Diversity dearth: Homogenous legislature affects how lawmakers do their job

Dels. Michael Pushkin (left) and Erikka Storch, and Sen. Jeffrey Kessler, take a question during Sunday's forum on legislative diversity at Temple Shalom. (photo by Beth Jacowitz Chottiner) 

Dels. Michael Pushkin (left) and Erikka Storch, and Sen. Jeffrey Kessler, take a question during Sunday's forum on legislative diversity at Temple Shalom. (photo by Beth Jacowitz Chottiner) 

By Lee Chottiner

If you are Black, Hispanic, Asian, female, openly gay, Jewish, Muslim or, for that matter, profess any religion other than Christianity, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone in the West Virginia Legislature who looks like you or shares your heritage.

The 134 members of the state’s Senate and House of Delegates combined are a homogenous body — overwhelmingly white, male, Christian and middle-aged (or older).

There are just 20 women in the Legislature (and only one in the Senate). Additionally, there are just three Blacks, one Jew, one Hispanic and one openly gay member.

These are the people making the state’s laws, and their anemic level of diversity is emblematic of a greater problem facing the Mountain State: There are too few people of different races and religions, not enough college-educated professionals, and their absence contributes to the overriding image of West Virginia as a backwards, uneducated state.

This diversity dearth can’t continue, according to the three members of the legislature who took part in a panel discussion Sunday, Nov. 22, at Temple Shalom. Dels. Erikka Storch (R-Ohio), Michael Pushkin (D-Kanawha) and Sen. Jeffrey Kessler (D-Marshall), lamented the legislature’s lack of diversity and what it means to the people of our state.

More than once, they addressed how a lack of diversity limits the understanding lawmakers bring to certain bills. That’s especially true in the Senate, Kessler said, where ”33 white guys,” as he put it, suffer from a lack of understanding when debating issues related to women’s health and safety issues.

“We miss that in the Senate,” he said. “I’d like to see more women get involved in politics. It does change the debate.”

Storch said she understands why they don’t. As a working mother of three, she rues the travel time to and from Charleston — as much as five hours for those living in the Eastern Panhandle — not to mention the family time it robs from female lawmakers who are frequently the chief caregivers for their children.

“I get it,” Storch said, who added, tongue in cheek, “I’m in a campaign to move the capital back to Wheeling.”

To her, the diversity shortage in the legislature isn’t just about race, gender and religion. It’s also about regions.

The state’s five regions are very different places, she said, and lawmakers from the Charleston area, who often consider themselves to be at the “epicenter” of West Virginia, don’t always appreciate how the bills they consider could affect people living elsewhere.

Pushkin, who is serving his first term in the House, said the lack of diversity sometimes breeds a lack of appreciation for people dealing with different circumstances, and that empathy gap, is reflected in the bills his colleagues introduce.

For instance, he expects to see a bill in the next session that calls for drug testing for recipients of aid through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). That program, he said, mostly benefits women and children.

“I think a lack of diversity can lead to this kind of thing, where people don’t understand what it’s like to be in their shoes,” he said.

Another example, he said, came in the final days of the last session when the leadership postponed a bill that would have permitted Uber, the well-known national ride-sharing service, to operate in the state. Two delegates tried and failed in committee to remove the bill’s nondiscrimination clause, which would have protected people based on sexual orientation. Currently, no such legal protection exists in West Virginia.

Rather than debate protections for gay people on the floor of the House, which could have been embarrassing, Pushkin said the leadership simply made the bill go away.

“It was a civil rights issue,” he said. “There is no give and take there. There is a right and wrong side to history.”

The only Jewish member of the legislature, Pushkin hasn’t encountered much anti-Semitism there, though a September interim session was scheduled for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year.

“It was just poor planning on their part,” he said.

But since Pushkin belongs to a small minority — Jews comprise less than 1 percent of the state’s population — a Charleston TV reporter recently asked him to respond to a colleague — Del. Josh Nelson (R-Boone) — who has petitioned Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to ban “un-vetted” Syrian refugees from the state in light of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks. President Obama wants to bring 10,000 refugees to America next year.

To go along with that, Pushkin said, would be to go against the state’s long tradition of welcoming people fleeing strife in other lands.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m a Jew,” Pushkin recalled. “I wouldn’t be here if West Virginia didn’t welcome my family 100 years ago when they were fleeing from Eastern Europe.”

Shelter from the storm: Future CMOV needs a new roof, as do many old Wheeling buildings

Partygoers at last week's Beertastic Brew Bash, at the old Church of the Word, enjoyed themselves beneath a gaping gash in the rear wall. The church's roof is failing, causing extensive water damage.

Partygoers at last week's Beertastic Brew Bash, at the old Church of the Word, enjoyed themselves beneath a gaping gash in the rear wall. The church's roof is failing, causing extensive water damage.

By Lee Chottiner

While hundreds of people threw back cups of handcrafted beer at last week’s Beertastic Brew Bash for the Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley, something loomed over the revelers — a scar.

Not a scar in the physical sense of the word, but the crooked floor-to-ceiling gash at a back corner of the old Church of the World, site of the future CMOV. It pointed up a stark fact about the historic building: Its roof is failing, and failing fast.

Last year, when the CMOV hosted the first Beertastic Brew Bash, which is intended to raise money to restore the church as an interactive museum, the wall was largely intact.

This year, though, melting snow and heavy spring rain leaked through the roof so fast that the plaster gave way, exposing the rotting lath board underneath.

It truly does look like a scar.

“We thought about hiding it” for the party, said Heather Coward Slack a member of the CMOV Board of Directors, who also restores old buildings, “then Patricia [Croft, director of the CMOV], said we should put a sign there saying, ‘we need your help.’”

That’s exactly what they did. And all night long, as partygoers sampled fine beer from seven teams of home brewers and filled their plates at the hors d’oeuvres tables, they passed the water-damaged wall.

Wheeling is filled with historic old buildings, such as the Church of the Word. Symbols of the city’s proud past, many of these edifices have sat empty for years, falling apart for lack of regular maintenance. In many cases, the first repair needed to keep these buildings intact is a roof. 

“You need to make them water tight,” Slack said, “to keep the water out, because that’s what will bring it [the building] down.”

Another historic building with a failing roof is the Blue Church in East Wheeling, which the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation is promoting as an arts and concert venue. WNHAC has a state preservation grant for the building, which is contingent upon putting the roof work out for bids by the end of the this month, said Stephanie Wright, an Americorps member who is working on the project.

The Church of the Word’s roof is a different story.

According to Slack, the CMOV obtained a preliminary estimate from Kalkreuth, which ranged from $155,900 (the best case scenario) to $252,860, which includes decking wood and sheathing.

But neither figure takes into account possible damage to the joists. In addition, Kalkreuth calculated the estimate in 2014. Slack said the cost of the job could be considerably higher when the work finally begins, which will be in Spring 2016 at the earliest.

Currently, the CMOV has raised $24,000 for repairs and restoration. It has pledges for another $80,000, which Slack expects to have by the end of the year. In addition, the museum must replace the heating/AC system and generally bring the church up to code.

“Everything has to be replaced in here because we’ll have kids in here,” Slack said. “So our fire code will be stricter — and more expensive.”

The CMOV may seek a federal preservation grant for the roof. In the meantime, the wall that has sustained the damage remains structurally sound, Slack said.

She knows what she’s talking about. The principal at Kristoffy R.E., it is her business to buy, restore and manage historic property in East Wheeling and Centre Wheeling.

Her background in building restoration, though, makes her realistic about the timeline for this project.

“We hope for an angel investor who comes in and drops $800,000 to get it rolling,” she said. “But really, the reality is it will be one of those projects that will take a while—and will be worthwhile in the end.”








Righting re-entry: Students learn the trials of ex-offenders after their release from prison

El Sawyer, left, co-producer of "Pull of Gravity", and Robert Reed, executive assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania,  joined a panel for a criminal justice forum at Wheeling Jesuit University last week. They addressed the issues facing ex-offenders making the transition from prison life to home life.

El Sawyer, left, co-producer of "Pull of Gravity", and Robert Reed, executive assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania,  joined a panel for a criminal justice forum at Wheeling Jesuit University last week. They addressed the issues facing ex-offenders making the transition from prison life to home life.

By Lee Chottiner

Almost all people imprisoned in America will be released someday. But that doesn’t mean their problems will come to an end.

Most ex-offenders are paroled to neighborhoods with high unemployment rates, high homeless rates, and high rates of illegal drug use—the scourge that got many of them into trouble in the first place.

Some have families that will support them. Others, though, have brothers, fathers or children who are behind bars themselves. Many grew up in fatherless households or have no family at all.

With no jobs or little family support, the streets remain a constant temptation, luring ex-offenders back to the very lives they are trying to leave behind. It is no wonder that the national recidivism rate—the rate of ex-offenders relapsing into crime—is so high.

How high? While West Virginia has the fourth lowest recidivism rate in the country, a 2014 study of 30 states released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about two-thirds of released prisoners in 2005 (67.8 percent) were arrested for a new crime within three years. Within five years, the rate climbed to 76.6 percent.

Consider that with a 2011 report by the Pew Center, which found that states spend more than $50 billion on corrections, and it isn’t hard to see those jurisdictions are not getting a good return for their money.

The question is, what can be done about it?

A panel of ex-offenders, prosecutors and nonprofit leaders tackled the question of “re-entry”—the transition from prison to freedom—on Tuesday, Nov. 3, during a criminal justice forum at Wheeling Jesuit University.

Some 700,000 people are released from American prisons each year, said Betsy Jividen, assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, in opening the forum. “Are they ready?” she asked rhetorically. “In a lot of cases, no.”  

More than 100 people at the forum, mostly students, but some adults, including other ex-offenders, watched the sobering documentary Pull of Gravity, which followed three parolees in Philadelphia trying to rebuild their lives following their time in prison. In all, some 15 people—the parolees themselves, their families and friends—were interviewed for the film.

