As we close out 2021, we look back on a year of upheaval, recovery, fresh starts and frustrations. 

Pittsburgh has seen major changes: A new mayor. A new “normal” for students, workers and just about everyone as the pandemic spread through its second year. Even a newly announced owner for the Penguins as the team skates ahead with a development deal that residents hope can benefit a community scarred by the team’s former home. 

Ongoing problems have remained. Inequities, forgotten communities, residents struggling to just keep the heat on. And through all of this, we’ve also heard stories of resilience and hope.

Our team has responded by getting out and telling stories. There are memories to cherish, plenty of things we hope stay in 2021 and a record of journalism that captures what a year unlike any other meant for Pittsburgh.

As we look to the new year, we want to share some of our favorite pieces from the past 12 months.

Tenant Cities

Beatrice Román and her son Jerremy move clothes to their new apartment in Hi View Gardens in June 2021. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

What started with a look through data to find problem landlords led to a revelation. Low-income tenants who had long complained about health and safety problems in their housing complex had an unexpected landlord — PNC Bank. Rich Lord and WESA’s Kate Giammarise broke this important housing accountability story midway through a year-long multimedia collaboration on affordable housing. Bank officials — themselves surprised to learn of living conditions at the properties PNC owned — promised action. Meanwhile, we kept reporting, showing how rarely the county’s health department collects fines for housing violations and just how complicated it can be for residents seeking basic necessities like safe, heated places to live in Allegheny County.

Our visuals team was an integral part of the reporting process, capped recently by a profile by Ryan Loew on housing advocate Rafael Bullones. The video explores Rafael’s journey as an immigrant, how he decided to make his home in Pittsburgh and why he works so hard to help others keep a roof over their head.

Pittsburgh Water Crisis and Turnaround

A work crew replaces a lead line on the 2400 block of Burham Street in September. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

You probably know that Pittsburgh faced a lead crisis. We covered that closely at the time, but Oliver Morrison thought there might be a deeper story. He interviewed scores of people involved in some way or another with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and learned what previously didn’t make it to the public. In this 12-part series, he examined the decades-old roots of turmoil in Pittsburgh’s water utility — a story of cronyism, incompetence and complexity. He learned just how close the city’s water system was to greater calamity and how the efforts of new leadership and career professionals helped right the ship. You might have made up your mind already on what happened and who’s to blame. Oliver’s reporting might change your perspective.

What difference has a year made? Calls for racial justice on campuses bring changes and challenges.

Following George Floyd’s murder, recent University of Pittsburgh graduate Morgan Ottley met with university leadership to bring about a list of demands for change. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

During a summer of racial justice protests in 2020, Pittsburgh-area universities vowed to enact changes to make their campuses more equitable and welcoming for Black students and faculty. For PublicSource, Naomi Harris spoke to a range of officials, students and faculty to understand how the protests did bring some changes while underscoring the immense challenges and weight of history that have yet to be overcome. For Black students like Morgan Ottley, action must go beyond words. “The way this kind of works,” said Ottley, “is that something happens. Black students complain. Administration kind of goes like, ‘Oh, we hear you. Let’s meet and let’s talk about it.’”

‘The rebel becomes the establishment’: Peduto and Gainey reflect on a historic election

Ed Gainey declaring victory as Pittsburgh’s next mayor at a celebration at the Benedum Center on Nov. 2. (Photo by Nick Childers/PublicSource)

The political structure on Grant Street felt a shock this May when two-term Mayor Bill Peduto lost to State Rep. Ed Gainey in a race defined by issues like policing, affordable housing and what it means when a candidate championed by progressives is tasked with running a government. Gainey will be Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor, leading a city long defined by racial inequity. Our local government reporter Charlie Wolfson will be following the transition next year and examining how decisions by local leaders impact communities across the region.

The City of Prayer: Clairton’s residents persevere amid persistent pollution and violence

A tugboat passes U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works early in the morning of Sept. 9, 2021. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Clairton is often defined by the towering stacks of U.S. Steel’s coke works. It’s impossible not to see the shadow the facility casts on the once-bustling steel town, but that’s not all there is to the community. Photojournalist Quinn Glabicki spent months in Clairton looking at the richness of a community often reduced to its struggles. He met residents who’ve spent much of their lives breathing emissions from the steel plant, now speaking out on the harms they say it’s caused. He met youth and community leaders pushing for a future that goes beyond violent crime. And he looked at the impact the powerhouse Clairton Bears football team has on a community that’s felt more loss than victory. Throughout, Quinn’s photos show the complex relationship between Clairton’s environment and the residents who call it home. 

