They pulled the plug on this close-knit company town two days after Christmas, and most everyone here can feel the lifeblood slipping away.
For 60 years, this smokestack community just south of Buffalo has been sustained by Bethlehem Steel Corp., whose 2 1/2 miles of factories and furnaces define the northern border of Lackawanna. With the company's announcement that most of the complex will close this year, the city fathers stand to lose not only 7,300 jobs but two-thirds of their $9 million a year in property tax revenues.
Mayor Tom Radich decided the city would raise property taxes, do away with several agencies, cancel construction projects and lay off 30 of the 320 municipal employes, each one a familiar face.
"These are my friends," said Radich, 49, who worked 28 years as a crane repairman at Bethlehem Steel until he was laid off in November. "Their family may know my family, and that's what makes it hard. But it was a decision that had to be made." Without those taxes, he asked, "How do you support a police department? A fire department? If something isn't done, the city's going to be bankrupt. We'll have to go into receivership."
A number of cities that grew up around the once-booming steel industry--such as Youngstown, Ohio, and Johnstown, Pa.--have fallen on hard times. But nowhere has the dependence been as complete or the collapse as swift as in this city of 22,000.
Moreover, Bethlehem's planned shutdown is just the latest setback for the depressed Buffalo area, where unemployment has topped 15 percent.
Republic Steel has closed its plant indefinitely. Ford and General Motors have laid off 5,500 workers at two large auto plants in the Buffalo suburbs. Conrail furloughed 300 as freight shipments slowed. Another 1,400 lost their jobs when the Buffalo Courier-Express shut down.
Record numbers of young people have swelled the local welfare rolls, and last week Moody's investor service downgraded Lackawanna's bond rating to "unmarketable." In the face of all this, New York State officials asked President Reagan to give the area $50 million in federal aid. The White House has come up with $2 million so far.
Bethlehem's Lackawanna plant was especially vulnerable because it produces mainly sheet metal for the ailing auto industry. Bethlehem officials also blamed the shutdown on a familiar litany of industry woes: steel imports, an outmoded physical plant, high union wages and excessive taxes.
Steelmaking has been a way of life here since 1900, when the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Co. moved its operations from Pennsylvania to the shores of Lake Erie. The city soon was carved from two neighboring communities, and in 1922 Bethlehem bought what was then one of the world's most modern steel plants.
Lackawanna worked hard and lived well. Taxes were low, services plentiful and jobs always available. Nearly all the men worked at the steel plant at one time or another. Dozens of policemen and sanitation workers collected city paychecks and then moonlighted at the plant, where some found the work less than demanding.
"It was like a country club," said Fred Catuzza, who was a city fireman by day and a steelworker at night. "If you worked two hours a night, you did a lot."
When times got tough, however, few wanted to sacrifice. "I had men working for me in the garage who were making double what I was," said Anthony Collareno, Lackawanna's public works director. "They were picking up $35,000 at the plant and then getting $13,000 from a city job . . . ."
Citizens demanded that Collareno's workers clean out their sewers and help chop down their trees. "They get services that people wouldn't dream of anywhere else," he said.
The loudest complaints came from Bethlehem officials, who insisted their property taxes were too high, and in 1978 they sued the city to lower their tax bill by $20 million. This was a marked departure from the old days.
"Bethlehem used to sit down with the city fathers and say, 'We'll give you this much,' " Collareno said. "They would name their own assessment." The local tax assessor wasn't even allowed inside the plant.
Lackawanna offered some tax concessions, but Bethlehem brushed these aside and kept threatening to close the plant. In 1981, the company began laying off the first of 3,400 employes, nearly half its 8,600-member work force. Still, most people thought it was just a temporary downturn.
Terry Hart, a 12-year veteran who worked in the coke ovens, was one of the 3,400. He got his layoff notice last July, but expected to be called back by year's end. He also expected a monthly paycheck from the Supplemental Unemployment Benefits (SUB) that the company sets aside for laid-off workers.
On Dec. 27, Hart heard the news on the radio: all but the 1,300 people who worked on the bar mill and galvanizing line would be permanently out of work sometime in 1983. Then he learned that the SUB fund had run dry and he wouldn't be getting any benefits.
"I was counting on that money," said Hart, 30, as his three youngsters played on the kitchen floor. "I went ahead and bought Christmas presents for my kids. Now I haven't been able to pay the January mortgage." Hart and his wife, Sharon, have been getting by on her $3.40 an hour from a fast-food restaurant, $197 a month in food stamps and $125 a week in unemployment benefits. The unemployment checks run out in nine weeks, and Hart says he may head south to look for work.
Tom Radich also was laid off before Christmas, but a few weeks later he was named to succeed the retiring mayor and had to prepare a new budget. The city was near its state tax limit, but Radich proposed to raise the average homeowner's tax by $66 a year. The library needed some work and streets needed repaving, but Radich proposed no capital budget for 1983. The unions demanded more money, but Radich proposed no raises.
The worst of it was the layoffs. Three young policemen, already laid off from steel and auto plants, will lose their jobs. Eleven police captains and lieutenants will be downgraded in rank and pay. Six garbage and incinerator workers will get the ax. Two of the six bingo inspectors will be dropped. Radich even fired a part-time secretary in his office.
Closing the Bureau of Weights and Measures means that Kevin Janiga, who earns $14,000 to inspect grocery scales and gas pumps, will find his functions taken over by the county. Closing the Veterans Service Agency means that William Ryan, who earns $20,000 as director, will be replaced by a state official visiting Lackawanna twice a week. School Superintendent Mark Balen says he may have to close three of the five elementary schools. The junior high school hasn't been replaced since it burned down two years ago, forcing those students to squeeze into the high school.
Such incidents have been increasingly common as the Fire Department dwindled from 119 men to 69, and now it is losing six more positions. Chief Jack Baran has mothballed three fire trucks because of the manpower shortage. It was embarrassing last winter when the Fireside tavern next to the main fire station burned down while its only truck was out on call.
City officials are trying to attract new businesses, maybe even to convince Bethlehem to sell the plant to a foreign automaker. But with fewer men working, several stores and suppliers already have closed their doors, and there is a sense that time is running out.
Len Granda measures the future by the dwindling pile of iron ore outside his blast furnace.
Granda, 41, has been a millwright at Bethlehem since 1963. If his section stays open until April, he will reach the 20-year mark and be guaranteed full "sub" benefits for two years. But if the last few tons of iron ore run out before then, he gets nothing.
Granda doesn't want to uproot his family, but they can't get by on his wife's part-time salary at Buffalo Savings Bank.
In years past, Marlene Granda recalled, before the new pollution rules, a fine black soot from the plant used to settle on their car, on their windows, even on their couch.
"We don't get the soot anymore, and I wish we did," she said. "If you talk to anyone in this town, they'd rather have dirt in their lungs than an empty stomach."