A while back I was sitting in a cafe near a couple of freshly minted techie types. I happened to overhear — OK, after a while I strained to overhear — as one explained to the other how he’d loathed his Pennsylvania hometown for its stodgy work ethic, its Middle-American attitudes, and so on. He summed up by breezily remarking, “Another generation of steelworkers would have to die before I’d go back to Pittsburgh.”
This last comment left me wondering a) whether he had some sort of reasoning disability, or b) whether our schools have simply quit teaching any history about who or what built this nation. For a purportedly educated person to dismiss one of America’s historically pivotal cities because there were too many steelworkers still hanging around seems the height of both ignorance and unkindness. Those awful Pittsburgh steelworkers! It was nice of them to help make us the world’s industrial power, but now they should just hurry up and die so my friends and I can sip lattes by the river!
Granted, few Americans have interest in the kind of unglamorous role played by cities with names like Erie, Bethlehem, Milwaukee, Akron, and Cleveland. And, yes, Pittsburgh. Now that the primacy of American heavy industry has passed into history — and it surely has — it’s especially easy to overlook the contributions made in those smoky old factories in those formerly not-very-pretty towns. They were factories that made big, dumb, low-tech things like steam shovels and locomotives, skyscraper steel and bulldozers, tires and machine tools. In short, they were the factories that built the nation.
The Pittsburgh region has, if anything, a better claim than most to being the erstwhile keystone of our long industrial reign. It’s the home of a number of historic American companies, including Westinghouse, PPG, and most famously, Carnegie Steel, whose vast Homestead Works was the nation’s largest steel mill and precursor to the mammoth United States Steel Corp. The Homestead Works ultimately sprawled across 430 acres beside the Monongahela River, and at one time nearly one-third of all the steel used in America was made there.
No doubt my cafe neighbor would be pleased to hear that the Homestead Works was shut down in 1986, and that most of it was razed and replaced by a residential and commercial development called the Waterfront. It was also around this time that United States Steel, perhaps seeking to sound more high tech, took on the rather silly corporate appellation of USX, which only goes to show that not even steelmakers appreciate steelmakers.
Few people will miss the environmental degradation and almost sublime ugliness of smokestack industries like Homestead. Yet that shouldn’t diminish our appreciation for what these places accomplished in their time.
Fortunately, a few historic elements of the Homestead Works have been preserved to help remind Americans — some Americans, anyway — that our built environment wasn’t conjured out of strings of zeroes and ones, but rather was quite literally forged in the kinds of blue-collar cities and towns that we, in this high-tech age, might be a bit too quick to dismiss — those places with stodgy work ethics and Middle-American attitudes that so disturbed my friend in the cafe. Places like Pittsburgh, whose future now lies in other quarters, but whose generations of steelworkers will never really die.