Spring Travel: Pittsburgh forges ahead
By Rebecca Bengal,
Long before I ever went to Pittsburgh, my image of the place was formed by films: George Romero’s horror movies; “The Deer Hunter”; “Flashdance”; it felt dark and magnetic, another world entirely. Growing up, I’d wanted to be Jennifer Beals biking the streets in her Army jacket and welding goggles, in a city that to me radiated a kind of cool, as the soundtrack put it: “a world made of steel, made of stone.”
Years later, I’d encounter Pittsburgh through the eyes of influential Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith: projected like a film noir, the crisscrossing rivers and train tracks, smoke billowing from its furnaces as iron melted into billets of steel, workers carrying lunch pails up and down the hundreds of staircases that ran along the city’s precipitous slopes, connecting houses sandwiched into the hills, all which gave the place the look of an industrial fairy-tale town. But more than 50 years had passed since Gene Smith photographed the city, some decades since the collapse of the steel industry. When I went at last, the impression of Smith’s pictures resonated with me; they were a narrative of the place, one he never finished, but it was the story of a place, I felt, that could not have disappeared entirely, and it was that Pittsburgh I went looking for.
There are lovely and funny and forlorn moments in Smith’s photographs , but the steelworker pictures are mesmerizing, dramatically orchestrated stuff: the dancelike movements of the welder in the burning pit of the mill, and a close-up of a mustachioed steelworker, his face so graphically rendered that he is, as Smith intended, not really an individual but an icon. The focus is centered on the goggles, in which the flames of the furnaces are reflected so hotly that his eyes appear to be on fire.
“I believe it’s a self-portrait,” says Sam Stephenson, who has written and edited two books of Smith’s work, “The Jazz Loft Project” and “Dream Street,” the latter of which includes 175 photographs of Smith’s Pittsburgh work. “That man is Smith, with passionate, burning eyes — a man who is inflamed, possessed and driven by what he sees, in a quixotic and uncontrollable manner.”
When Smith arrived in Pittsburgh in 1955, he was 37 and notoriously brilliant, difficult, obsessive and excessive — and a master of, and some say the inventor of, the photo essay. He was also addicted to amphetamines and alcohol, which, along with the thousands of jazz records he played at outrageous volumes, got him through marathon darkroom sessions. Frustrated by issues of creative control, he had quit Life and accepted an assignment from editor Stefan Lorant to shoot 100 pictures for a book commemorating Pittsburgh’s bicentennial and its renaissance, a portrait of a thriving city of industry and commerce and philanthropy and art and civic pride. The assignment was expected to take three weeks; Smith remained in Pittsburgh, producing about 20,000 negatives over four years.
“It was a great moment for Pittsburgh; the city’s population peaked in the 1950s,” Stephenson told me. “And Smith was in this transition moment; this was the time when he ceased to be a journalist and was in the process of becoming an artist. So you have Gene Smith at the peak of his powers, at the peak of his ambition, going to capture a city at its peak moment.”
Smith was intent on creating something he thought had never been achieved in photographs, a sprawling work on the order of Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” or “Ulysses” or Rilke’s “Duino Elegies”; he aspired to Beethoven and Faulkner. His vision was grand and literary and, ultimately, doomed by its overarching ambition — and by his personal difficulties, his reputation for being unyielding and difficult. He was never able to aggregate all the parts of his plan into a complete, physical, contained and published form. Eventually, he moved on to other places and projects, and died, in 1978, of all the addictions that had fueled his art and perhaps served to thwart the realization of the Pittsburgh work.
A confluence of circumstances make the Pittsburgh photographs what they are, Stephenson told me. Many photographers preceded and succeeded Gene Smith in Pittsburgh — the record includes B.L.H. Dabbs’s photographs of the 1892 Homestead Steel Works strikes against Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie; Bernd and Hilla Becher’s extensive series of industrial structures; Lewis Hine’s social documentary work, “Pittsburgh Survey”; the then-little-known, prolific Teenie Harris, whose insider photographs of African American Pittsburgh will go on exhibit at the city’s Carnegie Museum of Art this fall; Lee Friedlander’s “Factory Valleys” series of the mills in Pittsburgh and outlying towns — and it is easy to see why. Visually, the city has always compelled. Its dramatic beauty is derived as much from its unusual topography as from the manmade pollution for which it became, unfortunately, accidentally famous.
