Pittsburgh has a different feel than any of the other American cities I have gone to in the course of building a news service. It is old, yet modern, busy but not too much, hip but not overly so. It is a steel city that lost its steel but found its way.
As this is a work trip, the Courthouse News regional bureau chief, Ryan Abbott, and I visit the main courthouse, built in 1883. Seeking the prothonotary’s office, we are directed to the county building next door. Its soaring stone lobby, with panels of vertical windows and a vaulted, light-blue ceiling remind one of nothing if not a church.
The filing and records area is enormous with stacks upon stacks of bound court records. Like the rest of Western Pennsylvania, Allegheny County which encompasses much of Pittsburgh is in no hurry to mandate electronic filing; it remains in a kind of limbo between the old and the new.
So it is with the city’s vibe, moving on from the city’s past but retaining many of its old qualities.
The sidewalks around the county building, which is on Grant Street in the middle of Pittsburgh, are not abandoned, like Kansas City, but nor are they teeming with pedestrians like the Wharf District in San Francisco or downtown Chicago.
They are in the middle, with well-dressed passers-by mixing in with those working on the many construction projects downtown. The same with traffic. It was pretty easy to get around and there was plenty of parking, always a consideration on road trips using rental cars.
I had flown into Pittsburgh on a Sunday four days earlier. A jazz festival was just wrapping up as Ryan and I walked to get some tacos and draft Modelo at a bar called Bakersfield, unusual name for a bar on Penn Avenue on the opposite side of the continent from the agricultural town in California.
The next morning we embarked on a tour of surrounding Western Pennsylvania courts. Among the rolling green hills, rivers and streams of a beautiful region, we found a common system of paper-only filing where the intake clerk sets up an initial public record as the new case came across the counter.
A reporter can ask for the new cases as soon as they cross the counter, while they are being docketed. And we did just that in Fayette County centered in Uniontown southeast of Pittsburgh.
A large statue of the Marquis de Lafayette stands in the rotunda of the county courthouse, carved from two poplar planks tied together by an itinerant artist in 1847. The statue stands under a stained glass atrium that was part of the original courthouse but later replaced for unknown anti-artistic reasons with plain plaster panels.
The glorious glasswork of the atrium is once again displayed in the atrium, fronted by a plaque that describes how in 2007 the presiding judge of the court discovered the glass pieces in a crawlspace above the replacement plaster panels, and embarked on a project to have the glasswork cleaned, reassembled and reinstalled.
Neighboring the courthouse on a small rise in the middle of town is a set of old brick buildings that also seem to date back to the 1800s. They look like an old English village and most are occupied by law offices. A man in workout clothes comes jogging past the offices on the way to the courthouse, and a suited passer-by greets him as “your honor.”
In response to our request, the front-desk clerk in the Fayette County prothonotary’s office pulled a new complaint off the docketing clerk’s desk. The case had just crossed the counter. In the neighboring records room, another deputy clerk sat at a desk, there to answer questions.
So I ask her about the local economy, which she concedes is struggling. Most telling is the fact that the local hospital no longer provides maternity services, forcing women living in the area to travel a long distance to a neighboring town for child birth.
A sign in the courthouse forbids the use of electronics in the courtrooms. I explain that we are journalists and ask a court clerk if I can take a photo of the glorious woodwork in the adjacent courtroom. She asks me to wait and checks with the presiding judge. She comes back and suggests I might like to see Courtroom 1, unlocking its massive wooden door.
After passing through the Western Pennsylvania counties of Lawrence, Mercer, Crawford, Venango, Clarion, Indiana, Somerset, Fayette and Greene, in addition to Mahoning County in Ohio, we returned at the end of the trip to the Monaco Hotel in Pittsburgh.
In the late afternoon, we headed out to a brewery on Polish Hill called Church Brew Works, set in an old Catholic church. I could not get past a sense of sacrilege as we sat a bar drinking craft beer and eating potato pierogi, swaddled in butter and onions, while looking at stained glass windows, under the vaulted blue ceiling of what was a magnificent church.
But as the ethnic neighborhoods have decayed and the steel workers have gone, the brewery has preserved a beautiful old church building.
Polish Hill is clearly in the throes of powerful gentrification. A narrow side street displays a pretty set of apartments, just remodeled, with construction stickers still on the glass along with a for-rent sign. Standing next to those units is a small, run-down house with a huge pair of tires stacked on the porch, next to a jumble of plants and an armchair.
We made a quick stop nearby at a famous Polish Hill bar called Gooski’s. At this early hour, it is all but abandoned. The interior is lit entirely in red light and white, painted script on the glass behind the bar says, “The Rules: Know What You Want. Have Your Money Ready. Don’t Make Us Kill You.”
Taking an Uber back to the Monaco hotel downtown, Ryan and I had noticed a sign in the lobby saying there was a “biergarten” on the roof. There we ordered a local Kolsch and sat at communal tables outside, talking to three first-year lawyers in antitrust and employment. One knocked the pierogi we had tried at the church bar and said if we wanted real pierogi, we should try her grandmother’s.
A couple students from China sat on the other side of us. One with short, stylish hair had just graduated in finance and was being courted for jobs in Pittsburgh, while the other with two long, jet-black braids wanted to study dolphins and was headed back to Beijing to see her grandmother and grandfather. “Because they love me so much.”
The city was in some ways urbane, but still very friendly, trendy but traditional too, filled with students and professionals, where grandmothers still played central roles in life.