David Conrad is old school. He’s not on Facebook. Nor is he on Twitter. Forget Instagram. He has an unembellished blog that serves as his soapbox and he writes without regard for RSS feeds or meta tags or SEO as he visits old steel towns and things past.
So it was not a surprise that he asked to meet me at Blue Dust—a beer bar and gastropub in Homestead, named after the powdery byproduct of milling that covered those working in the mills. Classic Conrad, as it turns out. A metaphor. A strong sense of place.
Place is very important to Conrad who grew up in Swissvale, went to school at Kiski Prep and left for Brown University and Julliard. Then it was onto Hollywood to appear on stage and in movies and TV. While he spent years in the West Coast and New York, he was never really far from home.
He kept tabs on his home town, leveraging his role of actor to turn activist–through many letters to the editor and fundraisers for nonprofits and various causes, often working not in the bright light of center stage but in the background.
In the past two years, Conrad has settled in Braddock, after a peripatetic period that included stays in Swissvale, the Strip District and Polish Hill.
We were scheduled for lunch where I expected the standard “boomeranger” conversation, with a little Hollywood twist: the meme of growing up in Pittsburgh pastoral, spending the summer of life away, and coming back with enthusiasm to the city’s new energy and how it cannot be “a more perfect time.”
That’s not what I got. “To me the Mon Valley is the center of our identity. And in these two towns–Homestead and Braddock—we understand the history of Pittsburgh, the soul of Pittsburgh,” he tells me. “So I thought, that’s where I need to be.”
In 2011, Conrad wrote a missive to Pittsburgh–a love letter of longing for his hometown written after his father’s death. Conrad talks about his father’s admonition to “know your place” and how he first challenged it.
Know what you’re doing, honestly. Know where you work best in a situation, and who you can serve. Know where you’re from. Know your “place.” Me? My place is Pittsburgh.
His sense of place is no more evident than when reading his blog, Clement Crawford, which is part history, part ancestry, part punditry, and should be required reading for the region’s growing population of 22-34 year olds, who may not be aware of Pittsburgh’s rich legacy.
It’s what Joan Didion would call “the blinkering effect of the local dreamtime” and something that worries Conrad . His concern is that in this current wave of the new Pittsburgh, we will forget the long years of rich history that gird its greatness and our ancestors who brought us here.
“And in 40 years, their kids were going to college, going to Pitt, they had a little yard in Penn Hills,” Conrad says. “And to me, that is a colossal achievement–the fact that this town created a working middle class for masses of people who lived in neighborhoods just like this one [Homestead]. We should listen to what is happening in the streets in these other towns.”
In his blog, he visits and writes about these “other towns,” forcing us to see what has been invisible. He describes them in striking detail, the places and the characters, as if rendering them in full color, like a Todd Haynes film.
In one recent post, he visits Glassport in the hopes of seeing residents walk en masse to the football game (They don’t. They drive, as he discovers). And while there, he visits Ken’s Hobby Shop where model trains await and where Neil Young visits when he plays in town. “Neil Young has a minority interest in the Lionel Model Train company, which is like owning a piece of the Steelers if you like football,” he writes.
And in his many detailed observations of this town long past its heyday, Conrad writes:
I’m the child of a man who never saw a fight he couldn’t run from and a woman who wouldn’t stand up for herself if she could forgive someone else. I’ve been an actor for 25 years. And so my inclinations, natural and trained are to defer, to listen, to wait for the reveal—at least among strangers—before passing judgment, and to hear the voice in my head, my mother’s and my voice teachers, “It’s not your job to say who’s wrong, it’s your job to know why.”
The reward for Conrad is not neglecting the past in our excitement to celebrate newness and rebirth. It is remembering it. And making sure it informs our present, this iteration of the new and evolved Pittsburgh.
In writing about Alcosan’s $3 billion plan to rebuild the sewer infrastructure, he calls for a green infrastructiure that he says would be a fraction of the proposed cost and a lot kinder to the environment.
“A lot’s been said about a new Pittsburgh. How we’re going to be the new Portland, the new Austin, the new hot town. We can build all the cafes, and farm to table restaurants, and artisanal bars, and condos we want and we’ll be doing nothing but spreading ice cream over mud,” he writes.
“You rebuild the basic infrastructure of this city, you fix a problem that is damaging the economic opportunities of 80% of the people who live here—then you can call it a new Pittsburgh. And when I mean you, I mean us.”
The tough talk is born of a genuine love for the region, the beautiful parts and the older, neglected parts. For Conrad, any progress Pittsburgh makes has to be built on a foundation of what made us great and what will continue to make us great.
“I feel like we are just at that crux where the good things about the steel industry and the working class culture of Pittsburgh is still in our memories. I feel like there is a limited amount of time where you can still hear the voices of what that was. I feel like there’s a window where those two things can actually deliver us to a great city,” he says.
To quote him quoting a local writer: “If ever there was a place worth not leaving, it’s here.”