The following selection from Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America, by Allen Dieterich-Ward, is excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press. For more information see:

View of the Carrie Furnaces, 2014. Built in 1907, the furnaces on the north side of the Monongahela River produced iron for the Homestead Works from 1907 to 1978. Allegheny County purchased the site from Park Corporation in 2005. Furnaces 6 and 7 were declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006. [Courtesy of Amanda Dieterich-Ward]

View of the Carrie Furnaces, 2014. Built in 1907, the furnaces on the north side of the Monongahela River produced iron for the Homestead Works from 1907 to 1978. Allegheny County purchased the site from Park Corporation in 2005. Furnaces 6 and 7 were declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006. [Courtesy of Amanda Dieterich-Ward]

This third and final excerpt (read: part one and part two) from the book Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America focuses on Homestead, Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s best-known mill towns and site of an infamous 1892 battle between striking workers at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Works and armed guards from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. During the 1990s, activists, politicians and business leaders from throughout metropolitan Pittsburgh struggled to control not only economic and political resources but also the sites and stories of public memory. With the skies cleared, the rivers cleaned, and many of the mills demolished, at the turn of the twenty-first century the process of interpreting, reenacting, and symbolically consuming “Rivers of Steel,” as the Homestead-based National Heritage Area came to be known, helped forge new connections between communities and among residents.

At the same time, the obvious inequities of celebrating a lost blue-collar world through participation in a low-wage, service-driven economy called into question the sustainability of a heritage-based development model. Further, as in Wheeling, West Virginia, civic leaders in Homestead struggled to maintain the types of public-private partnerships that drove Pittsburgh’s post-industrial transformation. On the other hand, proponents of Rivers of Steel eventually succeeded in saving the iconic Carrie Furnaces, a victory that suggests the potential, however fraught, of heritage preservation for creating powerful symbols around which diverse coalitions can be assembled within the market-driven framework of neoliberal urbanism. In an event, it seems clear that the fate of metropolitan Pittsburgh, and the rest of America’s older manufacturing areas, rests with integrating the industrial past into the cultural and physical landscapes of the future.

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“Malls and Museums”

In light of their efforts to attract the stores, restaurants, and vibrant nightlife essential for remaking the downtown riverfront, Wheeling officials would have gladly changed places with Betty Esper, Homestead’s mayor, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Waterfront Town Center in October 1998. Ten years earlier, U.S. Steel had sold the shuttered Homestead Works and the Carrie Furnaces across the Monongahela River to the Park Corporation, a Cleveland-based firm known for buying abandoned industrial properties and making whatever use of them it could. Residents spent the next decade watching the Steel Valley’s rusted industrial heart being cleared and sold for scrap, even as the borough itself entered the state’s distressed communities program in 1993. It is no wonder, then, that the announcement the brownfield would be transformed into a $300 million, suburban-style mixed-use mall felt “like a Christmas present” to Esper. Furthermore, Continental Realty, the Waterfront developer, supported telling “the story of what Homestead was about” and agreed to incorporate a few signature industrial elements into the site design in partnership with the nonprofit corporation overseeing the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. On the other hand, the ongoing deterioration of the older central business district, which was separated from the Waterfront by active railroad lines, along with questions about what to do with the hulking Carrie Furnaces, revealed continuing struggles to control the region’s physical and symbolic landscapes. Consequently, there is perhaps no better place than Homestead to encapsulate the fraught nature of metropolitan Pittsburgh’s identity at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The story of Homestead’s post-steel transformation began in 1983, even before the closure of the Homestead Works, with Park’s purchase of the bankrupt Mesta Machinery in West Homestead for $9 million. According to the company’s history, President Ray Park was approached by a Mesta bookkeeper during his initial stroll through the property and asked what he wanted to do about a number of unfilled orders. Park looked at the equipment, decided to turn everything on, and, after those orders were completed, kept the machines running. While portions of the site were put to other uses, most notably for the construction of a large waterpark, over the next few years Park acquired seven other industrial firms from around the Midwest and grouped them together to form West Homestead Engineering and Machine Company, a global supplier of heavy industrial components. As a result, when Park executives met with local leaders in July 1988 to discuss their recent acquisition of the much larger U.S. Steel site, many residents and unemployed steel workers expressed “a very high interest in reopening part of the Homestead Works.” However, a subsequent study found that of the region’s disused large mill sites, only the electric arc furnaces at LTV’s South Side Works could be operated profitably as a standalone steel producer. As a result, despite some attempts by Park and others to restart parts of the mill over the next few years, by 1990 it was clear that the site’s future would not primarily be one of reindustrialization.

