Local historian Carol Peterson was Pittsburgh.
She was an encyclopedia of knowledge about the city’s history, she loved the Pittsburgh Pirates, and after she passed away on Sunday, after a long battle with breast and lung cancer, people all over town joined together to post their condolences and celebrate her life.
Among the postings was one on the city’s bicentennial Facebook page: “Today we lost Carol Peterson, an architectural historian who was a fierce protector of our City’s soul. We will miss her deep expertise, her tireless efforts, her humor. Her.”
You might recognize Peterson from Rick Sebak’s WQED special 25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh, where she was interviewed about her popular Pittsburgh House Histories project, which provided home-owners all over town with reports on ownership chronology, construction documentation, and a biography of the first owner. When WQED aired reruns of the episode, she’d often post online about being recognized on the street.
In 2013, she posted to her Facebook page, “Rick Sebak just called to tell me that WQED was about to show 25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh for the third time, so I’d be forewarned that I could again be inundated with house-history requests. I’ll be hiding in the basement.”
Peterson was also on the city’s Historic Review Commission, fighting for preservation of historic buildings in Pittsburgh neighborhoods, including Lawrenceville, where she lived and rehabbed houses of her own. She also co-authored Allegheny City, a book on North Side’s history, with late Steelers owner Dan Rooney.
Additionally, she was a big voice in the local punk scene, a regular at shows and a frequent poster on local message board nevertellmetheodds.org (originally “The Roboto Board”). It was on that board where I first discovered her, many years before I became her Facebook friend. Local message boards can make you feel like you’ve known a person forever, and after seeing everyone’s sad posts about her passing, I know there are so many others who felt like they knew her through her witty, friendly and informative posts.
This was her seventh year fighting breast cancer, and she was vocal about her opposition to both donating to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and “pink-washing”— the practice of organizations using the color pink to promote products and make profit under the guise of supporting breast-cancer research. When I was told that our paper was going to run an article about a breast-cancer event with profits going to the Komen organization, I asked Peterson whether she’d like to run a contrasting piece.
In that 2014 column, she wrote, “What if Komen hasn’t looked for the cure in the right places because doing so would be expensive, inconvenient or embarrassing? Komen seems to have strayed far from its original mission. It now seems to be a marketing firm specializing in pink-washing.”
Two years later, I felt obligated to break the news to Peterson that City Paper was going to publish a “Pink Issue” for breast-cancer awareness month; every page would be printed on pink paper. Not everyone here agreed with the idea, and I was adamantly opposed to it, having personally heard the arguments against pink-washing from my best friend, another breast-cancer survivor, and Peterson’s posts.
Peterson said she appreciated the heads-up, but she didn’t hide that she was super pissed at the idea of her local alt-weekly being printed on pink paper, years after we ran her piece against it. She posted negatively about it on her page after the issue came out.
I also told her that if she wanted to write another opinion piece against the decision, we’d be willing to print it. (Though I cringed as I typed it, knowing that her article — if she decided to write one, would also be printed on that pink paper.) She turned me down, disclosing that her cancer had reached stage 4, and that she couldn’t write anything new because nothing had changed and she didn’t know whether she would live another year. That was in September 2016.
I didn’t know Peterson as well as others. I’m one of the many who grew to admire her, largely based on her online posts. But it’s evident to so many all over the city that Peterson was a fighter and a role model. She was a leader in our community, and Pittsburgh has lost a true champion.
Her friends have posted on her Facebook page that a memorial service is being planned for January, and people are encouraged to donate in Peterson’s name to Preservation Pittsburgh and Lawrenceville Stakeholders.