Pittonkatonk has become one of Pittsburgh’s most important community events

Promoted from trash collector to head writer, I should know.


Some come for the music, the horns and drums that need no amplification. Some come for the festival atmosphere, the potluck, or the cevapi, grilled sausage kebabs from the Balkans. Some come because it’s free.

Whatever the reason, Pittonkatonk brings them by the thousands to Pittsburgh’s backyard, Schenley Park, on the second Saturday each May. As a legitimate contender for the city’s biggest backyard barbecue, the music festival’s party creds are solid.

Now it’s time to put Pittonkatonk into serious conversations about making Pittsburgh a more just city for all. This year, Pittonkatonk founder Pete Spynda has added a new layer to this year’s event: social, economic and environmental justice.

Organizations representing issues affecting the livability of all residents throughout the region will gather under a single tent called the “Activist Greenhouse,” created through a partnership with New Sun Rising, Pittonkatonk’s fiscal sponsor. City of Asylum, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, Pittsburgh United, and Casa San José are some of the 25 organizations that will be present.

“Pittonkatonk is an event that’s is rooted in activist music, and the addition of the Activist Greenhouse was a natural next step by bringing in the organizations that do this work year-round.” Spynda said.

As in years past, bands rooted in Pittsburgh — like Afro Yaqui, Sto-Rox high school marching band, 1Hood, and Timbeleza — will be interspersed with bands from New York City, Detroit and elsewhere. Joining them will be an unprecedented international presence of musicians from several countries, including Peru, Macedonia, Mexico and Somalia, as well as a Syrian poet Osama Alomar. Throughout the day, each performance will bring cultural traditions and elements of community activism from wherever the performers call home.

“Being able to perform for people that really appreciate the message you bring is truly inspirational,” Jasiri X, co-founder of 1Hood, said. ”And as an artist, one of the places I’ve experienced that feeling is Pittonkatonk.”

In 2019, there’s some good to be found in Pittsburgh’s transformation over the past decade, but segregated neighborhoods, housing affordability, and inadequate public transit are but a few of the issues challenging the “America’s Most Livable City” status bestowed upon it time and again. Environmental concerns, low immigration, and a host of other issues add additional threats to Pittsburgh’s future.

Spynda hopes the performers on stage and the activist groups will reinforce each other’s messages in ways that resonate with the interests and concerns of Pittsburghers.

“The racial and ethnic diversity of performers represents the openness and inclusion I’ve always wanted to see in the audience,” Spynda said. “Bringing all these advocacy groups together in one place is a way to do that.”

This year’s event will have more of an edge, but Pittonkatonk’s identity as a quirky, high-energy, family-friendly affair will remain unchanged. Spynda wants Pittonkantonk’s joyous celebration of music to also have an impact.

“So much of what shapes us are the relationships which serve as grease and glue in our communities,” New Sun Rising’s executive director Scott Wolovich said. “NSR places a high value on projects which increase the connectivity of people through creative collisions. We see Pittonkatonk as a wonderful example of this power: increasing awareness and a call for justice with all generations through the vehicle of music.”

Location and additional event info can be found here. Please place trash in an appropriate receptacle.