Once an engine of industrialization, “Steel Valley” battles economic decline

“Steel Valley”, in southwestern Pennsylvania, is defined by two large rivers and lies near the borders with West Virginia and Ohio
Six years before American independence coal mining began in Steel Valley’s largest city, Pittsburgh
Steel Valley experienced an industrial boom in the late 1800s which made the fortunes of iconic American families like Carnegie (steel), Frick (steel), Heinz (food products), and Westinghouse (electronics)
Regional steel production has declined from 25.4 million tons in 1978, to 7.1 million tons in 2008
An early leader in abolishing slavery, the state of Pennsylvania also has a long history of organized labor activism
One of the bloodiest labor uprisings in US history occurred at the Homestead Steel Works, outside Pittsburgh, in 1892, when unionized workers of U.S. Steel Corporation fought for months against private security contractors hired by U.S. Steel
After Homestead Steel Works closed in 1986, a $300 million redevelopment project transformed its former location into a shopping mall
After the Second World War, successful labor strikes secured major wage increases which created new prosperity for industrial workers
Steel Valley’s fortunes changed when U.S. Steel closed 16 facilities in 1978, eliminating 13,000 local jobs – and in 1982 U.S. Steel closed an additional 28 facilities, eliminating 15,000 local jobs
Aliquippa, a city near Pittsburgh, bears the motto: “Founded by Steel, Formed by its People”
Aliquippa was once home to the world’s largest steel plant, opened in 1905 by the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company – 8,000 Aliquippa jobs were lost in 1984, when Jones and Laughlin decided to close most of its local operations
Aliquippa’s population is 58% White and 38% Black: public-school students are 72% Black and 99% from disadvantaged homes, and high-school students failed to meet statewide proficiency standards for English, mathematics, and science
Within the last 12 months 74% of White babies were born to unmarried parents, and 100% of Black babies were born to unmarried parents
The typical White household in Aliquippa has an annual $9,000 wage advantage over a typical Black household — in terms of net-worth disparity, the median value of a house owned by a White Aliquippa family is $82,000, significantly below Pennsylvania’s average house value but more than double the value of the median $40,300 house owned by a Black Aliquippa family
The population of Monessen, Pennsylvania was 26,000 in 1940: today it has fallen below 7,500
Five major factories employed thousands of Monessen residents in the early 1900s, the biggest were Paige Steel and Pittsburgh Steel Works
Paige Steel closed in 1972 and Pittsburgh Steel Works closed in 1986
Today Monessen city is at least $8 million in debt
Monessen’s crime rate has been above the national average from 2002 to 2016 — it was more than double the national average in 2014
Like much of Steel Valley, Monessen has a diverse population with a large Italian-American community
Nearly a third of Monessen children live in poverty
More than 95% of Monessen families living in poverty are headed by a single parent
ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel manufacturer, was ordered to pay a $1.5 million federal penalty for air pollution in Monessen, after citizen groups sued ArcelorMittal for emissions that were eight times the legal limit
Sometimes called “The Arsenal of Democracy”, Steel Valley was a major producer of US arms for World War I and World War II
In Clairton, Pennsylvania, the median household income is $31,500 compared with $57,000 statewide
Operated by U.S. Steel, Clairton Works is the largest US manufacturer of coke – a product of coal
After a 2018 fire at Clairton Works, citizen groups announced that they will sue U.S. Steel in federal court for air quality violations at several facilities in Steel Valley
The cities of Aliquippa and Clairton have not recovered from the closure of local steel plants — since 1987, they have been continuously participating in an emergency program created by the state of Pennsylvania to help financially distressed municipalities
Many people born in Steel Valley have played on professional sports teams in the US — the region is nicknamed “The Cradle of Football”

Images from this original work were included in “Suburbs,” an international photo group exhibition by LoosenArt magazine in Rome, Italy (4 October – 5 November 2019). Exhibition catalogue

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