Driving through McKeesport this afternoon, I was struck with just how desolate a town could become
At any moment, I expected tumbleweeds to come flying down Walnut Street. The Daily News building is still there but the People’s Bank building with the gigantic columns has a number of For Sale signs in the once ornate windows. Empty store fronts are lined up on both sides of Fifth Avenue as far as the eye can see. The only advice I would have is stay in your car, keep the doors locked, and don’t slow down unless you absolutely have to.
The mill that my family once worked in is now almost completely gone. The bright red skyline was punctuated with hammer blows od industry all up and down the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers. Now the only sounds at night are gun shots and ambulances. As a writer, I am often afraid of exaggerating how bad a situation is just to make a point. In this case, I am afraid I am probably holding back. Businesses that survived a depression were unable to survive the worst catastrophe of all: human greed.
The city of my forefathers dreams died a painful death and there is a lot of blame to go around. Politicians on the take and the mob bled the coffers dry through the years. LBJ’s failed Great Society planted government housing units on both ends of town which gradually pushed out anyone with any desire to live a better life. They were replaced with drugs, crime and devastation. Most of their haunts and hang outs have long since burned down leaving vacant lots where families once lived.
We can’t even drive up to where my wife’s family used to live since the roads become more dangerous than those in a third world country. If you have a breakdown, it’s unlikely anyone will come and help you if the sun has already gone down. Empty houses, abandoned in the closing days of civilization are devoid of their copper piping and wiring. They are probably only standing because of the talent of the original builders long ago. It for sure has nothing to do with the current inhabitants.
There was no Labor Day parade today either. There are still union halls for the retirees, but with no work, unions have reached a point where they are about as useful as a finial for a stained glass lamp shade. I’m sure they are still there, waiting, but not many people feel the need for them anymore.
What was it like before?
Back in the Black and White television days, McKeesport was a thriving community. At the end of World War 2, McKeesport had reached its nadir. Steel production for the war effort and the global market helped this small town to mark a real mark for itself on the map. We made bombs, torpedoes, pipe, steel products of all kinds and helped to win the war.
We had great schools and family owned stores struggled for space downtown. You could get ice cream and chipped ham from Isaly’s see a movie in either of the well appointed theaters and Christmas was a magical time with lights and carolers. The city was lit up from end to end and it was a treat as a kid to go there.
But times were changing quickly. Women had been brought into the work force to replace the missing men. Now those men came back and wanted to get on with their lives. There was a lot of conflict there to greet them. Politicians and their supporters kept bleeding the businesses for more and more taxes. Unions became their partners in the public sector for the first time. Teachers, firemen and policemen became the opponents of the very people they were supposed to serve. But Big Labor was the biggest destroyer of all.
From my Book “Love your son Butch”
By 1946, the unions were threatening to cripple the country. Work stoppages during the war had been artificially slowed down but war’s end brought back the turmoil which spelled doom for the steel valley in years to come.
On January 20th 800,000 steelworkers of the CIO walked out in the largest single action in America’s history. Of that number, 227,000 were in the Pittsburgh District and picket lines soon appeared at the Irwin works and National Tube Works where John’s father was a foreman. The strike occurred despite President Truman’s attempts to forestall them by conducting a fact finding effort. By the next day, all of the mills in the area were silent for the first time and production levels hit a fifty year low. Phillip Murray, in a national broadcast accused the steel companies of “an evil conspiracy” to destroy labor unions.
Phillip Murray was an emigrant from Scotland who rose from being a coal miner to head of the United Steel Workers of America Union. Prior to the war, he had also risen to the top of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) replacing the infamous John L. Lewis. As the head of the unions, he had supported Franklin Roosevelt during the war, but spearheaded efforts to advance the cause of his members against the companies they worked for. During his term of office, the USWA grew to over 2500 local unions including steel and aluminum workers.
May 9th 1946. A 115 day strike of 75,000 Westinghouse workers – the longest major walkout since the war ended with the CIO – United Electrical accepting an 18 cent increase on the hourly wage. 15,000 Pittsburgh employees approve the pact and prepare to go back to work. Westinghouse is a shell of its former self today.
May 22 – the Army at the direction of President Truman seizes the coal mines to end the strike that had crippled the country.
In the spring of 1946, both coal miners and railroad workers staged nationwide strikes. President Harry Truman decided that the unions had gone too far, and after the railroad workers rejected a settlement, he seized control of the railroads. Despite the government takeover, the workers continued with their strike plans. As a result, on May 24, 1946, Truman issued an ultimatum declaring that the government would operate the railroads and use the army as strikebreakers. When the deadline passed, Truman went before Congress to seek the power to deny seniority rights to strikers and to draft strikers into the armed forces. Just as Truman reached the climax of his speech, he received a note saying that the strike was “settled on the terms proposed by the President.” After the congressional cheers died down, Truman proceeded with his prepared text.
The turmoil caused by “organized labor” and their friends in the Democrat party killed this city. A union man would tell you it was the company. I suppose the argument will go on forever but the truth is that McKeesport is an empty shell now and no right thinking person would ever bring business back to an area that was so efficient in setting up a perfect storm of failure.
Many years ago, pioneers found the future site of this empty place on the shores of the Mon and Yough and launched a dream that gave a solid life to many generations.
Maybe when its completely gone back to seed, new pioneers will come and do it again. If all the government money is finally cut off, the hold outs will have to go someplace else and do something else. I just hope that this time the unions and the democrats keep driving past on their way to somewhere else. Might I suggest Chicago?