Other attendees at the meeting in July 1988 had a different vision for the site and advocated for the creation of a heritage park showcasing the region’s “proud and nationally significant” industrial history. Earlier that year, Earl James of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation had initiated the creation of a Steel Industry Heritage Task Force (SIHTF) that included historians, preservationists and the Allegheny Conference as well as community organizers and local leaders in the Monongahela Valley. In September, a preliminary report supported by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission recommended the creation of a heritage park that would include the Carrie Furnaces on the north side of the Monongahela, the Hot Metal Bridge across the river, and several buildings of the Homestead Works, including the Pump House and water tower that marked the landing site of the Pinkerton detectives at the beginning of the 1892 labor battle. Over the next few years, proponents expanded this vision to a series of interpretative sites throughout southwestern Pennsylvania that would “conserve and enhance this region’s resources and, more importantly, create new economic development opportunities.”

[blocktext align=”right”]”It’s a very political process. The only way this project is going to fly is with public support.”[/blocktext]As in Wheeling, however, the costs associated with transforming the riverfront brownfield site dwarfed the available resources as proponents looked to state and federal agencies for funding. In September 1988, David Bergholz, assistant executive director of the Allegheny Conference and chair of the SIHTF, urged state Commerce Secretary Ray Christman, who had formerly held positions with both URAP and the Allegheny Conference, to consider a “heritage park-related economic development agenda.” “It’s a very political process,” Bergholz declared. “The only way this project is going to fly is with public support.” The next year, Pennsylvania initiated a state Heritage Areas program, creating a bureaucratic and funding framework on which local heritage proponents would build. With backing from Pittsburgh foundations, in 1990 the SIHTF hired August Carlino, a Pittsburgh native from a politically connected family who had previously served in a number of political and lobbying positions in Washington, D.C., as executive director. As with Byrd in Wheeling, museum backers found a strong supporter in Senator John Heinz, who, before his sudden death in 1991, introduced a series of measures that helped fund National Park Service planning studies. The SIHTF reorganized as the Steel Industry Heritage Corporation (SIHC) the next year and took possession of their first property, the Bost Building in Homestead, which they hoped to restore as an archive, museum, and visitor’s center. In April 1996, Rivers of Steel was designated as the state’s eighth “heritage park” and later that year President Clinton signed the bill designating the region a National Heritage Area.

Despite these political victories, events on the ground threatened to overtake heritage advocates as they negotiated the purchase of key properties from the Park Corporation and faced increasing impatience from community leaders desperate to create new jobs. Finding few options for either restarting the Homestead Works or selling properties to industrial firms, by the end of 1988 the company had already begun demolition of the site. While the SIHC and Park were able to compromise on some issues, including the dismantling and storage of a 200-ton rolling mill, tensions increased over the next two years as the company continued its demolition and advocates struggled to raise the funds necessary to purchase key buildings. “We don’t want something to sit there for years and years with nothing done with it,” Ray Park declared. “We don’t believe they can do it. We don’t believe it’s feasible.” Instead of trying to preserve the enormous Carrie Furnaces and large mill buildings, Park advocated a smaller museum focused on the Pump House and adjacent water tower where the Pinkerton guards landed by boat in 1892. For Jo DeBolt, who had replaced Bergholz as task force chair, however, “fixing up two little buildings” would not give the site the “size and kind of development” necessary for a National Park site.

