PittGirl vs. David Conrad
The Pittsburgh-born actor and city champion sits down for a fascinating conversation on St. Nick's church, the spirit of Pittsburgh and more.
Photo by Cami Mesa
It’s 10:35 a.m. and I’m running five minutes late to meet Pittsburgh-born actor David Conrad at Square Cafe in Regent Square. His email of “square cafe sq. hill” confused me, because he earlier mentioned something about Regent Square. Instead, I show up at The Squirrel Hill Cafe on Forbes, peek into the dive bar with upside-down stools resting on the bar, last night’s cigarette smoke still wafting out of the propped door and think, “I’m definitely not in the right place, and also, he is smoking crack if he thinks this is Regent Square.”
A hasty Google search of cafes in Regent Square shows me that there is indeed a Square Cafe in Regent Square that specializes in omelets, thick bacon and plated heaven. A quick shout at my phone’s voice recognition-capable GPS and I see I’m only 1.6 miles away from the Square Cafe. I sprint up Forbes toward my car while lugging my laptop, purse and notebook, working up a nice upper-lip sweat and garnering plenty of gawkers, since I had just a minute ago shoved two dollars worth of quarters into the meter. I’m now frantically peeling away from the scene, leaving behind a free parking gift for some lucky motorist. We’ll call it my random act of kindness and not my “stupidity for not knowing the Square Cafe existed.”
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And action: I burst into the Square Cafe like a sweaty Kool-Aid man and start scanning the tables full of patrons. I finally spy David sitting at the counter with a cup of coffee, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. His hair is shorter than the last time we met. He’s wearing jeans and a gray Kiski T-shirt — his alma mater. A hot cup of coffee steams in front of him.
We’re here to discuss the potential razing of the historic St. Nicholas Church off of Route 28, but first I congratulate him as the news just broke that he’s inked a deal to star in a series for Lifetime Television. He is surprised that the news has already hit the interwebs, so I open my laptop to show him that it was all over Twitter thanks to TV Line’s Michael Ausiello tweeting the news to his millions of followers.
David sees the colorful Twitter interface on my laptop screen and immediately shields his eyes as if we’re in an Indiana Jones movie and I’m opening the Ark of the Covenant. He has clearly eschewed social media and here I am trying to show him the light. As I close my laptop, I make a mental note to one day convert him to the Church of Social Media, but for now, I need a carb-loaded apple maple crepe and a healthy dose of decaf.
A sip of coffee and I hit David with my first question: “So. Braddock. Why Braddock?”
Recently relocated from his pricey and, as he calls it, “pretentious” loft in the Strip District to working-man’s Braddock, David answers that in addition to being very close to the Edgewood neighborhood where he was raised, he chose Braddock “because it is the iconic steel town.” He tells me that he felt Homestead had been redeveloped and the Eighth Avenue corridor has promising plans in the works. He mentions Smoke Barbeque Taqueria as evidence.
But Braddock? “It’s a place that’s at a point where I feel I can truly help alter the landscape of what a city can be,” he explains.
I wonder aloud if Mayor John Fetterman didn’t “recruit” him to Braddock, and David tells me that’s not even close to the truth. “In fact,” he says, “John heard I was thinking about moving there and he was like …”
(David contorts his face into a skeptical “Yeah, right,” look.) It’s adorable.
But he wasn’t put off by that skepticism. Instead, he found it endearing and says that it’s reflective of what former mayor Tom Murphy once described to him as Pittsburgh’s greatest strength and greatest weakness — “tenacious tribalism.” We’ll wear that shoe, won’t we, Pittsburgh?
I turn the subject matter over to the St. Nick’s Church, expecting an explosion of anger, as his impassioned letter to the editor about the very subject had recently been published in the Post-Gazette. Instead, he channels his passion into logical arguments supported by the facts that come with exhaustive research. He knows the history of the church, of the Croatian immigrants that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in our city. He calls the church their “Plymouth Rock” and a “monument to their history.”
“It’s the first Croatian church … IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE!” he says dumbfoundedly, gesturing for emphasis, shaking his head in disbelief.
“The diocese has saddled the parish with an insurance premium that the diocese chose to take on,” he says. “They’re making the parish pay.” He laments that there can’t be a meeting of the minds. A compromise. “Cutting things to the bone doesn’t make you a better person. Figure out what you can do. Take the time to sit down and figure out a way for the parish to get what it needs and whoever it is on the other end to get what it needs. That makes you a better person.”
