Cities of the Rustbelt

by Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post Gazette

I would say “Pittsburgh” softly each time before throwing him up.

Whisper “Pittsburgh” with my mouth against the tiny ear and throw him higher.

“Pittsburgh,” and happiness high up.

The only way to leave even the smallest trace.

So that all his life, her son would feel gladness unaccountably

when anyone spoke of the ruined city of steel in America.

Each time almost remembering something maybe important that got lost.

 

-       Jack Gilbert, collected poems

 

A few years ago, an art gallery opened in an old steel mill on the Northside in Pittsburgh. Photos of Byzantine Orthodox nuns walking against the smoke-filled landscape of bustling steelworks, paintings of soot-covered faces in impossible masses, and sculptures of reclaimed shards of iron turned the memories of The Steel City into high art to be discussed over drinks and stuffed mushrooms. The old mill was one of the lucky few to be given a redeemed purpose; since US Steel died out and left Pittsburgh in the 70’s and 80’s, most of the mills today stand vacant and deteriorating along the riverside, untouched since the last of their workers were laid off and sent home.

Like so many other industrial cities of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, Pittsburgh became part of the “Rust Belt,” a trail of cities that popped up as booming hubs of industry at the turn of the century, but have since fallen victim to failed economies and changing times. Also referred to as “The Manufacturing Belt,” “The Steel Belt,” and “The Factory Belt,” the region consists of such cities as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Before WWII, Rust Belt cities were some of the nation’s largest, and supplied work for millions of immigrants. And then gradually they started to decline, and ghosts started to pop up in the form of rail yards and lumber mills and lace factories never to be put to use again. 

Courtesy of Frick Art Historical Center

Courtesy of Frick Art Historical Center

“We could have been Detroit,” a friend grimly reminded me during a visit home to Pittsburgh, while we cruised the Boulevard of the Allies on our way to Hot Metal Bridge to go to the Southside Ironworks. Everything from streets to bridges to bars to movie theaters in Pittsburgh are so often named after the industry that they have replaced.

“We could have been Detroit if we didn’t have something else going for us. What did they have? Cars. Cars and nothing else.”

And it’s true. Pittsburgh didn’t die with U.S. Steel, hospitals popped up and expanded as rapidly as cells divide, schools recruited more and more engineers and musicians and teachers and doctors, museums named after Carnegie (just like the projects were) filled with more and more private donations. But we could have died. We could have failed. We could have experienced an Exodus. But we didn’t. We built. We grew. We adapted.

In 2010, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was named the most livable city in the world. That doesn’t mean the skeletons of the empire that built us don’t loom over our hillsides and riverbanks along all three of our rivers.

Damen Silos in Chicago sits empty and covered in graffiti, a stark reminder of a time when the city contributed to the grain empire of “the breadbasket of America.” Meanwhile, the back of the yards have hardly changed, while the Meat Packing District has since fizzled into the history books as a grim allegory. The abandoned Cook County hospital still stands as ornate and detailed as a looted Russian palace after the revolution, literally right behind the new hospitals that constitute Chicago’s Medical District. Abandoned synagogues, post offices and condemned brownstones litter the city, the boards once covering their kicked-in windows long ago. 

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

A massive asylum stands guard over the outskirts of Philadelphia. A hauntingly beautiful carousel sits as the crown jewel of a boardwalk in New Jersey's Asbury Park, desolate. Half of Detroit remains a ghost town consumed by weeds, houses selling for $1 once or twice a year in the hopes of a Renaissance that has been a long time coming.

Courtesy of Marlo Montanaro

Courtesy of Marlo Montanaro

The cities of the Rust Belt are neither dead nor dying, they are frozen. Stagnant. Haunted, preserved, heartbroken. They are America’s ruins, reminding us of a time, an industry, and a way of life so little of our generation understands, even though many of us are the products of their love and labor.

A boiler from the same steel mill my grandfather worked in still sits on the riverside in Pittsburgh, surrounded by a fountain, part decoration and part memorial. Something that once had the ability to maim and kill hundreds of men in an instant, is now something that people pose in front of for photo opps and children play by while their parents wait for their Hard Rock Cafe reservation. It is our roots communicating with us, saying “notice us,

love us,

please,

don’t forget about us,

don’t forget

we were here,

we made you.”