Andy Warhol, the Rust Belt, and me
By Sherrie Flick
Riverview United Methodist church is perched at the top of 11th Street Hill in Patterson Township. A sturdy brick building with two red doors and a marquee in the front, a parking lot in the rear. Inside, red carpeting leads down the aisle to an altar, which has a simple gold cross paired with a candle on each side, seating for a choir, and a pipe organ to the right. Plain, blonde wooden pews fill the airy space and simple stained glass windows border the sanctuary. In warm months when the sermon is in progress and the windows are open, a person sitting on the far-left of the pew can hear cars whooshing by on Darlington Road and non-church-going kids on their way to the basketball courts at the elementary school. I attend this church nearly every Sunday growing up.
I grew up in Patterson Township, a borough nestled on a bluff just above Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a mill town like you read about when you read about mill towns. Yet, I’m not devoted to this Rust Belt place in the way movies like The Deer Hunter would like you to believe me to be. But I am of Beaver Falls, because I grew up there, and union culture is Rust Belt culture whether you’re directly in it or not.
Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania—the birthplace of football legend Joe Namath and home to rocker Donnie Iris—is part of a packed lineup of communities along the Ohio and then Beaver rivers that lead away or into the city depending on your perspective. Beaver Falls, New Brighton, Beaver, Monaca, Baden, Aliquippa, and Ambridge were historically dependent upon the riverways for transportation and industry.
The city itself was founded in 1868, and because of clay, gas, coal, and ore reserves, it attracted waves of industry: cutlery, glass, pottery, and steel. Seventh Avenue, the city’s main street, is wide. Rumor has it that settlers made it big enough to turn a team of horses around without backing up. When you stand at the upper end and look down the street, you can visualize that the city was once regal, bustling, filled with active storefronts and multi-level department stores, the way it was when my parents first moved here. A trainline and trolleyway once connected it to Pittsburgh and surrounding towns. In 1950, seventeen thousand people lived in Beaver Falls. Today, there are around nine thousand.
We want stories to be easy, but they aren’t. And this is part of my conundrum as I look to define home. My parents came from Appalachian farming roots to live in a place where they didn’t have relatives working in the mill, where they made their own way, not working in the mill. They were outsiders among outsiders who became insiders in their community. I’m an outsider by association. I took that part to heart.
Before I was born, my family—although religious—often didn’t go to church because they were heading home each weekend to Tionesta, Pennsylvania, located along the Allegheny River in Forest County, where their extended families lived. “We’d developed a habit different than everyone else,” my dad says.
By the time I came into the picture, they were pretty much weekly churchgoers. I was a fanciful and interior child and listened closely to the sermons. I was always keen for a good story, but The Bible, except for the beautiful writing in Genesis, bored me. I came to equate Jesus with other make believe characters that my parents introduced me to: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. I came to believe very early on that no one believed any of it was real. I was obviously wrong about that on some counts, but it took me a long time to figure that out.
Sometimes, on Sundays when I was little, instead of church we made the trek to Tionesta for the huge McWilliams’ family reunion or for a wedding or baby shower for the Flicks. The drive and the visit took the place of worship—they seemed to zero each other out in my parents’ minds, a kind of exile and return story, biblically satisfying in the ritualistic nature of it all. And maybe it’s this driving that I came to associate with worship, as in later years I became a disciple of the road trip in every form.
Since my two brothers are much older than me, they were already off in their adult lives, driving their families to Tionesta in their own cars or not joining in. It was almost like being an only child, spending long periods of time alone in the backseat, in the magical realism of my imagination, as my father’s Cadillac snaked along highways and back roads inching toward their rural beginnings, the a.m. radio station screeching and squawking the Pirates baseball game as we veered in and out of reception.
In 1949, the same year Andy Warhola boards a passenger train in Downtown Pittsburgh bound for New York City, my fourteen-year-old dad loses his nickname, Popeye, and moves with his family from Alleghany, New York to Leeper, Pennsylvania. There, they live in a place on Jack Callahan’s farm with an outhouse, hand-pumped water, and coal heat. The war is over. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman premieres on Broadway. The Yankees win the World Series, jazz blasts at Birdland, George Orwell publishes 1984, there are ten million televisions warming up in people’s homes, and the first rocket launches in a fit of smoke in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Prosperity dominates the U.S. narrative. It plays out in shiny new ad campaigns and someone has to illustrate them.
