By Michael Broida
To visit Slavic Village, preferably wait until a bitterly cold evening in February, and in the dark and the snow, take the I-77 North exit for Pershing Avenue. Turn west, and as the road becomes a dead-end, ignore the sparseness of the streetlights and the horrifying industrial shapes rearing up from the barbed-wire fences on either side of you. Ignore the stark and abstract loneliness of the place, how if you were going to be murdered this would be a great, really clichéd place to be murdered in a horror-movie kind of way. At the end of the road, be sure to kill the engine and the lights to take it all in. Remember that some old timer at a Polish deli told you that this used to be a bridge that spanned the river valley all the way to Tremont, but now Pershing Avenue just peters out into the in nity of the evening, chunks of rebar and concrete hanging out over the broad expanse of the valley like something out of a Philip Levine poem. The only thing between you and an accidental, doom-filled tumble is a chain-linked fence.
Yet above you is the blast forge of the steel mill, and from its vast mouth roars the brightest, most terrifying fire you’ve ever seen: bigger than a skyscraper and singular in the night sky. is is what you’ve come to see, a religious moments of sorts. You wonder if this is what Moses felt when seeing the burning bush, the kind of unrestrained and simultaneous biblical awe and puny, insignificant smallness, that what you’re witnessing in that nighttime burn is a power greater than that of men, that you’re seeing the pure execution of industry and the culmination of generations of thought and ingenuity. You realize, in a come-to-Jesus moment about this place, that all the ramshackle little duplexes, all the tired-looking storefronts, all the empty lots and blownout brick warehouses are tied to this flame, that this power goes beyond blast forges and rolling presses, beyond economics and payrolls, that the spirit of the very city is tied deeply to that flame, and here you are, on its altar. Industry, the steel, slag, and creosote, are the bones of this place, even from the bright, crowded restaurant lights of East 4th Street to the County Line atop Mayfield Hill. When you have felt the scales fall from your eyes, be sure not to tarry too long. When you leave, be sure to tell all you meet: the Rust Belt lives. In fact, it burns brightly.
Mike Broida spent his first eighteen years eating pierogis on a shady, quiet brick street in Slavic Village. He currently lives in Boston, where he writes about books, travel and bicycles.