Rust: The Patina of Possibility and Renewal
Note: I love photography, so here’s a shout-out and round of applause for the talented Christopher DellaMea and his new book Exploring the Rust Belt.
For those of us who grew up in the suburbs ringing the silent manufacturing plants, the appeal is a reconnection with our roots. We are nostalgic for a time we never knew, the world our parents made sure we could escape. The geography of nowhere gets a soul. We move back and haunt the streets of our grandparents…. All the connoisseurs of Rust Belt Chic are seeking the same thing, authenticity. A strong sense of place is highly valued. At every turn, you know that you can only be in Pittsburgh. And you love all of it, the grit and the faded grandeur. A vacant building is more about possibility than the spectacular fall from grace.
As much as I loved the verve of Cambridge in the 1970s, I satisfied dual yearnings for solitude and the sea by living in the back of an old custom’s house in Nahant – a quiet peninsula that hangs off Boston’s north shore. I walked its long beach every morning and swam on days when the water immediately numbed me and ripped my breath away, but I was making up for twenty-two landlocked years.
The commute in and out of Cambridge nearly killed me several times and my sweet Civic kept running while its body took a bashing. But I loved living there. My landlords were a retired Italian couple with a few lobster pots in the bay. Sunday mornings I’d help haul in the pots (which were invented, my landlord told me while I was doing all the work, “in Swampscott [swomscut, as they say], only five miles away in 1808.” On Wednesdays, the couple invited me to dinner of lobster and linguini in marinara, a food ritual that made me miss home.
Back in Ambridge, the mills fell silent. Between 1979 and 1986, Armco, American Bridge, A.M. Byers, H.H. Robertson, and finally, the mammoth Jones & Laughlin that had become LTV Steel, shrank and closed. Milt was forced to retire from American Bridge with 30 years of service, but still only fifty-five years old. He joined one of the small drafting firms that cropped up throughout the valley, taking in work from all over the country, awarded to the lowest bidders.
During those years, every time I returned to visit my family, I saw signs of deeper decline in town. Plywood covered more storefronts on Merchant Street, vandals tore away the bronze lampposts in front of the library, the streets crumbled with neglected potholes. For Sale and foreclosure signs sprung up like weeds as desperate residents abandoned their families for service jobs in the promising Sun Belt.
The seedier the town became in the 1980s, the more odd combinations of merchants moved into the vacant storefronts, selling “collectibles” and beauty products, hobby supplies, second-hand clothing, tutus and tap shoes. They came and went—bold experiments by naïve entrepreneurs. Some endured: a ceramics shop, owned by my Aunt Helen and her husband Fred; a bicycle store; a place called Mars’ Drums. Several of the neighborhood bars closed, and a few became hangouts for crack dealers and whores, but many hung on as cool, dark gathering spots for workers and harmless drunks.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, as the owners of houses and apartments moved south and lost their properties or their paying tenants, buildings fell into disrepair. Landlords accepted government assistance that required them to take in unsavory tenants, addicts, prostitutes, pimps and gangsters. The streets, especially those in the southern end of town, around Divine Redeemer and my father’s office at the Bridge Company, grew dangerous with crime. The already limping Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh shuttered several churches, including Divine Redeemer.
But like the creepy prints that decorated every Catholic household in my youth, rays of hope streamed through the clouds. The Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry sunk its roots in Ambridge. It brought fresh energy and optimism, counseling families, helping the poor, the sick, the dying, the mentally ill and the lonely. Instead of living in posh Sewickley and commuting to the school, the seminarians bought houses within the safer neighborhoods of Ambridge, sharing backyards and gardens with older Bridgers and young, struggling families. They began to look after children, mow lawns, and shovel sidewalks for those who otherwise shuffle to the pharmacy. They may have an evangelical agenda, but they are gentle and genuine compared to the economic and political hooligans that once ruled the streets of Ambridge.
Beyond Ambridge, the closing of J&L stripped Aliquippa of its tax revenue. Its Franklin Avenue, which once rivaled Merchant Street for retail vitality, became a littered and deserted alleyway of shuttered institutions and stores. These scenes saddened me, especially when I thought about how the blight had spread throughout the industrial towns within fifty, one hundred, even three hundred miles, from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to Chicago, to Duluth. The Rust Belt corroded with blinding speed.
Pittsburgh has only begun to recover. From 1970 to 1990, its population fell by more than 21 percent and the exodus continued for another ten years. Even now, the surrounding county has the second highest percentage of seniors, exceeded only by Palm Beach County in Florida. But the stunted city soldiered on. With its back against the wall, it slowly reinvented itself, drawing on academic and health care institutions that serve the young and old, respectively. Its medical infrastructure found new ways to serve elders and the disadvantaged with innovative community health and rehab centers – ahead of the aging-boomer curve that will soon challenge the rest of the nation.
Pittsburgh has shown remarkable, if plodding, adaptability that reminds me of one of the Rust Belt’s most emblematic buildings—the former headquarters of US Steel. Soon after the building was designed and commissioned in 1968, Milt brought home a brochure about it. At 64 stories, it would be the tallest building in the skyline; its triangular shape and orientation echo the city’s well-known triangle; but its skin is most telling—Cor-Ten Steel—with a pre-oxidized surface, rusty from the outset, a deep brown patina that responds to weather conditions by healing itself. Favored by sculptor (and former steelworker) Richard Serra and Robert Indiana, Cor-Ten presents a renewable aesthetic, an ongoing work in progress.