After the lights went on, one of the panelists, El Sawyer, himself an ex-offender, a Philadelphia-based filmmaker and a co-producer of Pull of Gravity, offered this chilling statistic: Twelve of the 15 people interviewed for the documentary have since been shot, four of them fatally.

The lure of the streets is strong, he said, especially for drug addicts with no other opportunities.

Sawyer, who at the time of the Wheeling Jesuit program had 11 days remaining on his parole, said he made the film to graphically illustrate the problems ex-offenders face when released. He hoped it could serve as a tool for families, judges, parole officers and other professionals who assist men and women reentering society.

The transition doesn’t happen overnight, Sawyer said. “You need to come home and get yourself together, and the court system has to be nurturing enough.”

The panelists didn’t just describe the problems; they offered solutions.

Mike Walker, property manager of the Fairmont Community Development Partnership in Marion County, which manages public housing, said more transitional housing is needed for men and women emerging from the prisons.

“You’ve got to have some place to go,” he said.

Robert Reed, executive assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which includes Philadelphia, suggested that the Justice Department offer public housing vouchers to ex-offenders. Those same people, he added, could be given a chance to learn a trade by being employed to rehabilitate rundown housing.

Jeri Kirby, assistant professor of criminal justice at Fairmont State University, and herself an ex-offender, said training future judges, police and parole officers, and lawmakers about the hurdles ex-offenders face is the best way to lessen challenges of reentry.

Kirby told the students, many of whom are preparing for  fields in criminal justice, that they can make a difference while still in college.

“If you think you can’t do anything,” she said, “all you have to do is reach out to your local nonprofit organizations.”

“The best addiction is service,” she added.

Kirby is involved with a program called the Inside-Out Center. Established by Temple University, it is a partnership between colleges and universities and the prison system through which undergraduate students and inmates are brought together to study for a semester as peers behind prison walls.

“You’re not teaching them; they’re not teaching you,” Kirby said. She described the experience as "transformative" for both groups.

While the students at the forum put no questions to the panel, one ex-offender asked a provocative one: How can society keep offenders from committing crimes in the first place?

“Is there something we can do before we start locking people up?” he asked.

Reed, who moderated the panel, was sympathetic to the question, but there is only so much prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officers can do, he lamented.

“I never felt we needed to get a conviction just to get a conviction,” Reed said about his own office.

But he added, “Can police stop homelessness? No. Can they stop addiction? No.”

‘How I die will show who I really am’: Etty performed in Wheeling

Susan Stein, who portrays Etty in the one-woman show of the same title, drops to her knees and chants a Hebrew psalm during her performance Sunday at St. Michael's Church. 

Susan Stein, who portrays Etty in the one-woman show of the same title, drops to her knees and chants a Hebrew psalm during her performance Sunday at St. Michael's Church. 

By Lee Chottiner

Etty walks on stage (really the pulpit of St. Michael’s Church), and confides in her audience.

For the next 50 minutes, the girl in a simple black dress talks about love and sex, hate and hope, God and man, right and wrong—just about anything she is experiencing in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II.

Though cruelty is all around her, Etty won’t let it consume her.

“If an SS man were to kick me to death,” she says, “I should nevertheless look into his face and say, ‘My God! You poor fellow, what terrible things must have happened in your life to bring you to this path?’”

The only stage setting is a suitcase. She sits upon it as she speaks, or when she falls silent. Other times she walks down the aisle recounting her experiences in Westerbork transit camp.

She even drops to her knees, and beneath the vaulted ceiling of the church, chants a Hebrew psalm.

Etty, of course, really isn’t there. She died in Auschwitz on Nov. 30, 1943, at age 29. But she left behind some 800 pages of diaries and letters, which were published in 1981 under the title, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum. Since then, the diaries have been turned into a play, Etty, by Susan Stein, the New York actress who performed the show Sunday for 120 people at St. Michael’s. She spoke and prayed the actual words of the young Dutch Jewish woman whose life was cut short by the Holocaust.

Temple Shalom and St. Michael’s co-sponsored Etty, which corresponded with the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Nazi gangs rampaged through the streets of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, burning and destroying Jewish property and arresting Jewish men.

“Etty” was the nickname of Esther Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who turned to journaling after the Nazi takeover of Holland in 1940 as a way to cope with her depression. She left her diaries for a friend—a writer—hoping her story would not be lost.  

While many Dutch Jews, including the more famous Anne Frank, went into hiding, Etty, through Stein, balks at that option, preferring to be sent to Westerbork, and ultimately, to Auschwitz, where she died with her her parents and brother.

“I wouldn’t feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer,” she tells her audience. “I’m not going out of a sense of masochism, and I wouldn’t turn down an exemption on account of my inflamed kidneys or bladder, and I have been recommended for some sort of soft job with the Jewish Council [the entity set up the Nazis to carry out its orders].

“But that is as far as I am willing to go,” she continues, “beyond that, I am not willing to pull any strings. Everyone who tries to save himself must realize that if he doesn’t go, another must take his place.”

“How I die will show who I really am,” she adds.

She is under no illusions as to her fate. She asks a friend, a Professor Bonger, “‘Do you think democracy can win?’ And he [said] ‘It’s bound to win but it’s going to cost us several generations.’”

“And the next evening at Becker’s,” she adds, “the first thing I heard was: ‘Bonger is dead! …He put a bullet through his brain at eight o’ clock.’”

Stein first read Etty’s diaries in 1994 when she bought a paperback copy at a yard sale for 50 cents. The book changed her life.

She began working on the play in 2006, “distilling” Etty’s words with the help of famed actor, director and writer Austin Pendleton. It was Pendleton who urged Stein not to write the play chronologically, but to organize the lines in ways that would carry the most impact for her audience.

The play is entirely Etty’s words. Nothing has been added, though Stein often struggles with what to leave in and what to take out.

For instance, for her Wheeling performance, Stein left out one of the diaries’ more controversial passages pertaining to Etty’s abortion.

Stein has performed the play around the world: in schools, theaters, libraries, universities, even at Yad Vashem—Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum—and in England before the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A graduate of New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Science, Stein has also performed the play in several prisons here and abroad (she performed it this week at the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh).

It’s the feedback from inmates that she finds particularly informing.

“Their comments have been powerful,” Stein says during Act II of the program, the part where she steps out of character and engages the audience in a discussion. “I think it’s through the comments of the inmates that I learned this is a prison story.”

Stein also uses Act II to make some forceful points about the Holocaust, saying Hitler alone was not responsible.

“The Holocaust did not happen because of one man; it was successful because so many contributed to it,” she says. “The Holocaust happened because the world let it happen.”

In the end, her positive outlook on life—even amid so much horror—impresses Stein, who has been living with Etty’s words for years.

She notes one passage where she sees a guard at Westerbork picking a purple flower, his rifle slung over his shoulder.

“I think she was committed to showing there was beauty,” Stein says, “that beauty and horror can live simultaneously.”

She concludes the program by discussing the suitcase on the pulpit, her one piece of stage setting. In her diaries, Etty writes about what she plans to pack in it when she is sent to Auschwitz. She prefers books, especially those of her favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.

At a previous performance, she says, one man was deeply disturbed by that choice. Why not food, and other essentials? Stein just couldn’t get that man to see it through the author’s eyes.

“My point to him is, you weren’t there; she gets to pack whatever she wants to take,” she recalls. “Everyone gets to pack whatever they want; it’s their suitcase.” 

Etty explores the Holocaust’s impact through a young woman’s words

Etty , a play based on the diaries of a young Dutch Jewish woman as she prepared for deportation to the death camps, will be performed Sunday, Nov. 8,  at St. Michael's Church. (Ricardo Barros photo)

Etty, a play based on the diaries of a young Dutch Jewish woman as she prepared for deportation to the death camps, will be performed Sunday, Nov. 8,  at St. Michael's Church. (Ricardo Barros photo)

By Lee Chottiner

Etty, a Holocaust play with a message of tolerance and social justice, which is co-sponsored by St. Michael Parish and Temple Shalom, will be performed at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 8, at St. Michael’s Church.

The event coincides with Kristallnacht, a night of violent demonstrations against Jews in Nazi Germany and Austria from Nov. 9-10, 1938. Kristallnacht means Night of Broken Glass; the name is derived from the shards of glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed.

The play is based on the diaries and letters of Esther “Etty” Hillesum, a 29-year-old Dutch Jewish woman who lived, and perished, during the Holocaust.

Upon the recommendation of her therapist, Hillesum began a diary on March 8, 1941, to cope with her depression. Hoping to become a writer, she used those diaries to convey her literary growth and spiritual transformation.

As the Nazis began to deport Jews, she among them, east to the death camps, Hillesum prepared for the three-day journey by exploring through her writing “this piece of history.” She rose above any hatred or bitterness she may have harbored and, in the process, asked her readers not to leave her at Auschwitz, but to let her have a “bit of a say” in what she hopes will be a new and better world.

Her writings were published posthumously in 1981.

Actress Susan Stein stars in the one-woman, one-act production, followed by a dialogue with the audience; Msgr. Jeremiah McSweeney and Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner will participate in the discussion.

Austin Pendleton, a famed actor, director and playwright (Fiddler on the Roof, My Cousin Vinny and Catch-22) directed the play, which has been performed internationally, including at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum.

Etty is free and open to the public for adults and high school students. For more information, visit ettyplay.org.




Four Perfect Pebbles: Holocaust survivor captivates crowd in Wheeling appearance

Marion Blumenthal Lazan autographs copies of her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, following her lecture Sunday at Temple Shalom.

Marion Blumenthal Lazan autographs copies of her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, following her lecture Sunday at Temple Shalom.

By Lee Chottiner

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

— Edmund Burke

For Marian Blumenthal Lazan, evil did not triumph during the Holocaust.

