Bonnie Pfister

FIVE GOLDEN THINGS: Third of five posts on holiday outings that underscore the Pittsburgh region’s commitment to sustainability in many forms.

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.

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.

But the organization’s impact is about more than just good PR. In the past five years membership has doubled to 8,500, 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.”

The organization has two evening hikes this Thursday, Dec. 22: a four-to five-mile “Christmas Warm-Up Urban Fitness Hike” in and around Downtown, and an easier three- to four-mile “Winter Solstice Hike” around the North Side’s Riverview Park.

On Dec. 28 there’s a “High-Energy Hike” at Schenley Park in Oakland.  January and February bring more than 71 programs throughout Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties, and in the Laurel Highlands, from snowshoeing and 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.

CNNMoney calls them one of the “7 Toys You Gotta Have” for the 2011 holiday season. Positive reviews are popping up everywhere from KidsCornerDeals.com to Laptop to Dad Does. Mechatars Commercials are airing on the Cartoon Network.

Mechatars (pronounced MEHK-uh-tars) are cross-dimensional robots that can be played with online, in the human-to-robot physical world, or both. Built with military-inspired technology, the robots come equipped with light flashes and sound combinations, and are remote-operated. They can fight against other Mechatars or against invisible opponents.

Best of all, this hot toy is a local invention. Turn a Mechatar box over, and you’ll see an address in Pittsburgh.

What separates these toys from other robots and RC (remote control) products is the online gaming component, which is interactive in both directions. Players can enter their robots’ codes into the online game, play with their corresponding characters online in virtual spaces that include other planets, and earn points to buy more sounds and light combinations for Mechatars in the real world. Those features can be downloaded via USB drive onto the toy, meaning no two Mechatars are exactly the same. Mechatars come in three varieties: the dinosaur, Wrexx; the bear, Kodar; and the wolf, Alpha.

The online gaming component is produced in the South Side by Schell Games LLC, in partnership with manufacturer Bossa Nova Robotics. Jesse Schell, the gaming studio’s CEO, is a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. Bossa Nova is a CMU spin-out The team is hard at work developing new playable content for the holidays for those players who have been already at it since the toys’ fall release.

So…if you slip a Mechatar into your kid’s stocking this holiday, you’ll not only be giving an incredibly fun toy, but supporting two innovative Pittsburgh-based employers.

DISCLOSURE: This post’s author works part-time as a game design intern for Schell Games, and Mechatars are a big hit with her 7-year-old son.

Kristen Freiss

FIVE GOLDEN THINGS: Second of five posts on holiday outings that underscore the Pittsburgh region’s commitment to sustainability in many forms.

Sphere tree in Market Square’s Season of Lights, Downtown Pittsburgh Photo by Kristen Friess, Allegheny Conference

Downtown Pittsburgh is not only decked and dazzling, it’s greener than ever.

Known for holding its holiday traditions near and dear, Pittsburgh this year is literally casting a new light on a couple of favorites – making them better, brighter and cleaner.

In 2011, generous support from Highmark and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership has made possible the use of renewable energy credits to light up the Highmark Unity Tree, as well as the Market Square Season of Lights display, sponsored by Eat’N Park.  Keeping it all aglow is wind energy generated entirely in Pennsylvania, made possible via the ChoosePAWind initiative.

For more than 50 years, the iconic evergreen has been a fixture on the former Horne’s Department Store building – now the Penn Avenue Place property where Highmark leases space.  An emblem of Pittsburgh’s ardent holiday spirit, the Highmark Unity Tree is more than 100 feet tall with 2,100+ lights and some 2,000 ornaments. Imagine being the person(s) who get to decorate that tree every year!

In addition to this well-beloved icon, there are other new and sustainable offerings to delight. Market Square’s Season of Lights debuted during last year’s 50th anniversary of Light Up Night with support from the Colcom Foundation. It includes a 33-foot, 1-ton “tree” of red-and-white spheres shimmering with 150,000 LED lights that dance to synchronized holiday music nightly.

