Part four of a series of articles and commentaries describing the impact the change in the manufacturing industry has had on the Black Community in major American cities.

Before the crack that led to the fissure that led to the implosion of the steel industry in the United States, Pittsburgh and her manufacturing sector had a good thing going. In their marriage, she even took the name Steel City.


Two steel workers in Pittsburgh in the 1940s. (Courtesy of NYPL)

The mere mention of Pittsburgh conjured up images of massive mills making the steel that was building the nation’s Infrastructure; keeping it moving with the cars and trucks and trains and planes and ships; taking it higher as skyscraping towers transformed the nation’s landscape. America’s appetite for steel seemed insatiable and Pittsburgh was at the center of meeting the demand. By the early 1970s, the Pittsburgh region employed more than 300,000 people in the manufacturing sector.

Steelmaking gained prominence in Pittsburgh in the 1870s, along with its most famous steelmaker, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie partnered with Henry Clay Frick, the beehive coke oven magnate. Such ovens were necessary for turning coal to coke, a needed ingredient for making steel. Together they formed the Carnegie Steel Company, which, after it was sold in 1901, became the mammoth corporation known as U.S. Steel. By 1911, almost half of the nation’s steel was being made in the Pittsburgh region.

As a result, small towns sprouted, blossomed, and became bustling havens for immigrants who easily found work in the factories and mills.  One such town was Aliquippa. Sitting along the Ohio River, first generation European immigrants and some African Americans settled there during the Great Migration. They lived in planned communities built by Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. These were communities that hummed with promise and even prosperity as the rise of unions during the New Deal era ensured equitable pay and better work conditions. The people who lived there could support their local grocers, gas stations, movie houses and hotels. Similarly, the Hill District — famously depicted by Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson in his award-winning 10-play series The Pittsburgh Cycle — attracted Black southerners. Many of them found decent-paying jobs in the steel mills and factories in and around Pittsburgh, and contributed to the cultural vibrancy of that time and place.

The post-World War II era saw continued expansion in the region’s industrial base and it seemed that Pittsburgh and her steel were riding together on an unstoppable skyward trajectory. But the allure of foreign-made steel’s cheaper price tag and sudden abundance in the United States caused a reversal of course by the early 1970s. The industry came crashing down, bringing Pittsburgh with it.

Her economy in shambles, her tax base evaporating—between the 1970s and 1990s, Pittsburgh lost 30 percent of her population. By 1983, her metropolitan region was experiencing a stunning 17.1 percent unemployment rate. Her heart broken, she sought out other partners to help her heal. Finding comfort in diversifying this time: service, medicine, tourism, technology — she is now home to thousands of new technology firms. Google set up shop there in 2006.

By all accounts, the Pittsburgh region seems to have rebounded much better than her Industrial Heartland sisters — until Aliquippa is revisited, the town that was once filled with so much possibility. When the steel industry collapsed and wiped out thousands of jobs, almost overnight, Aliquippa quickly filled with despair as it was rendered a ghostly shadow of a town.

As a moral imperative, these communities deserve an opportunity to rebound too. With public infrastructure investment to reverse the decline, including smart investments to improve roads and restore deteriorating structures; with workforce development to assist those former steelworkers who decide becoming tech-savvy or garnering a college degree is not a viable option for them; and with smart trade policy where trade and import terms are fair and do not disadvantage U.S. workers, all of Pittsburgh might profit from her diversification and relish her astounding recovery. Two of Pittsburgh’s core strengths are people with manufacturing know-how and companies with manufacturing research and development. Let’s put them back to work.

Gerald Taylor, a doctoral student at Georgetown University majoring in philosophy, is the author of a new report, “Unmade in America: Industrial Flight and the Decline of Black Communities,” sponsored by the Washington-based Alliance for American Manufacturing.