|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 The old Homestead Works, site of one of the most consequential conflicts between management and labor, has been replaced by a giant strip mall.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.|
I drove into Braddock from the south, having spent the last thirty miles or so of my drive in the Mon Valley (short for Monongahela). I-70, which I exited just south of Monesson, crosses the deep, narrow valley via the Belle Vernon Bridge. Looking up at the massive, flaking girders from below, it proved an apt introduction to the place. The valley's steep walls give the floor an isolated feel, which the economy's current status reinforces. On the winding route along the river toward Pittsburgh, I passed Glassport, Clairton, and McKeesport. The names hold clues to the past, but each city is extremely depressed, even those where plants still function. The population and the architecture is aging, much like nearby Appalachia. The signs on restaurants and social clubs suggest that ethnic white identity is still a significant source of pride.
|McKeesport lost two US Steel plants in 2014.|
|Abandoned baseball field upriver.|
|Coal train across the river from the Clairton coke works.|
|An original Carnegie library.|
|Downtown Braddock, Friday night.|
|One of the two remaining Carrie Furnaces|
|The Carrie deer.|
|Along the Monongahela, in Pittsburgh.|