I grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, Braddock. It was named after General Edward Braddock, who was defeated there in the French & Indian War in 1755. George Washington’s reputation was made there as he organized the proper retreat from the battlefield. He was 23 at the time.
It was also (in)famous for being the site of the largest steel mill in the history of the Industrial Revolution, the Edgar Thomson Works of the United States Steel Corporation. The mill dominated the landscape of the town like Oz did at the end of the Yellow Brick Road but Braddock Avenue was covered with ash and iron detritus, not gold.
The mill was a blessing and a curse. It provided decent paying jobs so the men could support their families properly as well as the many bars that lined the streets on the way to the mill, but it also took away much ambition, since any young man could always get a job in the labor intensive open hearth, shoveling coke into the firepits.
The prosperity of Braddock at that time was beyond question and the power of the mill was dominant. I actually had a tiny resentment of my father, who worked in a huge Westinghouse plant down the road from The Mill. There was a macho quality there that the Westinghouse plant lacked.
The workforce in The Mill was largely Slavic and Polish with a tiny minority of others, including Blacks. These people were heavily recruited by the industry for the huge turnovers. They were even kidnapped in some instances and brought to America almost as slaves. This was noted in the terrific book about those times, OUT OF THIS FURNACE.
The notion of the United States as a melting pot was absurd as Braddock was made up of a series of ghettos, Polish, Slavic, Italian, and Black. There was a small ‘ghetto’ of multi ethnicity, Jewish, Irish, and fragments of other ethnicities, but no Blacks. These ghettos had distinct borders. The Polish section had its own Church, school, markets, barbershop, clubs (the Polish Falcons). These clubs provided some social benefits that the government didn’t.
The ghettos, themselves sort of hated each other with insults abounding, Polack, Dago, Hunky, Nigger, Wop, Coon, Guinea were all used regularly, but not to anyone’s face. I once asked my mother why all of her friends were Polish and she said they were the only people you could trust
The beginnings of the end were in their infancy then. A lot of the prosperity of steel was a result of the war (WWII). Europe and Japan were recovering and just beginning to compete on the world market. The imports of foreign cars was just starting as well, the Volkswagen and other smaller inexpensive vehicles that had no domestic competition, the Renault Dauphine, small Fiats and the rest. Most of them were awful but they were cheap to buy and to run.
Another contribution to the Mill’s decline (or the labor force’s) was the introduction of the basic oxygen furnace introduced in the mid fifties. It reduced the work force by an order of magnitude of a thousand. It virtually eliminated the need for the unskilled workers of the open hearth system and there went all these available jobs in the community.
Another contributing factor was Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, an elitist act that created a white suburbia, ignoring the inner cities. Braddock was vulnerable because the steel industry was dependent on the ‘three rivers’ for transport and the new system shifted the responsibility to the highways that didn’t serve the steel industry there. The trains and river vessels were rendered obsolete as the nation now depended on road transport, private vehicles, and foreign oil. Eisenhower’s serving these masters was as ‘evil’ as Lincoln’s serving his railroad interests in starting the War Between the States.
A suburban shopping mall in Monroeville, serviced by an interstate pulled business away from Braddock. In its heyday Braddock was a bustling center. On Thursday, shopping evening, the sidewalks were completely crowded with shoppers, so much so that you had to walk on the street to pass anyone. After the interstate, no more.
The steel industry had blinders on and a prolonged strike in 1959 led to the importation of Korean and Japanese steel that was far less expensive, even after shipping costs, and damaged the domestic industry. A few years later JFK, wanting to avoid another strike, negotiated a deal with the industry to avoid a wage, price spiral. U. S. Steel later stabbed him in the back with a significant price hike, that led to the infamous ‘…all businessmen are sons of bitches’ line.
The industry of my hometown was spiraling out of control and down the proverbial toilet.
A few years later I was offered the opportunity to edit a doc on the subject. I had been living in New York and saw this as an opportunity to be a real filmmaker. I asked to film it as was well but I was rejected since I really had nothing to show. The director ran out of time with the DP he had hired and asked me to film a test one night. I wandered through the streets at night with a Bolex while he complained about what he was watching over my shoulder. I suggested that he send the film to Hollywood for processing since my experience working in New York had made me wary of New York competence with 16 mm film. We waited for several days for the film. I was driving down a freeway to my day job and the director passed me in his vintage Mercedes and pulled over to the berm. I pulled over (in my vintage Plymouth) and he got out and hugged me saying that the film he had seen the previous day was magnificent and I had the job.
I finished shooting the film then cut it. It was for WQED, a public broadcast station and supposedly altruistic. I was upset when we were forced to eliminate some sequences at the request (demands) of U. S. Steel that was one of the big sponsors of the station. Another compromise was the film was finished on video to support that aspect of the station so I never got a proper copy. There may be a VHS somewhere.
Braddock now is more or less a dead place. The only industry left, the hospital, moved away and now there is virtually nothing there. The mayor has made desperate attempts to revive the town but the population is at a tiny fraction of what it once was (10%), the people, victims of misplaced trust.