Following a series of tense public meetings, Park officials informed task force members and state legislators in spring 1990 that the company had “irrevocably” decided that it would not sell any of the property to museum backers, including the thirty-two acres of the Carrie Furnace site deemed essential for a potential national park. While the company subsequently backed off its hardline position, over the next four years it demolished virtually every building on the south side of the river except for the Pump House and water tower, which it suggested should be renovated and preserved as part of a “minimalist interpretive program for the site.” Further, had there been a better market for scrap metal in the 1990s or the Carrie Furnaces located in a more easily accessible location, they, too, probably would have been dismantled and the site put up for sale. However, under Carlino’s leadership, museum backers slowly gained legitimacy and raised funds for their vision of the site, and in June 1992 Park agreed to sell seventy-seven acres of the Carrie Furnaces site to the SIHC for about $1.5 million. The Howard Heinz Endowment agreed to fund the purchase, but the whole project was contingent on obtaining designation as a national historic park site and a funding commitment from state officials and the National Park Service, which remained hesitant about the financial liability of maintaining the enormous complex. As a result, even before work began on the Waterfront in 1997, it was clear that the early concept of a comprehensive industrial museum that would drive economic development in Homestead would not come to fruition.

As negotiations for the Carrie Furnaces dragged on, advocates began to reevaluate their strategy in terms of both regional development and community empowerment. First, Carlino focused on the more modest renovation of the Bost Building along Eighth Avenue in downtown Homestead, which SIHC researchers discovered was the headquarters for striking unionists in 1892, to house an archive and a small museum. “This building was abandoned and dilapidated, and the cost of renovation was far more than any business would put into it,” Carlino later recalled. “We’re talking about a small struggling task force at that point in time,” and I said to Jo Debolt, “how are we ever going to convince Park Corporation or any political official that we can do something on the scale of Homestead and Carrie if we don’t save this building?'” The project ended up taking ten years to complete even after they bought it at sheriff’s sale for $2,000, paid $48,000 in back taxes with a foundation grant, and persuaded Mellon Bank to negotiate a $250,000 lien on the property. “We boarded up the windows and put a new roof on it,” Carlino continued, which “bought us time to conduct the architectural designs, get a National Historic Landmark designation, [and] buy some of the adjacent lots for the necessary parking.”

By the time the Bost Building unveiled its first exhibit, titled “Century of Steel — Homestead Steel Works: 1881-1986,” the public and private fundraising required to raise the $4.5 million needed for renovation had mobilized SIHC to assemble a regional coalition, not an easy task considering the area’s political fragmentation and the frequent skepticism of local officials who saw little economic advantage in pouring resources into fixing up dilapidated buildings. In what was called an “unprecedented cooperative venture,” in September 1990, six counties, three state agencies, the National Park Service and various other groups signed a memorandum of understanding with the SIHC to coordinate their efforts in planning for the heritage area. A modest number of grants from state and national heritage programs allowed the SIHC to identify and provide support services for a broader range of historic sites in southwestern Pennsylvania that could be linked within the emerging heritage area framework. Most important, SIHC’s modest staff served as “a filter” for state heritage area officials, which allowed for “building up a constituency” of local groups applying for grants. Holding this diverse coalition of local governments and nonprofits together, not to mention supporting their efforts with the Bost Building and Carrie Furnaces, also required Carlino and his staff to justify “Homestead’s existence as a key central mill [within] this Pittsburgh industrial system,” in which mines, mills, and corporate offices were “connected because they were all part of this huge conglomerate that was working in different ways.”

At this point, the process of building a regional political coalition intersected with the scholarship of historical geographer Edward K. “Ted” Muller, an early member of the SIHTF and vice chair of SIHC after its formation in 1992. Muller was also a founder of the Friends of the Riverfront, and during the late 1980s he began publishing a series of influential essays that both explored the “legacy of industrial rivers” and suggested a new framework for integrating the industrial history of the city of Pittsburgh with its broader metropolitan region. “Ted’s research … showed how all of these river communities and their industries were connected,” Carlino recalled. “It was an epiphany when he explained it and it helped build a regional coalition were communities didn’t feel slighted or left out. They were part of the big picture.” Based on early planning efforts funded by state and federal grants and supported by Muller’s scholarship, the SIHC’s 1995 Management Action Plan called for a series of “Regional Journeys”: driving tours and water routes that told the Steel Valley’s story from Connellsville’s “Mountains of Fire” to the “Thunder of Protest” by organized labor in Aliquippa and Ambridge to the mills of “Big Steel” in Pittsburgh and Homestead. “We were the first ones that said this is all an integrated system,” Carlino concluded. “From as far as you can trace in the counties we were allowed to work on, [from] Brady’s Bend all the way to the state line on the Ohio River, all the way down, you know this is all an integrated, complex system connected by this whole waterway. And I don’t think anyone ever looked at it that way.”

