Rust Forms on an American Dream

In 1955, when renowned photojournalist W. Eugene Smith was creating the images of Pittsburgh that would eventually become a book called Dream Street, Pittsburgh was the quintessential Rust Belt city.

According to the 1950 census, Pittsburgh was home to more than 676,000 residents and was the 12th largest city in the country at the time. Steel was the city’s main industry. Aluminum, glass, petroleum and shipbuilding were also part of its economy.

[aesop_image imgwidth=”500px” img=”” align=”right” lightbox=”on” caption=”A mural on the side of the Veteran’s Leadership Program building on Pittsburgh’s South Side pays tribute to veterans of the Pittsburgh region’s steel industry, with figures based on the black-and-white photography of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. Other parts of the mural also pay tribute to the U.S. military.” captionposition=”left”]

Although Pittsburgh was thriving, the industrial smoke was sometimes so thick that the streetlights came on during the day. The conditions earned the city the nickname “Smoky City.” In an effort to clean up the city’s reputation for being dirty and polluted, civic leaders initiated projects to transform the city, and Pittsburgh began describing itself as a city undergoing a “rebirth.” It replaced its smokestacks with glass skyscrapers and its slums with contemporary neighborhoods. Pittsburgh was recognized as a city in transition.

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the population of Pittsburgh is about 305,840, less than half of what it was during the city’s economic heyday. But once again, the Steel City is said to be experiencing a rebirth, with a rapidly growing economy largely based on healthcare, education, technology and banking. This may be true for Pittsburgh proper, but the scene looks a lot bleaker for the towns along the three iconic rivers that converge in the city.

Ironically, the steel industry that brought Pittsburgh international fame existed almost entirely outside of the city limits, on the banks of the famous Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. The only exception was a Jones and Laughlin complex on the Monongahela River. Other famous steel mills were located farther upstream in the towns of Homestead, Rankin, Braddock, Duquesne, McKeesport and Clairton. Downstream, along the Ohio River, other mills stood in Ambridge and Aliquippa.

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These suburban towns helped make Pittsburgh an industrial powerhouse, driven by an influx of foreign-born workers at the turn of the 20th century. Immigrants filled jobs in the mills, where steel was forged for the aircraft and battleships that helped win two world wars.

But as you drive through these towns today, it’s clear they have been largely forgotten. Once bustling shopping corridors are all but empty. The company homes where mill workers raised their families are showing their age, and residents still reminisce about the “good old days” before the mills shuttered.

[aesop_image imgwidth=”490px” img=”” align=”left” lightbox=”on” caption=”The Ambridge-Aliquippa bridge traverses the Ohio river connecting the two towns. American Bridge Company, for which Ambridge was named due to significant operations on the river, built the bridge with steel from the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company in Aliquippa.” captionposition=”left”]

Nationally, about 55 percent of people who live in poverty reside outside of cities. But in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, 61 percent of people live in poverty, and that number rises to a staggering 79 percent for the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, which includes Allegheny and its six surrounding counties, according to a 2013 Brookings Institute study entitled “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.”

In recent years, the media has reported extensively about the rebirth of Pittsburgh, but it has focused little attention on the city’s suburbs and the plight of the people living there — except, perhaps, during election season.

For me, it is even more personal since my mother and father were born and raised in Aliquippa, home to what was at the time the largest steel mill in the world, the Jones and Laughlin Aliquippa Works.

My mother was born to Ukrainian immigrants on Plan 11 in Aliquippa, one of the housing areas J&L built for the steel workers. My dad was born to Croatian immigrants in the area now known as West Aliquippa.

My paternal grandfather worked in the J&L mill for 38 years, and my dad worked in the mill for a short time after returning from WWII and before returning to the Marine Corps.

I have seen firsthand how Aliquippa has declined. My parents and relatives tell stories about how wonderful and bustling the town was before the decline of the steel industry and the closing of the mill.

These stories and memories compel me to tell the story of Aliquippa and its people. The immigrants who settled in Aliquippa came with dreams of a better life. And for a while, it seemed as though those dreams would be realized in the streets of their new home. But many of the people living in Aliquippa today are doubting that those dreams still exist.

The Steel Towns

Click on the photos below to explore the mill towns near Pittsburgh.

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