Confessions Of A Coastal Elite -- A Study In Steel

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania lies so snugly nestled among the rolling hills of the Allegheny mountains that it’s impossible to see until the very last second, when the highway curves between a steep, leafy mountain and the Ohio River and you see the whole city smack dab in front of you. It’s a gorgeous town with a great deal of character; brick-lined coffee shops, luscious outdoor spaces, and a bustling stream of people rolling through the city. In recent years, Pittsburgh’s investment in education, health care, and innovation have catapulted the city into the nation’s top places for young people to live. With a Google office, a teeming business district, and technology and robotics startups popping up left and right, you could easily forget that less than a generation ago, Pittsburgh was a dying city, reeling from the removal of the steel industry and manufacturing plants along the city’s three famous rivers.

Pennsylvania lost 350,000 manufacturing jobs in the 1980s alone, and cities like Pittsburgh where the steel industry thrived were hit especially hard. The government of the state responded with legislation aimed at establishing regional technology centers to shift the economy from manufacturing to innovation in order to stop the hemorrhaging of steel jobs leaving the country. Because of its critical mass (and many other factors-I am intentionally oversimplifying a complex socioeconomic shift), Pittsburgh became one of those hubs, and it’s reaping the benefits. In my time in Pittsburgh during my trip, I saw the vibrant art scene, local businesses, and nightlife that are the products of a healthy economy. Young people abound in the city, abandoning stereotypical millennial New York dreams to live in a place where innovation thrives and rent is cheap.

Towns only 15 miles away from Pittsburgh were not so lucky. The small town of Monessen, Pennsylvania also once thrived during the reign of the steel industry, until the furnaces shut down 30 years ago and the economy of the town collapsed. Monessen did not have the same critical mass of Pittsburgh, so instead of pivoting towards a more modern, technology-based economy, the town remained stagnant, and the economy festered. As the population collapses, the infrastructure of the city has started to fail, walls crumbling and sewage drains overflowing. It is in this despairing, forgotten steel country that Trump came and sowed promises of a renewal of the American manufacturing economy. “We are going to put American-produced steel back into the backbone of our country,” Mr. Trump told the residents of Monessen during his visit to the town in the summer of 2016. “This alone will create massive numbers of jobs.” Trump has repeated statements similar to these in small towns across America, crooning about visions of the return of manufacturing that only he, a businessman, can negotiate. 

Abandoned buildings and mills in Monessen, PA.
Abandoned buildings and mills in Monessen, PA.

Logically, one can see clearly that Trump’s words contain nothing but empty promises. The steel mills in Western Pennsylvania were not replaced by ones in China, but by more efficient America mills. Last year, 71 percent of the steel used in the United States had been produced within the United States, a percentage so high that it would be almost impossible to raise. The simple truth is this: manufacturing jobs are not coming back, because they have been replaced by machines, not by foreign workers. Deep down, I think the residents of Monessen and other abandoned industry towns know this to be true, yet as I drove through the pockmarked roads of Monessen Pennsylvania, I could taste some of the languid desperation that had sunk its roots deep into the rotting wooden houses and vacant, weed-infested lots. For a moment, I understood why these men and women had grasped at the promises Trump fed to them: they are drowning, crushed between the memory of an unattainable past and the daunting task of creating an unfamiliar future. Small town America needed a champion, and Donald Trump framed himself as the one who could save them, since the mainstream government didn’t seem to be doing a good job of it. The coastal elite side of me still firmly believes that the policies Trump touts will ultimately benefit corporations and high-earning individuals instead of blue-collar workers, because he fails to see that a pivot towards technology, innovation, and education is needed to revitalize towns like Pittsburgh and Monessen. Still, urban Americans cannot continue to ignore the plague that has swept through these small towns drained of industry. Although they are smaller in number, the men and women in places like Monessen remain deserving of policies and politicians who will fight to advance their best interests through smart investments in emerging technologies and innovative uses of abandoned industrial real estate. 

P.S. While I only drove through Monessen, the New York Times did an excellent story on the town, especially with regards to why the Rust Belt voted overwhelmingly for Trump. It’s worth a read.