Interview #51: Bill Toland

Meet Bill Toland.

Bill has been a daily newspaper writer for 13 years, and has been the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 9 years. His piece on Pittsburgh, Portland and hipsters caught my attention and I was eager to meet the man behind the article.

He also recently wrote about Wigle Whiskey. (Remember Eric Meyer from Interview #33?) As Yinzpiration interviews progress, Pittsburgh is beginning to feel smaller and smaller. In a good way—it's very interesting to see how we are connected to one another. It's really amazing! 

Now don't let his polished appearance and mad writing skills fool you—this man is far from square. Here are some fun facts about Bill:

  1. He's organized and hosted a Halloween party—the Halloween Hoo-ha to be exact—which last year had over 250 attendees. 
  2. He's been known to rock the mic at weeknight karaoke.
  3. He loves 60's soul music. Just like the following gem. (You may need to get out of your seat for this one...) 

Shortly after this interview was conducted, Bill and his wife celebrated the birth of their daughter, Niah Grace. Hooray for the newest Toland in the 'Burgh! 

Enjoy Bill's Q&A. 

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Name: Bill Toland

Job title: business reporter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Twitter: @btoland_pg

Blog: www.post-gazette.com/casinojournal

Neighborhood you live in: Um, Baldwin? Am I still eligible for this thing now? It’s northern Baldwin, if that helps my cause (or NoBa, as the cool kids are calling it), right against the Pittsburgh border. As a certain politician might have said, I can see the city from my house.

Coffee shop drink of choice: Tea.  ‚

Current shampoo preference: Store-bought industrial shampoo is so very 20th century. I use a homemade, proprietary mix of Asian botanicals, essence of cucumber, burdock root, eel fin and Sudsing Agent No. 4. Or Suave, I guess, when I am running low on burdock root. ‚

Why do you choose Pittsburgh as your home? We have two mortgages here, for one thing. But that was a choice we made – and an investment we made -- because we enjoy the region and all that it offers. And it was an investment that we were able to make because Pittsburgh remains an affordable city in which to buy a home (or two), even if those property assessments (and sales prices) are inching upward.

More to the point, I was raised in Armstrong County, and my wife, Kim, went to college and grad school here. It was a natural place to settle. When we get deep into snow-shoveling season, naturally there is talk of moving someplace warm, with nearby beaches and giant rum cocktails. But we like it here; we’re near friends and family; and we find that to “know Pittsburgh thoroughly is a liberal education in the kind of culture demanded by modern times ... here, all is curious and wonderful; site, environs, history, geology, business, aspect, atmosphere, customs, everything.” ‚

Who do you spend your time with?
My wife, family, friends, colleagues, and the pet catfish. ‚What are your favorite aspects of your job? Working at a newspaper is a maddening, delightful experience. It’s an art – we get to write and take photos for a living – and it’s a manufacturing trade, too. We still produce something physical each morning, something that can be held in your hands over breakfast and tossed in the trash a few hours later. It’s quite ephemeral, yet quite tangible, and in a city with a proud tradition of making stuff, we still manufacture something every day -- just like we’ve been doing for the last two-plus centuries. The newsroom is no longer populated by “manual typewriters, green eyeshades, spittoons, floors littered with cigarette butts, and two bookies” (as Arthur Gelb might have described in his book, “City Room”), and I worry about the future of newspapers as much as anyone. And you can no longer keep a bottle of bourbon in your desk drawer, which is a shame.   But the American newsroom is still full of smart and creative people -- as well some lunatics and professional ne’er-do-wells, to keep things interesting. ‚

Do you have a soul food? Mom’s pumpkin roll and baklava. Grandma’s meat pies and stuffed grape leaves. Wife’s peaches-and-cream pie. Anything from George Aiken’s, downtown.

‚What are some of your recent personal goals? Does starting a family count? Baby Girl Toland is due at the end of February. ‚

What are your favorite Pittsburgh restaurants? I will eat nearly anywhere that does not have roaches in the rice pilaf, and to be fully honest, I have been known to eat around the roaches. (I won’t mention that restaurant, in case you’re a fan, and also because I’d hate it if you were sued for libel on my account.) I proposed to my wife at Church Brew Works, and we often have our anniversary dinner at The Hyeholde in Moon, so I’m fond of those spots. Beyond that, the usual suspects – Casbah, Salt of the Earth, Smoke in Homestead, Penn Avenue Fish Co., Meat and Potatoes, Winghart’s for burgers. NOLA is my new go-to lunch spot. Udipi in Monroeville is reliably good. … and I’ll give a shout-out to a childhood favorite, Flavio’s in Apollo, Pa.

