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beyond rust

24 december 2015

When I was in college – forty years ago now – I'd take the bus from Philadelphia to East Lansing, a route that passed through the giant skeletal cities of the Rust Belt: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit. The bus tended to get to Pittsburgh in the middle of the night, so my impression of the city was a hulking collection of towers nestled in between hills. It was the 1970s, so the air was cleaner than in at the city's industrial peak, but the city had an empty, ominous presence – at least as far as I could discern, given that it was midnight in a Greyhound station.

I went back to Pittsburgh last summer for the first time since college and spent a couple of brilliant summer days walking around (and of course going to a Pirates game). The city is now clean and gorgeous, of course, the downtown a splendid melding of postmodern architecture and repurposed grandeur. It's gone from hopeless to hip. But walking from downtown to Oakland (the university district to the east) and back again reveals how hard it's been to stitch together this great urban makeover. Poverty abounds in the interstices between central Pittsburgh's showcases: the stadiums, the cultural district, the Strip, the museums. In Beyond Rust, Allen Dieterich-Ward shows how such patchy alternation of progress and decay has characterized the city for over two centuries.

Dieterich-Ward takes on the daunting task of telling the story of Pittsburgh's development over more than a century of public and private initiatives. And not only the city's: Dieterich-Ward realizes that the story of the city cannot be fully told without the story of its hinterland. Because of the mountains on every side that channel traffic and limit growth, Pittsburgh sits at the heart of an economic system that stretches far across Pennsylvania and deep into Ohio and West Virginia. His is an unprecedented attempt to see the growth of Pittsburgh as organically linked to communities up and down the river valleys of the Appalachians.

Beyond Rust reminds me of William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis (1992), and seems akin to another urban history I haven't read yet, Ted Steinberg's Gotham Unbound (2014). These books are about Chicago and New York respectively, much larger cities. Cronon's perspective on Chicago is even vaster, stressing how the city grew to incredible proportions because of its links to almost unlimited prairie on one side and proliferations of water and rail networks on the other. Steinberg's seems more limited (because the history of New York could so easily become the history of the world, and needs strict curtailing).

Large and powerful though Pittsburgh is, it hasn't developed like some other American cities (Chicago and New York, or Houston and Dallas) that are surrounded by huge tracts of flat, fertile land, tabulae rasae for developers. Dieterich-Ward focuses on the river valleys that have dictated where Pittsburgh-area residents would make and sell things. He cites the long-standing wisdom that Steel Valleyers should work in the city (which tends to be on a waterfront, whether it's Pittsburgh or Wheeling or McKeesport or Steubenville), and live on the hills. The feasibility of that dream, however, tended to depend on one's class and color.

Pittsburgh is famously an environmental disaster (if a commercial success story) that nevertheless cleaned its act up early and moved more aggressively toward a post-industrial economy than any of its Rust Belt peers.

Even as the city cleaned up its skies, controlled its rivers, and tried to erase its nineteenth-century neighborhoods in favor of gleaming modern skyscrapers, its fortunes continued to depend on corporate exploitation of the surrounding mill towns and mining villages. (208)
Beyond Rust is clearer on how this happened than why. Momentum was destiny, in a sense. Pittsburgh, once it had grown much larger than its satellite cities, was powerful enough to write its own destiny. Dieterich-Ward notes that Pittsburgh, as the unquestioned metropolis of the western half of its state, had access to support from Harrisburg that cities like Wheeling and Steubenville, marginal to their states, couldn't draw upon. It may just also have been that Pittsburgh has been lucky to have politicians and plutocrats with energy and vision.

Beyond Rust is not the kind of book that tells you much about the lived experience of Pittsburgh's people. Even significant movers and shakers from the city's elites are sketchily characterized. Dieterich-Ward tells the story of programs, partnerships, and institutions that operate as corporate forces in the shaping of the area's economy and ecology. At times the book can become little more than a list of one initiative after another. But it's wide-ranging and takes in many industries and eras. It provides essential documentation of a restless, ever-changing urban system.

Dieterich-Ward, Allen. Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the fate of industrial America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

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