The city was formed 200 million years ago by the tectonic shifts that created the Allegheny Mountains and established a natural barrier between Pittsburgh and much of the East Coast, allowing the city to develop mostly in isolation; there are more sharply inclined hills in Pittsburgh than in San Francisco, and many so steep they must be traversed by means of one of the city’s 712 staircases that function as pedestrian streets.
Writing in the early 186os, the English novelist Anthony Trollope was swayed by the smokestacks: “I was never more in love with smoke and dirt than when I stood here and watched the darkness of night close in upon the floating soot which hovered over the housetops of the city.” A few years later, Boston journalist James Parton, no less enthralled by the vast number of factories and mills teeming with production, was nonetheless blunt in his assessment: “Hell with the lid taken off,” he declared.
Smith must have been daunted in part by the city’s sheer scope and seeming unknowability. I certainly was. The Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers, the hills and valleys and 446 bridges divide Pittsburgh into 88 neighborhoods. Owing to population shifts and gentrification, these neighborhoods are less ethnically distinct than in the 1950s, but they can feel geographically isolated, even hidden, from one another.
I climbed hundreds of stairs in the South Side, like the steelworkers in Smith’s photographs with their lunch pails, trudging up these same steps daily, passing houses that seemed to be built right into the hills. A couple of teenage boys walked out of one of the houses, and seeing their car jammed in parallel between two others on the cartoonishly steep incline, moaned, “How the hell are we going to reverse out of that?”
Looking for the places Gene Smith had photographed, the very last thing I expected to find, though, was a Gene Smith photograph. Walking along Carson Street, in the South Side Flats at sunset, not far from the former Jones & Laughlin mill, I stopped suddenly when I saw it: a mural painted on the side of a building across from the Double Wide Grill. Actually, it was two Smith photographs, in composite: a steelworker with a slightly downcast gaze; and that icon, the mustached steeler with the fire-reflecting goggles. They had been montaged as a single picture, the graphic quality of the photographs reconfigured as Cubist-like panes of color, that, compared to Smith’s black and white, looked positively psychedelic, as large as a billboard. The effect was jarringly out of context, yet familiar: It had the look of a Jefferson Airplane poster reproduced on the walls of Haight-Ashbury — an image translated from another era, appearing at once alike and nothing like Smith’s photographs, an anomaly that had made itself at home. I got out my camera and took a picture.
Unless you have years as Smith allowed himself, it is impossible to fully know all of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods. Fortunately, artist Teresa Foley has made a kind of introduction. Two years ago, she started the nonprofit art project Locally Toned, in which she collaborates with Pittsburghers to produce miniature audio documentaries — sounds that have some personal connection to the creator. The recordings are packaged as ringtones, available free on the Locally Toned Web site, where they are also mapped according to their geographic origin.
Foley grew up in Pittsburgh, so her interest in audiomapping her home town is perhaps unsurprising, as is her fondness for the miniature. Her house in Squirrel Hill is filled with sculptures by her artist uncle, including a fantastically realized dollhouse he built for her when she was a child, with tiny furniture, a tiny phonograph, a tiny rug embroidered with a thimble-size T. The ringtones form a revealing if random portrait of the city: the Homewood jazz musician Nelson Harrison playing his trombetto; the jump-rope and hand-clap songs sung by girls in Point Breeze; a yoga student in Banksville chanting her oms. Most are suggested to Foley by people in the community who come to her with an idea of a sound they’d like to record. One day, a former convict got in touch.
“I have an idea for a ringtone for all of my cronies who did time in Western Pen,” he wrote. “There’s a whistle that blows every evening around 8:40. That sound means, to all who are ‘in the know,’ to ‘take it in,’ in prison yard vernacular.”
The man, now freed and in his 50s, signed himself Anonymous. He was eager to document the sound that continued to haunt him years after his release. “People may realize this or not,” he wrote, “but for a prisoner, when that whistle goes off, your mentality changes, and so must your actions. You stop what you are doing and think, ‘What am I going to do when I get back to my cell?’ ”
Since Anonymous’s incarceration, Western Penitentiary had been closed and reopened under the antiseptic name of the State Correctional Institution, now a minimum-security facility for convicts with drug or alcohol issues or both. The whistle is still sounded nightly, and Foley asked permission to tape from the “inside,” a request officials politely denied. So, instead, she went with the ex-convict to the neighborhood one evening — Woods Run — and waited for the signal, recorder ready.
