Pittsburgh: Sanguine is the color of rust

By Larry Hales


The G-20 summit chose to descend on Pittsburgh, the city known as “Steel City” because it once was a center of steel, as the city is being promoted as a model post-industrial economy.

The summit will be held Sept. 24 and 25 at the Daniel Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. As the summit approaches, the “new,” “revitalized” and “green” city is increasingly highlighted in the media.

It is said that Pittsburgh was picked as the host city over New York—the more obvious choice, seeing that the U.N. General Assembly meets there shortly before the G-20 summit—because of its “commitment to employing new and green technology to further economic recovery and development.”

Pittsburgh is projected as the city that got it right–where the toxic clouds of industrial pollution, and the looming despair caused by the massive layoffs that came with deindustrialization, have both been swept aside by responsible development, including light industry, service jobs in education, tourism, health care and now casinos.

However, capitalism has not left Pittsburgh, so oppression and exploitation are still prevalent; perhaps more so. The dense smog that once blanketed the city may be gone and the rivers may be cleaner, but the image of a city where the residents are gainfully employed, where unemployment is low and where jobs are well-paying is a farce.

Lights from high-rise buildings may light the cityscape instead of blast furnaces, and with the thick black smog gone it is easier to breathe, but the daily conditions of life for many people in Pittsburgh has not changed.

To get a glimpse of how life is for the most oppressed in Pittsburgh, a person merely need look at the poverty in areas such as Homewood or the Hill District.

Homewood, the Hill District and East Liberty, areas with predominantly Black populations, are just three of the neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty.

According to the census, of the 5,500 people in East Liberty over the age of 16, only 49 percent were employed in 2000. Thirty percent of households made less than $10,000 per year and 61 percent made less than $25,000 per year. The middle range of income for 2000 was more than $41,000 per year.

In Bedford Dwellings, a part of the Hill District, 55 percent of the households made less than $10,000 per year.

More recent statistics, from a 2007 study by the University of Pittsburgh, show that 46 percent of Black children in the area lived in poverty and 70 percent of Pittsburgh families that are Black earn less than $25,000 per year.

At the time of the University of Pittsburgh study, the unemployment rate for Black people was 9.4 percent, three times that of white residents. The unemployment figures were skewed of course, accounting only for people who at one time had a job and reported being unemployed. The real number would be higher, but the official rate of 9.4 percent is still higher than the official unemployment rate for all of Pittsburgh today, during a time of a severe downturn.

Black residents of Pittsburgh assert that the rate of unemployment for Black people in the city is more than 40 percent and that for youth it is more than 60 percent.

The information above is a sample of the conditions oppressed people in Pittsburgh have to contend with. The conditions are duplicated in other areas such as Garfield. Where the property values have gone up and where there has been restoration, generally, it has not been the long-suffering residents that have benefitted, but people have been moved out as developers move in. The process of gentrification has taken hold to develop long-forgotten neighborhoods, primarily for affluent whites.

While many are touting the rise of the new Pittsburgh, it is clear that many more are still suffering greatly from the demise of the steel industry and the loss of thousands of industrial jobs. The revitalization of the city has meant nothing real in terms of living conditions. The aesthetic beauty of the new Pittsburgh is a façade over a widening wound.

The media has used a common refrain, claiming that Pittsburgh was spared the brunt of the capitalist crisis and that housing values actually went up instead of sinking as they did in many parts of the country. This has meant very little to the tens of thousands who have yet to recover from the devastation of deindustrialization.

There exists in Pittsburgh, though, a culture, a spirit tied to a long history of struggle against racism and poverty and for workers rights.

The artistic culture is not to be denied either. The canon of well-known artists from Pittsburgh, especially from the Hill District and Homewood, is extensive. Jazz drummer and bandleader Art Blakey (Abdullah Ibn Buhaina), who founded the Jazz Messengers and helped create the bebop style of drumming, was from the Hill District.

The playwright August Wilson was from the Hill District as well, and many of his earlier plays were set there. The diner Fast Eddies, featured in the play “Two Trains Running,” was on the Hill.

The brilliant John Edgar Wideman–whose rhythmic prose circumvents the inflexible rules of writing, opting to allow the reader to be lulled into the beauty of Black discourse–was raised in Homewood.

Since culture surrounds all and human beings and societies can no easier live without air than from the influence of history and material, the specific history of the city of Pittsburgh very much influences the way the residents relate to the conditions upon them currently.

The artistic expressions of the artists above spring from the struggle of Black people, which is affected by the overall struggle of working people and tied to the development of U.S. capital on the backs of first Indigenous people, then Black people, Latino/as and other oppressed nationalities in the U.S. and abroad.

The Pittsburgh area has been inhabited for thousands of years by Indigenous tribes and then by colonizers who used it strategically because of the meeting of the two rivers, the Monongahela and the Allegheny, which converge to form the Ohio River.

Indigenous people resisted the colonizers but suffered from diseases brought by the Europeans. The conflicts of the competing colonizing nations led to massacres of Indigenous people by genocidal colonial armies, militias and settlers.

This history has a bearing on the current reality, but what most people know of the story of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County comes later, when the city was dubbed Steel City in the mid-1800s.