I return to Ambridge at least twice a year to see family and catch up with my old friends—Rege Ryan, the steamfitter, is now a union representative with keen political instincts, Rory McCoy, a former nightclub bouncer now owns waste hauling company, and Johnny Niaros, who took over his family’s Fair Oaks Bowling Lanes when his father died at fifty-four. If Bob Marcink, who had become a newspaperman in gritty McKeesport and is now a professor, is in town, he joins. As for many other friends, they’ve managed to get by without their mill jobs, becoming postmen, bartenders, baggage handlers, truck drivers and cooks. Some still curse the mills and others have simply moved on.
Thirty years after the bottom fell out, the blight has abated. Some of the factories found new uses as warehouses and were soon surrounded by tractor trailers, giant dumpsters, boxcars, and mountains of palettes. The A.M. Byers plant on the site of Legionville became such a terminal for a while.
One evening while visiting home, I made plans for a reunion dinner with Mimi Lacarno. We met at Station Square in Pittsburgh, a converted railroad station on the banks of the Monongahela. Near the entrance, I spotted a massive industrial relic that had been enshrined in the middle of the plaza, and it looked familiar. Its proportions and shape struck me – about thirty feet tall and formed like a giant beer barrel made of heavy iron, rusty but now shellacked for preservation. I recognized it, but the closer I got, the less I could believe my eyes—Bessemer converter #1 from the A.M. Byers plant in Ambridge, Vulcan’s nightly show of sparks and molten iron I stood on the back seat of my parents’ Ford to watch.
Mimi came up behind me and took my arm. “I know,” she said. “Can you believe it?”
“No, I can’t. It’s like a shrine.”
“To what, though?” she asked.
“A sacred place, I guess.” We both laughed.
“Yeah, right, of course,” she said.
But the monument set the tone for dinner, for the “what ifs” that punctuate the past. During dinner she asked whether I would have married her back then if she had still been in love with me. I told her I didn’t know. If she had leapt into my arms, I may have stayed in town, loading trucks and settling down. But the lure of travel and exploration was too strong and, if I had ignored it, the ground would have shifted under me. I suppose I did, in a way, ask for her hand and invite her to come along. Instead, she waved goodbye and set me free.
I walk the length of Ambridge during my visits, an increasingly depressing exercise for the last three decades. By 2003 I could catalog the sights, starting on First Street and traveling north, away from Pittsburgh. Abandoned cars line the streets. At ten-thirty in the morning, kids in hoodies hustle past bloodshot hookers and disoriented drunks. Divine Redeemer was sold to Baptists, and the school where I formed my boyhood dreams overlooks a playground littered with dissolving cars, rental vans and trailers.
Most of the once-friendly neighborhood bars in the southern quarter look too forbidding to enter. Their front doors are solid sheets of steel, heavily dented or pockmarked with bullet holes, windows covered for privacy.
Still, some of the houses and shops stand as reminders of what the residents of Ambridge once cherished. I see evidence of new masonry and carpentry, gardening, and painting done by diligent homeowners and shopkeepers. A three-story company-built house, circa 1920, with a tidy yard and colorful awning over its porch holds its own between identical buildings that look as if they’ve withstood a siege. My aunt’s ceramics shop, populated by clay mallards, Virgin Marys, leprechauns, and gabby hobbyists, defies economic odds. One big bar and restaurant, owned by former Pittsburgh Pirate Jim Rooker, keeps its stools and booths full on Fourth Street. Only a block away, in what had been the first synagogue in town, The Maple Restaurant, owned by the Pappas family since 1963, serves enormous portions of Bridgers’ favorite foods, most notably, a hot roast beef sandwich topped with French fries and gravy. It has a sign in the parking lot that says, “Welcome to Hot Beef Country.”
After 80 years of fabricating iconic structures and contaminating 40 acres of riverbank, American Bridge abandoned the site and it lay fallow for decades. Merchant Street benefited from a facelift—new sidewalks and a row of saplings were planted near the curb. Just beyond the high school between Eighth and Eleventh Streets, dilapidated factories threw a shadow over the sidewalk. National Electric, Bollinger Corporation, H.K. Porter left tangled messes and heaps of slag, scrap, and trash behind. The central grounds and buildings of Economy remained under the protection of the state—an oasis of dignity at the core of the old village within the town.
Between Duss Avenue and the parallel Merchant Street, industrial blight infected clusters of houses, leapfrogging over tire stores and body shops to resume its rot all the way to the end of town. It stretched for another mile into Harmony Township where an abandoned strip mine at the site of long-forgotten Logstown, a massive crater, punctuates the end of a heartbreaking stretch of land. After a century of pounding the soils and the aquifers with industrial waste, only whispers of activity remained. Taken together, the abandoned, ruined real estate covered nearly 400 acres.
Nobody felt worse about the fate of Ambridge than my cousin, Dave Dieter. He worked his way up through a local savings bank and raised a family there. At a time when Ambridge had little to offer in the way of kickbacks and graft to its traditionally self-serving leaders, Dave entered public service. Before long, in 2003, he assumed the most powerful position in town: chairman of the borough council. With the help of a new and professional town manager, Pam Caskie, he and other young council members learned about “brownfields.”
Precisely one hundred years after John Duss delivered Economy into the hands of industrialists, that bland word—brownfields—swept through town on rumors. “Something called Brownfield Redevelopment,” my parents and their friends told me over coffee at The Maple, “We don’t know exactly what it means, but I guess they call all these broken down mills brownfields, and there’s money to fix ‘em up. We’ll see. Sounds fishy,” they said, all of them shrugging at once.
coming next: With the new century, a new visionary, this time from Down Under…