Even though she spent six years suffering in transit and concentration camps from 1940-45, death, despair and cruelty all about her, evil did not triumph.

Even though her father died six weeks after his liberation, a victim of typhus, evil did not triumph.

Even though her brother, Albert, who also survived, lost his faith in God and refused to bring children into the world, evil did not triumph.

“Despite all the terrible things that happened to me as a child, my life today is full and rewarding,” said the 81-year-old mother of three, grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of two.

But Lazan, a German Jew who first witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust at the age of 4, said she needs witnesses to prevent those horrors from ever recurring, people who will recount the truths of the Holocaust long after she and the other living survivors are gone.

With that in mind, she appealed to the 200 adults and teenagers who packed Temple Shalom Sunday evening: Remember her story and tell it to others.

“It is your generation that is the last generation that will hear these stories firsthand,” Lazan said. “I therefore ask you to please, please, share my story, or any of the Holocaust stories that you read and hear about. Share them with your friends; share them with your relatives. And you young people here this evening: Someday, share them with your children and, yes, even your grandchildren. When we are not here any longer, you will have to bare witness.”

Lazan, who travels around the world with her husband, Nathaniel, to share her story, appeared in Wheeling Sunday in a program cosponsored by Temple Shalom and Classrooms Without Borders.

In addition to Sunday’s program, Lazan is making appearances this week at public and private schools in Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties.

Lazan later autographed copies of her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, which she co-authored with young people in mind. The title comes from a game she played while in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Every day she would search for four equally perfect-sized pebbles. If she found them, it would mean all four members of her family would survive.

The book recounts:

• The earliest days of Lazan’s youth in Hoya, Germany, when the Nazi’s Nuremburg Laws made it a crime for Germans to buy from Jewish shop owners (her parents ran a shoe store), and kept Jews out of parks, theaters, pools and other public places.

• Kristallnacht when Nazi gangs burned synagogues, smashed Jewish-owned shop windows, burned Jewish books, and sent Jewish men to the first concentration camps. Afterwards, the government actually fined the Jewish community for the damage the vandals wreaked.

• Her family’s flight to Holland to stay one step ahead of the Nazis, only to be trapped there when Hitler invaded the country in 1940.

• Their 18 months in Bergen-Belsen where guards “did their utmost to break us physically, spiritually and emotionally.” Prisoners were starved, beaten and neglected. Some tried to escape by climbing the electrified fences; their dead bodies were left hanging on the barbed wire.

• Their two-week cattle car train ride east as allied forces closed in—no food, water or toilets—a hellish journey that ended with liberation by the Soviet Red Army.

At one point in her talk, Lazan held up a yellow star with the German word Jude (Jew) in the center. The Nazis made all Jews wear such patches on their clothes.

Lazan shows the audience the yellow star the Nazis forced her to wear.

Lazan shows the audience the yellow star the Nazis forced her to wear.

“This is the very yellow star that I was forced to wear,” she said. “It was just another way to ghettoize us, to isolate us and to set us apart from the rest of society. This represents the Star of David, a beautiful, meaningful Jewish symbol, but the Nazis made it so very ugly.”

One time in Bergen-Belsen, Lazan’s mother stole some potatoes from the kitchen and boiled some soup in the barracks. As guards suddenly entered the building and her mother tried to hide what they were doing, the soup spilled, scalding Lazan’s leg. She stayed silent, though, knowing full well that crying out would cost them both their lives.

Miraculously, Lazan, her brother and their parents all survived the Holocaust (few families did). Tragically, her father died of typhus six weeks after liberation. 

In 1995, she reluctantly returned to Bergen-Belsen with a group of survivors and their descendants. The camp as she recalled it was gone, destroyed by the allies in 1945. In its place was a beautiful park-like scene—with one exception: the mounds.

There are mounds all over Bergen-Belsen with markers testifying to the thousands of bodies buried there.

“These are the mass graves of my people,” Lazan said.

As sobering as that site was, Lazan actually found the trip renewing to her faith in human nature.

For instance, they also visited the eastern German city where her father died and found his grave well cared for with a headstone atop it. Many survivors who died at liberation weren’t as fortunate; they were buried in mass graves.

And in Hoya, her old family home, she found a brand new memorial at the desecrated graves of her relatives in the Jewish cemetery, placed there by a non-Jewish married couple whose family had known hers. Had she not returned to Germany, she would never have known it was there. She has since befriended that couple, which traveled to New York to help celebrate her Lazan’s mother’s 100th birthday.  

Such is the message she left her audience:

“Be kind and respectful to one another,” she pleaded. “It’s so simple a message, and yet so hard to achieve.”

• • •

Almost as engaging as Lazan’s story was the ballad, also titled Four Perfect Pebbles which was performed before she spoke. Written by Pittsburgh songwriter John Holt, who was in the audience, John Marshall High School freshman Kailey Filben sang the song as Leslie Garrett accompanied her on the keyboard.

Holt first met Lazan during an appearance at the Holocaust Museum. He bought her book, took it home, read it, and became inspired. He even traveled to New York to interview Lazan, and her mother.

In fact, he became so inspired that he wrote a two-act musical about Lazan story, which includes the ballad. that was sung at Temple Shalom.

Sadly, the musical has never been performed, but the song has, by an orchestra, dance groups, choirs and soloists. 

“The blessing is this song is performed all over the world,” said Holt, “and isn’t that a wonderful gift?”

The capacity crowd at Temple Shalom gave Lazan a standing ovation following her lecture.

The capacity crowd at Temple Shalom gave Lazan a standing ovation following her lecture.

Sister Cities? Wheeling church adopts Haitian village, brings water filters—and hope

This child in the Haitian village of Gelin is one of hundreds of inhabitants benefiting from the community's relationship with the Covenant Community Church in Wheeling. (Adam MIck photo)

This child in the Haitian village of Gelin is one of hundreds of inhabitants benefiting from the community's relationship with the Covenant Community Church in Wheeling. (Adam MIck photo)

By Lee Chottiner

To hear Pastor Adam Mick describe it, traveling to Gelin—a village in the earthquake-riddled, disease-stricken Caribbean nation of Haiti—is a little like trekking to Timbuktu.

Seven Wheeling area residents recently found that out for themselves. They rode a Land Rover for 7½ hours from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, bouncing along rocky mountain roads, parts of which are better described as cow paths.

After that trip, they still had to hike for another 1½ hours since there is no road at all leading to the village.

They made this journey so they could help people who are terribly cut off from the rest of the world help themselves.

This group was the second in as many years from the Covenant Community Church (C3) to visit Gelin. It spent one week there, from Oct. 3 to 10, as part of a growing “sister church” relationship with the village. That relationship means clean water, a new school and other necessities for the remote community.

C3 members Pat and Barb Ball, Teracyn Rich, Taylor McClusky, Rich Pellarin and Wayne Hawthorne joined Mick on the recent mission.

The problems Gelin faces are far from unique in Haiti—the oldest black republic in the world (it won its independence in 1804), and the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

The country still hasn’t recovered from the devastating earthquake of 2010. To compound its woes, a subsequent cholera epidemic swept the country, and a drought is now in its fifth month.

“It’s really a torn country, in every sense of the word,” said Mick, who just returned from Haiti. “The differences between the mountains and the city are almost day and night.”

Port-au-Prince, only now barely recovering from the earthquake, is still a dangerous place. Homeowners live behind walls 20-30 feet high and topped with ragged edge bottles (they can’t afford barbed wire), while guards toting AK-47s protect orphanages and schools.

“The whole city is like a security compound,” Mick said.

The countryside is even worse. In Gelin, the people are beautiful, friendly and humble, according to Mick, yet there isn’t a single household that hasn’t lost a child or a parent to disease or natural disasters. And young girls must still tote potable water for miles.

Yet despite these grim accounts, C3 has committed itself to Haiti, or at least a little piece of it. 

Last year, 12 C3 members, led by Mick, delivered 450 simple water filtration devices to the village—one for each household. On this most recent trip, the seven-member mission brought another 425 filters for a neighboring village, then returned to Gelin to help the residents as they build a school, a cistern and to lay pipe to a nearby stream.

“We have adopted the village of Gelin and two to three visits a year will be planned,” Mick said. “They won’t all be water-related. We don’t want to tell them what their needs are; we want to find out what their needs are, then meet them as we are able.”

How it started

The idea for partnering with Gelin didn’t occur overnight. It’s part of a four-year-long process that began shortly after Mick, 35, originally from Scottsdale, Ariz., moved to Wheeling with his wife and kids so they could help Mick’s sister-in-law care for her mother.

The first step in the process came in 2012 when Mick, looking for opportunities to help college kids connect with the world, organized the Dirty Water Walk, an activity in which approximately 40 participants lugged jugs of water for up to six miles along the Ohio River. The purpose, he said was “to help us relate to young girls around the world who have to walk five, six, seven miles a day just to get clean drinking water.”

Not long after that, C3 joined an effort with its co-pastor, Tim Orr, to raise money to dig seven water wells in northwest Kenya. They raised more than $40,000 in one month.

By then, C3 members had decided they wanted to become more directly involved in relief work abroad. Kenya was too far to be feasible, Mick said, so after a little research, the church settled on Haiti.

The church works with Impact for Jesus, a not-for-profit, donor-supported organization that supports relief work in Haiti. It has been sponsoring the clean water project there since the earthquake, through which C3 has been delivering water filtration devices to remote areas.

C3 members have delivered hundreds of water filtration devices to Haitian villagers.

Those devices are simple and low-tech, by the way. They consist of a filter, a hose and a bucket, which clean the water through a gravity-fed process. If the unit is properly maintained, Mick said, “it will save a family’s life for 10 years.”

Impact for Jesus also runs soccer camps for Haitian kids, provides food to people still living in tent cities and construction materials to help Haitians rebuild their country.

