Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Paris of Appalachia

It is hard to believe that The Paris of Appalachia was not written by a native born Pittsburgher. Brian O'Neill is a born again Pittsburgher having grew up in Long Island and received his education at Syracuse University. Perhaps that is his strength for Pittsburgh is his adopted love and not a forced love from being born in the family. As such, O'Neill wears neither the rose colored or dung tinged glasses that most of us native born Pittsburghers seem to maintain about our city. Nor is he afraid to call a spade a spade.

I must confess that what attracted me to the book was the title, reminiscent of reading that Saigon had been known one time as the Paris of Indochina. Being the Paris of anything would seem complimentary, but apparently the Paris of Appalachia is nothing to brag about. Friends tried to convince him to use another title, but O'Neill makes a good point in stating that if it were the "Paris of the Rockies" people would be enamored with the title.

The Paris of Appalachia" is a charming book written by a very charming man. O'Neill is not offensive in his criticisms and he gives a balanced view of all sides of an argument. Much of the book is anecdotes of bar conversations, the charms of Beech Street on the North Side, and making pierogies in a church. But the real meat of the book starts in the last 35 pages of the book. O'Neill describes how Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are locked into a system of self governing duchies that makes the Holy Roman Empire appear like an epitome of bureaucratic efficiency in comparison. Allegheny County has more police chiefs than the state of Montana. Pittsburgh is strangling from a lack of a tax base and we the suburban residents are happy to let it continue to writhe in pain. Oh we don't mind driving into the city to work our jobs, obtain our university degrees, get our operations and advanced medical care, or go watch a game, hear a symphony, visit a museum or zoo, or watch a play but good God don't expect us to toss a dime to the city in the way of taxes. The older I get the more dismayed I become with my fellow human beings exaggerated sense of penury regarding taxes. We demand the services of good government. We want Pittsburgh's streets and many bridges to be in good shape, plowed and salted in the winter, safe to walk on at all times, but we don't want to have to pay for it.

O'Neill also brings to light how the metropolitan Pittsburgh area is steadily losing population and there is very little new blood in the form of immigrants. Why is that? The one area that I felt the book was lacking is an earnest discussion on job opportunities in Pittsburgh. This is unfortunate because I think O'Neill could bring an honest cleared eyed discussion on the future of employment in the Pittsburgh region. O'Neill states that Pittsburgh is not a mid-western city nor is it an eastern city. Personally I don't feel that it is necessarily an Appalachian city either, what ever that may be, at least not in spirit. To me, Pittsburgh is firmly entrenched in the Rust Belt, not so much a geographical location as an economic one. Why is the population shrinking? Why don't immigrants come to Pittsburgh? Because there are no damn jobs here, that's why. If you want to sustain a population provide jobs, the people will come.

I remember the first time I drove down to Homestead and saw the mill gone, completely leveled. All that remained were a series of commemorative smoke stacks. I almost cried. Oh the damn mill was ugly as hell, but it did employ a lot of people.

I used to work for the second largest electrical manufacturer in the United States. It was based in Pittsburgh. When I started in 1976 this corporation had 130,000 employees world wide and 172 operating divisions. That company no longer exists. It was frittered away by poor management decisions. I work in the same building making the same equipment but for a tiny company based in New Jersey. I am one of the lucky ones, most of the 130,000 noted above didn't do so well. When being chided by our corporate masters for not making our numbers, I joke with the engineers in our group that we used to be a pimple on a giant's ass, but now we are a boil on a midget's ass and they take far more notice of us.

Part of the problem is that I have manufacturing in my genes, my mother welded LSTs, my father worked in a factory. We make things, not service things. So I look at the world with glasses spattered with machine chips and weld spall. I grew up within a half a mile of a railroad that serviced the steel mills on the Monongahela River. Every 20 minutes a heavily loaded freight train would go throbbing by taking iron ore from Lake Erie to the mills and slag back out. Today that train runs maybe twice a day.

