood.

7. Oakland

Start your Oakland tour by checking out the Locks of Love on Schenley Park Bridge, modeled after a project in Paris. Couples can write their names on a lock and fix it to the chain-link fence to commemorate their love for each other. Then go on a scavenger hunt of sorts to spot some pink dinosaurs, protractors and the Doors of Oakland project.

Artist Unknown. Photo by PGH Murals.
Artist Unknown. Photo by PGH Murals.

Bonus: The Garfield Gators Mascot

This work is the only noncommissioned work on the PGH Murals site. And rightly so because it is a beautiful, site-specific work—once discovered, the developers on the site decided not to paint over it. The work is located along N. Pacific Ave at Kincaid St in Garfield and it will take some climbing to find it.  The location is about 2/10 of a mile walk from Penn Ave. on N. Evaline. It’s very much worth the hunt.

One of the best sources for street art maps in this city is PGH Murals. Founded by two avid cyclists who go by the names Shannon and Vannaver, the site is the most comprehensive map of legal street art in the city, an eye-opening collection that showcases some of the city’s hidden gems. Growing from 150 locations three years ago to more than 500 today,  it includes every commissioned public art, from the Sprout Fund murals we know and love to Shepard Fairey’s 20 sites from 2010, once vivid but now worn and familiar.

Street Art Pittsburgh is another online resource that maps some specific work like riot robots and pink dinosaurs, a good source for “non-commissioned” street art.

Got a favorite we didn’t mention? Feel free to comment below or email us. 

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Thousands of people packed the 900 block of Penn Avenue in June for a rousing concert by El Gran Combo, a hugely popular salsa band from Puerto Rico hailed by promoters as the Rolling Stones of their genre.

The opening act – Noel Quintana Latin Crew– performs regularly in the Cleveland and Pittsburgh area and the concert, which drew fans from all over the region, was a big hit. But more than that, it showed in a big and public way that the Latin music scene in Pittsburgh is coming on strong.

“I believe there’s a shared vision that music is an opportunity to really bring people together,” says Betty Cruz, non-profit manager for the Mayor’s office, who worked alongside members of ¡Hola Pittsburgh! and other city officials to help organize the event. Others, like Carla Leininger of Global Beats, who has been working this scene for years, would agree with Cruz.

The turnout was indicative of a demographic shift in recent years as the Latino population in Allegheny County doubled from 11,000 to 22,000 since 2000, according to U.S. Census data.

salsa, puertoriqueno, nuyorican, jazz, Latino, music, free, outdoors, concert
Puerto Rican flags and fans were in joyous evidence at the June 2014 El Gran Combo concert on Penn Avenue, part of the Pittsburgh JazzLive Festival.

Meanwhile, the number of Latin bands in Pittsburgh – ranging from Riot Salsa to Andean flute music – has increased from two or three to about a dozen over the last 20 years, according to local musicians and community leaders.

And the music is reaching younger audiences. Requests for Latin music at schools and dance parties is at an all time high, said Gloria Rodriguez Ransom, performance coordinator for the Pittsburgh Latin American Cultural Union.

Even Steelers fans more likely to catch a game than a live band got a dose of Latin culture at the Sept. 28 game, when Guaracha Latin Dance Band performed in recognition of National Hispanic Heritage month.

It’s all music to the ears of Cuban born Miguel Sague Jr., who has performed and promoted variations of Latin music for more than 30 years for audiences more accustomed to rock-&-roll and American jazz.

In fact, there was a time when Cinco De Mayo didn’t exist in Pittsburgh. “May 5 would come and go and you would not see any mention in any bars or any restaurants—even Mexican restaurants,” Sague Jr. says.

It wasn’t until he walked into the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building in the mid 1990s holding three national newspapers with Cinco De Mayo coverage that local media took it seriously. “I said to them, ‘does Pittsburgh have to continue to be the backwater town of the country?’”

An article was published that year and his Cinco De Mayo celebration at the former Rosebud in the strip district was packed. “By 1996, we had a well-established Cinco de Mayo tradition,” Sague Jr. said.

And yet performing Latin music was an uphill battle, says Miguel “Cha” Sague III, who would tag along with his dad to shows. The swaying hips of the salsa gigs and the colorful outfits of the Caribbean steel drum gigs in a town known for its steel workers and babushkas was at times both a musical act and a social experiment.

“There were always tough guys who laughed, because they didn’t know how to deal with it,” Sague III says. “But they would start to get the picture when the ladies weren’t laughing. And you get (the guys) on your side when you teach them to dance salsa.”

Sague III has carried on the family tradition as the front man of the Guaracha Latin Dance Band, which originally was formed by his father in the late 1980s.

And while there’s actual competition these days from other Latin bands and DJs, Sague III said the crowds are more appreciative. “A lot of the people coming to shows now are Latino,” he said. The same goes for local dance clubs and restaurants. The dance floor at Cavo in the strip district typically is packed on a weekend night with couples salsa dancing and singles flirting in Spanish at the bar.

In Beechview, a neighborhood known for attracting Latino residents, a fusion of Latin music by Geña y Peña helps draw customers—many of them Mexican Americans—to the Casa Rasta restaurant on Broadway Avenue.

“I’m hearing from customers that (Beechview) is like a Latino community,” says restaurant owner Antonio Fraga, who moved to Pittsburgh from Mexico City 12 years ago.

A second Casa Rasta opened last month in East Liberty, which has provided more gigs for Latin musicians. And while Pittsburgh is far from a Latin hub, musicians and restaurant owners from Latin countries continue to trickle in.

Violinist Alejandro Pinzón moved to Pittsburgh about 10 years by way of Mexico, Argentina and Miami. His latest instrumental project, which he plans to debut in Pittsburgh this winter, blends the violin and guitar of South America and Mexico with the rhythms of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Pinzon said the music was well received by audiences in Mexico, where the group already has performed. “People sometimes spontaneously would start singing,” he said. “Then I would play a second voicing or something on the violin, because the audience had then become the singer.”

While fresh faces on the music scene work to build a following, local organizations are doing their part.

The Clemente brothers onstage at the El Gran Combo concert
Luis and Roberto Clemente Jr., who spent their childhood summers in Green Tree, introduced El Gran Combo to a jubilant crowd.

¡Hola Pittsburgh! is a year-long initiative designed to attract professionals and talent relocating from Puerto Rico.

Welcoming Pittsburgh is a national and grassroots-driven effort to ensure cooperation between foreign-born and U.S.-born Americans. The timing seems appropriate, based on studies that show Pittsburgh lags behind most peer cities in net immigration.

Sague III says a true indicator of a well-rounded Latin music scene would be the day he’s competing for Mariachi gigs with musicians of Mexican descent.

For decades, the Sague family provided Mariachi music at Quinceañeras and other traditional Mexican celebrations with musicians of Cuban and European descent. “We were filling a need,” Sague III says. “There were no Mexican musicians here at all. We were looking out for the very few Mexicans who were here.”

But for the greater good, Sague III said he wouldn’t mind the competition. “Mexican musicians will start to appear, and when they do, I’ll help book them,” he said. “When we all cooperate and help each other out, there are more gigs.”

Zersha Munir

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Zersha Munir

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