Sister churches/sister cities?

It’s understandable why Mick described C3’s relationship with Gelin as that of “sister churches.” Gelin has no governmental structure to speak of other than its nondenominational church and pastor.

But he would like the relationship to grow beyond the churches, at least in Wheeling.

“We don’t want it to be just C3,” Mick said. “Anybody can participate in this.” In fact, he warmed to the suggestion that Wheeling and Gelin become sister cities. “I love that idea,” he said.

It’s not a new idea, though. In Pittsburgh, the local Jewish community developed a relationship with a city in Israel, called Karmiel, through a program called Partnership 2000. Before long, Pittsburgh and Karmiel adopted each other as sister cities.

There is more than one way to build a Wheeling-Gelin partnership. One way is to work through Sister Cities International, the nonprofit organization that serves as the national membership catalyst for sister cities across the United States. But Wheeling would have to be a member in good standing of SCI.

There are benefits to membership.

“The two most useful benefits utilized by our members are staff assistance and networking,” SCI Membership Coordinator Shakarra McGuire said in response to questions emailed by Dateline: Wheeling. “Our staff has worked with hundreds of partnerships around the U.S. and the world and can provide advice on everything from governance to programming to fundraising and most things in between.

C3 members with Haitian school children in the village of Gelin. (Photo courtesy of Adam MIck)

C3 members with Haitian school children in the village of Gelin. (Photo courtesy of Adam MIck)

“We also are a strong peer networker, and often will connect a local program with another U.S. community that can share its experiences and best practices in whatever area the other city is exploring,” she continued. “We’ve also cultivated very good relationships with the U.S. State Department and Foreign Service officers (both from the U.S. and abroad) and use these connections to help our members.”

Wheeling has no sister city, according to Mayor Andy McKenzie. The city did have one years ago in Eastern Europe, he said, but the relationship did not continue.

This is something I always wanted to do, but never did, McKenzie said. “I think it could create a great opportunity [for Wheeling].”

Another way would be for the Wheeling city council to pass a resolution adopting Gelin. It would be a symbolic step, but C3 could use it to promote a city- and countywide connection to the village.

Either way, Mick would welcome a deeper Wheeling connection to Gelin.

“We’re going to move forward with our mission,” he said, “but if other missions or people want to brainstorm with us, by all means. Anything that would have a greater impact for these people, we’re all ears.”

 • • •

 More information about the C3-Gelin Sister Church relationship is available by contacting Adam Mick at 304-780-1116 or amick@c3wheeling.org.  

Music and Muse: Mountaineer poet says the two meld perfectly

                                  Doug Van Gundy plays a tune during his lecture Wednesday at West Liberty University. 

                                  Doug Van Gundy plays a tune during his lecture Wednesday at West Liberty University. 

By Lee Chottiner

You’d never know it to look at him, but Doug Van Gundy, a West Virginia poet and a fiddler who plays old-time mountain music, was once a punk rocker.

Though he played old-time music as a boy in Elkins, he left it all behind for the Clash, the Ramones and the Dead Kennedys, head banging at the University of Utah where he played with a punk rock band and buried his past.

Until, that is, he had a redemptive experience.

According to Van Gundy he returned to his apartment early one spring morning in 1988 in a drunken stupor. He flipped on the radio then passed out.

When he awoke later, the station to which the radio was tuned was playing a melody by Hazel Dickens, a famous blue grass singer and songwriter who also was born in West Virginia (Montcalm, Mercer County).

“It was like a tonic to my hung-over soul,” Van Gundy recalled. He said he wept, feeling as though the music was calling him home.

The next day he sold his guitar and bought a fiddle.

“I ran away from it [old time music] as hard as I could” he recalled, reading from his own essay on that experience, “then I was drawn back to it.”

Van Gundy recounted the experience Wednesday as a guest lecturer at West Liberty University, speaking at the opening of the annual Hughes Lecture Series in the Student Union. Approximately 40 people—mostly students and young writers—attended.

Lecturing on the topic “Music and the Muse: At the Intersection of Music and Writing,” Van Gundy differentiated between music and language, and how an appreciation for both can enhance one’s writing.

Music is visceral, he explained, playing a couple tunes on his fiddle—one happy, one sad—as examples.

“We don’t need to be told the emotional state of the people associated with those tunes,” he said. “We know right away. This is what music can do quicker than language.”

But language brings something different to a writer: specificity.

“Music can say, ‘I’m sad.’” Van Gundy said. “Language can say why.”

Reading the works of William Matthews, a poet and jazz enthusiast who wrote about some of the legendary performers of his day, Van Gundy noted how Matthews conveyed the power of music in his verses. He noted how the words, stoked by the music, enabled the poet to impart what he, and the musician, was feeling.  

Not a traditional lecture (traditional lectures don’t include musical interludes on the fiddle), Van Gundy also encouraged the students to help him interpret Matthews’ poems.

Van Gundy teaches writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College. His poems, essays and reviews have appeared in The Oxford American, Poems & Plays, Ecotone, Appalachian Heritage, Waccamaw, and Poetry Salzburg Review. He is currently co-editing an anthology of contemporary writing from West Virginia for WVU Press, and working on his second book of poems, tentatively titled, No Dog Inside.

But he also plays fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and harmonica and performs in the old-time string band, Born Old, which has appeared at such live music venues as Mountain Stage.

Van Gundy also performed Thursday, Oct. 22, at the Wheeling Artisan Center, downtown.

Looking back on his stint as a punk rocker and his time away from home, Van Gundy said he ran away from his old time music roots because he wanted to be taken seriously as a writer.

Now he knows he didn’t have to do that.

“Including music in your writing can give you depth and dimension,” he said.











Hunger in the Valley: How eating right can change a region

Temple Shalom was packed Sunday to hear Ken Peralta and Danny Swan address food insecurity in the Ohio Valley. 

Temple Shalom was packed Sunday to hear Ken Peralta and Danny Swan address food insecurity in the Ohio Valley. 

 By Lee Chottiner

Hun-ger /ˈhəNGɡər/ — the state of not having enough food to eat, especially when this causes illness or death

  Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary


Ken Peralta read that definition aloud Sunday night at Temple Shalom. He liked it enough to include it in his PowerPoint presentation on hunger in the Ohio Valley, but to him, it just didn’t go far enough.

He flashed on the screen photos of emaciated children from around the world — the kind of images people think of when they think of hunger.

Then he showed a shot of a morbidly obese man. He also suffered from hunger – only in a different way.


“This man’s body is not absorbing the nutrition that would help him lead a healthy, more productive life,” he said.

According to Peralta and Danny Swan, the founders of Grow Ohio Valley, hunger means more than not having enough food to eat, feeling a knowing pang in your stomach. It also means not having enough of the right food to eat – fresh vegetables, whole grains, foods low in sugar but high in anti-oxidants and phytochemicals – plant chemicals that can keep the body healthy and ward off disease.


                                  Ken Peralta quotes Hippocrates when addressing food's medicinal value.

                                  Ken Peralta quotes Hippocrates when addressing food's medicinal value.

Hunger is also the lack of a personal connection with food, such as planting and cultivating community gardens, which enhances neighborhoods, strengthens bodies and leads to happier, healthier and longer lives.

Swan and Peralta were the first speakers in the 2015-16 Temple Shalom Social Action Lecture Series. Some 40 people from across the community gathered at the synagogue to hear the two men describe the local hunger problem, and what can be done about it.

They talked at length about “blue zones,” places around the world where people cultivate their own wholesome food and frequently live to be 100 or older.

While West Virginia has the third oldest population in the union – and Ohio County has the third oldest population in West Virginia – Wheeling and the rest of the state are not blue zones, they said,  and for good reasons: West Virginia ranks at or near the top in state ranking for rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks, high cholesterol and obesity.

Further, the state has too many places were access to healthy food is hard to get, especially for senior citizens.

In many ways, West Virginia, and Wheeling, are simply not healthy places to live.

There are “irrefutable connections,” Peralta said, “between what we eat and our bodies’ ability to repair themselves.”

Quoting from Hippocrates he said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”

Food deserts

Painting a picture of the hunger problem in the Ohio Valley, Peralta said the Wheeling area has too many “food deserts.”

Food deserts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” 

“As you can imagine, Wheeling has quite a few food deserts,” Peralta said. “We’re in a perfect storm for food deserts because we don’t have a lot of grocery stores, we don’t have a great public transportation system, and we have an aging population.”

Despite those deserts, Swan said there are solutions.

One course is to have more people grow their own food on whatever land is available. He started such an initiative seven years ago, called the East Wheeling Community Gardens, a series of garden plots on vacant lots where houses once stood, divided by leftover foundation stones. Those plots were made available to residents interested in gardening.

The result was an abundance of fresh produce and a community gathering spot that changed the quality of life in East Wheeling – for the better.

                                  Danny Swan shows a photo of a vacant East Wheeling lot before it was a cleared for urban farming.

                                  Danny Swan shows a photo of a vacant East Wheeling lot before it was a cleared for urban farming.

“This became the summer neighborhood hangout,” Swan said. “It’s where people came to spend their evenings.”

Even Mayor Andy McKenzie, believing the gardens were tamping down crime in the neighborhood, stopped by to congratulate them, Swan added.

The gardens led to the founding of Grow Ohio Valley in 2014. A not-for-profit organization, Grow OV promotes food justice in the Upper Ohio Valley by spurring economic and social transformation through urban farming.

Grow OV has built year round greenhouses in East Wheeling. It has planted vegetables on Department of Highways property. It started a “mobile farmers market” that visits neighborhoods around the area six days a week It has set up community gardens in senior high rises and at grade schools – all with the goal of getting young and old alike outside, onto the land, socializing with one another as they grow the right food for their bodies.

“The way you get a kid to eat a tomato is to get a kid to grow a tomato,” Swan said.