Even captured as a short mp3, the Western Pen whistle sounds that forlorn thing Hank Williams must have meant when he said he “heard that lonesome whistle blow” — it is a sustained blast of transformative tone, like a train coming around a bend and disappearing into a tunnel; in the silencing, the sound bends again, the whistle followed by two plaintive, haunting moans. At least I heard trains — signifying escape, and freedom; but listen again, and you can also hear the echo of a factory whistle, a sound that hangs in the air. I could see why Anonymous hadn’t been able to shake it.
I photographed in Pittsburgh, certainly with Smith’s pictures in mind, seeking out his places but growing ever more aware of the time that had passed since. Those pictures would have been physically impossible to re-create even if I’d wanted to: Barriers had been installed on some of the more formidable slopes, and I realized that to achieve certain angles, he must have ventured to impossible places, in some cases, ones that no longer existed.
Admittedly, many of the people I met in Pittsburgh, even the ones who had lived here all their lives, were far removed from the Pittsburgh of Smith’s photographs. One night, at a diner, I finally heard someone use the famous Pittsburghese “yinz” — the local variation of the collective second-person pronoun, as derived from you-all, y’all, you’uns, y’uns, hence yinz — without irony, but it was on my last day in town that I finally met a Steeler, in every sense of the word.
Gary “Gig”—“G-I-G,” he emphasized — Newsom is 64 years old, a fisherman and hunter, an ex-steelworker, a Vietnam War veteran, a native Pittsburgher. He is accidentally famous, he told me. “But I’m trying to get unfamous.” He is, by his own estimation, the most “unmarried married guy in the world,” a relationship that he says is based on a rhythm of never spending any time together: “She just left — no, matter of fact, I just left! — and when I come back, she just left. That’s how it works. That’s the truth. We’ve been married 44 1/2 years.” His packrat Jeep was as loaded as his talk, filled to the roof with hunting and fishing gear, knives and guns, 12 kinds of camouflage, takeout cups, pizza coupons and five years’ of back issues of Field & Stream. He talks so much and so fast he has to interrupt himself, which he often did, usually with a directive to me, as yet another tangent suddenly occurred. “C’mere!” he’d holler at me mid-his-own-sentence. “I want to show you something!”
I met him behind the prison, which should have been the first tipoff, he said. The evening before, I’d driven out to hear the whistle, but I wanted to photograph the former Western Pen in daylight. The building is nearly 130 years old and beautiful, walled by a spiked iron fence, with a white bulbous tower in the yard. I had aimed my camera in between the spaces of the fence when a guard drove up and asked if I wouldn’t mind not taking any more pictures, please. So I headed toward the river instead, along a walking and biking path bordered by new green grass and just-planted saplings. The Great Allegheny Passage, when completed, will join the C&O Canal towpath, creating a 320-mile-long trail connecting Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
It was a nice day. Cyclists biked by in pairs. Families were out fishing, and kids tore off hunks of bread to throw to the ducks; a motorboat flashed past on its way downriver. And there was Gary Newsom, in darkly tinted glasses that looked prescription, and a Steelers hat. And a mustache. He was the past in the midst of the present, the black-and-white photograph in the color shot; in fact, he could have stood in for Smith’s stark flaming-goggled steelworker, that is, if he didn’t talk quite so much.
“What am I fishing for? Catfish, paddlefish, walleye fish, shark, whales, saugers, didja ever see them prehistoric fish they put in here — bowfin fish, they’re prehistoric. What’s the only animal that wasn’t on Noah’s Ark that’s here today? FISH! They was already in the water!” He laughed at his own terrible joke.
Newsom had worked in steel for 28 years, most of it at Jones & Laughlin. In the ’80s, J&L was bought by a company in Texas, and he was sent to Germany to train in the steel pours there. “We poured more steel,” he said, “but the Germans were better at it. We went there, we got their technology, we came back, made it better, we put millions and millions of dollars into it, and then boom, they shut it down. It was like being kicked out of school.”
Newsom and I were standing at Sumbum’s Dock. Two weeks ago, the neighborhood fishing club, of which he is a member, had held its annual youth tournament here, with 180 kids and their fathers in attendance. In a minute, Kevin Quigley, one of the other members, arrived for that day’s meeting of the Woods Run Fishing Club.
“Kevin’s the owner and president of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” Newsom informed me. Quigley is, in fact, the assistant director of public works for the city and also grew up in the neighborhood. I told them that I had been there the night before, to hear the whistle.
“It’s been that way for fortysome years,” Quigley said. “When I was a kid, that’s how you knew you had to be home. About 8:40 or so every night. When the whistle blew, you had 15 minutes.”
We were facing, on the street side, the backs of a half-dozen beige buildings, and across the river, an island covered with trees. Trains ran along trestles in the hills around us.
