“Hell with the lid off” is how the city of Pittsburgh was once described. In the late 19th and 20thcenturies Pittsburgh had become the center of the new industrial world. Unfortunately that brought inordinate amounts of pollution, most noticeably in the sky where the light of day was rarely seen due to the black smoke that many mills in the area spewed into the air. When the steel industry in Pittsburgh collapsed in the 1980s, the city spiraled downward. Eventually however, it bounced back bestowed with numerous accolades for “being green” including one by President Obama. He selected Pittsburgh as the site of the G-20 Summit in 2009 for the city’s success with economic regeneration. A visitor to Pittsburgh today would never in a million years utter those words about it being “Hell with the lid off” since it truly is a different place. The air is clean, the sky is blue, and the rivers free of mill debris. Pittsburgh moved on from its steel industry past in order to survive and so few traces of that past remain. However, the following places will give you a taste of Pittsburgh’s extremely unique origins and especially the individuals who may be forgotten in 2013 but are still so deeply tied to it.
While today it is a popular commercial area brimming with shopping, dining, and entertainment, 100 years ago Homestead was home to one of the largest steel producing mills in the world. Where a Lowes movie theater and PF Changs now stand, once stood a miserable mill town where immigrants usually worked 12 hour days, seven days a week for pitiful wages and lived in even more wretched conditions. Smokestacks left over from the mill days are the only tangible legacy to the steel past. However, a short distance away at 880 East Waterfront Drive is the Pump House, the location of the landing of the Pinkerton Guards who would go on to become embroiled in the infamous Battle of Homestead in 1892. It was one of the most noted strikes in American labor history, leaving 16 dead in its aftermath.
Henry Clay Frick is considered to be one of the cruelest robber barons in American history. He created a billion dollar empire from the sweat and toil of Pittsburgh’s lowliest citizens, which is ironic since he himself came from humble beginnings. After amassing his immense fortune, Clayton, a property in the city’s East End became home for him and his family. Although later they would relocate to New York City where his palatial mansion was constructed, Clayton was still home. It’s a lovely turn of the century house to visit, yet I’ve found is unknown to many Pittsburgh natives. Many who drive by it on a daily basis have no idea of its origins.
When one hears the name South Side uttered today, nightlife comes to mind. It’s home to more bars than one can fathom along with an eclectic array of dining options. However, just as with Homestead, it was also home to heavy industry, most notably the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. When you walk its streets today, think of the thousands of immigrants who came to Pittsburgh to work in the mills and settled right there. Look at the iconic centuries old row houses, so small by today’s standards, yet 100 years ago would have been home to a family of five or more. Today one can find everything from Thai to Middle Eastern to Irish food on the South Side, but at one time this was a neighborhood of Eastern European immigrants. So the next time you’re breathing in the aroma of your pad thai, think of the haluski you might have once smelled instead.
-Pittsburgh’s immigrant churches
There is no shortage of churches in Pittsburgh, many of them beautiful edifices that were built by Pittsburgh’s immigrants of the last century who wanted a connection to their homeland. The Immaculate Heart of Mary is a church located in what is today referred to as the Hill District but decades ago was known as Polish Hill for all the immigrants who settled there. The church was built in Polish Cathedral style and was modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. St. Stanislaus is one of the city’s oldest religious buildings, constructed in 1891. It was a place of worship for the Polish immigrants who lived in the area known as the Strip District. Lastly, St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church is located on the South Side and has been serving the community since 1895. All three of these churches were built by immigrants who lived in the area, since at that time nothing was more important than family and religion.
You could say Pittsburgh has undergone a complete makeover. It wouldn’t be recognizable to the people who lived and visited here a century ago. And yet if you comb the surface, dig a bit deeper, you can still find traces of its steel past. And more importantly, talk to a native of the city today and odds are you’re talking to someone whose ancestors worked in the mills. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a connection to the steel industry.