But Swan and Peralta have bigger plans.

They want to secure a larger scale farm on the outskirts of Wheeling where they grow greater yields of “nutrient dense” produce such as potatoes and sweet potatoes.

And next spring they hope to begin planting what they call the “Grand Vue Orchard,” 500-plus apple trees on Wheeling Housing Authority land atop the Wheeling Tunnel.

They hope to eventually clear $10,000 a year from the orchard.

“Apples are a convenience food,” Swan said. “They’re just as convenient as potato chips. You can eat them as you go.”

In a sense, Grow OV is reinventing the wheel. The Northern Panhandle once had many commercial orchards. Now it has none. It also had vineyards growing on the slopes of Wheeling itself.

The work Peralta, Swan and the Grow OV staff are doing is tapping into that history, bringing it back to life and, in the process, making the city and region more food self-sufficient, and healthier.

“That history is very interesting to me,” Swan said, noting that the way Wheeling residents used to live jibed with longevity.

“It’s encouraging to me,” he said, “that it’s in our blood to live well.”


• • •


Food Justice Immersion program begins


Eighteen students from Notre Dame University were in the audience at Temple Shalom Sunday while Ken Peralta and Danny Swan were talking about hunger

They are the first class to take Grow Ohio Valley’s new Food Justice Immersion Program. For one week they will learn the challenges facing people on the edge of food security, as well as possible solutions to food insecurity.

In one experiment, each student was given an amount of money equal to what a Food Stamp recipient has to spend on a given meal, and told to buy lunch. They decided to pool their resources.

Peralta said the exercise exposed the students to the decisions those that Food Stamps recipients must face.

The students will also meet with a physician who treats the homeless and a single mother of Food Stamps. They will make their own yogurt, pick their own lettuce at a nearby farm and assist Grow Ohio Valley in designing a new program to teach selected Food Stamp recipients how to cook, start a garden or make better food choices in return for a subsidy to their Food Stamp allowance. An anonymous $10,000 grant is making the program possible.

Peralta said the Food Justice Immersion Program will run every spring and fall, accepting high school and college students and even corporate groups who want the experience.


— Lee Chottiner     


















Vegans in the Valley: Are meatless diets doable in Wheeling?

Member of the Ohio Valley Vegetarian/Vegan Meetup Club dine out regularly at restaurants about town, sampling what the area offers in the way of meatless meals.

Member of the Ohio Valley Vegetarian/Vegan Meetup Club dine out regularly at restaurants about town, sampling what the area offers in the way of meatless meals.

By Lee Chottiner

It’s Saturday, and the Ohio Valley Vegetarian/Vegan Meetup Club has gathered for lunch at Panera’s in the Highlands.

It’s not a large crowd, just six people dining on the kind of entrees you would expect: salad, soba noodles, tomato soup, oatmeal with apples, and black bean soup.

A business lunch, this isn’t. There’s no agenda; no deals are made.

It’s a friendly get-together.

And that’s just the way Lindsay Spaar wants it.

“They’re very informal,” said Spaar, the organizer behind the lunches, which are periodically held at bistros about town. “I want it to be a welcoming place for everyone, no matter where they are on their dietary path.”

Small as the turnout is, it doesn’t begin to model the interest in the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle in the Ohio Valley. Begun in 2009, the club now has more than 200 names on its mailing list.

Spaar features links to all kinds of relevant events on the meetup club’s website: lectures and festivals, road trips to Pittsburgh, screenings of movies and concerts. October is Vegetarian Awareness Month, so the Ohio County Public Library, where she is a librarian, has on display vegetarian/vegan cookbooks.

By far, though, eating out at local restaurants is the members’ favorite activity, and a good gateway, Spaar believes, for newcomers to sample the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle.

“It’s a way you can come and not be judged, no matter where you are, she said. It’s a very welcoming, nonjudgmental environment where you can come and see what’s available locally and enjoy.”

Why go meatless?

Wheeling residents become vegans or vegetarians for various reasons. In Spaar’s case, it was a deep love for animals.

“I was always the kid who stopped bugs from being stomped on,” she said.  “When I was 8, I made the connection between farm animals and what I was eating, and that something very unpleasant had to happen for those animals to get there. I decided I wasn’t going to eat meat anymore, so I stopped.”

After a while, her parents, who were always health conscious, adopted meatless diets themselves – with some modifications.

“I still have eggs and dairy products in my diet, said Mindy Spaar, Lindsay’s mother. “I eat out so much, and I prefer cream in my coffee, and sometimes cheese in my salad. I don’t want to be so strict.”

Sometimes, people make the choice for health reasons.

Christie Fontaine, another member of the club, became a vegetarian after she was diagnosed with high cholesterol. Not wanting to use drugs to control her condition, “I decided to change my lifestyle a little bit.”

She had once given up meat for lent, so she was sure she could do it again.

“I knew I wanted to do that rather than be stuck on medicine after medicine,” Fontaine said, who has been a vegetarian for five years. “It’s worked out well. I lost weight, which I didn’t think was going to happen, and I tell people that I feel a whole lot better now than I did 10 years ago, and my cholesterol level dropped 48 points, so it was a good experience for me.”

Some people change their eating habits for ethical reasons.

Jeffrey Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg, a Pittsburgh-based organization for Jewish vegans and vegetarians across North America, also writes a blog called the Beet-Eating Heeb. He reports on inhumane treatment and slaughter of animals at “factory farms,”

Along those lines, environmentalists, according to an NPR story, cite the enormous drain meat production has on natural resources – the amount of food, land, water and energy it takes to raise cattle compared to growing produce.

Vegan entrees aren't boring.

Vegan entrees aren't boring.

These reasons and more affect people’s decisions to choose plants over meat – to differing degrees.

By definition, a vegetarian is one who does not eat meat for moral, religious or health reasons.

Vegans go even further. They won’t eat any animal products, which includes eggs, milk and butter.

And while many people are not vegetarians or vegans, they do practice dietary habits that limit their meat intake, such as pescatarians (vegetarians who eat fish) and people who live kosher and halal lifestyles – Jewish and Muslim dietary practices that allow only ritually prepared meat and no pork or blood. Kosher adherents also forego seafood.

While many people are simply not ready to become vegans or vegetarians, they see value in cutting their meat consumption, if only a little, to be healthier or to save money.

“A lot of different organizations are promoting meatless Mondays … for the benefits that reducing meat consumption have,” Spaar said. “So I think meatless Mondays are making a dent, too. I know a lot of people, who are definitely not vegetarians, who are doing the meatless Monday thing.”

 Growing trend?

Tracking interest in the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle is difficult. Reliable figures are hard to come by and are, according to Cohan, “notoriously inaccurate.”

But the U.S Department of Agriculture does track meat consumption in America. Citing USDA figures, the Voice of America reported in 2013 that per capita meat consumption in the United Sates had fallen for four consecutive years, from 2006-2010 – the first time in U.S. history that that had happened. The cost of meat, as well as changing consumer habits, both drove that decline, according to the VOA. The same story, however, also reported that worldwide meat consumption continued to rise.

Still, while meat consumption has dipped here, the United States, as of 2012 was the still the second largest per capita consumer of meat in the world, according to an NPR report. Only Luxembourg consumed more.

Meanwhile, the market for vegan products is growing fast, demonstrating a growing interest in the vegan/vegetarian diet.

“The best indicator is the free market,” said the Cohan. “We're seeing explosive growth in the vegan processed foods sector and in vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants.”’’

Locally, the availability of vegan products gets mixed reviews.

“It’s a lot easier now,” Spaar said. “I was a vegetarian for 25 years, then slowly cut out the dairy and eggs a year ago. It’s much easier because the local stores have so many vegan products; there are so many different brands now.”

But Fontaine thinks local supermarkets are actually scaling back their vegan product lines. 

“Three years ago, you could get anything you wanted,” said Fontaine, a self-described vegetarian who lives a vegan lifestyle (her son is also a vegan). “It’s interesting because I think more people are opting for vegetarian lifestyles.”

Ironically, she said, fewer vegan products on the shelves have made her even healthier. Instead of buying the processed versions of these foods, she makes her own.

“One thing I’ve noticed is vegetarian products are similar to other processed meat in that they have a high sodium content,” Fontaine said.

So when she craves vegan sausages, instead of purchasing them from a store, she uses a recipe that calls for ground rice oatmeal, onions and spice – and a food processor.

“Everything you fix is not processed,” she said. “It’s natural food.”

Eating out

Dining out in Wheeling can still be tricky for a vegan. Menu items may appear vegan-friendly when they’re really not.

“You can have a plain baked potato if nothing else,” said Harry Spaar, Lindsay’s father, who also is a vegan. “Some people talk about pasta with marinara sauce, but you have to be careful about that because some places put cheese in it.”

Matt Welsch of the Vagabond Kitchen: "Everyone deserves good food."

Matt Welsch of the Vagabond Kitchen: "Everyone deserves good food."

Even a dish as simple as steamed vegetables, he said, may be cooked with butter.

Nevertheless, eating vegan while dining out in Wheeling is getting easier, though vegan joints are by no means widespread.

“I don’t think that’s standard in the area at all,” said Matt Welsch, co-owner and chef of the Vagabond Kitchen, which does have regular vegan items on its menu and vegan specials, such as this past week’s southwestern kasha tacos. “It takes a little more effort, a little skill, to make a good vegetarian meal than to throw a burger on the grill.”

That said, he, too, thinks more local bistros are catering to vegan and vegetarian diners.

“I do think it’s starting to change. And I think places like ours – and Avenue Eats, Later Alligator and Cilantro – are setting the stage for those changes. You raise the bar and people come to expect it wherever they go, and that’s how you create a powerful change.”

Whenever he caters outdoors events he tries to bring a vegan or vegetarian option with him. People frequently tell him at those gatherings that that one food is the only thing there they can find to eat.