“Right over there on Brunots Island back around the early 1900s, that was a horsetrack,” Quigley said. “And downriver there was where the ferry would come. All the gentlemen would get on the boat and do their betting.”
“Anything that was taken over was done by boat,” Newsom said.
“It coulda been a resort. Now it’s a power plant,” Quigley said. “I’m surprised this is still standing,” he added, indicating the State Correctional Institution.
What was it like, I wondered, without the whistle sounding every night?
“Quiet!” Newsom shouted. “You got used to hearing it. And now they hold it for a whole minute; years ago, they just, like, tooted it or something. They hold it for a solid minute, eh, Kevin?” Before Quigley could answer, Newsom turned to me again. “Hey, c’mere! I wanna show you something!”
Newsom had earlier promised more neighborhood sightseeing, and I agreed to follow in my car as his Jeep tore up the hills around the switchback turns. I wasn’t terribly surprised when the “sights” turned out to mostly be bars (Newsom says he has been dry for 16 years; he stuck to water). It was still early in the day, so the Young Brothers bar wasn’t yet open for business, but the elder Young recognized Newsom at the door and let us in. Then the younger Young walked into the main room, looking shocked to see us.
“What the hell, Gary!” he said. “I seen you on the news! I said, ‘That’s the white dude that brings us the deer meat!’ ”
As we were walking back outside, he to his Jeep and I to my car, I ventured to ask what had occasioned Newsom’s TV news appearance.
“Oh, that,” he said disparagingly. “I told you I’m trying to get unfamous!” (Later that week, I turned up the source of his sudden celebrity: After being chided by a neighbor for driving too fast on a street when kids were outside playing, Newsom allegedly went home, retrieved his hunting rifle and returned to the neighbor’s house to talk things over.) Whether or not any of this was true, I flew around hairpin turns trying to keep up with the Jeep en route to our next and final stop, a bar that was painted gold and black through and through. This place was most definitely open for business, and already several regulars had congregated, like a board meeting of the Steelers Nation, even though it was only noon. Newsom was famous here, as well: Everyone nodded and said hello. Next to us was another former steelworker, who introduced himself as Mike. Mike nodded in assent when Newsom pointed out to me the bolts in the barstools we were sitting on and said solemnly, “We made those.” Immediately, Newsom laughed and interrupted himself yet again. “No, of course, we didn’t make those!” he shouted. “They’re all made in China now.”
Newsom told me he didn’t frequent the SouthSide Works — the mall that was built on the site of his former employer, J&L. When he’s not taking another hunting trip in the packrat Jeep, he tends to stick to Woods Run, where a little diner under the train trestle displays pictures of his Pittsburgh, the old Pittsburgh, Gene Smith’s Pittsburgh. I can’t help but think, though, that he’d get a kick out of seeing the psychedelic steelworker mural just up the street from the mill where he clocked in every day for nearly 30 years.
One day after I left town, I called up Lucas Stock, whose name I’d seen credited on the painting — he was the art director and site manager of that particular mural, which was painted in the summer of 2008. Started in Pittsburgh, the MLK Community Mural Project is a nationwide organization that employs local kids to collaborate with artists on the neighborhood murals. Stock was raised in Pittsburgh, he told me; he is from a family of coal miners, steelworkers and “railroad people.” Growing up, he and his friends would roam around the abandoned J&L mill; a few years later, back in town from military service, he came home to find the SouthSide Works in its place.
“I was blown away,” he told me, “in a good way.” It made sense to bring steelworkers back to that neighborhood, if only in two-dimensional form, and to research the mural’s design, he combed through hundreds of images, always coming back to Gene Smith’s. “You can see the smelt in them,” he said. “They really reflected the stories of this place.” He worried, though, after the mural went up, that it hadn’t quite done justice to the photographs. Months passed since the summer, and one Sunday in January 2009, the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2009. In the midst of the post-game celebrating, Stock happened to be driving down Carson Street when he encountered a strange sight: The parking lot across from the Double Wide Grill suddenly filled with idling cars; everyone jumped out and stood before the mural of Smith’s steelworker and flicked open their cigarette lighters, holding them high in the air if they were the front row of a stadium rock show. If the steelworker had been real, his goggles might have reflected not just the fire from the furnaces, but also the butane flames of dozens of Steelers fans, raised skyward in tribute to both a triumphant present and a not-so-long-lost past.
Rebecca Bengal is a writer living in Brooklyn. She can be reached at email@example.com.