Pittsburgh, in 1949, is just barely starting to deal with its pollution, its lack of downtown infrastructure, and its reputation. “Both the Pennsylvania and the B. & O. set the visitor down near the so-called Golden Triangle, the business center where low-hanging smog and smudgy dust perpetuate the tradition of Pittsburgh dirt,” Al Hine writes in 1949. Hine, a Pittsburgh ex-patriot, scored a twenty-one-page cover story for October’s edition of Holiday magazine. Packed with both full-page color spreads and black-and-white photos, the feature showcases the city’s history, grit, industrialists, cosmopolitan chic, and working class. “It has all the usual urban contrasts,” Hine writes, “wealth and slums, culture and ignorance, high ideals and intolerance.”
Images that accompany the article: workers in long white coats box gas meters at Rockwell Manufacturing, where my mom and Aunt Doris will find secretarial jobs four years later; a neon J&L Steel sign glows at dusk; George Pavlic, a young laborer and war veteran, works a dangerously hot job as a high mill plugger at the McKeesport National Tube Company; he drinks beer with friends at Mickey’s, smiles at his date at Bill Green’s dine, dance, and drinkery, and attends a CIO-USA meeting with a hearty group of men; his parents are freshly minted Americans, who immigrated from Yugoslavia; a framed print of Jesus on the cross hangs above their dining table beside what looks like a high school diploma.
In the 1950s, Pittsburgh bustles. It has trolley cars, 677,000 people, and factories going at full tilt. The Greater Pittsburgh Airport is built in 1952. The Alcoa building rises in 1953. By 1954 Jonas Salk, working at the University of Pittsburgh, has started field trials on his polio vaccine. Pittsburgh is in the midst of its first renewal called Renaissance I. Some extremely modest pollution controls are enacted that turn the sky from ever-present smoky soot to regular Pittsburgh overcast gray; J&L mill expands. The shiny, chromium steel Gateway Center buildings loom, and The Point becomes the official triangular entrance to the city as Pittsburgh reorients itself to its three rivers. The Hill District was brushed aside for The Civic Arena.
Andy Warhola, like me, believes in the gospel of movement, of get-up-and-go. As he chugs along the Pennsylvania countryside, rounding the famous horse-shoe curve in the Allegheny Mountains near Altoona, then across the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers, east to Philadelphia and north to New York, the “a” drops from his last name and rolls down a steep hill.
Pittsburgh is the dot on the map in Allegheny County that I drive away from as I head into Beaver County on route 376. First zipping along dense urban streets, then a series of confusing bypasses, then through the Fort Pitt tunnel and past Robinson Town Center’s plaza malls and big box stores, and out to the highway along densely wooded slopes and rock ridges that have been carved through to make what I grew up calling “The Big Road.”
In the spring and summer there are purple and yellow pockets of wildflowers here and there. Dead deer, possums, and raccoons line the side of the road. A deep organic smell rises up beyond it all, a combination of earth and rain. With the windows down I hear crickets and locusts wailing in and out of range, and the air smells warm. It’s distinct—the way this smell nestles into me and the air permeates my skin. In the fall, there are bright bursts of leaves along the hillsides in red, burgundy, yellow, and brown. In winter, fat snowflakes layer themselves down to cover patches of black ice.
The second half of the drive passes Pittsburgh International Airport. For years it signals I’m about to hit ground zero when traveling home from out of state, sitting in the passenger seat after one parent or another has fetched me at the airport. I watch the familiar tree-lined rock formations zip past, anticipating gauging the obvious ways I’ve changed since the previous visit home. I look forward to regressing in the TV room, eating Snyder’s potato chips with French onion dip, and sneaking M&Ms from the bowl my mother always has filled on the kitchen counter. I don’t look forward to leaving the progressive communities I live in, to explaining why I don’t eat margarine or meat or why I won’t be moving back.
All the years I travel home, the one thing I can count on is Beaver Falls remaining exactly the same—dead, down and out. It’s as if each year I return to 1985 again, like Ground Hog Day meets All the Right Moves. Every visit. This rubberband experience has me stretching further away between each visit and pinging back, shockingly to where I started from.
