Following the path of a paper street

As a kid, I loved nosing through my grandparents’ house, crammed with decades worth of oddities from around the world. As a reporter, I get to use old documents and maps for research, collecting stories from the places and people I meet along the way.

Recently, I was smitten by some of the places I went to report on a story about paper streets. One was the Allegheny County Department of Real Estate, formerly known as the recorder’s office. It’s a place seen by only a small segment of people, and the building is home to an odd mash-up of old and new: a huge, rattling electric fan whirring over a marble floor in the lobby; title searchers tick-tapping on computers next to shelf after shelf of Pittsburgh’s deed books.

The real estate department has a culture of its own. Companies and lawyers hire professional title searchers to hunt down documents from the county’s stacks. Although many of the people are competitors, they all seem to know each other. (Many, I’m told, are hired by the oil and gas companies.)

An unforgettable pair of title searchers were Jim Weinheimer and his son Eric. There was something vaudevillian about the father and son team as they raced back and forth between the stacks, showing me how to dig for more information about my paper street.

Jim is a Pittsburgh native, and has been a self-employed real-estate title searcher for nearly three decades. He’s teaching his son, Eric, just like his dad taught him to navigate the complicated indexing system. I marveled at how quickly Jim deciphered the elegant, spidery hand-written deeds from the 1800's, and Eric, a recent law school graduate, agreed that some of the lettering looked like a foreign language.

A favorite place I discovered was a building that squats under the highway. The Second Avenue public works building is unassuming, and sits kitty-corner from the county jail. Cars on I-367 rumble overhead as you press a buzzer for someone inside to open the door.

Inside, Eileen Papelle works in the dimly lit office where the records of Pittsburgh’s streets are housed. The records are filed in oversized volumes. Each book contains beautifully hand-drawn maps detailing every inch of the city. Eileen, who told me she can trace her family’s properties in Pittsburgh back for generations, carefully (and patiently) explained a paper street to me.

After my confusion about a street that exists on paper only, I asked if reporters often come looking for things like this. She said reporters don’t often visit, although Chris Potter, editor of the City Paper, was once a semi-regular visitor asking about paper streets.

A story like this isn’t easy to let go; there’s always another person I’d like to meet or map to find. (Two bike advocates lobbied to remove a fence from the paper street, for instance.) A surprising take-away from this story? Getting to hear people share stories about the paper streets in their neighborhoods.

Send me an email or give me a ring if you have a paper street story you’d like to share with PublicSource.

- Emily DeMarco
edemarco@publicsource.org
412-315-0262
@eademarco