Strip! editor Greg Suriano goes behind the scenes with the dynamic YouTube creator of Neighborhoods of Pittsburgh

    Q Dean, I am assuming our readers, most Pittsburghers, and many YouTube viewers throughout the country are familiar with your Neighborhoods of Pittsburgh and other videos. First off, discuss your unique videographic style and editing—and how much do you feel your popularity is due to your striking visual approach and talent as a filmmaker?

    A I view Pittsburgh as a set in a way. It’s visually striking everywhere you look—beautiful old buildings, crooked fire escapes, dense green landscapes. If I were a photographer I would snap the picture. But video needs movement. A video of a still building isn’t that interesting. So I put myself in the “set” to make it more intriguing. As for the interviews, I like to be up close and personal with a wide angle. COVID has made it far less attractive to get close to people. In terms of the popularity of the videos, I certainly think the visuals play a big role. People appreciate a well-composed image. It also makes the videos feel “professional.”

    Q We have read about your 2020 accident and broken ankle and other health issues, and have noted your desire to be on camera a little less in upcoming videos. In what ways is this new approach changing your latest videos in content and style?

    A The ankle has changed me immensely. I’m not as hungry or driven as of late. I’ve been having trouble consistently working on Neighborhoods. The spark just isn’t there. Health insurance is absurdly expensive in America. A part of me wants a normal job with benefits. I’m also getting older, and realizing I need to save money. I’ve been spending more time on freelance gigs and less time on YouTube. I’ve been experimenting with a much longer format, but it is vastly more difficult than whipping up a 15-minute video with a familiar format. To make a “proper” documentary takes years. You want to see the characters change and develop. You also need a subject that lends itself to a good documentary, which I’m learning is hard to come by. I’m less willing and less physically capable of playing the “YouTuber” so I’m at a bit of a crossroads. Do I continue making Neighborhoods the way they were? Do I attempt to change the format? Or do I cut it off and move on to something completely new?

    Q Some of the appeal of your Pittsburgh videos derives from their succinctness, focused selectivity, and balance of a few brief local-resident interviews with creatively photographed views of the terrains, storefronts, and physical surroundings. The brief quick-in-succession shots are often artfully composed images, reflecting perhaps the influence of famous filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Orson Welles. I think, for example, that viewers should especially look at your earlier Sharpsburg “30 Shots” video for simply beautiful images, accompanied by haunting music. How much does the “artful-filmmaker” aspect impact these videos in relation to the reporter approach?

    A Composition is something I have a knack for. Finding a sight line with a personality is extremely therapeutic. I think I was happier, or at least more alive, when I made the Sharpsburg video you’re referencing. Neighborhoods is sort of a compromise. I’ll play this goofy reporter type as a way to draw attention to the things I find beautiful. Neighborhoods also gives me a box to think outside of.

    Q Your philosophical approach to the places you visit seems to be one that appreciates well-established local businesses, unique “Pittsburghy” landscapes, residents with a family history in the neighborhood, and even a touch of nostalgia. Lawrenceville and the Strip are of course continually evolving and indeed are bursting with new building/renovation projects, new businesses, and new residents. But as a filmmaker with a certain positive traditionalist bias, can you tell us about the aspects of these two neighborhoods that most appeal to you?

    A Americans seem to have a fetish for the new. People want new, shiny, clean things. I like old and crusty things. The Strip and Lawrenceville have remnants of the past, but are also quickly losing the things that make them special. It’s incredibly sad. It motivates me to capture what is left before it’s all just a big Chuck-E-Cheese.

    Q What did you find most interesting, or even surprising, in Lawrenceville, and also was there anything that you filmed, or any interviews, that you had to leave out of the final video?

    Dean on Liberty Avenue in his Bloomfield video.

    Dean on Liberty Avenue in his Bloomfield video.

    A The highlight of the Lawrenceville video was the steel craftsman I met back by the river. He was alone in this warehouse, building massive ornaments that will sit atop the Manhattan bridge. He had a pinky that made a 90-degree turn halfway up, and a welcoming demeanor. I was snooping around the shop expecting to get yelled at. Instead, he told me all about his projects and life.