Today, where I live in the South Side Slopes of Pittsburgh, everything I need is downhill: post office, grocery store, restaurants, and library. I lace up and walk down. It’s the walking up that reminds me I’ve chosen to live in an unlikely place. As I pump up the steep city steps, I’m reminded it doesn’t matter how good of shape a person is in, they’re panting by the time they make it to my front door.
Pittsburgh is hilly no matter how you traverse it, but I live up in the boonies. For the most part, the little, densely packed houses that terrace the steep hillside aren’t fancy and our roads weren’t really made for modern cars or two-way traffic. But we make it work.
The South Side Slopes has sixty-eight sets of city steps that bind together its streets and alleyways and rows of houses, which stack up the hill like colorful 3-D wallpaper. The hillside is often photographed, less often visited. Some streets are paper streets—steps and trails that stand in for real streets on the map where roads have never gone. Although the City of Pittsburgh is technically in charge of maintaining the public steps, because they’re considered infrastructure like bridges and roads, the general attitude from Public Works in past years has been to ignore the steps until something crumbles (concrete) or breaks (wood).
In general, we’re pretty okay with being ignored up here in our fantastically unrealistic urban landscape. If we had a Slopes motto it might read: We’re Fine. Leave Us Alone. This motto extends to home renovations, disputes between neighbors, parking rules, and who has the unspoken right of way on a one-lane two-way street. (The car coming down has the right of way on Sterling Street; the car driving up has the right of way on Barry.) There’s an air of the Wild West up here on our unreasonable hills. For people like me, it’s certainly part of the attraction.
In a recent lecture on “The Mathematics of Style and Taste” architectural historian Charles Rosenblum argued that architecture is an analogy for the human body. The steep city steps all around Pittsburgh reflect both the grit of the laborers and also the challenge of the working class. “We tell stories in shapes,” Rosenblum says. The city steps are an open book and their theme has something to do with impossibility, something to do with pain, with stretching just a bit more to arrive somewhere unexpected.
We tell stories in shapes. When I learn that Andy Warhol may have taken a Greyhound bus to New York City instead of the train, I feel a seismic shift in how I’ve understood the world. No horse-shoe curve? No “a” tumbling down the hill. No conductor in a snazzy cap snipping his ticket?
Everyone says that Andy Warhol took the train to New York. It’s how the story goes. The poet Gerald Stern claims to have been the one to drive him to the train (not bus) station. He says they got ice cream beforehand. But a Greyhound makes more sense, really. It would have been cheaper than the train. And the bus’s gleaming, dreamy curves would have signaled the new shiny world that lured Warhol in, a world he would help define.
The Carnegie Museum of Art’s website says he took a Greyhound. Who am I to argue? But the shape of the story says the train. This is why facts are nearly never exactly right. Warhol took himself to New York City after being formed by the city of Pittsburgh. He grew up poor and soon would be rich. I don’t know if he believed in the American Dream the way my father did when he moved to Pittsburgh from Tionesta by car, but he believed in soup and factories and holding back to lurk in the corner at parties. He believed in God and Shirley Temple. He believed in testing the shape of a room. He believed in making it. And he did.
There are two high schools with Beaver Falls mailing addresses: the first is Beaver Falls High School, located downtown. Home of the Tigers. This is where almost all of the Black students go when I’m at the other high school, Blackhawk, home of the Cougars—and the white kids. Built in 1974, it created a new school district. In the 70s and 80s there was a big, brutal rivalry between these two schools, which played out in violent outbursts after football games. Black versus white. Twenty years after Brown vs. Board decision. (Even today, the student population of Blackhawk is ninety-three percent white.)
The entire time I live in Beaver Falls, the highway, The Big Road, also known locally as Parkway West/East (even though it isn’t labeled as such on any sign and the road runs North/South) ends at my hometown exit: Chippewa. It just stops. A dystopian dead end, the road itself serving as a metaphor for the region’s eventual grand fall from industrial grace. Grass grows beyond the paved highway, and all cars exit at Chippewa like obedient ducklings searching for water.
The Parkway extension was completed in the 90s, so the driving experience isn’t quite as dramatic today. Now Chippewa is just—as multiple signs warn—“the last exit before the toll road.”
