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Oral history DVD focuses on New Kensington's past, future

| Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009

The creators of an oral history video on New Kensington about to have its premiere are hoping that the past will be prologue.

New Kensington resident Jocelyn Sanders says the DVD — "New Kensington Is..." — debuting at 7 p.m. Wednesday Nov. 4 at Westmoreland Community College's New Kensington Center, captures a vibrant, entertaining era in the city's history.

It's one that residents and those undertaking this project, produced by Penn State, New Kensington, and sponsored by the Northern Westmoreland Foundation, hope one day can be recaptured.

As the booklet accompanying the DVD notes with optimism, "The city still finds its roots in the memories and vitality of the flourishing streets, prosperous business district and entertaining night-life only waiting to be reawakened through 21st century revitalization efforts.

"The proud residents of New Kensington will never forget how great their city was, and through their heritage of hard work and determination, they are destined to redefine what "New Kensington Is..."

Sanders, who with Marvin Williams, serves as Northern Westmoreland Foundation liaisons to the Penn State grant for this project, says, "We want to share this video to generate enthusiasm about New Kensington's past and build enthusiasm for the future."

She adds that as Alcoa was viewed as a past economic engine for the Valley, the nonprofit foundation wants to promote the development of the next economic catalyst for the city and region.

The video tells the stories of New Kensington from the 1940s to the 1960s through interviews with long-time residents.

"I find it very interesting there was so much positive activity," says Williams, a New Hampshire native who moved to the Alle-Kiski Valley in the '60s after the city's heyday. "It's nice to connect the people with the history and the stories and that's what this DVD does."

"We were looking for the personal stories, not the dry historic details. We wanted to hear about how lives were changed by gaining employment, how people enjoyed themselves, etc.," Sanders explains.

She loved hearing the accounts of the young adults getting dressed up to go for dinner and dancing on a Saturday night. "Their faces just light up when re-telling these memories of their youth," Sanders says. "Betty Beestrice (who worked for Ben's Army Store on Fourth Avenue) tells a story about an exciting experience in a restaurant that will remind you of a 1940s' movie."

Joe Hayes says proudly, "Alcoa people stuck together."

Shirley Bevan King fondly recalls her time working at Alcoa, where she began, not as a secretary like many women, but a security guard at the Freeport Road research lab in a male-dominated department.

Mary Goldinger remembers the fun of having many options for movies because there were four theaters, including the Liberty with its impressive stage and flowing curtain.

Bernie Ostrowski says his first date with his future wife was at one of those theaters. The film: Federico Fellini's "La Strada."

George Rapp enjoyed providing the entertainment at many of the city's night clubs as drummer for the local band, the Bluetones. He says the streets of New Kensington were just as crowded after midnight as they were during the day. He played two or three times a week.

Tom Resek talks of hope for the city's future. He volunteers with such improvement groups as the Weed 'n Seed program and talks excitedly about a revitalization plan for Ninth Street.

"New Kensington Is..." had its origins at a Foundation board meeting about a year ago in which the discussion centered on New Kensington's rich history.

"We noted that we are losing a generation of our older citizens who have first-hand memories of the old boom days of the thriving Alcoa presence," Sanders says. "The idea arose of capturing these memories before they are lost forever."

Allen Larson, assistant professor of communications at Penn State, New Kensington, gave the Foundation a proposal to do a series of interviews collecting oral history. The editing and production were done in the campus' new Digital Commons Studio.

"The DVD gave our students the opportunity to work on a professional project and for the community. They really enjoyed it. They said they see the city differently and it changes their perception of what is possible," says Larson. "It's really great to have a record of people speaking for themselves. It's just easy to forget about the value, the perspective this generation has to offer."

The DVD also can be purchased for $10 at the New Kensington Chamber of Commerce on Fourth Avenue. "We hope we can raise enough money on this DVD to pay for the next one," says Williams.

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