Yoga among the ruins? The challenges of industrial heritage in postwar Pittsburgh
12 January 2018 – Aaron Cowan
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts on deindustrialization and industrial heritage commissioned by The Public Historian, expanding the conversation begun with the November 2017 special issue on the topic.
At its peak, the Carrie Furnace of the massive, sprawling Homestead Steel Works was a bastion of American industrial might, belching flame and smoke around the clock and employing hundreds of men in the dangerous, grueling work of producing more than one thousand tons of iron per day. Such a scene would be difficult to envision when, on a recent Sunday, 250 area residents gathered at the now-abandoned furnace for a “Beer + Yoga Blowout” event. The incongruity of tank-top clad hipsters sipping craft brews under the roof where workers once shaped molten metal is a fitting symbol for the state of industrial heritage in twenty-first-century Pittsburgh. While the memory of the industrial past remains strong, efforts to rebrand Pittsburgh as a tech hub and “livable city” have risked limiting the industrial past to little more than a backdrop for postindustrial economic visions.
For much of the post–World War II era, Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage was conspicuous by its absence. In a city defined in the global imagination as the historical center of steel production, landmark events in industrial and labor history such as the Homestead Strike and celebrations of the history of industrial powerhouses such as Alcoa and US Steel were largely absent from public interpretation of the Greater Pittsburgh region’s history. In the 1950s and 1960s, historical interpretation and heritage-based tourism in the region focused on reconstructed British forts of the French and Indian War, antebellum homes and taverns, and the early nineteenth-century utopian settlement of Old Economy.
Of course, the evolution of industrial heritage interpretation in Pittsburgh took place within a larger state and national context. The early Cold War was the height of the market for colonial, revolutionary, and “frontier” history that celebrated the nation’s democratic political ideals and self-reliant individualism. At the same time, most Pennsylvania industrial and mining communities, including Pittsburgh, sought to shed regional and national images of their communities as polluted, grimy, and lacking in cultural amenities. Like a working-class kid striving toward upward mobility, the city slicked back its hair, put on a preppy sweater (or, perhaps, tricorne hat), and tried to minimize evidence of its embarrassing blue-collar roots.
The silences regarding the industrial past began to change in the late 1970s, ironically the era in which much of the industrial production of the region was beginning to decline. Carolyn Kitch, in Pennsylvania in Public Memory, her comprehensive book on industrial heritage in the state, identifies the 1976 national bicentennial as a period when industrial heritage was reevaluated. The industrial past became more recognized, Kitch argues, and simultaneously more personalized to focus on individuals, social history, workers, immigrants—invariably described as “hard-working” people with unique “culture” that could be celebrated. This trend became especially prominent in the 1990s, when the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) focused heavily on industrial heritage; more than two-thirds of all PHMC historical markers about “Labor/Working People” were installed in that decade. The state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) also launched its Industrial Heritage Areas program in 1990, focused around economic development through the preservation and interpretation of industrial heritage sites.
As in many other areas, federal funding and private foundation support played a role in advancing this shift in interpretation. The most significant development in the Greater Pittsburgh region was the successful establishment of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area (RSNHA) in 1996, under the supervision of the National Park Service. Encompassing a seven-county region around Pittsburgh, Rivers of Steel’s objectives included promotion of cultural tourism as economic development for deindustrialized regions. One of the earliest initiatives to interpret the sites within the RSNHA was the development of docent-led bus tours of industrial towns and the training of local people, especially former steelworkers, to draw from their own experiences and memories to interpret this history for the public. Rivers of Steel continues to preserve and interpret former industrial sites, and also offers self-guided driving tours and digital collections and exhibits and administers a heritage mini-grant program for the region.
In the mid-1990s, the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center opened. The History Center communicated a greater recognition of the city’s industrial heritage both in its choice of site—a rehabbed seven-story nineteenth-century brick warehouse in the city’s Strip District—as well as with its curatorial decision to prioritize social history. Its inaugural permanent exhibit was praised in The Public Historian for an interpretative focus on “the issues of family and work, of life and death within the immigrant steelworking community.”
Despite these advances, industrial heritage has struggled to capture the kind of support and promotion that went into the Cold War–era sites of colonial and antebellum history. Hopes in the late 1990s for a large-scale comprehensive museum of industrial history at Homestead, for example, never got off the ground due to relatively modest support from area foundations and other private funders. By contrast, in 2004, the city’s corporate and political leadership created French and Indian War 250, Inc., an organization tasked with the national commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the war. From 2004 to 2008, this included multimillion-dollar expansions of western Pennsylvania historic sites and museums, events headlined by popular historians like David McCullough, the development of a national public school curriculum, and production of a $14 million four-hour PBS documentary “The War That Made America.” The group eventually coordinated a total of $50 million in public and private funds devoted to education and tourism development around the anniversary.
More recently, Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage sites have served as a hub for the city’s arts community. In 2016, Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation established Rivers of Steel Arts (RoSA) with a stated mission to “support artistic projects that further the interpretation of local history and re-imagine the future of familiar places.” RoSA is based at Homestead’s Carrie Furnace, where it offers metalworking workshops, “photo safaris” and urban art tours, and an annual “Festival of Combustion” featuring art and interactive activities around metalsmithing, glassblowing, and ceramics. The furnace has also hosted events such as “Happy Hour with Carrie” that appeal to the leisure preferences of young middle-class professionals, but for which the level of focus on historical interpretation is unclear. Furthermore, as the generation of Pittsburghers with direct experience in industrial labor begins to pass away, it remains to be seen whether the region’s public will continue to sustain an interest in the industrial past.
In one sense, the interpretation of Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage has never been stronger, and partnerships with creative arts communities offer innovative opportunities to reach new audiences. On the other hand, such programs run the risk of “mission creep,” of heritage-as-branding for “authentic” hip consumer experiences that fail to engage deeply with the historical narrative of industrial production, labor, and deindustrialization. In the face of funding challenges and the need to appeal to new audiences, it will remain the challenge of Pittsburgh public historians to connect to the larger community while still maintaining a meaningful, critical engagement with the past.
~ Aaron Cowan is associate professor of history at Slippery Rock University. He is also the founder and co-director of the Stone House Center for Public Humanities.