Interview #89: Stephan Bontrager

stephan bontrager pittsburgh

I've always looked up to Stephan Bontrager.

He's got a great sense of self and he's always scheming up something incredibly creative. 

I was originally connected to Stephan during my first year in Pittsburgh as a PULSE participant, and I've enjoyed working with him in past years on the PULSE board. 

This is not the first time I've talked about Stephan on the blog. You've heard me mention him here and here and you've seen his artistic eye here.

But I thought it was about time for Yinzpiration readers to get to know him a little better!

Stephan's work at Riverlife is dedicated to reclaiming, restoring, and promoting Pittsburgh's riverfronts. He's in charge of their marketing, communications, and events. He oversees the planning of their annual fundraiser (and my favorite event of the summer), Party at the Pier. 

But the party planning doesn't stop with his Professional life.

He's been known to throw fantastic Halloween extravaganzas! Think haunted house worthy decorations, masterfully designed invitations, the most amazing costumes, fog machines and black lights, and snacks that would earn respect from a chef as well as any Pinterest-obsessed individual. 



Enjoy Stephan's Q&A! And the next time you are walking along one of our rivers, take a moment to appreciate all the work that goes into caring for and maintaining our region's greatest assets.


Name: Stephan Bontrager

Job title: Director of Communications at Riverlife

Twitter: @RiverlifePgh


Neighborhood you live in: Regent Square

Coffee Shop Drink of Choice: Chai latte with whole milk

Current Shampoo Preference: Malin + Goetz peppermint shampoo. It wakes me up on slow, sleepy mornings.

Why do you choose Pittsburgh as your home?
I’m originally from Denver, which is a beautiful city, but Pittsburgh has been my adopted hometown for 12 years now ever since I came here to do a year-long internship through Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience (PULSE). I love Pittsburgh’s funkiness and originality. Its geography and architecture are breathtaking, and I especially love how the rest of the world has caught on to the city’s charms. Pittsburgh is like the character in a teen movie that removes her glasses and undoes her ponytail and you realize she’s been beautiful all along AND she’s the smartest and most interesting person in the room.

Who do you spend your time with
 My partner Michael and our two year old golden doodle Ginger, who is very effective at commanding our time. She’s like a small horse.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?
Riverlife works with riverfront property owners, elected officials and community groups to build Pittsburgh’s downtown riverfront park system, so I meet an interesting cross section of the city every week. As the communications director I’m one of the few in this field who isn’t an urban planner, architect, engineer or developer, but I’m fascinated by those people and the heart and soul they are putting into building this city. I love spreading the word about new public parks and improvement projects like last year’s grand reopening of Point State Park and the refurbished fountain. And it doesn’t hurt that I get to spend quite a bit of time out on boats, bikes and riverfront trails as part of my job.

Do you have a soul food?
Pot roast. I love making it. I love eating it.

What are some of your recent personal goals?
Right now I’m trying to detox from eating refined sugar because I have an out-of-control sweet tooth. It’s not going well. Sugar is addictive. I’ve also been trying to read more books, which is going a lot better. When I was in grad school I got burned out on reading, but more recently I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of novels all over again. I just finished “Submergence” by J.M. Ledgard which is a beautifully written book about a spy who falls in love with a biomathematician at a seaside hotel in France.

What are your favorite Pittsburgh restaurants?
There are now so many great restaurants in Pittsburgh that it’s hard to choose and I’ll inevitably leave out some of my favorites. Root 174 in my neighborhood of Regent Square is cozy with a fresh, local and adventurous menu. The Strip District’s Eleven remains the pinnacle of thoughtful food and elegant service—it’s my favorite place to go to celebrate something. And Smoke BBQ Taqueria (moving soon from Homestead to Lawrenceville) is one of my favorites for casual, messy dining. I can’t wait to try Butcher & the Rye, Notion and Fukuda, among others.

Describe your ideal day.
Sleeping in, followed by pancakes and the newspaper at the local diner Square Café, followed by a long walk in Frick Park with my dog. Then a trip to Carnegie Museum of Art to see the Carnegie International—I like going to museums by myself because I’m so slow and it’s more enjoyable for everyone that way. Squeeze in a nap at home. I would then buy some French macarons at Gaby et Jules in Squirrel Hill (sweet tooth) before meeting up for happy hour with my partner and friends. The best way to cap off the day would be a dinner party at someone’s home, maybe a play at City Theatre or Pittsburgh Public Theater, and finally winding up somewhere Downtown with a nighttime view of the city lights reflecting on the rivers.

What is the most memorable live show you have seen in Pittsburgh?
I used to work for public radio station WYEP and was fortunate to go to hundreds of concerts over the past decade, so this is a hard question to answer. I would say my favorite large show was GirlTalk and Donora at the former Station Square Amphitheater. Favorite small show was the band Brazilian Girls at the Rex on the South Side. Apparently I favor “Girl” bands that encourage lots of dancing.

What do you think Pittsburgh will be like in ten years? What do you love most about the city?
I think the city will continue to grow in population and find ways to capitalize on our assets to remain livable. We’ll never be New York or San Francisco and that’s ok – in fact, that’s great. We have our rivers, we have old rust belt artifacts, we have interesting neighborhoods and geography – all these things make Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh. With a mix of preservation and innovation (especially with public transit, education and affordable housing) we can be the ideal American city AND stay funky and surprising.