The Hazelwood of JaQuay Edward Carter’s youth was a far cry from the bustling thoroughfare his parents described to him.
Sure, he got to experience some of the mom-and-pop shops that used to line the streets of Hazelwood. But he mostly knew it as “an economically depressed town” that was devastated when the local mill shut down.
Carter is a historian, the interpretative specialist and community outreach coordinator for local cultural nonprofit Rivers of Steel, and the founder of the Greater Hazelwood Historical Society of Pittsburgh. He started the latter organization in January 2018 because, in his estimation, “There was such a need for the preservation of Hazelwood’s history.”
Carter teamed up two years ago with Pittsburgh-based production company Malhari Media to create a film chronicling his efforts to keep Hazelwood’s past fresh in the mind of Steel City residents. The final product, a 15-minute documentary called “Hazelwood Alive,” is being screened Saturday at Hazelwood’s First Hungarian Reformed Church of Pittsburgh. Admission is free, but seats are filling up fast.
“Hazelwood really needs this sort of attention,” Carter told the Union Progress. “Hazelwood is already on the cusp of all this work that needs to happen. I think this film will really help to give a preview of what really could be the next Hazelwood.”
Malhari Media is the brainchild of local creatives Rishi Sethi, Balint Z. Oltvai, Patrick Stanney and Stefano Ceccarelli. Sethi, the CEO of Malhari Media, is a University of Pittsburgh alumnus interested in highlighting the “human stories” that define how Western Pennsylvania has evolved throughout its rich history.
Oltvai, who directed “Hazelwood Alive,” is a Point Park University alumnus with experience working on the sets of Hollywood projects filming in Pittsburgh such as HBO Max’s “American Pickle,” Hulu’s “Happiest Season” and Netflix’s “Sweet Girl.” He’s also a first-generation Hungarian American who considers Hazelwood “kind of like a home away from home” due to how often he attends the Hungarian Reformed Church there.
Hazelwood’s Hungarian population has dwindled over the years to the point where Oltvai is one of the youngest members of his church’s congregation. He and Carter bonded over their shared desire to put Hazelwood in the spotlight for once.
“I connected with JaQuay on that level, where he’s preserving the history, and I want to do my part to not only show his story, but it’s really a reflection of how I feel about Hazelwood and its people,” Oltvai said.
Working closely with Oltvai meant that Sethi was also aware of Hazelwood’s plight long before starting production on “Hazelwood Alive.” A narrative centered around one Pittsburgher’s mission to preserve his childhood neighborhood’s history was exactly what he wanted Malhari Media to be associated with.
“It comes down to what we want to do with our careers, our filmmaking and our storytelling,” he said. “What kind of contribution do we want to make to society with our work and our art?”
Most of the filming on “Hazelwood Alive” took place in February and March 2021. Its name comes from a phrase often used by Carter’s pastor in the 1990s that helped him retain hope that Hazelwood would one day see some tangible revitalization.
The finished documentary mixes sweeping drone shots of Hazelwood with footage of Carter visiting some of those recognizable landmarks — some of which have been abandoned for decades. One particularly affecting scene finds Carter in front of the now-defunct Gladstone School, right at the spot where his parents had their first kiss. Carter said he enjoys making “the history come to life a little bit” with anecdotes like that.
Oltvai attempted to “create a visual language between JaQuay and the buildings” by playing with perspective while capturing shots of Carter interacting with his childhood stomping grounds.
“We really wanted to show the relationship and the effects these buildings have, not only on his work but on him emotionally,” Oltvai said.
Sethi said the plan is to screen “Hazelwood Alive” locally on Saturday before giving it a festival run, and ultimately publishing it on YouTube. He also mentioned that Malhari Media is currently working on another documentary about Brashear High School, located in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood, that will be “in the vein of this kind of storytelling.”
Everyone involved in “Hazelwood Alive” hopes it will be able to provide some perspective on this singular Pittsburgh community’s past, present and potential future.
“I truly believe this film is the beginning of something,” Oltvai said. “Not only for the way I look at stories and people from now on but the way people will look at Hazelwood and the changes happening so quickly in Pittsburgh.”