Bonnie Pfister

When Pittsburgh netted its most recent “America’s Most Livable City” rating, it was the region’s recreational opportunities that pushed it to the top of list of 379 metro areas.

For some, recreation simply means the Steelers. And the Penguins. And yes, the Pirates. Not to mention a welter of college sports. But in its 2007 ranking, the Places Rated Almanac also stressed the amenities beyond spectator sports, namely 5,000 acres of state parks, 43,000 acres of lakes and rivers, 142 golf courses and the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

Building upon sustainability — both for the region, and the individuals who live here — is Venture Outdoors. Founded in 2001, the non-profit works to encourage folks of all ages and levels of fitness to take greater advantage of our natural assets and singular topography. Global publications touting the region’s transformation from smoky to sustainable often feature photos with Venture Outdoors’ kayaks as a bright-yellow counterpoint to the skyscraper skyline.

Copyright Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press / The sun, nearing winter solstice, travels low across the sky in a multiple-exposure picture made in Maine in 2002.

But the organization’s impact is about more than just good PR. Between 2006 and 2011 membership doubled, as newcomers to the city as well as life-long residents embrace more active lifestyles and appreciation for the environment.

“We offer a lot of beginner-friendly activities to encourage people to get out of the house and into the outdoors,” said Lora Woodward, Venture Outdoors public program director. “We have programs throughout the year, but winter in particular is a perfect time to showcase western Pennsylvania and the forest and parks that we’re so thankful to have.”

Tonight’s Winter Solstice Hike recognizes the longest night of the year with three- to four-mile trail around the North Side’s Riverview Park. A more fast-paced 5-6 mile hike hike on Thursday, Dec. 27,  will burn up calories across bridges and through downtown. Hikes beginning on Jan. 1will traverse North, South and Schenley parks and several North Side neighborhoods, while other activities introduce snow shoeing. Dozens of activities continue throughout the winter throughout Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties, and in the Laurel Highlands — including cross-country skiing to dog-friendly walks, yoga and hikes that culminate in tastings of locally made soups, stews and beers. Learn more at Venture Outdoors’ website or blog, or via Twitter and Facebook.

One other thing: Venture Outdoors may be one of the city’s best-kept secrets for the single-and-looking. Most VO events that I’ve participated in have had a strikingly high number of female participants (not a few of whom were themselves striking numbers). My theory is that as girls we often tended to be less exposed to outdoorsy activities growing up, and appreciate the support of a group when we finally realize what we’ve been missing. In any event, if you’re looking for a place to meet individuals who are reasonably fit – or at least game enough to try something fun – in a friendly, not-creepy setting, this could be it.

A version of this post originally appeared on in December 2011.

Bill Flanagan

I thought you’d enjoy seeing the holiday e-card below from the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. It sums up a few of the highlights of our region’s 30-year economic, environmental and quality-of-life transformation. (Look out for versions of our gingerbread skyline and message around the region over the next week or so in billboards, kiosks and in newspapers.) The New Year gives us a chance to put an exclamation point on it.

2013  is the 30th anniversary of the year Pittsburgh hit rock bottom. In 1983, the metro unemployment rate reached 18.3 percent. A huge population exodus was underway — 50,000 in 1984 alone — that changed our region forever.

1983 was also the year in which Flashdance premiered, a movie about a young welder in a steel mill who wanted to make a career in the arts. The next year, civic leaders formed the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which began to re-make a former red light district into one of the nation’s top performing arts districts.

2013 will kick off with the U.S. premiere of Flashdance – The Musical on New Year’s Day. Pittsburgh is its first stop on the road to Broadway in late summer. The Trust says it’s a very hot ticket. You can get a glimpse of what’s in store by watching our video here.

Later in the year, no less than five national arts conferences will convene in Pittsburgh, bringing the nation’s arts leadership to see what’s been accomplished here. Along the way, the multi-year reconstruction of Point State Park will wrap up and the iconic fountain will spring back to the sky. And, the Allegheny Trail Alliance will close the last gap in the GAP, the Great Allegheny Passage, completing a more than 30-year effort to build a biking and hiking trail that links Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.

With a high quality of life, a more diverse economy (ranked best U.S. city for relocation by Sperling’s BestPlaces), as the fifth-best performing economy in the U.S. (The Economist),  and one of Triposo’s top destinations in 2013, it’s no wonder that our population is growing again and that young people are moving in instead of out.

