I was talking to Keith Myers, a maintenance supervisor with the Harrisburg Housing Authority, in the parking lot between the Jackson Lick apartment towers and the public swimming pool that bears the same name.
Myers, a garrulous Harrisburg old-timer, was dishing out every anecdote he could think of about the pool, the subject of an article I was working on at the time. At some point, he coughed up a memory of an annual tradition under former Mayor Steve Reed, which involved the city dumping hundreds of striped bass in the pool for a kids’ fishing competition at the close of each summer.
Myers wasn’t sure when the tradition ended, but he thought it was only a few years ago. By that point, I’d been reporting on the city long enough to know that people’s recollections of the Reed years could be a bit hazy. I’ll occasionally come across old Reed memos which, if it weren’t for a date in the upper corner and some giveaway proper nouns, could have been written at any time since 1982. The courtly, typewritten prose, the mayor-for-life swagger, is present in every year.
But hundreds of fish in a public pool? If it had happened only a few years ago, I was sure I’d have heard about it already. I wanted the anecdote in my piece, but I didn’t trust Myers’ recall. Instead, I had to undertake my favorite task in reporting. I had to go find a record.
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s James Steele and Donald Barlett are supposed to have talked about an investigative reporter’s “documents state of mind.” Unless you believe that officials will tell you the truth simply because you ask nicely, you had better know how to find a piece of paper that can substantiate (or challenge) their claims.
For example, there was a puzzling story last month about a few mounds of backfill that had been dumped on a vacant lot. The city said it was storing them there, which would seem to imply permission from the presumed landowner, the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority. But the HRA director thought the land was owned by an L. J. Walker. A search through online property records cleared things up quickly. The lot comprised four parcels, with the mounds strewn across them, like a miniature mountain range. Walker did own one parcel—but HRA owned the other three.
From the vantage point of someone looking to tell a story, court documents are often the most valuable records. Civil complaints will methodically lay out the who, what, when and where of each local travesty—though you should always keep in mind whose interest the claims are serving. I tend to rely on court records for their attachments more than the complaints themselves.
Last fall, working on a story about the eviction of a nuisance business by an out-of-town landlord, I obtained a copy of the eviction complaint from the district court. It contained several interesting items, including a letter from neighbors fed up with the store and some time-stamped emails and notices tracing the landlord’s (rather sluggish) decision to evict. Later, when the landlord tried to distance himself from the story, I relied on business filings at two state departments to confirm he was bluffing: the “general partner” he said controlled the building was a Nevada corporation, registered under his name.
Building records are another treasure trove, although you have to tread carefully. The county has two online property records databases, and they don’t always agree. They also use different search functions. Your best bet, once you have a name, is the website of the county Recorder of Deeds, where you can pull up facsimiles of the original deeds and mortgages. These are authoritative when it comes to dates and names, although they only go back to 1979.
You can get older records at the courthouse, but for the really old stuff, I tend to seek expert advice. One source for which I am always grateful is the Dauphin County Historical Society, and particularly its librarian, Ken Frew. Membership in the society is very affordable ($35 a year) and grants access to invaluable resources. Earlier this year, I was one of several reporters following the story of a church collapse in south Harrisburg. The county database said the church had been built in 1900, but a visit to Frew quickly set me straight—lots of old buildings were supposedly “built” in that year, because past county assessors, lacking actual records, would simply write “1900” as a best guess.
Frew patiently led me through some old maps and newspapers, which suggested the building had been around since the 1870s. We never did find an exact date, but if the only product of a day’s record-mining is to substitute informed ignorance for uninformed certitude, it will have been worth the while.
An obsession with records can make a man aware of the paper he leaves behind. I once asked the city to send me its list of dog licenses. Not realizing dog names would be a part of it, I was amused to learn that counted among the local canine population are a William Wallace, a Cookie, a Cutter, a Merlin, a Zeus Ellington, and an Oliver Fernando.
One key to an effective use of records is to remember what they can never do as well as people, which is tell a story. My search for the pool fish wound up being brief—it only took a few tries with key words in Google to produce a city press release from 2006. The release had some useful figures, but the real gold was the name of the local fishing club that had co-sponsored the event. I found a phone number and eventually wound up speaking with the club’s president, who was able to provide me with firsthand recollections. Sometimes what you really want is a quote on the record, but you often need a record to get it.