That pleases Welsch.

“It’s important,” he said. “Everyone deserves good food.”



Time for Change: Speakers series to address social action issues in Wheeling

Temple Shalom will begin its second annual social action lecture series at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, in the synagogue's social hall.  

Temple Shalom will begin its second annual social action lecture series at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, in the synagogue's social hall.  

By Lee Chottiner

The 2015-16 Temple Shalom Social Action Lecture Series will address pressing social action issues that affect Wheeling, as well as West Virginia.

This is the second year Temple Shalom, 23 Bethany Pike, has presented the series, which is free and open to the public. Last year, speakers addressed topics such as climate change, historic preservation and women and families at risk.

The series begins at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, when Ken Peralta and Danny Swan of Grow Ohio Valley will be the guest speakers.  They will address hunger in the Ohio Valley.

The other topics of this year’s lectures are legislative diversity, the arts & urban renewal and the need for recycling.

In the interest of full disclosure, this reporter is the organizer for the event.

“From diversity in West Virginia politics to recycling in the Ohio Valley, this lecture series will explore issues of critical importance to all residents of Wheeling,” Temple Shalom President Seth Posin said in a prepared statement.  “Therefore, it is with an open heart that we welcome all Ohio Valley residents to attend and participate in these vital discussions.”

Ken Peralta and Danny Swan will address hunger in the Ohio Valley during the first lecture in the series at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, at Temple Shalom. The lecture is free to the public, but RSVPs are appreciated. Please contact the synagogue at 304-233-4870. 

Ken Peralta and Danny Swan will address hunger in the Ohio Valley during the first lecture in the series at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, at Temple Shalom. The lecture is free to the public, but RSVPs are appreciated. Please contact the synagogue at 304-233-4870. 

Here is the complete lineup of this year’s series. Each program will be held at 7 p.m. Sundays in the Temple Shalom social hall:

• “Hunger in the Ohio Valley: What it Looks Like,” with Ken Peralta & Danny Swan, founders, Grow Ohio Valley, Sunday, Oct. 18.

• “Minorities and Lawmaking: Diversity in the Legislature,” with Del. Michael Pushkin, the only Jewish member of the West Virginia Legislature, Sunday, Nov. 15.

• “Creative City: The Role of the Arts in Wheeling’s Revitalization,” with Susan Hogan of the Mayor’s Commission on the Arts and Culture, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016.

• “Use and Reuse: Recycling in Wheeling,” with Scott Ludolph, owner of Scrappy Pappy’s Recycling and a member of Wheeling’s Sustainability Board and Green Table, Sunday, March 20.


Exit Interview: Young professional leaving Wheeling after two-year stay gives her take on the town

                       Rachel Weinberger, a young attorney from New York, recently completed a two-year job in Wheeling.    

                       Rachel Weinberger, a young attorney from New York, recently completed a two-year job in Wheeling.    

By Lee Chottiner

When Rachel Weinberger came to Wheeling two years ago, all she brought with her, in addition to her clothes, were two chairs, a mattress and a box spring.

She built the rest.

She made her own nightstands and an upholstered headboard for her bed. She made her own art for the walls.

She sewed her own duvet cover, shams and blinds

And she repainted those chairs she brought with her.

She wasn’t just a homebody. She got a bicycle and tooled around the area; she went rock climbing; she got involved in her synagogue, Temple Shalom.

And she made friends at work, and through Meetup.com, a website connecting local individuals sharing mutual interests

This is one active woman.

Sadly, though, she’s also a woman who is leaving Wheeling, likely never to return to live.

Weinberger’s two-year clerkship in a local courthouse has come to an end. She has been offered a career position with another government agency in Manhattan. She starts in October.

Though she’s the kind of person Wheeling hopes to attract—young, educated, active, eager to be involved in her community—Weinberger, 28, knew from the start that her time in the Friendly City was limited. That’s just the nature of term clerkships.

But it’s precisely her temporary status here that makes her the perfect person to speak honestly about Wheeling—the good, the bad, the ugly—and to speculate on what the city needs to attract others like her. She agreed to share her thoughts with Dateline: Wheeling.

Agree or disagree, these are her true impressions of the city where she spent two years living, working and playing, and they shouldn’t be ignored.

Call this, her exit interview.




Even before she actually moved here in 2013, Weinberger became painfully aware that

decent housing—the kind that would appeal to young professionals—was in short supply.

“I knew from my initial experience that housing was always a problem,” she said, “so I rented an apartment six weeks early so I knew I had a place to live.”

But it wasn’t long before she had to move again. A pipe burst in the middle of winter leaving her homeless. She stayed in a hotel for three weeks as she resumed her hunt for another place to live.

The experience taught her a couple things about Wheeling, not just about its housing market, but the community in general.

Meeting people became easier for her over time, and she said she leaves Wheeling having made many good friends, but her initial experience remains: Wheeling is tough place for a newcomer to break through socially.

Jake Dougherty, director of Downtown Wheeling, and himself a young Wheeling professional, agreed that housing is a problem here.

“She [Weinberger] is absolutely right about the housing,” said Dougherty. “It’s a huge issue in Wheeling, a huge issue in the Valley, and a huge issue in Appalachia.”

But he pointed to development downtown and in East Wheeling, such as the Stone Center Lofts and plans for the Flatiron Building, as examples of efforts to correct the shortage.

“The developer [of the Stone Center Lofts] is working on market-ready housing downtown and there are a number of smaller developers [downtown] and in East Wheeling that are looking to put housing that is affordable to young professionals in those neighborhoods. To my knowledge, they’re being successful right now because there’s such a need for it.”

Quality housing for young people remains a problem in Wheeling, though developments such as the Stne Center Lofts are addressing the issue.

Quality housing for young people remains a problem in Wheeling, though developments such as the Stne Center Lofts are addressing the issue.

As for Wheeling being closed off to newcomers, “I’ve heard that as well,” Dougherty said. “I’ve heard it can be challenging as an outsider to meet people because this really a community where people have been here for a long time. They have family; they have people they spend time with. I can see how that can be an issue.”

OV Connect, a young professionals organization in the Ohio Valley with which Dougherty is affiliated, is developing a welcoming committee for newcomers, but he preferred not say more about the project for now.

“We want to solve this problem,” he said.

Glenn Elliott, a candidate for mayor, agreed that attracting newcomers to the city is “a harder pitch to make” that enticing Wheeling natives to come home, but it’s not impossible.

“Jeremy Morris [of the Wheeling National Heritage Area] and I talk about the idea of making Wheeling the hippest and coolest city in West Virginia,” Elliott said in interview with Dateline: Wheeling earlier this year. I don’t know if it is there yet—you can say Morgantown, Charlestown—but I really think Wheeling has a chance to make a run for that… to set itself apart from the rest of the state and say here is a shining example of what you can do, what a city can be. We have to do a better job of telling the story of what we already have here.” 




Being from Metro New York, Weinberger is use to a sophisticated shopping environment with which small cities cannot compete. Nevertheless, she said Wheeling’s shopping options are depressing, even for a town its size.

“In terms of retail, this place is surely lacking,” she said. “Cruising through downtown, you can tell this place was once a Mecca of department stores and specialty shops, [and] the ghost still lingers.”

Nowadays, she said, the locals’ “best bets” for necessities and luxuries are the franchise stories. The problem with them, she said, is that they are generally class D outlets where the merchandise selections are poorer than stores in larger markets.

“Too little quality retail,” she said.

Dougherty, who grew up in Wheeling at a time when the retail sector was dying, said quality stores can return to the city. He noted the mini-renaissance already underway at Centre Market.

Centre Market is experiencing a mini-renaissance, but downtown needs more move-in ready storefronts.

Centre Market is experiencing a mini-renaissance, but downtown needs more move-in ready storefronts.

But even a revitalized downtown Wheeling will not resemble the bustling business district it once was.

“We have this idea that Wheeling used to be a retail Mecca for the state’s department stores,” Dougherty said. I don’t think that’s the way retail is done today. Most department stores have become big box stores.”

He envisions downtown as a fertile ground for boutique retail. Already Dougherty’s organization, Downtown Wheeling, in conjunction with the Center for Entrepreneurship at West Liberty University, the Chamber of Commerce and the Regional Economic Partnership, is offering workshops to train potential store owners to thrive in today’s market.

But there are other problems to resolve, he said, including the lack of “move-in ready” storefronts.

“We don’t have the space; we don’t have the move-in ready space to help businesses flourish. We have buildings that were built to be retail spaces… [but] they need to be rehabbed and the market will be there. We need to develop spaces to be productive again.”

It’s easier in Centre Market, he said, where storefronts are smaller and more suitable for boutique retail. He’s noticed a “clustering” effect there as merchants decide they want to be in that part of town.

“Downtown is a little bit different,” he said. “The floor plans are bigger and more challenging for retail.”

But Dougherty sees the seeds of downtown redevelopment taking root. He cited examples such as the Flatiron Building and the D.C. Ventures project on Market Street —both pegged for mixed use, residential/retail development.

“I think you’re going to see that happen, Dougherty said, “but there’s a lot to do.”


Service sector stirring


Change is creeping into the city, Weinberger acknowledged. She’s noticed a change in how the service sector is becoming more eclectic.

“There’s a disproportionately large number of young people trying to start businesses here — Vagabond Kitchen, Avenue Eats, Happy Goat Yoga, just to name a few. They add a nice, diverse alternative to your standard chains at the Highlands and the mall in St. Clairsville.”

By and large, though, she said most of the business startups here follow tried and true models. hair salons, nail salons, auto parts stores—nothing too adventurous.

“People do what’s safe; this is the issue here,” Weinberger said. “There’s no innovation.”

She appreciates that starting a unique restaurant or specialty store in a small market is a risky venture. “The question is, who are you catering to? Who’s going to eat at the Indian restaurant? How many doodads can you sell from a unique store to make rent?”