My high school friend Mary Brice calls Beaver Valley—the industrial Mecca that history hails—a figment of our imaginations. It’s hard to remember a place that disappeared before your eyes. My memories are blips. There’s a bustling downtown filled with shops and shoppers and then it’s closed up and empty. Poof.
My middle school English teacher, Michael Moore, remembers how the shift looked from behind his desk. “It was really weird teaching at a place where the mills were running 24/7 to virtually nothing with no transition,” he tells me. “Beaver Falls went from a thriving downtown business [district] to what you imagine Beirut to look like.” I had Mr. Moore for Middle School English in 1980, where he wore crazy ties and we acted out scenes from Watership Down, and then he moved to Blackhawk High School at the same time I did, where he continued to wear the ties and taught my first ever creative writing class.
Until he boards that train/bus out of Pittsburgh, Andy Warhola, for sure, attends St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in “The Run” of Greenfield, a working class neighborhood that would be called a holler or hollow in some parts of the country, as it’s nestled at the base of a bluff between the Oakland, Greenfield, and Hazelwood neighborhoods. Steep city steps can lead a person out and in.
St. John’s sets up above a residential sidewalk. It’s built of cream colored bricks and has tall spires that point into the Pittsburgh sky. Adorning each spire is a dome, and punctuating each dome is a cross with three horizontal spikes. Once inside, the church’s interior fills with glam and gilding. The walls are a deep mustard yellow with accents of salmon and there are stylized gold stars painted within a deep blue background inside the hollow of the dome above the altar.
The poet Peter Oresick invites me to join him one Sunday after services. Like Warhol, Peter comes from Carpatho-Rusyn roots, and although at one point his mother claimed the Oresick family was distantly related to the Warholas, it isn’t true. He tells me to bring my camera, that it’ll be fun for me to poke around inside.
Along with the intense color of the interior, floor to ceiling icons line the walls framed in ornate white woodwork. These images along with the ritual and incense and other-worldly vibe during the service would have been stunning, such a contrast to Andy’s day-to-day Pittsburgh world outside the doors. Gray, dull polluted skies and litter-strewn walkways.
The Warholas walk to church each Sunday as a family from their house on Dawson Street, and Andy also attends church daily with his mother, Julia. The congregation of St. John’s is made up of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants, Slovaks, exiled from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia. It’s Byzantine Catholic, not to be confused with Roman Catholic.
“A heightened veneration is accorded the visual image [in the Byzantine church], the religious icon, which engages the viewer, having a function equivalent to that of scripture,” writes Jane Daggett Dillenberger in The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, “for the icon mediates between the believer and the holy person represented by the icon.” In other words, when people in this church kiss the displayed icons, they believe they are making direct contact with the divine. They are kissing God when they kiss these paintings. It’s that intense.
These bright, colorful iconic images, replicated and towering to the ceiling in Warhol’s sanctuary, aren’t just a representation of the holy, they’re the connection to the holy in the tradition of Warhol’s boyhood faith. I find it a very short step from them to his artwork, especially his repeating screen prints of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali, and Mao. They are the twentieth-century icons in his life, lining the walls in their yellow, pink, green, and purple glory, waiting for the kiss that connects them directly to Pop.
Little-known fact: after Warhol moved to New York City he continued to attend worship services. “As fellow parishioners will remember, he made a point of dropping in on his local church, St. Vincent Ferrer, several days a week until shortly before he died,” John Richardson notes in his 1987 eulogy for Warhol. Throughout his adult life, Warhol wore a crucifix, carried a prayer book and rosary, and volunteered regularly at a soup kitchen serving the homeless. “The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour, and that he was cool to the point of callousness,” Richardson continues.
“My Catholic thingy,” is how Warhol himself talked about his religion. His religious practice was a Pittsburgh thing that he imported to New York through his pop culture icons, his own versions of The Last Supper—the latter once hung above his own family’s dining table—along with the idea of factories. And of course his mother Julia, who came to live with him as soon as he could afford his own apartment, collaborated with him on early design elements, and stayed for years until just before her own passing.
Otherwise, it seems Warhol doesn’t look back. He stays in touch with family, but not with the city that grew him. He isn’t a prodigal son until after his untimely death at age fifty-eight. He doesn’t return to Pittsburgh, except to be buried. He’s a hyper-cool, hip, scene-setting, androgynous, gay New York artist pushing boundaries, hanging with eccentrics and junkies at his factory and exclusive clubs, raking in commissions for portraits, collecting antiques, and all the while sliding this and that into pizza-boxed sized time capsules labeled and stored away for who knows what purpose.
