Past, Present, and Promise in the Prototypical Failed Steel Town

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A confluence involving a steel town and the Monongahela River– I’m sensing a trend here. (Thanks to Bruce Cridlebaugh.)

On Monday I had the privilege to explore McKeesport, a city twenty minutes south of Pittsburgh in my home state of Pennsylvania. The city had popped up on my radar last year because of the renovation of a historic YMCA building as a Passive House by Pittsburgh-based Thoughtful Balance. The building was renovated as transitional housing (“McKeesport Downtown Housing”) and its PHIUS+ certification qualification boasts quite respectable numbers– check it out, if you’re into that.

In this case, I was not only sightseeing but also visiting Alan Diede and Maryann Huk, a dynamic duo of civic and historic preservation activists and the moving force behind the McKeesport Preservation Society. Diede and Huk gave me the grand tour of the city, whose historic and industrial architecture is situated at the confluence of the Monongahela and the Youghiogheny Rivers (the “Mon” and the “Yok,” as they are colloquially known, and I had to remember to keep my vowels closer to Mawn than Mahn).

Founded in 1842 in the then sleepy backwaters of Pennsylvania (not terribly long after we had stopped calling Ohio the ‘Northwest Territory‘), the city became famous for its National Tube Works, founded in 1872 by the Flagler Brothers of Boston (no apparent relation to industrialist Henry Flagler of Standard Oil and Miami, Florida fame), who operated a factory in South Boston before relocating to McKeesport, buying an existing factory, and building the Works as we have come to know it.

US STEEL’S OTHER CHILD LEFT BEHIND

I’ll avoid rehashing the played out narrative of the boomtown-gone-bust, but I’ve referred a couple of times to McKeesport as the Gary of the Alleghenies, a dubious accolade, perhaps, but an apt descriptor when considering that both are 1) steel towns 2) in the metropolitan footprint of a major city but not within that city’s municipal boundaries, and towns that 3) lost a substantial percentage of their manufacturing base and therefore population base through 4) the same monolithic employer. McKeesport’s peak population of 55,355 came, somewhat unusually in US urban history, in 1940, before hitting its current and potentially continually descending low of 19,686 (64% loss, about a 14% averaged decennial loss), while Gary’s peak of 178,320 came, more typically of an American city, in 1960, versus its present-day, steadily-sliding number of 78,450 (56% loss, or a nearly identical decennial loss average, though over a twenty-year shorter time span).

Map of McKeesport with the riverfront Tube Works site highlighted.

1955 tourism map of McKeesport with the riverfront Tube Works site highlighted.

A 1955 town map listed 12 industries including nine other than the US Steel facilities, and four of these were expressly situated in the metal fabrication sector. Before the current era of cheap and easy transportation, heavy industry (really quite heavy) often spurred the growth of an industrial cluster in its vicinity. Back in the days before industry was something that was relegated to robots in corrugated steel warehouses in suburban industry parks, a mill was more than a simple facility for production that  could be moved as soon as the next town over ponied up some TIF dollars— it was an institution. A Mill, writ-large, couldn’t easily be moved, couldn’t inexpensively be started up or shut down (for example, with blast furnaces that had to be run continuously), so it was a safe bet to count on that source of production. National Tube employed at its peak more than 10,000 workers, about a third of the peak employment of US Steel’s Gary Works– but still massive, and about three times larger than the workforce of Braddock’s Edgar Thomson Mill, which still operates today at about 25% the size of its peak workforce.

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Quality control inspectors at National Tube, 1944. (uncredited, Library of Congress photo)

How did that work out?

Well– not so well, as it turns out. National Tube Works, originally independent and acquired by US Steel in 1901, closed in 1984, by which time the city had already lost a substantial amount of population. US Steel decided to reopen the plant in 2011 amid the Marcellus Shale frenzy, which has brought industrial demand, jobs, and major questions about water quality to the Keystone State– but just kidding (closed again in 2014, blaming, again, cheap imports from Korea and China).

Warehouse on the old Tube Works site.

Warehouse on the old Tube Works site.

Before visiting, I had imagined McKeesport as an Allegheny analogue to Gary, whose downtown is a crumbling remnant of its former greatness. To compare them purely in terms of their urban forms in addition to the ways I’ve already mentioned, In Gary, the major north-south artery of Broadway, which runs from US Steel’s Gary Works the whole way to suburban Merrillville and southward, is largely abandoned, and many of the buildings are in severe disrepair. Gary has offered some success stories, but attracting interest in even nearly free real estate has been difficult– McKeesport has some of the same challenges.

Both cities have great waterfronts, though– namely waterfronts that have been cleaned up since their old steel days and are ready for development. McKeesport even has a marina (Gary is working on it). Local development corporation RIDC offers much of the former mill site for industrial, commercial, or mixed-use development at affordable prices, and a number of the original buildings have been restored while the rest of the site has been cleared.

INDUSTRIAL CLUSTERS AND THE CULTURE OF MAKING STUFF

Some have noted that in spite of the steel industry having taken a major hit, the loss of monolithic producers didn’t actually cause the demise of the Pittsburgh region overall since, in spite of net losses of jobs, the industrial clusters of producers that were created to supply products to and manufacture products from the steel mills actually ended up forming a diversified industrial sector able to compete in complex regional and global supply chains. In other words, the diversified steel production and associated manufacturing industries remain productive, even if their job numbers, especially from the monolithic Mills, are but a shadow of their former greatness.