She has noticed that those entrepreneurs who are wading into the Wheeling market are becoming more sophisticated in promoting themselves.

“Local organizations and businesses have found Facebook as a way to advertise,” she said. “If you’re plugged in, you can find these young entrepreneurs who are successful or are trying to be successful, and I think that’s very unique.”


 Social life


Weinberger, who doesn’t drink, brings a different perspective to social life in Wheeling: It’s heavily dependent on bars.

“I’m not one to go and party at the bevy of local bars where you find the young people,” she said. “I had to find alternative outlets through my temple, through connecting with children of its older active members. It’s all networking, of course.”

While here, she became an active user of meetup.com to find social activities. Still, she thinks more alternatives to the bars—adult sports leagues, volunteer opportunities—would “give people an opportunity to mingle outside the bar or the gym.”

“You make your own fun here. It’s really family oriented,” she added. “So if this town wants to attract young, single people who just aren’t ready for family life, it has to be more than bars and hair salons. It has to be more comprehensive.”

Dougherty said alternatives to pub-crawling do exist here—The Capitol Theatre, The Artworks, the Heritage Port, and increasingly the Blue Church concert venue in East Wheeling.

But they need to publicize and program more, he said.

“It’s not out there enough that people say, yes there are venues to go and spend time with friends that don’t require drinking,” he said.  As these venues get better at programming more events through the week and getting the word, he believes Wheeling will have a viable alternative to the bar scene.

Along those lines, Weinberger has noticed a very significant positive development since coming here:

“When I first moved here, everything was word of mouth. Things like Yelp—to find reviews or peer reviews of local businesses in the area—were virtually nonexistent,” she said. “That’s virtually exploded in the last two years. I can only imagine what it will be like in the next few years or so when Wheeling comes of digital age.”


The culture


One plus that Wheeling has is pretty obvious: It’s not a big city.

That makes possible a lifestyle that big cities cannot replicate.

She thinks her peer group is starting to realize that.

“In the two years I’ve been here, Wheeling has undergone a significant change,” she said. “I’ve noticed the children in my peer group have come back—either to live with their parents because the job markets in the big cities are terrible or they have come back in the hopes of making a go here within their familial, financial safety net. And I think that’s not just unique to Wheeling; that’s happening in my hometown as well.”

But when young people settle here, Weinberger said, they’ll encounter a culture not found in the big city. At least, she did.

Where Weinberger grew up in Rockland County, N.Y., a New York City suburb with more than 300,000 residents, she said she didn’t even know her neighbors.

“Then I went to law school New Jersey—a very urban, dangerous environment, she said. “It was quite a pleasant surprise coming here, where the crime rate is low, people are pleasant and patient, especially at the grocery store. It was a welcome relief from the nasty New Jersey drivers that I battled for three years.”

And the cost of living here is very inexpensive.

“People are generally happy here; they’re happy to with what they have here and there’s no desire to leave. There almost a comfort in the sameness and the core of it is family.

“I have seen another side of humanity, a level of kindness that cannot be replicated in any other city,” Weinberger added. “As a stranger to this place, I never felt more welcome as an outsider, and I now identify myself as from Wheeling.”

Verve for verse: Wheeling’s poetry lovers promote the genre here

By Lee Chottiner

Think of Wheeling and you think of steel, nails, cigars, gas, coal and history.

Poetry, though, is not a word that quickly comes to mind.

“Wheeling is a small town,” said Marc Harshman, West Virginia’s poet laureate who makes his home here.

While poetry has the power to influence hearts and minds through rhythm, meter and metaphor, it has become something of a marginalized genre in modern times, competing with novels, short stories and memoirs for the eyes of readers.

That said, poets from Wheeling and the Ohio Valley have written themselves into literary history, often drawing upon their regional roots for inspiration.

With that in mind, Harshman and other local lovers of verse want to make sure that the valley’s poetry tradition doesn’t, as Dylan Thomas wrote, “go gentle into that good night.”

Their efforts are paying off, as Wheeling experiences a small, but noticeable, poetry resurgence:

Marc Harshman, poet laureate of West Virginia, is behind the new Wheeling Poetry Series. He is also using his office to encourage a love of the genre among school age children.

Marc Harshman, poet laureate of West Virginia, is behind the new Wheeling Poetry Series. He is also using his office to encourage a love of the genre among school age children.

• The Ohio County Library begins the Wheeling Poetry Series, Tuesday, Sept. 29, at noon, when Kentucky’s poet laureate, George Ella Lyon, will read at the downtown library. The series will bring to town some of the finest Appalachian poets who are writing today.

Sean Duffy, the library’s programming, publicity & archives coordinator, credited Harshman for the series.

“Marc came to me. He wanted to showcase poetry by having regular poetry readings,” Duffy said. “We have done things like the Wheeling Film Society and have seen some success with that. He wanted to do something with poetry and that seemed like a good idea to me.”

“Marc is well connected and knows a lot [of poets],” he added. “We thought he could get some better known poets to come, particularly if we marketed it as a series.”

• The same day the Wheeling Poetry Series kicks off, a new monthly spoken word series at the Blue Church – The Word – will hold its first show at 7 p.m. at the church, 12th and Byron streets. Lyon is its first guest as well. Harshman and Scott Hanna, assistant professor of English at West Liberty University (WLU) will be hosts for the series, which will present fiction writers and stand-up storytellers, as well as poets. There will also be an open mic for amateur writers and poets.

“The more events we have like this [at the library and Blue Church], the better to support this kind of writing, Hanna said. “It makes people aware that poetry is really a genre that can raise people’s consciousness and understanding of a region and what’s going on there.”

3rd Fridays at the Artworks, hosted by Andrew and Patty Croft, already offers an occasional spoken word component, including open mics and readings by Harshman.

• West Virginia poet Doug Van Gundy will speak and perform his work on Oct. 21 and 22 as part of WLU’s Hughes Lecture Series, which regularly brings poets to the area. More details are to be announced.

George Ella Lyon, poet laureate of Kentucky, will be the first presenter at the new Wheeling Poetry Series, which begins Tuesday, Sept. 29, at noon.

George Ella Lyon, poet laureate of Kentucky, will be the first presenter at the new Wheeling Poetry Series, which begins Tuesday, Sept. 29, at noon.

Could all these programs lead to a burgeoning poetry scene?

Harshman is optimistic, noting the library already attracts strong turnouts for guest writers at its Lunch with Books series.

“That tells me, because of the good attendance at that particular program, there is a healthy atmosphere for literature here in Wheeling,” he said. “I’m just happy to do my small part to encourage further ventures this way.”


Father, son, Pulitzer


The Ohio Valley has already given the world some incredible poets, first and foremost being James Wright.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and half of the only father-son team to receive that award (his son, poet Franz Wright, also won it), Wright grew up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, and wrote about the Ohio Valley in stark terms. Among his best-known works are At the Executed Murderer’s Grave, A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack, and In Response to a Rumor that the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned.

One critic, James Seay, said of Wright’s work in the Georgia Review: "His most abiding concern has been loneliness. It is the one abstract word that recurs most frequently in his work. In a sense, the theme of loneliness gives rise to, or is somehow connected with, most of Wright's other thematic concerns."

    James Wright of Martins Ferry, Ohio, was a Pulitzer    Prize-winning poet who wrote with stark honesty about his Ohio Valley roots. 

    James Wright of Martins Ferry, Ohio, was a Pulitzer    Prize-winning poet who wrote with stark honesty about his Ohio Valley roots. 

And Edward Butscher, writing for the same publication, said that a "pattern" of “despair and celebration, ritual damnation and ritual salvation,” runs through Wright’s poetry, “the agony of human existence miraculously made bearable by nature's . . . eloquence." 

For 25 years, the Martins Ferry Public Library sponsored a poetry festival named for Wright, but more on that later.

Several other poets with national reputations who drew from their Ohio Valley roots are: Maggie Anderson (not an Ohio Valley native though she lived in Marshall County), Timothy Russell (Weirton), Keith Maillard (Wheeling) and Richard Hague (Steubenville).

“There is a literary history in this valley, certainly,” Harshman said.


The next generation


If there is literary history in the valley, is there also a literary future?

The seeds for it are sewn. WLU, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Bethany College all have English departments that are engaging young writers. Hanna, who wrote his dissertation on regional poetry, hopes these departments will produce a new generation of poets, all drawing from their unique Ohio Valley experiences to stoke their own work.

“I’m hopeful that’s the case,” he said. “I always try to emphasize the importance of regional identity as valid material for poets to write about.

“As far as potential writers who would stay rooted in the valley,” he continued, “I’m not sure how I can project that, but we have recently added an emphasis on writing and we have a writing and rhetoric major here at West Liberty, which seems to have attracted a lot of students so far.”

Meanwhile, Harshman is bringing poetry to an even younger audience. He’s convinced that good poetry, in all its forms, can speak to school-aged children, provided they’re exposed to it.

“It’s the blessing of my appointment as poet laureate that I’m now able to visit schools with my poet hat on,” he said, “and I absolutely relish that.

“I think I have a great program,” he continued. “I really try to choose pieces that are both accessible and yet still have some real meat and grit to them, and I’ve never seen them fail. The kids are enthusiastic; they wish to do it. I follow it up with hands-on workshops devoted to either poetry or prose and the kids run with it. They really do.”


Defunct poetry festival


There was a time when poets with national reputations, and their fans, would flock to the Ohio Valley – at once a year.

That time lasted from 1980 to 2005, the lifespan for the James Wright Poetry Festival, which the Martins Ferry Public Library hosted.

The festival attracted giants of verse such as Gerald Stern, Judith Vollmer, Toi Derricotte, William Greenway, Joy Harjo, Roland Flint, Gibbons Ruark, Linda Pastan, and Billy Collins, who would become poet laureate of the United States.