Pittsburgh’s oldest Black church was demolished as ‘blight’ in the 1950s Lower Hill. Today, members seek justice.

“Demolition of Bethel AME Church, Wylie Avenue and Elm Street, Lower Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 24, 1957.” (Photo by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images)

Razed in the 1950s to make way for the Civic Arena, Pittsburgh’s oldest Black church now stands many blocks away from the now-demolished sports arena built in its place. Seeing the demolition of “Mother Bethel” as an act of racism, members of Bethel AME called for reparations in negotiations over new development in the Lower Hill District. Our reporters found that Bethel members were both eager to share their story and wary of talking to journalists outside their community. Development that promises to both reshape and invest millions into the surrounding area is moving forward. And after years of negotiations over community benefits for the Hill District, a new face is coming to the table: a new owner for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Know Pittsburgh. For Real.

We tried something new. We’re used to deep dives, investigations and community storytelling. This year, we tried an email course. More specifically, a two-week crash course for both newcomers and natives looking to get a deeper understanding of Pittsburgh and the key forces, institutions and communities that define our region. This effort includes contributions from our entire team and challenged us all to look at the city through new eyes.

Screen Test

Sean Means, a history teacher at Westinghouse Academy 6-12, checks messages from high school and college students from a makeshift office in his Shadyside apartment on March 5. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Though kids have been relatively spared from the health effects of COVID-19, their lives were still upended. Before the broader return to in-person school earlier this year, students were relegated to screens. School districts were largely unprepared for this shift to virtual. TyLisa C. Johnson tapped students, families and teaching staff across Allegheny County to learn how they dealt with a warped year of COVID school.

From the Source podcast — Season 2

In the second season of From the Source, we focused on quality-of-life issues. Host Jourdan Hicks asked: What do you need to live well? How much? And at what cost? Each episode featured stories and conversations that challenged what we think we know about the needs of individuals, families and households of various identities, experiences and backgrounds in our region. (P.S. Season 3 launched earlier this month. We’re focusing on breaking barriers, entering new spaces and the challenges of growth and achievement.)

Mental health perspectives

Terry Jones with his daughters. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Mental health is health, and this year, along with our friends at Pittsburgh City Paper, we co-published multiple first-person essays from people of various backgrounds about their experiences confronting, coping and blossoming. Terry Jones wrote a powerful and sweet essay about his struggle with mental health and his daughters’ effect on his life. Andrea Shockling penned this pandemic perspective in comic form to explore the hold alcoholism took on her and how she is emerging from that time, hoping to be a help for others.

Allegheny County Jail series

(Illustration by Xiola Jensen/PublicSource)

To outside observers, the Allegheny County Jail can seem like a closed system. Scant information is available, even on crucial issues like the treatment of individuals with serious mental health needs. We found that even those tasked with overseeing the jail felt they lacked access to important documents and information. But people wanted to talk. Over many months of reporting, Juliette Rihl broke important news about long waits for mental health services, the jail’s use of controversial restraint tools and a level of transparency on basic policies that fell far short of other Pennsylvania facilities. Juliette approached her reporting with curiosity and humanity to show how institutional turmoil and secrecy impacts some of the county’s most vulnerable residents.

Public-service guides

From how to access water bill discounts and prepare your Pittsburgh home for winter to what you need to know about taking out student loans and finding the right job, our series of public-service guides have got your back. These straightforward explainers walk you through common questions, nuances to be aware of and the resources you need. While we regularly report on COVID news, many of you found our guides related to the coronavirus helpful, like this one with advice for parents on navigating health care during a pandemic, this one on booster shots and this one that explained the delta variant before it was bested by omicron.

This fact-based local reporting drives impact and creates change. Help power that impact.

James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” PublicSource exists to help the Pittsburgh region face its realities and create opportunities for change. When we shine a light on inequity in our region, like the “completely unacceptable” conditions in low-income housing in McKeesport, things change. When we ask questions about policymakers’ decisions, like how Allegheny County is handling COVID-19 safety for its employees, things change. When we push for transparency on issues that affect the public, like in the use of facial recognition software by Pittsburgh police, things change.

It takes a lot of time, skill and resources to produce journalism like this. Our stories are always made available for free so that they can benefit the most people, regardless of ability to pay. But as an independent, nonprofit newsroom, we count on donations from our readers to support this crucial work. Can you make a contribution of any amount (or better yet, set up a recurring monthly gift) to help ensure we can continue to report on what matters and tell stories for a better Pittsburgh?