Instead, he says, the decision was made by those in a position of power who hold sway over the people of the parish. “The people become brutalized by fear,” he says. “It’s hard to look dad in the eye and realize he’s lying. But this country was built by people who constantly questioned, ‘Why does this person have power?’”
He pauses to greet Square Cafe owner Sherree Goldstein, who has appeared behind the counter. An effervescent and immediately likable woman, Sherree clearly has a friendly rapport with David. She asks him about work and life. She introduces herself to me, but I have a mouth full of apples and there’s whipped cream all over my face. David interjects to give her my name while I try to mumble it through the carby deliciousness, but it comes out as “Blllgnngry.”
It’s not adorable.
She leans over to give David a kiss on his cheek and David starts back with the discussion. “You know, the law is wrong sometimes,” he says. “Henry Clay Frick was within his legal rights to lock up his mill. He was within his rights to say, ‘You can’t come to work,’ but that didn’t make it right.”
Henry Clay Frick leads us down a path toward the merit of unions, and I tell David what makes me angry. For instance, when turnpike toll takers are fighting for astronomical wages considering the struggle of the average American worker in this recession. Or when a unionized worker who has done something vile is suspended with pay.
But David is a strong union supporter, and I know that about him. He fights back, defending the unions as a whole, contrasting their wages to the salaries of the management that own and run the companies. He defends the people in the unions, calling most of them good people who work hard and who deserve to be at the table when decisions about their jobs are made.
“People died to bring us unions,” he says. “They died.” Each syllable pronounced. They. Died.
I can’t not look that in the eye.
He then shifts to the humorous side of things and tells me about a bumper sticker he saw: “Unions: The folks who brought you the weekend.”
I have to agree. I do like the weekend.
He turns his focus to Germany, where employers and workers will come to the table, so to speak, and work on a compromise that allows employees to have wonderful benefits. “Here’s what we need. What do you need?” is how he puts it. This brings us back to St. Nick’s. Why didn’t that happen? Why aren’t the diocese, the city, and the parish sitting down and saying, “Here’s what we need. What do you need?”
It’s a question we don’t know the answer to, but as David hints, the answer lies within the realm of power, money and fear, instead of within the realm of heritage, preservation and compromise.
I ask, “If the city didn’t pull away from the lawsuit. If it went as far as it could. If everything that could possibly have been done to save the church took place. If everyone came to the table and it was decided the church needed to be torn down, would you still be mad?”
He doesn’t pause. “Yeah, because it should not be torn down,” he shrugs. His shrug holds the weight of another loss — The Civic Arena. He worked publically and privately to slow down the process of tearing the iconic structure down, and met with local leaders in an attempt to convince them to have a planning delay. Not so much because he felt the arena shouldn’t be torn down, he says, but because he was fighting so that “something decent could be built in its place, so that the people of the Hill District got their fair share.”
He ran out of time, though, and the arena is now a chapter of Pittsburgh’s history, as St. Nick’s will likely soon become, too.
He takes a moment to greet another customer by name. I check my watch and realize I need to head out, but not before I pose one more question.
He’s a successful Hollywood actor who could easily have walked away from Pittsburgh decades ago to join his colleagues in a charmed life on the West coast, but instead makes his home here and fights for a history he wants to see preserved and people he wants to see treated fairly in the face of seemingly daunting power. I ask, “Why do you care so much? Why do you continue to care? It’s really unusual, you know?”
His eyes light up. There is no hesitation.
“I grew up and I sat on my porch and I saw what was happening around me,” he says. “I saw grown men cry when their jobs were lost. I saw what it did to families. To my friends. I want to fight for those people. The people who I saw suffer. And if I have an easier going at life simply because I’m a blue-eyed, brown-haired, Anglo-Saxon, then all the greater my responsibility to help those who aren’t as lucky. Because it’s luck. I’m just lucky.”
He reaches to take the check from my hands and I start to gather my things. He’ll be leaving the next morning to prepare for his new television series. I ask where it will be filmed. “Maybe Vancouver,” he says, “But I’m going to make the case for it to be filmed in Pittsburgh. Why not?”
A quick hug and our late breakfast ends as I head into the surprisingly warm October sunshine in the bustling Regent Square neighborhood. David stays behind to further nurse his cup of coffee and chat with his neighborhood friends.
David and I don’t always agree; our political views are quite divergent, but with his love for the city’s rich industrial history driving him to be a force for change, to fight for people he’s never met, to pay more than lip service, and to remain dedicated to a city he could have long ago turned away from, there’s not a doubt in my mind that Pittsburgh is lucky to have him call it home.
St. Nick's Church photo by David Kent