Elites don't grasp communities' strengths

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The moment you enter the Elks Club in Pittsburgh's old Allegheny section, you get a sense that all is right with the world, at least on “Banjo Night.”

Maybe the dark wood-paneled walls put you in mind of someone's game room. Maybe it's the giant American flag draped behind the stage where the banjo club performs. Or perhaps it's the sound of nostalgic Tin Pan Alley tunes filling the old dance hall, combined with the smell of fresh popcorn and baked chicken coming from the kitchen.

More than likely, all of these evocative threads from the fabric of everyday life touch all of your senses as you settle onto a folding chair or a bar stool and become part of something that has been missing in America since the first shopping mall was built in suburbia — community.

“There is a real sense of community, a sense of belonging here,” said Robert Barner, 27, sitting at the bar and drinking his buck-fifty Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The room is filled with a stunning cross-section of generations: college kids, many with ink-decorated arms and necks or spiked magenta hair; suburban couples; just about every still-agile World War II veteran and spouse who live in the area. And these diverse folks aren't sitting in parochial groups but all together, all laughing, singing, sharing stories.

The youngest member of this Elks is 21. The oldest, George Martin, joined at that same age more than 60 years ago; he went off to war, came back, and now is often found sitting with a group of young people, talking about his greatest passion — the American flag.

Banjo Night at the Elks is the brainchild of Frank Rossi, president of Pittsburgh Banjo Club. It was born out of necessity, after the club was booted from a local speakeasy that closed its doors. Left with no place for his 80-musician band to perform, he found his way to the Elks and fell in love the moment he walked in the door.

“This place is magical,” Rossi said.

The 120-year-old building has a long entrance hall leading to a 40-foot-long bar, an elevated stage and room for 400 or so people to sit at tables.

The band performs every Wednesday. Admission is free, the beer is ridiculously cheap, and so is the homemade food; the place is packed to the rafters.

Young, old, black, white, and all shades and shapes in between, converge to form this wonderful community that listens to tunes such as “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” buys 50/50 raffle tickets and does something else remarkable: It talks with one another.

Matthew Gailey started coming here five years ago, when he was looking for a place to practice piano for a recital. The 34-year-old lawyer soon began dragging friends to the Wednesday night event; eventually, he joined the lodge and quickly ascended to the office of exalted ruler.

Phil Bujakowski, 50, holds court every week at the far-right corner of the bar with the men and women of the neighborhood: “We talk about solving problems in the community, how to better the neighborhood, and a little politics.”

Here, folks talk about finding your neighbor's nephew a job, not income inequality ... about handling blight or street drug sales, not the decriminalization of marijuana ... about picking up litter, not climate change ... about how to make local schools better by volunteering, not Common Core curricula.

American life is often chronicled wrongly by politicians, social media and cable news; it is frequently framed by people who live inside bubbles — Washington, New York and the like — and who do not understand that, for the most part, the rest of us can solve the little and the big local issues without their supervision, regulation or interference.

America was founded on the strength of our communities. These are the backbone of what we are; these are where the real problems, the conversations and the relationships take place or are built to produce real change.

Real, meaningful, lasting change for most Americans is not to be found on Twitter, on cable news shows or at fancy fundraisers in glitzy hotels.

A valuable lesson is to be learned here. The question is, who's paying attention?

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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