It’s all the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people over the course of a generation. Our region’s been Re-Imagined and Re-Made. That’s something to toast this Dec. 31 when the clock strikes midnight.

Thanks for everything you’ve done to help make it happen and, as always, for helping to spread the good word about our region.

P.S. Thanks to our friends at Pop City, who have tipped their hat to the holiday outings we’re highlighting on our blog, Hope you’ll check us out too, and especially share our links with any guests in town for the holidays. We also explore the sustainable core of many of our region’s beloved traditions – such as the Highmark (Horne’s) tree. You also follow along by friending us on Facebook or following us on Twitter now and throughout the new year.



Thirty years ago, Pittsburgh created a recipe for regional prosperity. We baked innovation, technology and knowledge into five industry sectors – advanced manufacturing, energy, financial and business services, health care and life sciences, and information technology – creating a diverse and balanced economy.

Today, innovation, technology and knowledge flavor pretty much everything we do. Other key ingredients in our regional prosperity recipe include:

  • 120 corporate and federal R&D centers, mix with
  • $1 billion in university R&D expenditures; add
  • 31,000 graduates from regional colleges and universities annually, composing one of the nation’s the most educated workforces. Cut in
  • $100 billion-plus global corporations with headquarters or major business units here. Combine with
  • Fifth best-performing-economy-in-the-U.S.-status (The Economist). Top witth
  • Three “America’s Most Livable Cities” titles. Bake until golden. Frost with…
  • Three professional sports franchises, 500+ arts and cultural organizations and 24 miles of scenic riverfront trails.

The staff of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and the Allegheny Conference wishes you and yours the sweetest of holidays and a happy, prosperous 2013.


Phil Cynar

Green News Update Editor and Publisher Roberta Faul-Zeitler has been paying attention to – and writing about – green practices since 2004. Her keen interest in sustainability as “a path, not a destination” (as her newly designed e-newsletter masthead proclaims) put her on a path to Pittsburgh this May. Here she explored the inordinately large number of green and sustainability assets in a place once considered to be among the most environmentally compromised of destinations.

Pittsburgh, a new kind of “Emerald City,” has put green (with regard to R&D and investment dollars) into cleaning up – both the natural environment (including its signature three rivers and waterfronts) and its built environment. Pittsburgh is a globally recognized green building leader and an innovator and manufacturer of materials and other components that make existing and new construction energy efficient and environmentally friendly. Pittsburgh registered three of the first 12 LEED structures in the U.S. more than a decade ago, according to the Green Building Alliance. There are more than 83 LEED certified buildings in the city now, and approximately 75 percent of new buildings in Pittsburgh are pursuing LEED certification.

Some are going the extra green mile, including Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which this year opened its Living Building, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, a net-zero water and energy facility that will be among the greenest structures on the planet.

Eden Hall Field Lab / Rendering Courtesy of Chatham University

Another green masterpiece in the works is Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus, located in about 25 miles from downtown Pittsburgh in northern Allegheny County. Ground was broken this fall for this ultra-green campus – the first academic community in the world built from the ground up for sustainable development, living and learning, Chatham officials say.

While in town this May to participate in a “green Pittsburgh” media study tour organized by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (PRA) and VisitPittsburgh – a tour with the grand opening of Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes as a focal point – Faul-Zeitler visited Chatham (where environmentalist and Silent Spring author Rachel Carson was an alumna) to learn more about the next major green project on the horizon for the region.

She dedicated space to Chatham’s visionary plan in a feature – “Greenest Campus in the U.S.” – in her Dec. 5, 2012 Green News Update. Read it here, and keep your eyes on the newsletter, which will be following the project.

The Allegheny Conference’s weekly business affairs TV show, Our Region’s Business, recently featured Chatham officials talking about plans for Eden Hall. Watch the interview here or below.


Click here to check out other stories that resulted from the the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance/VisitPittsburgh “Green Pittsburgh” media study tour. That May 2012 initiative brought 16 journalists from around the country and the world to learn about the Pittsburgh region’s energy leadership.

Phil Cynar

Kristi Harper is rolling [in the] dough at Café Kolache, a charming bakery and eatery on Third Street in equally charming downtown Beaver, Pa. For her, owning the bakery is a sweet dream – one that began playing out in her head about a decade ago when she was living and working in Houston, Texas. On her first day of work at Enron – the energy, commodities and services giant (which ended up in bankruptcy in December 2001) – Harper made her acquaintance with kolaches when a colleague brought in a plate of the doughy Czech delicacies to share. It was love at first bite.