“Forty years later, America has appropriated, domesticated, and / commodified Andy Warhol, especially here in Pittsburgh,” Peter Oresick writes in the “Notes” section of his poetry collection Warhol-O-Rama, “where his sins / are now forgiven and his admirers decorate his grave with soup cans and a / golden bridge bears his name and his status as native son is secured by an / eight-story, 88,000 square foot, single-artist museum—a veritable Taj Warhol. Unbelievable.”
Really. It is pretty unbelievable.
From the service at St. John’s, Peter and I walked to Big Jim’s, a nondescript brick building with a Virgin Mary nook built into its front. Beer signs light the front door and window. Inside, a painting of Big Jim himself hangs above the cash register. He’s broad-shouldered and thick-necked, a guy who certainly looks like he wouldn’t take any shit.
Peter and I order breakfast and beer. There’s a soft light filtering through the one small high window at the end of the bar, and we talk about Carpatho-Rusyns, Warhol, Peter’s brain cancer, and poetry. He grew up in Ford City, Pennsylvania, a small Ukrainian immigrant colony on the Allegheny, moved to the city to attend the University of Pittsburgh, and then settled right in, writing and editing twelves books of poetry about the working class, working for Pitt Press, and eventually becoming director of the low-res MFA program at Chatham University. Part of his attraction to St. John’s church was the connection to his ethnic roots.
After taking a class with an Episcopal priest, Peter himself started painting icons. Similar to the Byzantine philosophy of kissing the icon, the act of painting is supposed to bring you into a spiritual contact with god. At first his work manifested traditional saints, but then he went on to paint his literary icons: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Alan Poe, as well as Madonna of the Steel Valley.
When we met up at Big Jim’s, Peter was in remission from cancer. He died three years later at age sixty-one, leaving behind many sorrowful fans—family members, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. He was a quiet and curious person, not so much devotedly religious but devoted to family and history and art and poetry and the working class world in which he was raised, which gave him a solid foundation and the most diligent work ethic I’ve ever seen in a human. Peter never lost his tether to his birthplace. His wife Stephanie Flom told me that after his death she learned every single one of his passwords was Ford City. Unlike me, it was easy for him to love his homeland. Easy for him to rubberband back and forth.
“What is the state of memory?” the Pittsburgh muralist and Professor of Architecture Douglas Cooper asks in a lecture at the Carnegie Museum of Art. “How do we replicate the sense of a place by living in that place?” His intricate and detailed mural drawings serve as a kind of map for both the detailed streetscape and memory of Pittsburgh. City steps are everywhere throughout these drawings, surrealistically steep and winding. In a mural section that depicts the South Side Slopes the houses and steps slur and blur, replicating a memory of the water that rushed down the hills to form this place, as the valleys were created from water running on plateaus, not from land masses shooting upward. The land here has a memory of being flat. It’s a carved place, where I live. Set in its ways. Sculpted and then disrupted first by rivers and then by these steps trying to pull it back together again.
In 1999, after numerous wandering road trips charting a course east, west, and middle, my new husband Rick and I fall into Pittsburgh, right into a city stalled and stuck in a mid-80s depression, exactly where I’d left off when I escaped to college in New England in 1985. It’s a lesson in how time stands still, how the world advances and retreats in spits and spurts. How the shape of a place is the place. How the water keeps running over the rocks making us sink, even though it looks like hills rising. How faith in movement can become faith in standing still.
It’s a game of chess. All these bodies moving through time. Tionesta to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh to New York City, Ford City to Pittsburgh. Beaver Falls to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to San Francisco, California to Lincoln, Nebraska to Pittsburgh. We shift and shift to find our place, our next move, unsure of when and how it will all end. We figure out a faith that manifests as a path, and it’s the one we take, and soon it feels like truth. ■
Sherrie Flick‘s essays appear or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Creative Nonfiction, Western Pennsylvania History magazine, and New England Review. Her column, “In a Writer’s Urban Garden,” publishes monthly in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness and two short story collections: Whiskey, Etc. and Thank Your Lucky Stars.
Cover image by Dave Gingrich (creative commons).
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