Searching for Dream Street - Aliquippa, Pennsylvania
Searching for Dream Street is an in-depth photographic examination of the current state of the iconic steel towns within about 40 miles of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In 1955, when renowned photojournalist W. Eugene Smith was creating images of Pittsburgh that would eventually become a book called Dream Street, Pittsburgh was the quintessential Rust Belt city.
When the U.S. steel industry collapsed in the 1980’s the Pittsburgh region entered the same depressed state as the rest of the so called Rust Belt. Jobs were lost by the thousands and workers left the area to search for work.
Today, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the population of Pittsburgh is about 305,840, less than half of what it was during the city’s economic heyday. But once again the Steel City is said to be experiencing a rebirth, with a rapidly growing economy
largely based on healthcare, education, technology and banking.
This rebirth may be true for Pittsburgh proper, but the scene looks a lot more bleak for the towns along the three iconic rivers that converge in the city.
Ironically the steel industry that brought Pittsburgh international fame existed almost entirely outside the city on the banks of the famous Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers with the exception of a Jones and Laughlin's complex located just upstream on the Monongahela.
Other famous steelmaking complexes were located farther both up and downstream in the towns of Homestead, Rankin, Braddock, Duquesne, McKeesport, Clairton, McKees Rocks, Aliquippa and Midland. These towns are the suburbs that helped make Pittsburgh an industrial powerhouse.
Driven by an influx of foreign-born workers at the turn of the 20th century, immigrants helped fill jobs in the mills, where steel was forged for the aircraft and battleships that helped win two world wars.
But if you drive through these towns today, it’s clear they have been largely forgotten.
Once bustling shopping corridors are all but empty. The company homes where workers raised their families are showing their age, and residents still reminisce about the “good old days” before the mills shuttered.
It looks like it just happened, but it has now been 25 years since most of the mills shut down and not much has changed for the people who remain.
Nationally, about 55 percent of people who live in poverty reside outside of cities. But in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, 61 percent of people live in poverty and the number rises to a staggering 79 percent for the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, which
includes Allegheny and its six surrounding counties where these old steel towns are located, according to a 2013 Brookings Institute study titled Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.
In recent years, the media has reported extensively about the rebirth of Pittsburgh, but very little attention has been focused on the city’s suburbs and the plight of the people living there — except, perhaps, during election season.
For me it is even more personal since my mother and father were born and raised in Aliquippa, home to what was at the time the largest steel mill in the world, the Jones and Laughlin Aliquippa Works.
My mother was born to Ukrainian immigrants on Plan 11 in Aliquippa, one of the housing areas build for the steel workers by J&L. My dad was born to Croatian immigrants in the area that is now known as West Aliquippa. My paternal grandfather worked in the J&L mill for 38 years and my dad worked in the mill for a short time after returning from WWII before returning to the Marine Corps.
I have seen firsthand how Aliquippa has declined. My parents and relatives tell the stories about how wonderful and bustling the town was before the decline of the steel industry and the closing of the mill.
It is because of these stories and memories that I feel drawn to tell the story of these towns and their people. The immigrants who came to this area came with dreams of a better life.
For a time it seemed as though those dreams would be found in the streets of their new home. Many of the people living there today are doubting that those dreams still exist.