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RMU’s We Built This City Recounts 70 Years of the Allegheny Conference

Saturday, November 1, 2014

We Built This City: How the Allegheny Conference Remade Pittsburgh, a documentary produced by Robert Morris University about the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, will be screened on campus for the first time on Wednesday, Jan. 21, in Massey Theater.

We Built This City tells the story of the unique public-private partnership that formed the Allegheny Conference in 1944. The organization is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

The documentary features interviews with 22 current and former elected officials, corporate and civic leaders, journalists, and past and present officers of the Allegheny Conference. It highlights the organization’s work in transforming the Pittsburgh region -- from the redevelopment, pollution and flood control measures that marked the city’s first Renaissance to its post-industrial rebirth as a center for technology, health care, and education. We Built This City includes archival photographs and news footage, and is narrated by Jim Cunningham of WQED-FM.

RMU Provost David Jamison wrote the script, and Michael DiLauro, director of the RMU Academic Media Center, directed and edited. Both men are co-producers. The project was funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation and will be screened for free on Jan. 21, beginning with a reception at 5:30 p.m. The event is open to the public. 

We Built This City captures the spirit of civic leadership that has made it possible for the Pittsburgh region to engineer two generations of transformation, regenerating its environment and diversifying its economy,” said Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of the Allegheny Conference.

The documentary grew out of a conversation that Jamison had with Scott Izzo, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which was seeking a way to observe the conference’s anniversary. “I said, ‘We can do this.’ RMU took this on as a community service but also as a way to showcase documentary production at Robert Morris and get students involved,” said Jamison.

Previous documentaries produced by Robert Morris faculty and students include America Talks, which captured the spirit of the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and What Does Trouble Mean, about the African American labor leader Nate Smith.

“For me as a filmmaker, and someone not from the area, jumping into this project and learning about its history and cultural heritage was a great experience,” said DiLauro. “The theme of We Built This City is community above self.”

Seven students and two RMU graduates worked with DiLauro and Jamison on the project. Broadcaster and documentary producer Beth Dolinar, a part-time RMU faculty member, served as associate producer and research director.

"I greatly enjoyed working as a student production assistant intern for We Built This City. Through this experience I gained professional skills that have benefited me in a number of ways," said Katie Withrow, a senior RMU student majoring in TV/video production.

Among those interviewed were Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and former Mayor Tom Murphy; former Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh; former Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin; Morgan O’Brien, CEO of People’s Natural Gas and chairman of the Allegheny Conference; and Allegheny Conference CEO Dennis Yablonsky and former CEO Bob Pease, who also served as an executive producer of the documentary.

We Built This City does not shy away from controversy, noting the decidedly mixed record of urban renewal projects in communities such as East Liberty and the Hill District and the bad feelings that linger in those neighborhoods over redevelopment. The documentary heralds the transformation of the Cultural District from a red light district and also describes the role played by the conference in forming an ownership group to keep the Pittsburgh Pirates from leaving town in 1986.

“Over the past 70 years the Allegheny Conference has carved out a global reputation for its approach to leadership through partnership based upon the individual commitment of countless public and private sector leaders,” said Flanagan. 

“No one organization ‘built this city,’ but through collaboration and a deep-seated willingness of the people of our region to work together to improve our economy and quality of life, we have created one of America’s most-livable places. By continuing to work together we can make it even better in the years to come,” he said.