Instead of a rural wilderness trek, today I opted for an urban adventure. For a long time, I've been curious about the old mill towns of the Monongahela Valley. Many of them are semi-ghost towns, but their names loom large in local legend: Homestead, McKeesport, Braddock, Clairton. These were never "suburbs" of Pittsburgh, but proud satellite cities with distinctive identities in the region. First stop: Duquesne.
|This is Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, on South First Street. It's scheduled for demolition in the summer of 2013.|
Duquesne was largely settled by Eastern Europeans who came to work in the steel mills. You still see a few elderly white folks milling about in doorways, but now the town is mainly African American. I saw a beautiful old yellow brick house for sale in this part of town: $12,000. According to the real estate website, the place needs some "finishing touches" but it's entirely ready to move into. (Maybe in Duquesne replacing shattered windows is considered a finishing touch.) This town seems ripe for the kind of urban reclamation projects we've seen in Homestead and even Braddock. All it takes is people who care and who are willing to commit...and who have some money to invest. That's the rub.
Duquesne is designated "a distressed municipality" by the state, and it recently lost its high school, which had some of the lowest test scores in Pennsylvania. We're talking about a place where the schools were as bad as North Philadelphia. Duquesne has one of the highest violent crime rates in the state: 89 murders per 100,000. That's an unimaginable statistic. Actually, I think "distressed" is an understatement. And yet, I liked the place. In all its wretchedness, it has an almost welcoming, livable feel to it.
Like all the great towns along the Monongahela River, Duquesne was dominated by a steel mill for about 100 years. The factory ceased operations in 1984, and Duquesne lost its reason for being.
I would guess that almost half the houses in town sit empty. Most storefronts are derelict, too. And yet, there are stubborn signs of life even here. A few tenacious businesses still hold out on the main drag, Grant Avenue: a hardware store, a tailor shop, a number of dubious-looking bars.
Many grand old churches and public buildings are now occupied by small, evangelical sects with name's like "Abundant Faith in Christ Assembly Church." I felt a little nervous in some neighborhoods, just because I'm a paranoid outlander from up north. But really, the people went about their business and let me go about mine, which was to poke around the wreckage of their town. There's a sort of kindness in tolerating a stranger with a camera.
In many places, you can see what a pleasant town it was in its day. Gentle hills give a contour to the cityscape, offering views of the river valley and the wooded hills on the opposite bank. Tree-lined streets speak of happier times when children played and lawnmowers hummed.
This is the Lithuanian Club. Like many buildings in town, you can't quite tell whether it's abandoned or just neglected. I'm guessing the former, since the Lithuanians all moved out to Peters Township twenty years ago.
Looking off to the northeast, above the rooftops of empty houses, you can see the Edgar Thomson steelworks in Braddock. Clairton is still home to an enormous "coke works" plant, but Braddock has the first and the last of the great steel factories in the valley...still plugging away.
Down by the banks of the Monongahela River is a broad, flat area where Duquesne's steel mill used to sit. At its height of productivity, 8,000 men were employed at this factory--more people than live in the city today. Now the riverside flats are an industrial park. The Steel Valley Trail segment of the "Great Allegheny Passage" follows an old railroad grade through here. This shot looks from the riverbank toward the City of Duquesne in the distance.
An enormous railroad yard separates the grittiest parts of town--to the south--from the still-gritty-but-not-entirely-destitute-neighborhoods to the north. This rundown mansion sits across the street from the Presbyterian church: evidence that even Duquesne has a handful of fading WASPs. It's strange, in this northern segment of town, to see the rollercoasters of Kennywood poking their playful heads above such an otherwise grim landscape, under gray and wintry skies.
Also north of the tracks, a block of homes almost reminiscent of the genteel Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
Out along the edges of town are crowded little areas of tiny brick Cape Cods. Many of them are decorated with Steelers paraphernalia: evidence of working class whites. There's a forlorn beauty to this town, especially the older segments, despite--or perhaps because of--the post-apocalyptic abandon. In less than forty years, this place has become a shell of itself. It's a study in collapse, which is all very appealing to a melancholy trespasser like me.
(Click on any photo to enlarge it.)