Month: May 2016

Carrie Furnaces, Still Mills, and a Baby Goat

 

Last summer, I went to Carrie Furnaces with my dad and my grandmother. The above images are from the beginning of the tour.  My grandmother is in her 90s, and she co-opted the tour a few times telling us about when she worked in the office of a mill in Swissville. One of the other tour participants worked in the mills shortly before they closed, so he told us some first hand stories also about what it was like to work in a furnace.

I also found out that my grandfather actually worked at Carrie Furnaces. It is amazing the things you never know; I guess because you have to ask those specific questions. My grandfather was a stationary engineer and worked in the mills for about forty years.

My dad grew up in North Braddock, and my grandmother wanted him to work in the mills too–because what else would you do? My father had the prescience to turn away from the mills and attend college and then graduate school. That decision changed the course of his life and paved the way for an economic stability that he would not have had had he followed the traditional path to the mills, which were collapsing in the years immediately before and after my brother and I were born.

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I was paying good attention on the tour, but a year out I cannot remember exactly the details of everything we saw in the steel mill. (Carrie Furnaces were actually producing iron, but it is hard not to call it a steel mill, or a still mill, if you will.) What I mostly remember is the sheer scale of the equipment. I felt awed by the scale of the machines and the power they represented. The furnace seemed like a force of life that was not exactly god-like but demanded its own creation-based respect.

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I  mean, look at that thing. I was born in 1984, so I don’t remember this Pittsburgh. I have spent a lot of time trying to imagine what it was like to work in an environment where you were in danger of dying on a very regular basis. Standing in front of this furnace, I try to feel the heat. I try to picture the molten iron emerging from the furnace, but it is all to remote to really capture. I know there are still many dangerous jobs like these mill positions to be had, but as someone who has mostly performed intellectual labor this kind of work is very foreign to me.

Yet, it also seems very intrinsic to who I am. The mill provided a connection to a long line of my ancestors who were mill workers, carpenters, and various other kinds of laborers.  While I wear a lot of skirts and sandals and have never owned steel-toed boots, I am a hard worker and can be rather tenacious. There are little flints of steel inside of me that tell me to persevere. Looking at the slanted light in the mill, I can imagine that I got that endurance from the workers in my family who came before me and had to be resilient every single day of their lives just to make it through the day–just to do the jobs they had to do.

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If you are a Pittsburgher, and you haven’t been to Carrie Furnaces you should go and maybe take family members who will tell you surprising facts about their lives before you were born. “Grandma, why did your father leave Scotland?” I asked. “Well, his father died of the black lung and…” Yeah, why did no one tell me this before?

Finally, on a different note, there also were goats chomping the weeds. And baby goats are really, really cute.

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Mini-Post on Amelia Morris’ Bon Appetempt

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I picked up Bon Appetempt by Amelia Morris because of a Year in Reading post by Tess Malone on The Millions. I don’t actually know why I decided to look that book up rather than the other ones in Malone’s post. It could have been when Malone described the book as being about “owning up to your own failures” but honestly, I think it might have been the pretty cover. Regardless, I was pleased to read that Morris had grown up in western Pennsylvania. When you come from a place that doesn’t feel like it is represented in print that much, it is pleasant just to be familiar with the places discussed. Although we both went to high school in suburban Pittsburgh and I think are pretty similar in age, our upbringings and our relationships to our families don’t have that much in common. I related more (not that a book has to be relatable) to her desire as an adult to be creative and have concrete evidence of her creative endeavors. She explains how she started her blog, the titular Bon Appetempt, to show “the inherent ridiculousness of the faux perfection found in food magazines.” But she also started the blog as a way to have a designated and structured space to write and show evidence of her writing. She writes about sending out a draft of a novel and waiting to hear from agents. Morris says, “All summer long, my life had the potential to change, just like that.” But her life was already changing, because she was steadily working on her writing in the form of Bon Appetempt. What I found appealing about her description of her writing is a variation on “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” but Morris gets the reader to that feeling much more eloquently than that cliche can.

The Spaces of Gentrification and August Wilson

 

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ECU Archives via Eat That, Read This

As Pittsburgh is officially anointed a cool place, new residents, new construction, and new revitalization projects begin to dot the landscape. Many of these changes are thrilling for Pittsburghers and citizens across the region. However, not all of these changes are positive and the negative impacts are shouldered by specific neighborhoods with large populations of people of color. When reading and thinking about these changes in the city, I have turned to August Wilson’s texts which can help us understand the consequences of disenfranchising neighborhoods by showing the impacts marginalization has on individuals in specific communities.

Much of the current discussion about changes in the city centers on East Liberty. As the Post-Gazette has reported for a few years, the real estate costs in East Liberty and surrounding areas are increasing. These higher costs are associated with the movement of tech companies, like Google, into the area. In 2015, the Black Homes Matter booklet documented the effects this has had on residents pushed out of East Liberty. Former resident Aaron Vire says that his family moved to Millville for affordable housing. Now, he laments, “I had to buy a car to commute back here to my job, and then I had to take another job to pay for the car. I work 48 hours at one job, 32 at the other. I get very little sleep. And I miss my neighborhood.” Other residents being forced out of the area include those living in Penn Plaza Apartments. Like Vire, many of the residents are finding it difficult to move and stay in the same neighborhood because of the rising costs in the community.