[blocktext align=”left”]”This was all about helping communities that had been stomped on and [left] without much identity and sense of self-worth.”[/blocktext]Rivers of Steel’s geographical location coupled with Pennsylvania’s proactive heritage areas program allowed Carlino and his staff to scale up their activities to a regional level, acting as a coordinating body between government agencies and private businesses within the emerging framework of neoliberal urbanism. Indeed, Jo Debolt, the driving force in transforming the SIHTF into the SIHC, was executive director of the Mon Valley Initiative, a coalition of ten CDCs set up by the Allegheny Conference in 1988 to “unite the communities” and “restore the economic vitality” in one of the areas hardest hit by the collapse of steel. “I learned very quickly,” Muller recalled, “from Jo that she wasn’t in there for any of the history. This was all about helping communities that had been stomped on and [left] without much identity and sense of self-worth. And I very quickly came to agree with her, to be quite honest.” Staff members Randy Harris and Mike Bilcsik would “go as community organizers before we’d even get to a town,” Carlino explained. “Our philosophy was that we weren’t going to do the project; we had to find people in those communities that would come to the table willing to do it. We’d help, but we couldn’t recreate paternalistic institutions.” A key example of SIHC’s work was in Brownsville, where the local CDC had its eye on the 1835 Flatiron Building that would have greeted Reuben Gold Thwaites when he set out from the community on his journey down the Monongahela River a century earlier. Brownsville was really struggling and “this was a key project of theirs,” Carlino remembered, so we wanted to demonstrate what “the heritage area effort meant to a redevelopment strategy for a CDC and point to the fact that you could restore these buildings in ways that they have meaning and use afterward.”

This goal of building an authentic community identity by adapting the physical and social landscape formed the key link to the public-private partnership guiding Pittsburgh’s high-tech transformation. No one represented this connection better than Ray Christman, who, after leaving his position as state commerce secretary in 1991, was named president of the Pittsburgh High Technology Council and soon thereafter also took over as SIHC chair. “No region in the world symbolized steel more than Pittsburgh,” Christman declared. “This place literally defined industrial activity and manufacturing,” and SIHC represented “a way to remember and commemorate that.” At the urging of heritage backers, including former executive director Robert Pease, the Allegheny Conference identified Rivers of Steel as a major initiative in 1994, particularly because of its focus on riverfront development and themed attractions. For the SIHC and its supporters making a place for the industrial past in the post-industrial future was about more than attracting tourists. What we “were saying is that this region has a very unique, iconic image and it’s one that no place else can claim,” Carlino later explained. Nevertheless, questions about the costs and benefits of heritage development lingered and Pittsburgh boosters including Christman remained concerned about public perception of the city as “stuck with steel.” “Strangely [we] had to do a huge battle with the Conference” because of the focus on “rebranding Pittsburgh,” Carlino added. It seemed like regional marketers were “saying that our heritage and anyone that worked in mining or manufacturing or a job related to that wasn’t important to the new Pittsburgh.” Instead, our goal was to say “look who we were, look who we are,” Muller explained. “We still are that way even though all of this deindustrialization occurred and that is to be proud of [and] built on.”

As the connections linking former industrial sites throughout the region began to take shape in the early years of the twenty-first century, however, the ongoing impasse over the Carrie Furnaces remained a symbol of the difficulties faced by public-private partnerships in overcoming the political, economic, and environmental inheritance of the Steel Valley’s industrial age. SIHC’s allies in Congress continued to advocate for creation of a national park, the renovated Bost Building in Homestead opened in 2002 as an archives and museum, Continental Realty donated the Pump House, and the Union Railroad transferred ownership of the Hot Metal Bridge across the Monongahela River. But, the group still did not own the Carrie Furnaces nor did it have the funds to fully renovate and maintain them. Further, the site straddled the boroughs of Rankin, Swissvale, and Braddock just outside of the Pittsburgh’s city limits, which complicated the type of public-private deal making trumpeted by Tom Murphy. “It is unsightly, in a way,” Ray Park declared in March 2000. “We only held onto it because of the ongoing talks. We are sort of at the end of our line on that.”