Café Kolache in Beaver, Pa.

Kolaches begin with slightly sweetened dough that gets fashioned into delightful delicacies whose centers are traditionally filled with fruit, cottage cheese and nut or poppy seed to complement Czech meals. In Texas, which became home to a substantial Czech population in the mid-1800s, kolache shops are now as ubiquitous as bagel shops are in western Pennsylvania. They serve the traditional kolaches, but Texan bakers have dared to give them a new twist by filling the delicious bread with cheese, meats and vegetables (or a combination of these) – creating savory kolaches that can enjoyed as a breakfast or lunch entrée. Sorry, babka, but it seems that kolaches are no longer just for dessert.

When Enron took its nosedive, Harper’s division was eliminated. Earlier that year, the 9-11 tragedy turned the country upside down. Combined, these situations got her thinking about what was important. Home and family were top of list. Considering these circumstances vis a vis her priorities, Harper decided to follow her bliss – owning a kolache bakery – and she made a beeline back to Beaver, her hometown, to make it happen.

 Today, Café Kolache is probably more successful than Harper might have ever imagined. The downtown Beaver bakery-lunch spot-coffee/tea bar serves up scores of sweet and savory kolaches, in addition to homemade cookies (including biscotti) and soups. And they’ve got the traditional nut, poppy seed and apricot rolls that are very much part of holiday tradition, especially in a region, like Pittsburgh, with deep eastern European roots.

We sat down with Harper, who made time for us even in the midst of the busiest baking season of the year – Christmas – and she shared her sweet story of entrepreneurial success, as well as some wonderful samples. Watch the video below for your own “taste” of Café Kolache, then make it a destination – if not during the holiday break, then early in the new year.

Phil Cynar

If you didn’t make it over to the East Liberty neighborhood – and its “Cathedral of Hope” for the holidays in 2011 – it’s that time of year again.  At 2 p.m. this Sunday, Dec. 16, East Liberty Presbyterian Church will echo with the sound of [holiday] music featuring the ELPC Chancel Choir and the Fox Chapel Area High School Madrigal Singers and Ambassador Orchestra. Camille Saint-Säens’ Christmas Oratorio headlines the free holiday program entitled a “A Cathedral Christmas Concert.” Good music always sounds even better in an awe-inspiring space, so come and soak up both in the heart of one of Pittsburgh’s truly renaissance neighborhoods. And if the Saint-Säens gets you in the mood for a little more something French, the Paris 66 Bistro is just steps from the church, and you’ll feel like you’re dining on la Rive Gauche.

Situated in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s East End is East Liberty Presbyterian Church, an impressive house of worship that’s also known as “The Cathedral of Hope.”

For generations the church has embodied sustainability in deeply personal ways to parishioners and residents of East Liberty. Through its religious services as well as a wide range of outreach programs, it’s been a reassuring stronghold in a neighborhood that’s been up, then down, and now up again.

The Best of Times

East Liberty Presbyterian Church has been a beacon in this city neighborhood since its best of times. Flash back to the early decades of the 20th century. Commerce was booming.  The National Biscuit Company, Isaly’s, Stagno’s Bakers and Pittsburgh’s first Sears & Roebuck were among the businesses driving progress and prosperity. The community flourished, too. A destination unto itself, East Liberty boasted movie houses, theaters for music performances (one venue could seat 3,200), department stores, a roller skating rink and plenty of retail shops. From the 1930s through the 1950s, East Liberty’s holiday parades rallied residents; in fact, its 1936 Christmas Parade was declared the largest in the country, outshining even New York’s.

Mellon Family Helps Fund Cathedral-style Gem of a Church

Amid this bright and bustling environment, the Mellon family – a name synonymous with Pittsburgh and its financial industry prowess – spearheaded the church’s construction. They hired Boston architect Ralph Adam Cram and gave him the freedom to build the finest church he could create. In June 1932, Richard Beatty Mellon laid the cornerstone, and the structure rose over the next three years as a grand church in the style of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. It occupied one city block and cost nearly $4 million to construct. Rich features – stained glass, wood and masonry andone of the country’s largest and finest Aeolian-Skinner pipe organs – added to the church’s status as a gem of East Liberty.