A series of articles by Steve Millies have recently been printed in Workers World newspaper highlighting the history of the Mellon family. Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Mellon, Henry J. Heinz and Charles Schwab, to name a few, all made their wealth in Pittsburgh.

According to the first article in the series, “It was Thomas’s son Andrew who really sent the Mellon fortune into orbit. Daddy Mellon was already financing Henry Clay Frick and swindling farmers out of their land that lay over valuable coal deposits.

“Like Wall Street’s J.P. Morgan, who started General Electric and U.S. Steel, Andrew Mellon began organizing corporations.

“Charles Martin Hall discovered how to separate alumina from bauxite rock at the same time French inventor Paul Heroult did so.

“Joining forces with metallurgist Alfred E. Hunt, they turned to the Mellon Bank seeking money to exploit Hall’s invention. In 1888 the Mellons financed the Pittsburgh Reduction Company—now called Alcoa—keeping 40 percent of the stock for themselves.

“Hall’s U.S. patent—not recognized in Europe—and high tariffs gave Alcoa an absolute monopoly on aluminum in the Unites States until World War II.

“But oil provided even more profits than aluminum. The Mellons were able to take over the fabulous Spindletop oilfield in Texas to form Gulf Oil.”

Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel Company employed more than 10,000 in Homestead. Jones and Laughlin Steel employed thousands at an Alquippa plant and U.S. Steel, which bought Carnegie Steel, employed thousands more.

Pittsburgh was the center for steel production, producing half of the steel made in the country.

As the processes for making steel changed, technology made the old brutal blast furnaces obsolete. Many Black workers, who had migrated to the area beginning during World War I but in greater numbers in the 1930s and 1940s, toiled in these furnaces. Workers began to get laid off in mass numbers.

Millies writes of the Black experience: “The ‘Great Migration’ of African Americans from the South to Pittsburgh started during World War I. The Pittsburgh Courier became one of the most influential Black newspapers in the country.

“By August 1917 there were 4,000 Black workers in the U.S. Steel plants around Pittsburgh. Jones and Laughlin Steel employed 1,400 African Americans. A generation later, in 1944, there were 11,500 Black workers in the area’s steel mills.

“The dirty and dangerous jobs that African Americans held often gave them a chokehold on production. Steel mills need coke, and apartheid in steel had reserved coke ovens for Black workers.

“African Americans at U.S. Steel’s Clairton, Pa., works carried out a series of strikes against discrimination between December 1943 and February 1944. They threatened to idle nearly 30,000 employees by cutting off coke and coal gas.

“African-American communist Ben Careathers signed up 2,000 Black workers at J&L in the late 1930s.

“In 1943, 450 Black workers at J&L’s Aliquippa plant went on strike after the company refused to upgrade two African Americans. The same year 28 Black firemen at J&L’s South Side Works in Pittsburgh—incensed that white counterparts were earning 11 cents more per hour—shut down the power plant and idled 11,000 workers.

“Millions of Black sharecroppers never had the power that thousands of Black steel workers were using against the mightiest corporations in the land.”

With the struggles of the workers came severe repression. Henry Clay Frick used the Pinkerton guards to smash a rising of workers at Carnegie’s plant in Homestead. More than a dozen workers were killed.

Regarding Careathers and another organizer, Millies writes, “Ben Careathers and fellow Communist Party members were framed in both state and federal courts on thought-control charges. Steve Nelson, who fought in Spain against fascists, spent two years in jail.”

As plants began closing and workers were laid off by the thousands, the organizing continued.

The owners of the plants use the excuse that technology means that it takes less workers to do a job and that more can be produced, but what it boils down to is profit.

Whether less steel is being used for other materials or new technology or production has been shipped to other, more exploitable parts of the world, it is the profit motive that has driven not only the owners but the financiers of the steel industry.

The people of Pittsburgh have had to suffer from losing well-paying jobs that they and the generations before them fought for.

The whole Rust Belt region, a huge swath of territory beginning in upstate New York and encompassing the Great Lake region and including Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland and Detroit; much of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York and parts of Missouri have been devastated by the loss of industrial jobs.

The moniker of “Rust Belt” is misleading though, as corrosion is a natural chemical reaction when the elements wear on iron and steel. While the misery that came with the deindustrialization period is natural to the system of capitalism, it is entirely unnatural when measured against the bulk of human history.

Capitalism foments competition between workers. Layoffs, firings, closings, waste of materials and greater maladies such as wars and famines spring from this mode of production, which is based off the capitalist owner procuring greater and greater profits.

These things are unnatural and opposed to solidarity between peoples and human society going forward.

Capitalism is naked violence. The deindustrialization was violence and assault against working peoples’ livelihoods. As workers in Pittsburgh, especially Black workers, were cast off, having to fend for themselves with no hope of securing a dependable job as well paying as the one they had, oppression and repression increased.

Conditions produce a response and it is the conditions that must change for the response to change or a struggle against the harsh conditions endures.

It is a struggle for a right to a job, to survival, against the racism endemic to the capitalist system that is needed.

Struggle can turn back the process that began thirty years ago and that has accelerated with the latest downturn of the capitalist system. Struggle will elevate the consciousness of working and oppressed people to the idea that the violent and bloody capitalist system is not for them.


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