Why America Needs to Tell the Story of Pittsburgh

The familiar frame of American history wraps itself around revolution and civil war; and an economy that enslaved millions of people.

But we should always add to the panorama the history of American industry, which has shaped our lives as surely as the the Declaration of Independence or Gettysburg Address, and unifies us in our capitalist way of cars and candy. That’s why I was so excited to discover Ed Simon’s new book An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, an 182-page collection of short, rich historical essays, published by Belt, a smart Cleveland-based press forging a national reputation.

Because when it comes to telling that history, of business, Pittsburgh is, with only slight exaggeration, Washington, Boston and New York put together, and Simon’s 40 vignettes reveal deep truths about the what, why and how of America. “Pittsburgh is a metonymy for America,” writes Simon, who is from the city and now lives near Washington, DC. “This is a place that matters.”

And it does. Pittsburgh was the first metropolis on the first western frontier, truly American, distinct from old world colonial outposts like Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Over and over again, the city has generated pieces of history. The Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s, when western Pennsylvanians declined to pay a liquor tax. The first American popular music whiz, Stephen Foster. The first Republican convention in 1856. Around that time, the Black nationalist movement, started by a Pittsburgh doctor named Martin Delany. In the 20th century, modern environmentalism, founded by Rachel Carson, who’d wearied of factory fumes. And so on.

But Pittsburgh’s greatest creation, of course, was the thing itself, corporate America. Carnegie, Frick, Heinz, Westinghouse and other hall of fame capitalists blasted, mined and forged, molded, minted and made the bridges and cans, lights and rails, beams and bombs that invented the 20th century and shaped how Americans live. “Pittsburgh was the Silicon valley of the 19th century and that maintained itself into the 1960s and the 1970s,” Simon told me in a phone interview. If you accept that the business of America is business, the history of Pittsburgh and its satellite towns spreading from Altoona to Moundsville (subject of our documentary on PBS) offers a narrative as fundamental as the Boston Tea Party, War of 1812, or Battle of Little Bighorn.

Ed Simon

Simon, 36, is a literary writer, adjunct professor at American University, and editor at The Millions with a PhD from Lehigh, and his book does more than recount local history. Indeed, his goal, he told me, was to create a “cabinet of wonders”, in the style of the precursors to museums that European aristocrats built. And there is much to gaze at. Describing the Carboniferous Period (named after Pittsburgh’s foundational resource), when centipedes grew longer than six feet, with “smooth eyeballs the size of softballs”, dragonflies that had size the wingspan of a dove, and spiders with two-foot long legs, Simon notes “the inviolate wisdom of paleogeography, paleontology, and geology—this land is ours, but only for a bit.” A balm when nationalism barks.

Simon has sprinkled his book with interesting clippings, like a contemporary description of the accidental explosion during the Civil War at Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville. It was making over 14 million bullets a year for the Union army. The blast killed 78, almost all young women forced into labor. The ground, a newspaper reported, “was strewn with fragments of charred wood, torn clothing, bails, caps, grape shot, exploded shells, shoes, fragments of dinner baskets belonging to the inmates, steel springs from the girls’ hoop skirts, cartridge paper, sheet iron, melted lead.”

The 40 essays hit on familiar heroes, like August Wilson, Roberto Clemente, and Andy Warhol. Simon also holds up key figures lesser known to white audiences, like the “Father of Black Nationalism” Martin Delany. Born in 1831, Delany was the first Black student to enroll at Harvard Medical School, and publisher of a Pittsburgh-based newspaper called Mystery. “Reacting both to the perfidious arguments of the Southern pro-slavery contingent, as well as the often condescending rhetoric of abolitionists, Delany’s politics anticipated Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X,” writes Simon. Delany traveled to West Africa to investigating building a colony there for African-Americans, and coined the slogan “Africa for Africans.”

And there’s the incredible tale of the Fenian Brotherhood, a group of Irishmen, emigrants from a famine-ravaged nation, who aimed to punish Britain in the 1860s by invading Canada– from Pittsburgh. They failed. But not before they decided, in Pittsburgh, on a different name: The Irish Republican Army.

On the page and in conversation, Simon likes to describe Pittsburgh as “a consequence of America” molded by national glory and tragedy, even when it stopped being as important after the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s. (The Wall Street Journal once maintained a bureau here with a dozen or so reporters. By the time I joined in 2011, that number was down to four.)

Consider the story of East Liberty. In the late 19th century, this strip of common grazing land became “the wealthiest business district in the country that wasn’t a downtown”, a leisure area packed with “restaurants, shops, and theaters patronized by Carnegie, Heinz, Westinghouse, and Mellon” and “the first automobile floor-room, the green-domed Motor Square Garden.”

By the 1960s, redlining and discrimination by banks had forced thousands of Black residents into “dystopian public housing skyscrapers with roads routed directly beneath them, sending plumes of exhaust into residences.” By the 1990s, the neighborhood was “written off as an irredeemable ghetto.” In the new century, Google and other tech companies moved in, and former residents were nudged out in favor of condos for tech workers. (For a good account of gentrification in Pittsburgh, check out Margaret Krauss’ recent podcast, Land and Power.)

Pittsburgh is not timid about its past, but city fathers have missed a chance to highlight important chapters, especially around Black history. I’ve lived here almost 10 years and had never heard of Martin Delany, a monumental figure in the abolitionist movement. And the musicians who gathered here in the 1930s and 1940s helped shape modern jazz.

Simon concludes by invoking D.H. Lawrence’s “spirit of place.” There is something transcendental, he writes, “about how the rivers wind and cut through the green-robed mountains, the manner in which the valleys descend deep into the earth and the hills puncture the horizon like the planet’s spine.”

The land belongs to something bigger than American history.

John W. Miller

2 comments

  1. The words ‘alternative history’ applied to Pittsburgh history engaged me, I read your review & several others. As with the ‘standard’ history I saw barely a mention of women whose impact resonates today, although most are unaware of it. I’m not talking about Carson, Cassatt, Stein. I’m talking about Pittsburgh’s first industrialist, 18th century rope maker Mary Pattison Irwin, who outfitted Commodore Perry’s fleet on Lake Erie in record time & made the rope for the first steamship to successfully navigate the US interior; Stephanie Kwolek who invented Kevlar; Jennie Bradley Roessing, suffragist who devised the “Pittsburgh Plan”, a strategy for winning the vote among Pennsylvanians, which was adopted by suffrage activists across the US.

    There are hundreds more, I began collecting their stories as I scoured Pittsburgh’s history to prepare the City’s Bicentennial 2016 celebrations. I resigned myself to women being largely left out of existing literature, but hoped that newer works would at least take a stab at bringing to light the hidden figures still waiting for a glimmer.

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