The Worst of Times: Urban Renewal Gone Bad

In 1958, difficulties began to descend on East Liberty – ranging from commercial vacancies and urban congestion to competition from the suburbs – and a well-intentioned but ill-fated urban renewal project. The associated disruption, deconstruction and dislocation forced residents and businesses away. Yet, East Liberty Presbyterian stood solid – more of a bulwark at that time than the beacon it was during East Liberty’s glory days.

Hope on the Horizon

Various attempts were made to reconcile what had gone wrong; some were successful, many were not. But in the late 1990s, situations finally began to change for the better. Hope was on the horizon in the form of a new community plan for revitalization that would build on local investment and success to re-create East Liberty as a self-sustaining community. And that is what has happened … and what continues to happen.

“Over the past decade, East Liberty has turned itself into a healthy residential and business destination of choice,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. “This didn’t happen by accident, but with thoughtful strides taken by community, business and government.”

The neighborhood’s revitalization is evidenced by a robust market place that now includes national retailers such as Whole Foods, Target, Anthropologie, Home Depot and Trader Joe’s, in addition to an array of independent retail shops and restaurants – all springing up around the “Cathedral of Hope.” But the church’s mission to the less fortunate remains strong and as vital as ever. Its Hope Academy of Music & the Arts offers after-school and weekend classes to kids. Parishioners work with a local food pantry, offer support to low-income homeowners through Open Hand Ministries, and address issues of poverty and justice.

No Place Like “Hope” for the Holidays

This landmark is ours to enjoy anytime, but is especially glorious during the Christmas holidays. Hop in your car or board a bus to to catch holiday services.

After you’ve fed the soul, you can nourish the body at any one of an array of nearby restaurants. The Paris 66 bistro features help from a  Pittsburgh technology start-up for those who enjoy wine but would like to expand their tastes. RhoMania’s GrailTM digital platform uses an iPad to help diners make more educated selections. Gift yourself by trying a new glass or bottle of wine, and then finish up your holiday shopping for family and friends at nearby shops, boutiques or big box stores.

It’ll be like the good old (holi)days in East Liberty. Maybe even better.

Ben Kamber
Revelers at last year’s Vodka/Latke bash. Photo Courtesy Ohad Cadji

An evening of dancing and schmoozing, replete with lots of latkes and vodka, await the hundreds of young – and young-at-heart – planning to attend Pittsburgh’s hottest Hanukkah party. Cleverly called Vodka / Latke, this annual “Festival of Lights” celebration hits one of downtown Pittsburgh’s leading venues – SPACE Gallery at 812 Liberty Ave. – this Saturday, Dec. 15, from 8 p.m. to midnight. It’s sponsored by Shalom Pittsburgh, a social group for young Jewish adults.

What do vodka and latkes have to do with Hanukkah?

Latkes are easy. For those unacquainted with these crispy potato delicacies, latkes (or potato pancakes) are a traditional treat enjoyed throughout the eight-day festival. Some people prefer their latkes the conventional way – grated potatoes, onions, salt, eggs, perhaps some matzo meal – fried and served with a dollop of sour cream or a side of applesauce. Others get a whole lot more creative.

Yet, however you take your latkes, one thing’s for certain: by eating them, you are paying homage to the miracle of the story of Hanukkah. As the tale goes, after a series of events in the second century B.C. that left the Jewish temple in Jerusalem defiled, one day’s worth of oil miraculously kept the temple’s menorah lit for eight days – the time needed to spiritually purify the temple. Thus, this miracle of oil is remembered today by eating fried food such as latkes and donuts (called sufganiyot).

As for vodka’s connection to the Hanukkah story, well, let’s just say its ties to the Hanukkah story are a little less agreed upon… (Perhaps it was Judah Maccabee’s spirit of choice during his competitive dreidel spinning sessions).

Either way, Shalom Pittsburgh’s Vodka / Latke 2012 is bound to be blast. Advance tickets are still available for $15 by clicking here. You can also show up at the door and pay $20. Tickets include an open bar (with plenty of vodka), a dance floor (music requests available) and more latkes and other fried Hanukkah treats than your heart (and arteries) could ever desire.

For more information, head over to Hope to see you there!

In 2011, highlighted the sustainability of some of Pittsburgh’s most cherished holiday traditions. This year we’re calling attention to a few of our favorite seasonal things, with a bit of a twist toward greater diversity or international flair. Send your suggestions to us at, or