|Flaring gas at the ArcelorMittal Monesson coke plant.|
The regional landscape practically screams the reasons for Pittsburgh’s existence. Its rivers were vital arteries, bringing coal up from Appalachia to feed its vast industries, of which the base was of course steel. The factories needed so much energy that it made sense to locate them close to the coal mines, rather than the iron ore deposits up on the Mesabi Range in Minnesota. Along the rivers - the Monongahela, the Allegheny, and the Ohio - enormous manufacturing works grew up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The scale and integration of industry was stupendous, a tremendous agglomeration. It is nearly all gone now, as steel production and other heavy industry has moved abroad or to more efficient domestic plants. The old Homestead Works, site of one of the most consequential conflicts between management and labor, has been replaced by a giant strip mall.
I visited in March, during spring break, when my colleague Brendan Moriarty volunteered to put me up with a friend, the retired actor David Conrad (you may remember him as Bradley Cooper’s sleazy friend in Wedding Crashers). Dave lives in Braddock, an old mill town east of Pittsburgh that has been about as hard hit as anywhere in the US due to outsourcing. It does retain the Edgar Thomson Works, US Steel’s last remaining plant in the Pittsburgh area.
|The view from Dave's porch.|
|Coal train across the river from the Clairton coke works.|
|The Carnegie Library in Braddock, opened in 1889.|
Braddock, a few miles and bridge crossings east of Pittsburgh, is an interesting town for several reasons. Its mayor, John Fetterman, has energetically pursued revitalization, winning him several admiring profiles in the national press. I didn’t get to meet him - he was in the closing stages of a doomed campaign for Senate in late March - but I did get a good look at his digs, since Dave’s pad, a converted priory, shares a driveway/courtyard with his residence. Fetterman has embraced public art, attracted a new health clinic, and sought to maintain the town’s once-proud collection of buildings, including one of the first four Carnegie Libraries. Without a reliable economic base, Braddock has a long, long way to go, but it is showing some signs of life, including a new and popular brewery called the Brew Gentleman.
My trip began as an effort to explore Pittsburgh itself, and Dave, Brendan, Seth Tinkham (a pal of mine along for the first two days) and I did go for a long, engrossing walk around the downtown on Sunday morning, but the industrial history of the Mon Valley emerged as the trip’s key theme due to our base at Dave’s place in Braddock. On Monday morning, we visited the Carrie Furnaces, which are the last remaining blast furnaces in the area. The others were apparently bought up by Chinese businessmen, for whom it was cheaper to disassemble the existing infrastructure in Pittsburgh and ship it to China than build new works from scratch.
|The Carrie Furnaces|
|The Carrie deer.|
Like most cities that predate the automobile, Pittsburgh’s existence is intimately tied to its physical geography. Its rivers have waned in significance during the era of the postindustrial economy, to which it has adapted better than most of its Rust Belt peers, but the waterways retain a strong influence on local culture and identity. At some point, I hope to examine in a post two exceptional houses in the nearby Laurel Highlands: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. Their owners grew rich on Pittsburgh - one for its productive capacity, the other for its markets.
|Along the Monongahela, in Pittsburgh.|