    Q The Strip is among the subjects you have been exploring for your latest series of profiled neighborhoods. And, our magazine acknowledges that many of the people one might meet on the Strip’s streets are visitors—even tourists—or food shoppers. Have you found that those you may have spoken to are Strip District visitors?

    A I began filming in the Strip in July. I captured some musicians, a poet, and the old men playing cards outside of La Prima. I also had an interview scheduled with Jimmy Coen in April of 2020. The day we were supposed to meet was the day his Yinzers shop burned down. We rescheduled for the following week. He let me in and showed me the damage. Pittsburgh is homogenizing. With the Terminal Building renovation, for example, the site had the potential to be transformed into something with a more historical flavor. I’m also not a fan of the new “luxury” apartments. I try not to be negative in my videos, so I would likely be focusing on the people that I find to be authentic.

    Q Your interviews with local businesspeople and residents are important aspects of your videos, and some in particular stand out. The fact that many of these meetings are offhand and spontaneous make them especially real. This tone seems to bring out the authentic quality of these neighborhoods (most evident in the Run, Polish Hill, and Greenfield profiles). Especially memorable was the woman from Uganda, in the Mt. Oliver episode, whose elegant demeanor and life philosophy were poignant and uplifting. Are there any other people who really impressed you?

    A Almost everyone impresses me. And almost everyone I interview ends up in the videos. It’s a great feeling to connect with a person you wouldn’t have guessed you’d have anything in
    common with.

    Dean displays his unique filmmaker’s style by conversing with himself in this Neighborhoods video.

    Dean displays his unique filmmaker’s style by conversing with himself in this Neighborhoods video.

    Q You have done a lot of neighborhood profiles that contain your signature “sugar” and “bicycle” tests—apparently ways to judge an area’s neighborliness and honesty. What inspired you to include these, and have you come to any general conclusion about Pittsburghers in these regards?

    A The original idea for Neighborhoods was sort of a comparison of the different neighborhoods. The comparisons and tests helped by adding a consistent structure to the videos. I started to stray away from that towards the end. My general conclusion is that we are more afraid of each other than we need to be. Unfortunately, knocking on a neighbor’s door for a favor is uncommon and awkward these days.

    Q It’s very appreciated that you have initially chosen to spotlight often-neglected (profile-wise) neighborhoods such as Polish Hill, Sharpsburg, Manchester, South Oakland, and the Run. These choices can be surprising and welcome for your viewers used to only videos or publicity profiles of Oakland, Squirrel Hill, and Shadyside. Which little-publicized neighborhoods are in your upcoming plans?

    A Hazelwood and Duck Hollow are under consideration. Hazelwood is an incredible neighborhood that does not get nearly enough attention or investment. There is a close-knit community there that is hard to come by. The news portrays it as a dangerous neighborhood, which is nonsense. Many people there are disadvantaged, but also more kind, honest, and hard working than in other neighborhoods.

    Q Pittsburgh’s relationships to many locations in/around it often seems a devious puzzle of identities. A municipality, a borough, a faraway town with a city zip code, a close-by village with its own zip code, a neighborhood that should be a town, a town that is considered a neighborhood? Can you make any sense of these arbitrary distinctions, and how does this confusion affect your video choices?

    A I don’t draw a hard line around the city. If it’s a part of Pittsburgh’s culture I’ll include it. If you’re from Edgewood, and you’re visiting a different city, you’re not going to say “I’m from Edgewood, Pennsylvania.” I’m less interested in the towns that feel like suburbs. Suburban towns are fairly similar all over the country. I want to showcase the places that feel uniquely Pittsburgh.

    Q Since we share mutual origins in New Jersey, I must wrap up our conversation with a reference to your wonderful video on Jersey diners, notably the nostalgic Summit Diner. Are you by any chance planning any similar Pittsburgh-area profiles of diners or other food locales/destinations?

    A I’m not much of a restaurant person. I’m vegetarian with a wicked nut allergy, so I prefer to cook my meals. Cooking your own food is also an excellent way to save money and eat healthier. That being said, I am working for Very Local on a show called What’s on the Menu. It will air on their streaming service in February.

    Dean Bog’s many videos can be viewed on YouTube. Strip! editor Greg Suriano, an enthusiastic Bog admirer, is happy to be able to bring Dean’s comments to our readers.

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