Granted, I’m not your typical tourist. I’m drawn to the ordinary corners of ordinary towns, forgotten industrial areas, eerily calm side streets. And that is kind of all that’s left of McKeesport today. It’s 30 minutes south of Pittsburgh, along the Monongahela River. I’d seen a few pictures online of Jaison’s department store here, so I decided to make a quick stop on my way from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg. I ended up wandering around the downtown streets on a Tuesday morning in 2018 for hours. Seemingly all by myself.
It wasn’t always like this. This was Tube City, home to the National Tube Works, a division of U.S. Steel. 9,000 workers at its peak. The town was 55,000 strong, a mix of races and ethnicities and classes all reaping the windfall of our country’s post-war industrial dominance. A downtown that bustled with multiple theaters and department stores and restaurants and trolleys. This was the America that so many of us still pine for through our rose-colored glasses.
The factors that led to the decline of the steel industry are many (it’s fascinating to dig into, but the details are better left for another story). That said, it happened with surprising haste in Pennsylvania when the recession of 1981 hit. In 1982, the National Plant here laid off 3,500 workers, and five years later — on August 29, 1987 — it was officially closed by U.S. Steel. It might be overdramatic to call it the death of McKeesport, but it never experienced the famous renaissance that a larger city like Pittsburgh was able to enjoy. The population has declined rapidly down to 19,000, leaving McKeesport a place that feels suspended in time, coated with a patina of 40-year-old smoke. To me, it’s still “beautiful”...it just requires a deeper interpretation of the word.
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