- Beyond the Furnace: Concrete, Conservation, and Community in Postindustrial Pittsburgh
The year 2009 was especially significant for Pittsburgh. The city had just celebrated its 250th anniversary with a year-long series of concerts, parades, and other public spectacles. Among these were renovations to the iconic Point State Park, the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail to Cumberland, Maryland, and a “Parade of Champions” at the Senator John Heinz History Center featuring the legends of Pittsburgh sports. City leaders saw in these festivities an opportunity for fostering [End Page 76] “improved regional perceptions of Pittsburgh” and “defining a vision for our region’s future.” The marketing blitz paid quick and unexpected dividends when in May the Obama administration announced the community would host an upcoming G20 Summit. The president’s emphasis on “the green economy” meshed perfectly with the booster narrative of Pittsburgh as “a great poster child [for] economic transformation.” Combined with the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory and the Penguins winning the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup, by the end of the year residents of the ’Burgh had plenty to justify claims that they were back from the ruins of deindustrialization.1
Though marked by less fanfare, 2009 also witnessed the publication of two fascinating books by the University of Pittsburgh Press that drew heavily on these same themes of economic and environmental transformation. Designed explicitly for an audience beyond the confines of the academy, Franklin Toker’s Pittsburgh: A New Portrait and Edward K. Muller’s edited volume, An Uncommon Passage: Travelling through History on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail, are also of importance to scholars for their insight into the process of community and regional regeneration in the postindustrial era. Each text spans nearly 300 years of history, and they suggest both the opportunities and the difficulties in weaving together multiple themes and sites of urban, suburban, and rural development into a coherent narrative. The books thus resonate with recent environmental and urban history scholarship, such as David Stradling’s Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills (2007), Matthew Klingle’s Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle (2007), and Anthony Penna’s Remaking Boston: An Environmental History of the City and Its Surroundings (2009).
Taken together, Toker and the contributors to An Uncommon Passage provide readers a nuanced portrait of a region extending from the central city to the farthest reaches of its countryside. The books are linked by an explicit analytical focus on the adaptive reuse of physical infrastructure, whether natural or artificial, for contemporary needs. The transformation of derelict train tracks into well-used bicycle paths is a key example of this process. “Abandoned railroad tracks,” Muller argues, offer “the ideal venue [for] biking . . . and in the process redefine the role of the Great Allegheny Passage in the postindustrial economy” (8). Toker similarly concludes, “the speed with which Pittsburgh can reinvent itself may be best exemplified by bicycling. Bikers in other cities know of Pittsburgh’s excellent cycling, and at least a few have moved here just for that reason” (29). Using the contemporary landscape as their starting point, both volumes dig beneath the [End Page 77] surface to find what Kevin Patrick describes in his chapter, “The Spirit of the Passage: Where Past and Future Meet,” in An Uncommon Passage as the “ghosts of the past and remnant bits of historic landscape [with which we] share the stage” (201).
Of the two books, An Uncommon Passage is much shorter and written in a narrative style free of jargon that will appeal to casual readers. The Great Allegheny Passage trail extends for 150 miles across the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, bringing together the cultures and ecologies of the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest. Following an uncommonly good introductory overview by Muller, conservationist and photographer Paul Wiegman takes...