According to Yvonne Myers, director of the Belmont County District Library in Martins Ferry, as the Martins Ferry Public Library has since been renamed, the festival attracted people from all over the world.

“We knew most of the people who came to the festival were not the locals,” she said. “A lot of people flew in from different places, even from Japan or Australia, because they were doing a dissertation on Wright, so we met a lot of interesting people.”

The weekend festival included readings by guest poets, workshops, open mics, readings of Wright’s work (of course), not to mention social get-together’s at Wright’s old watering hole, Dutch Henry’s, which, like the festival itself, has gone out of business.

It wasn’t for lack of interest that the festival’s run came to an end, Myers said.

“Basically, it stopped because many of the people who were part of the festival retired and moved away, so they kind of disbanded it basically,” she said. “I wasn’t really happy about that because I thought we could continue, and maybe someday we will. If you give it more time, people may say, ‘hey why don’t we start that up again?’  There’s no reason we couldn’t.”

A 9/11 story: The day Twin Tower metal came to the Ohio Valley

This 9/11 memorial bench at the Brooke-Hancock Veterans Park was made with steel from the World Trade Center.

This 9/11 memorial bench at the Brooke-Hancock Veterans Park was made with steel from the World Trade Center.

By Lee Chottiner

This is a 9/11 story, though the people involved were not at Ground Zero.

The story didn’t even happen on the day of the attack.

But everyone who recalls it saw first hand, without the filter of a TV camera or computer screen, the destructive force those aircraft unleashed upon the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and the thousands of victims who were trapped inside.

They will likely never forget what they saw.

Carter Strauss certainly won’t. The president of Strauss Industries, in Wheeling, recalls the day train gondolas hauling the first of 25,000 tons of violently “collapsed” structural steel from the towers rolled into the company’s scrap processing yard in Weirton.

It was about a year after the attacks, and Strauss Industries had recently purchased the steel from a New Jersey demolition company. He and other Strauss officials went out to see it. Gondolas filled with the rest of the tonnage would arrive at the yard over the coming months.

But it was those first carloads that Strauss recalled in detail:

“We climbed over the side of this rail car to look at these beams,” he said. “We couldn’t even believe the size — the structural size — of these beams, these massive beams [that] were put into these buildings, that only lost their integrity because the heat from the jet fuel caused them to weaken and caused the collapse of the buildings.

“These buildings were designed to withstand impact, and they did withstand the impact of the planes,” he continued. “They were designed to withstand hurricanes, but they weren’t designed for this, nor did anybody think of the fact that this fuel would get to such a high degree of heat that it would weaken the beams and cause the buildings to collapse.”

The decision to purchase and process the beams was a strictly business one, Strauss said.

“We bought them because we were in the scrap metal business,” he said. “This was not [because] they have intrinsic value to us; we bought them, we prepared them, we sold them to mills. We didn’t expect them to draw the interest level they did.”

But word of the shipment did leak out, and reaction poured in from around the valley.

“We started getting calls from, as you can imagine, a number of organizations, as well as individuals, who wanted to have small pieces of the beams,” Strauss said. “Well, we’re not in the business of doing that, [but] we did give some small pieces to some of the local organizations as well as some of the military organizations for memorials. We also provided a couple larger pieces of beam that were made into a memorial bench at the Brooke-Hancock Veterans Memorial up on Route 2. We had a dedication there by U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan and a couple other local politicians. It stands there today.”

As for the rest of the tonnage, “it was primarily shipped to electric furnace mills on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and was melted down and made into new beams and new products for the automotive, appliance and construction industries,” Strauss said. “You might have a washer in your house, and maybe part of it was part of a beam. Who’s to say?”

But Strauss, himself a Navy Seabee veteran who served in Vietnam, never forgot what he saw that day in the freight yard.

“When you looked at the beams, the emotional part was that these people had absolutely no chance because they were pulverized,” he lamented. “You should say dust to dust, but there was nothing left of these people when these beams collapsed on them.”



End of the Alley: Bennett McKinley winding down iconic 16-month portrait project

Bennett McKinley poses in the alley he's made famous with his Meet Me in the Alley series. Photo by Lee Chottiner; all other photos pictured here are by McKinley.

Bennett McKinley poses in the alley he's made famous with his Meet Me in the Alley series. Photo by Lee Chottiner; all other photos pictured here are by McKinley.

By Lee Chottiner

The coolest way to be part of Wheeling’s pop culture (yes, there really is one) is to stand in a dark alley and let Bennett McKinley shoot you.

Artistically, of course.

McKinley, 29, is the camera bug behind the Meet Me in the Alley photo series. He photographs all comers in the film noire-esque alley between Market and Chapline streets, creating the ultimate who’s who gallery for the Friendly City.

To date, he’s photographed 650-plus subjects — men, women and children; dogs and horses; actors in costume, police and firemen in uniform, musicians with their instruments, athletes with their gear.

A silvery elephant once stopped by for a photo session before taking up its permanent residence in the city’s new pocket park on Main Street.

Political leaders have taken advantage of the photo op. Babies have sat there alone in their car seats while McKinley trains his lens on them; a weight lifter has hoisted her barbells, and one little girl made herself cozy as she read a book. 

As McKinley has said, all are welcome. They make their own rules as to what they wear, how they pose and the props they bring.

Together, they have shown that even a small rustbelt city can boast a dynamic population.

“This is going to sound cliché or silly, but every person is kind of neat,” said McKinley, an eighth-generation Wheeling resident. “There are days in which one little family comes out and I sit there and talk to them for a little bit, and 15 or 20 minutes fly by, and there we are talking about downtown Wheeling, talking arts in Wheeling, talking about just what’s going on that’s making the city kind of vibrant and alive again. That’s fun.”

But if you want to be part of the series, you had better hurry.

McKinley has just announced that the Meet Me in the Alley series is coming to end. After 16 months of alley artistry, his last day of shooting in that space will be Sept. 30. Until then, he’s typically at the Market Street end of the alley on Sundays at 1 p.m. and Tuesdays at 6 p.m.

“You have to understand just how giddy I am to see where it [the project] has come,” McKinley said of the experience, “to start it with no expectations, and now to be — I don’t know — almost recognized for this. To hear people say, ‘oh, you’re the Alley Guy,’ that’s a wild thing.

“[But] this is why the project is ending,” he continued. “I can’t be the Alley Guy forever. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into just one certain thing.”

Meet Me in the Alley really began by accident. McKinley was doing some shots in the alley in March 2014 with Glenn Elliott, whose Professional Building comprises one of the towering walls framing the lane.

Glenn Elliott was the first subject of the Meet Me in the Alley series.

Glenn Elliott was the first subject of the Meet Me in the Alley series.

I was taking photos for him for marketing purposes, just head shots,” McKinley said. “Then, after a couple weeks of some people suggesting I do something with it, I took the real first photo of the series on the 22nd of March, of my wife. When people were saying that I should turn it into a series, I didn’t have any sort of expectation that it would go this far. I thought it would be pictures of my wife, my family and five close friends. But it certainly didn’t go that way because there are 650 people on it.”

Typically, McKinley stations himself at the alley certain times during the week, using his Facebook page to advertise when he will be there. Sometimes, business is slow, with just a handful of subjects showing up.

Other times, he's inundated.

“There was one day last summer when there were 65 people who showed up,” he said. “Where you get the three people talking with you about the city, then when you have 65 people, that’s a whole different ballgame. To see 65 people on Market Street lined up, thus talking about Wheeling — doing what the small groups do, just on a larger scale — that was impressive.”

Many alley models have posted their photos to their Facebook profiles. Some have even used them on dating websites such as eHarmony.

Each photo session lasts about three minutes. Usually, McKinley prefers to shoot his subjects individually, catching their unique essence with the alley as an edgy, urban backdrop.

But he does make exceptions, like the time he shot the entire Wheeling Jesuit University rugby team, which just happened to be next door in the Professional Building doing some interior demolition work for Elliott. They posed with their sledgehammers and masks.

If you ask McKinley which is his favorite shot, he won’t take long to answer: Beth Patsch, a friend and member of the Wheeling Young Preservationists.

“There was just something striking about it,” he said. “Actually, that’s my mom’s favorite as well. There’s just something striking, very powerful about it. To put it into words what it is precisely, I don’t know if I could, but that’s probably been my favorite.”

This portrait of Beth Patsch is McKInley's favorite of the series.

This portrait of Beth Patsch is McKInley's favorite of the series.

The series has already had one exhibition in August at the Artisan Center. At the time, the project had over 300 photos and it covered the entire space.

Now that it’s coming to an end, McKinley would like to arrange a second exhibition for the completed series. But there are hurdles to clear, like finding a space in Wheeling large enough to accommodate it.

“We wallpapered the walls [of the Artisan Center],” he said, “so if it’s more than doubled, I’m not certain where to hold an exhibit that size.”

He also wants to produce a book form the project, but he faces the same problem.

“I would love to do a book. The issue is that it’s going to be very expensive. If I were to end it today, that’s 650 photos, and I take a black and white photo and I take a color [for each subject], so that’s suddenly 1,300 photos. That’s a lot of pages in a book.”

The complete project can be viewed at 500px.com.

Even though Meet Me in the Alley is ending, the idea lives on.

“I’ve seen other photographers shooting in the alley now,” McKinley said. “They all take family photos. Then other people I’ve seen have taken their own photos; they’ll just take a cell phone down there and take a picture of a friend, which I’m trying to take in stride.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

The Wheeling Jesuit rugby team barely fit into the narrow alley. 

The Wheeling Jesuit rugby team barely fit into the narrow alley. 



To my readers

I am currently away, but I will return in mid-August with new stories about life in the Friendly City.

Thank you for your patience, and for supporting this project called Dateline: Wheeling. I am humbled and encouraged by the amazing reader support my stories have received. 


— Lee Chottiner