[blocktext align=”right”]It seemed like regional marketers were “saying that our heritage and anyone that worked in mining or manufacturing or a job related to that wasn’t important to the new Pittsburgh.” Instead, our goal was to say “look who we were, look who we are. We still are that way even though all of this deindustrialization occurred and that is to be proud of [and] built on.”[/blocktext]However, following the successful collaboration between city and county officials in remaking the South Side Works, in 1999 the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County began planning for the Carrie Furnaces site in consultation with local communities and the SIHC. Negotiations with Park Corporation again bogged down amid uncertainty about the level of environmental remediation required before the site could be used. Finally, after the company received a permit to demolish the furnaces, in 2005 county officials announced agreement on a plan to purchase the 137 acres north of the river for $5.75 million. The next year, with the Park Corporation out of the picture, the National Park Service finally declared the Carrie Furnaces a National Historic Landmark more than twenty-five years after advocates began working to create a great museum of Pittsburgh’s steel industry. “This is a good day and this site will be developed in our lifetime,” declared U.S. Representative Mike Doyle of Swissvale, whose grandfather worked at the Carrie Furnaces for forty years. “We’re going to leave this better for our kids and grandkids.” “We’ve got all of our hard work ahead of us now,” Carlino added.

In September 2003, the same year the Bost Building finally launched its first exhibition on the Homestead Works and the opening of The Highlands spelled the end of the Victorian Wheeling Outlets, more than 2,500 politicians, journalists, corporate executives, community organizers, and Pittsburgh residents gathered on the banks of the Allegheny River to celebrate the massive renovation of the $354 million David L. Lawrence Convention Center. For Tom Murphy, the opening represented “a milestone” for the city that symbolized its “economic and environmental transition from industry-driven to innovation-driven.” The original facility, built in 1981, had only loading docks on the water’s edge, but the reoriented complex sat proudly along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail and the catenary curves of its award winning architecture paid homage to Pittsburgh’s bridges. The project and the nearby Heinz History Center, housed in the exquisitely restored Chautauqua Lake Ice Company Building, served to connect the theaters of the city’s thriving Cultural District to the trendy shops, restaurants, and bars of the heritage-themed Strip District. Looking to the left out of enormous windows, guests could see the lights of the new PNC Park, another project backed by the city’s public-private partnerships, where that night the Pirates beat the Chicago Cubs 8-2. Despite the fact that unemployment in Pittsburgh was at about the state average and significantly lower than that of Philadelphia at the time the convention center opened, just three months later the city was officially declared “financially distressed” and its finances placed under state control. The visionary and acerbic mayor’s political career was soon over.

Tom Murphy’s dramatic fall from grace was emblematic of the difficulties that communities throughout metropolitan Pittsburgh faced in confronting urban decline. While a consensus around river-oriented and heritage-themed development gradually emerged among planners and policy makers, economic stagnation and declining revenues forced political leaders to make hard choices about where and how to spend revenues. “We made a fundamental decision,” Murphy explained, “that we needed to get money in a flat broke city.” He later paid the political price for moving funds from services to the URAP, but Pittsburgh’s resources and strong mayor system allowed city officials to make the deals necessary for effective public-private partnerships during the 1990s in a way that smaller communities could not. On the other hand, SIHC’s eventual success in saving the Carrie Furnaces suggests the potential, however fraught, of heritage preservation in creating powerful symbols around which diverse coalitions can be assembled within the market-driven framework of neoliberal urbanism. In any event, it seems clear that the fate of the Steel Valley, and the rest of America’s older manufacturing regions, rests with integrating the industrial past into the symbolic and built landscapes of the future.

Allen Dieterich-Ward is Associate Professor of History at Shippensburg University.

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