Describe your ideal day.
Wake up. Have a sandwich. Pirates win the World Series. The end.

What is the most memorable live show you have seen in Pittsburgh? Last year: We loved the Flogging Molly show (at Stage AE), and U2 (Heinz Field) had just about the biggest stage production I’ve ever seen. Seeing the PSO at the Three Rivers Arts Festival was a rare treat. Million Dollar Quartet was part concert, part theater -- but mostly concert, I think it’s fair to say. And hearing the Blind Boys of Alabama (also at the arts festival) is a living history lesson; when this group started performing, the American flag had only 48 stars on it and FDR was president.  

Most memorable ever? I’m gonna go with Meatloaf, Bat Out Of Hell II summer tour, May 1994, Civic Arena. Soooo many motorcycles. Before you ask, yes, I am being totally serious.  

By “live show,” I suppose you mean live concert. There is obviously a lot of wonderful live performance art – theater, dance, comedy – happening every night of the week in this city.

What do you think Pittsburgh will be like in ten years?
That’s a two-part question, in some ways. I think the Pittsburgh region – Allegheny County, and the several counties contiguous to it – will be OK. Job creation has been good here, and we weren’t hit too badly with the recession – our unemployment rate has been less than the U.S. rate for several years now (see Chris Briem’s “Null Space” blog for all of your demographic and statistical needs). Our banks haven’t been hemorrhaging like the ones in Charlotte and Atlanta. Real estate appreciation is slow and steady, from a regional standpoint. Foreclosures are low. There’s a lot of data pointing in the right direction – too much of it, really, to think that the region’s “success” is merely relative to other regions’ housing-boom-related failures.  

The metro region is even growing, population-wise, which, for us, is a stunning thing to see. An actual net migration into the region – whoda thunkit? Hopefully, that’s a trend that continues.  

The city? Hard to say. There are some great things happening here. But for every South Side or Oakland or Lawrenceville, there are a dozen neighborhoods depopulating. I don’t think population is, or ought to be, the only measure for a city’s “success” or growth – I mean, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a nicer place to live today than it was 60 years ago, when we had twice as many people. But continued depopulation does present its own challenges – in terms of tax base, public services, and so on. The city has to be able to take care of its residents and pay its bills and feed its pension funds and plow its roads and provide bus service and whatnot. Come 2022, I hope it can do all of that. I imagine it will need some help from the county and the state Legislature in order to do that, but that’s another topic.  

What do you love most about the city?
Its tenacity. We were drained of jobs and people and talent for much of the latter half of the 20th Century, for reasons that were (for the most part) out of our control. From 1950 to 2010, when the U.S. population was doubling, we were doing the exact opposite – Pittsburgh’s population halved. And yet, here we are.  

I mean, we all know how bad it was – but we forget How. Bad. It. Was.  

We were hanging by our fingernails. Unemployment in Beaver County, at the end of 1982 and early 1983, was approaching 30 percent. That was the reported rate – so the actual rate was, what? Thirty-five percent? (I used to work at the Beaver County Times, by the way.) In 1982, the entire Pittsburgh MSA had an “official” unemployment rate of about 17 percent. In reality, more like 20 percent.  

How does a region survive that? Obviously, a lot of people survived by leaving. They had to eat and work. That’s what people do when the land dries up – they pack up their Conestoga wagon and head elsewhere. But talk about a resilient city. For sure, a lot of cities have lived through their own cataclysms: Fires, earthquakes, hurricanes. “Will the last person leaving Seattle [please] turn out the lights?” Heck, New York City used to be a total hole. So Pittsburgh isn’t the only city that can claim this renaissance / turnaround mantle. And Pittsburgh isn’t the only city that can claim this brand of Rust Belt tenacity – I’m sure the people in Cleveland and Buffalo and Detroit our just as proud of their hometowns as we are.  

But there’s something unique about the odds we were facing – both economic and environmental, I’d say. (That Steel City / Smoky City / “hell with the lid taken off” reputation may never fully evaporate, to be honest.) That a lot of people alive today endured that rough stretch – 30 years isn’t really that long ago – means it’s still fresh in our collective memory, which probably informs our current disposition, and our no-nonsense, thrifty endurance. But 30 years later, the fact that Pittsburgh looks the way it does and persists the way it does says a lot about the people, the companies and the foundations – the caretakers -- that stuck it out, and stayed through those bad times. It’s awfully hard not to root for this city.