There is growing concern that such developments will exacerbate not only income inequality but also racial segregation in the city. As Damon Young points out in a recent piece—told through his relationship with his barber—the growth in East Liberty  “coincid[ed] with a radical racial demographic shift.” When discussing the architecture of the Penn Plaza Apartments, John Conti notes that the new residents will be “almost surely be white, younger and wealthier” than the current residents.

The worries about the changing demographics of specific neighborhoods is tied to the lack of diversity in the city itself. The 2016 “Pittsburgh Regional Diversity Survey” provides a glimpse of the situation facing people of color. The survey found that “79 percent of whites feel the region embraces racial and ethnic minorities.” Unfortunately, only “41 percent of minorities” answered in a similar way (5). The African-Americans surveyed were the “least likely to feel the region and their workplace are very diverse and to feel welcome in the community” (11). The survey results showcase issues that will be exacerbated if the city continues encouraging heedless development.

Following this news in Pittsburgh, I found myself wondering about how August Wilson would represent this time in the city’s history. Wilson so astutely noted the forces of change in the city and how those changes affected African American communities. Just as East Liberty becomes a microcosm for the current state of the city, Wilson writes about change by focusing on the small—small neighborhoods and small community networks. The larger historical forces changing the city and impacting the character’s lives are in the background of his tight focus, which is largely on areas in the Hill District.

Wilson cannot write us a new play to comment on this time in Pittsburgh’s history, but his past work can serve as a reminder of what transformation without progress looks like.

Picture1Wilson’s plays demonstrate the consequences of thoughtless change and illustrate how Pittsburgh has a history of pushing vulnerable citizens to the margins. In the stage directions for Fences, Wilson writes about the African Americans moving north during the Great Migration. He says of the reception that they found in Pittsburgh, “the city rejected them and they fled and settled along the riverbanks and under bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses.” Right before this passage, Wilson describes how the city embraced the immigrants of Europe and allowed them to capitalize on the dreams that they “dared.” For African Americans in Fences, their dreams are harder to see and achieve because of the spaces the city has allowed them to exist in. The characters in Fences struggle to assert themselves in a place where they are constantly reminded of boundaries and limitations.

The idea of “fences”—what fences keep in and what they keep out—is the central throughline of the play. The main characters are building a fence to encompass their yard, but in most instances throughout the play, they are subject to fences that are not of their own making. Troy, the protagonist, started his baseball career at a late age because he spent time in prison. Troy’s wife, Rose, cannot keep him from cheating on her and cannot mend his relationship with his children no matter how hard she tries to get a fence built to box them all in. Cory, Rose and Troy’s son, is forced out of his parents’ house, and Troy makes it clear that Cory is not welcome back by placing his belongings on the other side of the fence.

Everyone in the play is trying to negotiate what occurs in their space. Space becomes a marker for what is happening in their lives. If you cannot control your own space—if you cannot take literal or figurative ownership of the space you are afforded—then you face a more precarious future.

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In Two Trains Running, set in the decade after Fences, the focus is on a small restaurant run by the character Memphis. The restaurant is the center of the action in the play. All of the characters are shaped by their interactions with each other in that small space. It is in the restaurant, for example, that Sterling, recently released from prison, reconnects with his childhood playmate, Risa. He is scarred from his time in prison, and she has scarred her legs to keep men away from her. But regardless of these scars, they share a moment of passion and connection while dancing to Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look.” This moment perfectly encapsulates Wilson’s ability to focus on the small moments while connecting them to much larger cultural currents.

Memphis’ restaurant is soon to close because of larger forces. The city plans to take over the block the restaurant is on. As the city begins buying up property on the block, West, a neighboring businessman, tries to purchase the restaurant from Memphis, but Memphis is determined to hold out and get a fair price for his restaurant. Memphis’ plans for what he will do with the money involve going back to the south from which he was forced to leave. Memphis is determined that he will go back and reclaim the land he was run off of. He says, “I’m going back to Jackson and see Stovall. If he ain’t there, then I’m gonna see his son…I’m going on back up to Jackson and pick up the ball.” After his trip to Jackson, Memphis plans to come back to Pittsburgh where he is “gonna open me up a big restaurant right down there on Centre Avenue.” Memphis’ words are hopeful, yet he also repeats “if I get back” every time he says what he is going to do “when I come back.” Memphis has a plan, knows the perilous nature of that plan, and is proceeding because he believes in what is owed him. Here, Wilson shows us resilience in the face of circumstances that give the characters few choices.

Wilson writes about African Americans who have made space for themselves as they are continually pushed into corners of the city. He wrote from personal experience of the city, and the current experiences of many in Pittsburgh echo Wilson’s sentiments. Connecting Wilson’s texts to the present conversations about gentrification illustrates how long and deep these discussions go in Pittsburgh and gives us a jumping off point to ask if we can do better. Does the city have, as Nick Coles asks, “the courage to implement equitable development”?

While Mayor Bill Peduto  gets so-so reviews on affordable housing, there has been a lot of activism and attention around these housing issues in recent months and some positive news is slowly trickling out. For instance, Diana Nelson Jones reported on nonprofit and corporate work to protect fair housing prices in Lawrenceville, Oakland, and East Liberty. If Pittsburgh is going to be a #livablecity that thrives, access to affordable housing needs to be an issue addressed now and going forward. To continue in this manner regard should be given to voices like Wilson’s. While he is writing about fictional characters, he is also writing the history of his city, and he encapsulates how devastating destruction of communities through discrimination and development can be. If we listen to Wilson, sustainable development in the city will be more of the norm and less of the exception.