The mills are mostly gone. The research centers that used to dot the suburban Pittsburgh country side are mostly gone or severely reduced in scope. We are now a service economy. Pittsburgh hopes to replace the mills with education, and it's hospitals. The trouble with that concept is that the education institutions and the hospitals were here when the mills were here, we always have been a center for education and medical care. When the mills were here, no one noticed. Now that they are gone, Pittsburgh is going to become a center for education and medical care. Fine but I don't see any more jobs being developed

I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s. Pittsburgh was the 12th largest city in the US in 1950. It was the third largest corporate headquarters in the nation. Pittsburgh mattered back then. Today society doesn't want to manufacture things, we want to be a service economy. No nasty stinking mills. Let's do education, medical care, casinos, financial services (hasn't that been a blast magically make something out of nothing). Leave the manufacturing to China and India.

A service economy strikes me as giant whore house. At the end of the day when we all get done diddling each other, we will want to get into our cars drive home to our houses, make dinner on stove, have a beer out of the refrigerator, and wash our clothes in a washing machine all powered by a power plant. All things that were once made in Pittsburgh or with Pittsburgh steel. I don't think the service economy has been particularly kind to Pittsburgh and I don't think that Pittsburgh much matters any longer. We are frittering ourselves away--just like my former employer did--chasing dreams of double digit profits in financial markets when they were an electrical manufacturing company with a world class engineering corps and run by financial dunces. There might be a lesson in that for the United States. In 1950 Pittsburgh mattered, now it doesn't.  Is the US following the same trajectory?

EDIT 12-2-2010: Reading the above after a night's sleep, my analysis of the economic future Pittsburgh seems too negative. Indeed I wear those dung tinged glasses, no wait, rust tinted glasses. So I went to the Wikipedia article on Pittsburgh and read all these glowing claims of how Pittsburgh survived the loss of its industrial base. It had to be written by some one far more optimistic than I am. Pittsburgh will survive but it is not done shrinking. Again, why is the population decreasing? Why are the immigrants not coming to Pittsburgh?

EDIT 12-5-2010: Here is an interesting article I saw over at Null Space. It appears as though Mr. King was reading my mind. I like his use of the term "industrial middle class". All of America is in the "middle class" and when I look to see how some of the middle class lives, it is decided different than how I live. So I am in the disappearing "industrial middle class."

The Daily Reckoning, The Rise and Fall of the American Middle Class

Image Credits:

1. Cover image and for more information on Brian O'Neill's wonderful book:

The Paris of Appalachia Website

2. The Holy Allegheny Empire...Well Allegheny County

USGW Archives, Allegheny County


  1. Book sounds interesting, but Pittsburgh itself is a city that grabs one's attention. Isn't it a textbook case of how to turn a city that is polluted and disintegrating into a tourist attraction? And students want to go to Carnegie Mellon despite its being an urban campus. That's unusual. And, have to admit, the people I've known from Pittsburgh have been a diverse bunch. I'm attracted to diversity. Nothing is more boring that a carbon copy of one's self.

  2. My parents spoke of how the street lights were on mid-day in Pittsburgh during WWII. Yes Pittsburgh is no longer the "Smokey City". One can say that we turned around from the loss of major industry in the 1980s. Google has taken and interest in Pittsburgh, they have an office here that is in cahoots with Carnegie Mellon. And yes Carnegie Mellon is a fine university that trains a lot of very intelligent young people who leave Pittsburgh to find jobs elsewhere.

    I am not sure what the tourist attractions are. We don't have a Disney World or a beach.

    Diverse people? That I can't address either way. We have many diverse neighborhoods in Pittsburgh reflecting the waves of immigration that came to work in the mills in the past, but one of the comments of the book was that Pittsburgh suffers from the lack of new immigration now? Again I ask why is that? Because there are no jobs here. People go where the jobs are.