Monessen now famous for vacancy, not industry

| Tuesday, May 5, 2009

MONESSEN - In 1952, when the Nuzzaci family matriarch opened a pizzeria in the basement of her Monessen home there was competition.

The family perfected the secret recipe - still written in Italian on a piece of cardboard - to attract hungry students on their lunch breaks in the then-booming steel town.

Otherwise, they would get bologna sandwiches at Greco's deli across the street. And every day, some 400 students ate slices of Nuzzaci's Sicilian pizza, says John Sassak, who now owns the restaurant his grandmother opened the year he was born.

Today, Greco's is an empty lot. Up and down Knox Avenue, every couple of homes has broken or boarded-up windows, cracked siding, drooping porches and overgrown weeds, the remains of a town that once supported a booming steel industry, several elementary schools and shops on nearly every corner.

This area of Monessen had more vacant properties than any other neighborhood in Pennsylvania as of March 31, according to data compiled by The Associated Press from the U.S. Postal Service and the Housing and Urban Development Authority. Areas of Duquesne and Braddock, two other towns near Pittsburgh, were close behind.

''You look out your porch, there's a condemned house on one side and a condemned house on the other,'' said Charlotte Sassak, 50, a member of the Nuzzaci clan.

Monessen's population has been declining since the late 1970s, when the steel mill that supported the town began downsizing. The mill shut down in the mid-1980s, bringing down dozens of other businesses and forcing hundreds to leave in search of jobs.

Decades later, Monessen and other Rust Belt towns still battle high unemployment and poverty, problems compounded by the blight of abandoned properties and an aging population.

The data collected by the AP shows an area of Monessen has 323 vacant residences, more than a quarter of the neighborhood's houses.

Sassak and her neighbors have attended City Council meetings and complained to the mayor - but to no avail.

The city is limited in the money it can spend to demolish or repair abandoned properties. This year, Mayor Anthony Petaccia said, Monessen has about $75,000 in federal money for demolition.

Until the late 1970s, Monessen was ''the city'' in the Mon Valley - an area where steel mills, coke plants and other industries once created a steamy horizon while pumping millions into towns and cities along the Monongahela River.

Traffic on Schoonmaker and Donner - Monessen's main thoroughfares - was elbow-to-elbow. Parking was scarce on weekends and holidays. A mafia tied to Al Capone generated $60 million in gambling halls that police turned a blind eye to, according to a 1950 article published in Collier's magazine.

In 1960, there were nearly 18,500 people living in Monessen, according to the Census Bureau. But by 1980, after the mills had downsized, there were fewer than 12,000.

By 2007, the town had just over 8,000 people. The most recent census - in 2000 - showed 9.2 percent, or 282 families, lived in poverty.

Along the river, black heaps of untouched coke made at the ArcelorMittal plant are foreboding. As the recession deepens, the company is unable to sell the coke and is expected to lay off most of its workers, leaving a skeleton crew of 50 to maintain the massive idling ovens.

''It's a little bit disheartening and that's why I ran for mayor, that's why I ran for council, because I wanted to turn it around,'' Petaccia said.

But peeking out from behind Donner Avenue, on Schoonmaker, is a sign of the future.

It says Douglas Education Center in blue lettering, a silhouette of a sun alongside. This is where Jeffrey Imbrescia - described by some in town as an urban redevelopment guru - holds court.

Twenty years ago, Imbrescia and his wife bought the dying business school that grossed $200,000 a year, had 45 students and five employees.

They have transformed it into a high-tech center that teaches everything from cosmetology and film to Hollywood special effects - under the banner of special effects expert Tom Savini, who worked on ''Friday the 13th'' and directed the 1990 remake of ''Night of the Living Dead.''

The school's $40,000, two-year special effects program is making waves nationally. Students from 49 states are flocking to Monessen, Imbrescia says, a thick gold chain around his tanned neck.

Now, Imbrescia says, the school has 250 to 450 students and rakes in well over seven figures.

Imbrescia owns 40 buildings in Monessen, including his grandparents' old home, where as a 6-year-old he stood on the porch to watch John F. Kennedy's motorcade drive into town on a campaign stop.

''You come in here and you look at this town and its demise and you say 'Oh my God,''' Imbrescia said. ''I see it as an opportunity.''

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