Detroit demonstrates this cluster phenomenon through the rise and fall of the automobile industry and creative attempts to revitalize the city through smaller scale manufacturing operations capitalizing on the city’s wealth of skilled manufacturing workers– indeed, this is partly based on branding (Detroit, the manufacturing giant) as well as actual technical skill sets (workers who know how to build stuff). Will we start seeing made-in-McKeesport wristwatches or outrageously expensive designer jeans as we see in Detroit? Probably not today or tomorrow, but we do have to think about the latent economic advantages in places like this, where a legacy of industry is as important as the underlying assets of the market– affordable prices, intact architecture, location in proximity to a major urban center, and existing infrastructure.

TOWARD A NEW CITY THROUGH ITS HISTORIC BUILT ENVIRONMENT

The primary reason for my visit was not to research the decline of USX, but rather to check out one specific facet of this core of intact architecture. The Benno Janssen-designed 1925 Penn-McKee Hotel is one of the more iconic abandoned buildings in McKeesport’s downtown, but it would be an unconscionable understatement to say that it is among but a few. Occupying the better part of a city block with a foot print of nearly 17,000 square feet, the steel and concrete structure offers four floors and a basement for a total usable square footage of about 70,000 square feet.

The major incident that really bolsters the Penn-McKee’s overt historical significance is a 1947 debate hosted there between then-freshmen Congressmen and later-presidents, Congressmen John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The debate occurred shortly after the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act, an act that, if not the sole or most direct contributor to the demise of American labor, certainly raised the arm holding the hammer to drive nails into the coffin of the labor movement in the decades to come. Proponents, remembering the Great Strike of 1919 (which hit the entire Pittsburgh metropolitan area pretty hard), fed up with the postwar labor strikes 1945-46 and increasingly wary of the possibility of radicals coöpting union power to incite strikes and subvert the pillars of the Great American Democracy, passed the Act to keep a closer eye on labor.

Kennedy and Nixon didn’t agree on this matter. There aren’t any great records of the debate itself, which included a number of local dignitaries from both sides of the debate. The event was trumpeted as a showcase by the city– whose power elite included major players in both labor and industry- of its significance on the regional and national stage of industry. It weren’t called Tube City USA for nothing.

Sanborn maps– when typefaces and steel production were grand business.

Using the historic hotel as a centerpiece for broader revitalization efforts would require a substantial intervention, [November update:] as we pieced together in a meeting with a pro, probably something to the tune of a couple million dollars in tax credits plus the same amount in a public loan guarantee or very low interest financing. The property is in severe disrepair, having suffered smoke damage from the Great Fire of ’76, which also wrecked a lot of the downtown, and a fire in 1997. Fortunately for the future of the structure (but unfortunately for proponents of its demolition), its rock solid concrete-and-steel construction means it isn’t going anywhere fast. Indeed, many of the rooms on the third and fourth floors are still intact with original furniture– metal furniture by the Simmons Company, famous for its mattresses, since the builders wanted to make the structure exceptionally fireproof by avoiding the use of wooden furniture. Excellent link to some refurbished versions here.

simmonsWith negative stigma hanging over the town like an air inversion, even the distant future potential market value of the building is considered by the average banker or investor to be less than the liability of owning it (it is assessed at $30,000). Mayor Mike Cherepko was reached for comment saying that he’s interested in figuring out a way to renovate the hotel but cited as a difficulty in the redevelopment the scarcity of public funds and what he believes is the extraordinary unlikeliness of private capital to mobilize for such a grand project.

The preservation of buildings like the Penn-McKee is critical to the future of the distressed city, and an effort toward revitalizing it in a manner congruous with a broader idea of sustainable community development will necessitate a community equity model like what we can potentially achieve through Fundrise (once we get past the idea that Regulation A offerings have to necessarily cost $50,000 to file).

National Tube’s founder John Flagler nailed it at a reception held to honor him in McKeesport in 1909:

“The growth of cities and the growth of capital are signals of opportunity to every wage earner. As the population and capital grow, the workmen can seize advantage. Much of the prosperity of our people is due not to the day’s work, or the year’s salary, but to the investment in a house and lot, in a farm, or in a few shares in a business enterprise, which with the growth of the country have all increased in value and have converted thousands of workingmen, in spite of themselves, into capitalists.”

Whether or not this rosy image of capitalism might have panned out for every worker is, of course, dubious. It certainly didn’t pan out for the city over the long term, but that’s not Flagler’s fault, it’s the corporate responsibility of US Steel for screwing up the game as well as a whole broken system of equity and ownership– a system that needs to be fixed. But what better way to realize Flagler’s mantra here than to rebuild the city with a better vision for what equity can be and what it can do for the city?

Huk and Diede drive me by a pile of rubble downtown and mention that it was, just a few weeks ago, a Richardsonian mansion. With sky-high labor costs, tight credit, and the need for a hustle to get past that first step, the mission of preservation as a tool for revitalization is all the more important– but also all the more difficult- in cities like McKeesport that lack the economic momentum to begin with. Beyond decrying the sins of demolition, it is important to figure out better ways to advocate for it, and better ways to capitalize on a city’s history in thinking about redevelopment efforts rather than just chasing after the “next big thing.” The facility at Carrie Furnace just up the river toward Pittsburgh, for example, is still standing– and offers tours.

I ask what the reason was for the demolition of the home, which must have cost a pretty penny. (The Penn McKee Hotel’s demolition is budgeted well into the six figure range.)

“More boat parking?” Diede speculated.

It’s not just on an individual project basis but on a philosophical one as far as how we think about progress. And we’ve got a ways to go.

About Nat Zorach

Nat Zorach is an urban development and energy professional working in Detroit and Chicago.
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