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Pittsburgh has decades-old ties to new sister city of Presov, Slovakia

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pittsburgh is adopting yet another overseas sister, and this one is from a place that's not so foreign to many Western Pennsylvanians.

This morning, Mayor Tom Murphy and City Council President Gene Ricciardi were to sign an agreement making Presov, Slovakia, the city's 14th official sister city.

Also to be part of the ceremony were Mayor Juraj Kopcak and three other officials from Presov -- pronounced PRESH-ov. Their week is to include visits to Kennywood Park's "Slovak Day" on Thursday and to the museum dedicated to one of the most famous local descendants of their Central European region: Andy Warhol.

There already are many connections between Pittsburgh and Slovakia, or the Slovak Republic, as it has been officially known since becoming independent in 1993. Before that, the region was part of Czechoslovakia, a country that was formed on the basis of a document signed here in 1918 known as the Pittsburgh Agreement.

Especially in the early 1900s, so many Slovaks immigrated here that greater Pittsburgh is second only to Cleveland in terms of people of Slovak ancestry in the United States. Making these ties more formal is the longtime goal of two of them: Joseph and Albina Senko of Mt. Lebanon.

"We always joke that someone wrote our phone number on a bathroom stall in Slovakia," joked Senko, explaining how over the past several years he and his wife have hosted more than 75 visitors in their home.

A certified public accountant and financial manager, Senko has for the past four years maintained the Pittsburgh office of the Consulate of the Slovak Republic. His title of "honorary consul" means acting as an intermediary on matters ranging from travel visas and genealogy to business relationships.

In addition to leading the sister-city committee, he and his wife also run the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Cultural Association, which is a coalition of seven Slovak groups, including the locally headquartered National Slovak Society.

 
 
Pittsburgh's other sister cities are:

Sofia, Bulgaria; Wuhan, China; Matanzas, Cuba; Zagreb, Croatia; Ostrava, Czech Republic; Sheffield, England; Saarbrucken, Germany; Saitama City, Japan; Skopje, Macedonia; San Isidro, Nicaragua; Fernando de la Mora, Paraguay; Bilbao, Spain; and Donetsk, Ukraine.

An agreement is pending with Danang, Vietnam. Several new committees are being formed to start sister-city agreements in countries including Ghana, India, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Poland and South Africa.

   
 

They've made the culture their mission for the past seven years, but both grew up in it. He was born and grew up in South Oakland, from where his dad walked to work in the steel mills. She was born in northern Slovakia, and moved at age 10 to the South Side, where her dad, too, walked to the mill.

"I was 17, she was 16," recalls Senko, who used to dress up and crash the Slovak wedding receptions that were held every Saturday at Oakland's Lasik's Tavern. Today, they will be married for 47 years.

Yesterday morning, hours after the couple returned from another tour to Slovakia, he was at the University Club in Oakland, where this Presov delegation is staying.

The visitors started their week with a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospital tour and a meeting with executives at U.S. Steel, which has a steel mill in Kosice that is the largest foreign employer in Eastern Slovakia. Senko says his committee initially courted Kosice, which is Slovakia's second biggest city after the capital, Bratislava. But Kosice already has a sister-city agreement with Mobile, Ala. Nearby Presov is the country's third biggest city, with a population of 95,000, and is home to many of the steel mill's workers and suppliers.

This new sister city relationship will be a vehicle for promoting more investment and other exchanges between the two regions. As Senko puts it, "I'm hoping that we exchange ideas."

The relationship, under the auspices of the Sister Cities International, is one of 14 that are part of the Greater Pittsburgh Sisters City Association. The program now is shepherded by the International Division of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, which is pumping up the relationships because they are empowering to Pittsburgh, economically and otherwise.

"It helps grow the city," says International Division Manager Linda Campbell, who can cite successful business ventures in the city's Chinese sister, Wuhan. In fact, she says that Mayor Murphy has just committed to leading a business mission there in November. Meanwhile, schools are exchanging students and a Chinese cultural festival is planned here for September.

"To me," Campbell says, "the bottom line is merely to establish, on whatever level, some peace relationships with others."

Through an interpreter, Presov's Mayor Kopcak said he'd eventually like to see programs connecting youth in his city and here. But meanwhile, he and his delegation really are looking forward to seeing the Warhol Museum, which is bigger than one dedicated to the Rusyn artist in his parents' hometown of Medzilaborce (where a mileage marker points to Pittsburgh).

That Pittsburgh-Presov relations already have a head start was evident when one member of the delegation discovered that his suitcase hadn't made it from Slovakia.

Senko, as any honorary consul would, brought him a clean shirt, tie and underwear.

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