"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Post: PITTSBURGH: The Steel City in Transition

Dennis Palumbo

Dennis Palumbo

With the publication of my new novel, Mirror Image, a lot of people have asked why I set the mystery thriller in Pittsburgh. My usual, somewhat facetious answer is that New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago and Miami were all taken.

The real answer, apart from the fact that I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, is that my home town provides the best setting possible for a contemporary novel, and for the most obvious of reasons: it represents what is happening to many cities throughout the country. At least, the ones that are struggling to survive the transition from the 20th to the 21st century, from an industrial and manufacturing-based economy to a digitial and information-based one.

When we think of eastern cities, we think of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Detroit. Burly, muscular cities whose very foundations were laid by immigrant men and women, hard workers whose daily toil fueled those cities' economic engines.

Pittsburgh was an exemplar of that depiction. With the accent on was. Famous for its steel mills and factories---and for the resultant smoky air and soot-coated buildings---the Pittsburgh I knew as a child has undergone a renaissance in the past thirty years.

For example, the seventeen miles of steel mills that once lined its converging rivers are no more. (I remember them well; for two summers during my undergraduate days at Pitt I shoveled coal into the blast furnace at J&L Steel on Second Avenue, popping salt pills to stave off dehydration.) Moreover, with the arrival of software companies and the proliferating financial institutions, the downtown has sprouted shining new towers and off-loaded many of its older, WW-II era structures. And the air is pretty clean and soot-free.

What makes Pittsburgh an interesting phenomenon is the way it's handling this transition. Not that it hasn't been, nor continues to be, rocky. Nor without its casualities---primarily blue collar workers and their families. What Billy Joel sang about in "Allentown" is true for most of Pittsburgh's small outlying communities and cities whose survival depended on the steel and coal industries. Even at the newly gentrified core of downtown Pittsburgh, the Steel City itself, what new steel there is---embedded in freshly-poured concrete---is imported from Japan.

But, like it or not, in today's economy---let alone today's global marketplace---eastern industrial cities have to change or die. Pittsburgh is changing---has changed---and this resulting mix of old and new actually gives the city a fresh opportunity to grow. When you add to this its rich bounty of endowments
from such heavy-weights as the Mellons, the Scaifes and the Carnegies, as well as its nationally-known universities and hospitals, Pittsburgh is well-positioned to be as relevant as any other American city. Plus, it boasts the Steelers!

Of course, change is a mixed blessing, especially for those of us whose lives straddled both "eras" of Pittsburgh. A fact I make use of in Mirror Image. After a traumatic experience involving one of his patients, the novel's narrator, a psychologist named Daniel Rinaldi, is musing on how mixed that blessing is as he heads home...

"We made the turn onto my street, whose edge fell away onto a panoramic view of the Three Rivers and the glistening lights of contemporary Pittsburgh. Gone were the steel mills and factories; in their place stood razor-thin buildings of glass and chrome, of software and bond trading.

"The city had changed a lot since I was a kid, a shot-and-a-beer town colliding with the Information Age. Though sometimes, like tonight, I missed the Pittsburgh I grew up in. Forged by immigrants. Musty like the smell of damp wool. A mosaic of thick accents and old neighborhoods, clanging trolleys and cobblestone streets. Before mini-malls and decaf lattes. Before spaghetti became pasta."

I guess, in the end, though a blessing may be mixed, it's still a blessing. In these difficult, uncertain times, that's something every Pittsburgh native---even if reluctantly---has come to understand.

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