Jim Spencer, CEO of EverPower Wind Holdings, Inc. reflects on how both of these old and new holiday decorations are powered by fresh-off-the-turbine Pennsylvania wind energy this year.  “This transition [from traditional to wind power] is a great way to welcome the holidays.” In addition to leading EverPower’s local office, in Lawrenceville, Spencer helped found the ChoosePAWind program to encourage consumer support for new Pennsylvania wind farms. Check out the video below to hear more from Spencer, as well as from Highmark Sustainability Coordinator Phyllis Barber.

Renewable energy credits represent the environmental attributes associated with clean power such as wind, solar and landfill gas. For every credit produced, an equivalent amount of renewable electricity is placed onto the power grid. One wind power credit offsets approximately 1,350 pounds of carbon dioxide.

So as you show off downtown Pittsburgh holiday decorations to family and friends, don’t be shy about dazzling them with how “bright” your city is in its commitment to sustainability – not only during this season, but all year long.

(Scroll below video for more photos.)

More photos by Kristen Freiss of Downtown Pittsburgh’s winter holiday displays.

Phil Cynar

FIVE GOLDEN THINGS: First of five posts on holiday outings that underscore the Pittsburgh region’s commitment to sustainability in many forms.

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 and one 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.  A Dec. 18 Advent/Christmas Hymn Festival featured handbells and a brass quartet, followed by a rare guided tour of the cathedral.)

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.

Bonnie Pfister

Happy Holidays! 2011 has been a year with lots of news about the Pittsburgh region, and as a result, all of us at the Allegheny Conference’s blog – ImaginePittsburghOnline.com – have been duly busy digitally promoting the people, places and events that are moving the region forward.

Even as the year hastens to its close, we’ve still got our (Word)Press fired up through Dec. 22. Before we settle down for a short winter’s nap, we’re capping this busy year with a series of special holiday blog posts – beginning Friday, Dec. 16 – that we hope you will find light in style but rich in content.

These posts highlight some of the special events, people and places of our region’s winter holidays, but go a bit deeper to show how the Pittsburgh region is building a sustainable future by drawing on its traditional strengths as well as its knack for innovation.

Initiating the series is a post by Phil Cynar. For the Holidays, You Can’t Beat “Hope, Sweet Hope:” East Liberty and the Cathedral of Hope connects the magnificent East Liberty Presbyterian Church to the hopeful story of that neighborhood’s regeneration.

Other posts appear through Dec. 22 will:

  • reveal how Pennsylvania wind energy this year is powering both iconic and new Downtown decorations;
  • explore how the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is green beyond the “reds and greens” of its Winter Flower Show;
  • discuss diversity, epitomized by the Cathedral of Learning’s holiday-festooned Nationality Rooms, as more than superficial gilding.

Please check back regularly here at ImaginePittsburghOnline.com and (if you haven’t already done so) sign up for automatic blog updates via RSS feed to your email account, at Twitter.com/ImaginePgh or Facebook.com/PittsburghRegion.

All the best for a safe and joyous holiday and a new year full of health, and peace.

–Bonnie Pfister, Phil Cynar, Ben Kamber, Keith Trageser

Tonight’sYouth At Work” gathering is an annual awards event highlighting promising young Pittsburghers who have made great strides in preparing for a career, as well as the companies that are supporting and encouraging them along their journey. Six graduates of YouthWorks’ comprehensive career development program will share their experiences from 5:30-8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15 at the UPMC Herberman Conference Center in Oakland.

The evening will be hosted by non-profit YouthWorks, which has offered work readiness training, career guidance and employment assistance for more than 22,000 young people in the Pittsburgh region since 1994. The event will also recognize participating employers who have provided a critical hands-on aspect to the program through on-the-job experiences. The featured speaker will be New York Times best-selling author Wes Moore, who will share his experience growing up as an at-risk youth, and how the path he chose led him to become a Rhodes scholar, White House fellow, U.S. Army captain and international investment professional. He will discuss how the right involvement in a young person’s life can make a profound impact on the decisions they make and paths they pursue in the future.

For more information about Youth at Work, contact Karen Bryant at 412-952-9704 or karen AT kjbryant DOT com, or visit the YouthWorks website.