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“Steel Made This Town” An Unfinished Story in Uncertain Times We should build a museum that does for Pittsburgh what the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame did for Cleveland: make it a tourist destination. . . . Instead of spending more time searching for the perfect marketing slogan, isn’t it time to focus our collective efforts on showcasing the one thing that already defines our city to the rest of the world? Let’s use our steely resolve to send a message loud and clear, “Yes, we’re the Steel City—and darn proud of it.” —Letter to the editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 19, 2002 When the American steel industry collapsed in the closing decades of the twentieth century, the blow was felt perhaps most painfully in Pennsylvania, home to the largest plants of U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel. Together, these two companies had forged the ingredients of the nation’s greatest bridges and skyscrapers , as well as huge battleships engaged in both World Wars. The wave of abrupt plant closures across the state in the 1980s had social as well as economic consequences , bringing to an end not only jobs but also a way of life that had defined entire towns and cities. Since then, a range of public debates have taken place regarding how steelmaking and its losses should be publicly remembered. In some cases, the dispute is over who should get to tell this story; in other cases, it is over the question of whether or not the story should be told at all. Especially in the face of real need for economic development—new high-tech businesses, new tourism and hospitality venues—why insist on reminding everyone that a town or city was once, perhaps too recently, full of smoky industry? “The steel heritage people—that’s their mission, but they’re the only people who talk about that,” one museum director told me. 130   Pennsylvania in Public Memory In recent years they have been talking a lot, and the desire of former steelworkers and steel communities to be culturally compensated for their economic losses has attracted federal and state monies as well as press coverage. Due largely to the efforts of the late U.S. Representative John Murtha, who represented an area including Johnstown, federal funding created the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission in 1988 “to develop and enhance old industrial sites to promote tourism.”1 In the same year, a Steel Valley Heritage Task Force was created in the Pittsburgh area, funded in part by the National Park Service, and other redevelopment programs were funded in that region by the Heinz Endowment.2 Over the past two decades, these efforts have resulted in a series of worthy if largely unconnected heritage projects, many of which are still just beginning to address the subject of steel. In Bethlehem, where steelmaking’s departure is most recent, it is still unclear whose vision will prevail among several proposals for commercial and cultural projects drawing on the city’s industrial past. “A City Recast?” The Transformation of an Industrial Symbol Of Pennsylvania’s steelmaking sites, Pittsburgh is the most visible symbol of the industry and its loss. Writing in 1992, the year of the one-hundredth anniversary of the labor battle that made Homestead famous, William Serrin described the public response to these initiatives, which was, in short, unhappy. The citizens of Homestead didn’t want parks and museums; they wanted their jobs back. They resented the hypocrisy of sudden public interest in the area, writes Serrin, whose account summarizes a common criticism of industrial heritage in general: In its tragedy, Homestead became fashionable, as what might be called “working-class chic” or “working-class voyeurism” arose. For this to happen , it was necessary that the mill be closed and the workers disappear. When the Homestead Works was operating and Homestead was a dirty steel town, people from outside paid no attention to it. They had no desire to go to a dirty steel town or to hang around with steelworkers. But once Homestead was a relic, Homestead was the rage. There were study groups and committees, historical exhibits, film proposals, lectures, brown-bag lunches, dinners, economic analyses, historical surveys, oral histories, a An Unfinished Story   131 case study of disinvestment and redevelopment plans in the Monongahela Valley done by the Harvard Business School.3 Despite the initial interest of outsiders, the region’s tourism promoters have been skittish about fully embracing a heritage story about steelmaking...


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