Two former steelworkers pause in the twilight of a Saturday on the main drag of Monessen, Pa., their fallen little factory town about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. They’ve just been imagining the future from a booth in a diner called the Pasta Shoppe. Now out on the sidewalk, where the diner casts practically the only glow on Donner Avenue, for a fleeting minute the men conjure what it used to be like on an evening such as this:
You had to walk in the street because the sidewalks were so jammed with people, flush with cash, out to stroll, shop, eat and party. Furniture stores, bars, grocery stores, clothing shops graced every block. Above the storefronts hung balconies where residents tended oregano and parsley and waved to the crowds below.
Then the steel mill closed in 1986, leaving just the coke plant and 180 jobs, down from a peak at the mill after World War II of about 7,000 jobs.
“Now look,” says Mayor Louis Mavrakis, 79, who came out of retirement from the United Steelworkers union a few years ago to try to save his home town as mayor. He points at storefronts in the compact business district one by one.
“Empty,” he says. “Empty. Empty. All the way down to the bank. Then, empty.”
The balconies have been ripped from the facades because the upstairs apartments are vacant. The population plunged from 18,000 in 1950 to 7,500 today. The city has 35 blighted commercial buildings, 400 falling-down homes and no money to remove them. The mayor wants to sell city hall because, he says, there’s no budget to maintain it.
“This is what happened with the demise of the steel industry,” he says. “This is what’s left.”
Then, addressing himself to Washington and parts of America that may have forgotten their umbilical connection to the mills and mines of yore, he adds: “Why do you forsake the very communities that built this country?”
Donald Trump raised the same question, and it helped him win the White House. The late, great steel towns of western Pennsylvania made essential parts for skyscrapers, railways, bridges and battleships. Now, in their postindustrial pall, these towns contain more than a few lifelong Democrats who voted Republican in November for the first time.
“He was my glimmer of hope; he got my vote,” says John Francis Golomb, 65, who started commuting 120 miles round trip to a mill in Ohio after the Monessen works shut down.
Monessen’s decline was repeated in more than a half-dozen proud, hardscrabble mill towns on the shores of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers, outside of Pittsburgh. By some counts, more than 80,000 steel jobs vanished from these valleys, plus untold jobs dependent on steel.
“Such widespread carnage may be unparalleled in U.S. industrial history, especially within such a short period of time,” John P. Hoerr writes in his book “And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry.” “An entire industrial civilization lies in ruins here.”
Despite Trump’s vow to “put American-produced steel back into the backbone of our country,” few here expect the mills to reopen at their former scale. Even if some scattered operations were to pick up, contemporary steelmaking is so automated and computerized that they would never yield the number of jobs generated in the heavy industrial past.
What people here do demand of the new president is concern for communities that feel forgotten and disrespected. And if a small plant does open to employ 100 people manufacturing something — anything — “that’s 100 jobs more than 28 years of both Democrats and Republicans [in the White House] brought this damn place,” says Mavrakis, who helped set up a visit by Trump to Monessen during the campaign. “They knew about the infrastructure going to hell, and nobody did anything about it.”
The injured cry for attention to be paid, for witness to be borne, is what spurred photographer Pete Marovich a couple of years ago to begin documenting the remnants of this fading industrial civilization. His grandfather worked in the mill at Aliquippa for 38 years, and so did his father for a shorter period. Marovich’s images convey intimations of a grandeur in both the people and the place that has been obscured, but not erased.
The towns grew up on the riverbanks, each supported by a mill. A single plant could stretch for miles along the water, while the workers’ homes were built in ranks that climbed the steep hills. People walked to work, carrying the metal ID badges they used to clock in and out.
“My dad came from Italy,” says Mike Rosati, 60, who is drinking beer with friends in a bar in Aliquippa at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning. “I said, ‘Why’d you come to Aliquippa?’ He said, ‘Because of that badge.’ ”
Rosati worked a few years at the mill before it closed. Luckier than most, he landed a job with a package delivery service, where he has worked for 32 years.
“Not everybody’s made to go to college,” he says. “You still need the guy with the shovel.”
In his inaugural address, Trump spoke of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Yet there are few such tombstones here, since the old mills have already been razed. Their acres have become vast urban prairies, advertised as industrial parks, strewn with chunks of slag-like moon rocks.
In Homestead, a waterfront development of hotels, restaurants and a cineplex has replaced the Homestead Works, where thousands once made steel. The only vestiges, preserved with historical markers, are a four-story gantry crane between the Courtyard by Marriott and the Hampton Inn & Suites, and 12 giant, red-brick venting stacks, towering 130 feet beside a LongHorn Steakhouse. Just upriver, on the opposite shore, the immense Carrie Furnaces survive in a field to host industrial heritage tours, weddings and Halloween parties.
These remnants seem less like tombstones than monuments, sculptures. A local businessman quotes what John Steinbeck once wrote about the Redwoods: “They are ambassadors from another time.”
One of the valley’s last steel mills operates where Andrew Carnegie established one of the first more than 140 years ago, in Braddock. Thick white plumes billowing out of two stacks cast rolling shadows on the ground outside a former Chevrolet dealership that Mayor John Fetterman remodeled to be his family’s home.
“It’s places like this that put Donald Trump into power,” says Fetterman, who nevertheless supported Hillary Clinton. “People that have just watched their whole way of life or their community where they grew up just be completely destroyed.”
Fetterman, 47, has tattooed on his right arm the dates of death of nine people killed during his three terms as mayor.His wife, Gisele, helped establish a “free store” down the block where people can pick up donated food and clothing. “Either these places are worthwhile and should be invested in, or let’s just be honest as a society and say, these places are done,” Fetterman says.
The previous night marked a milestone toward a fragile future: His family was able to go out for dinner in Braddock for the first time in more than a dozen years, thanks to the opening of an Italian restaurant. It’s one of a dozen or so small businesses that have recently been drawn to the community.
Another is Brew Gentlemen, a brewery in a former electrical supply store. On a recent Saturday night it’s packed with young professionals sipping General Braddock’s IPA and other brews. Most ventured from Pittsburgh, a short drive away yet a journey that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
“Braddock just lined up with everything we wanted to do with our business,” says Matt Katase, 26. He and co-founder Asa Foster, 26, hatched the idea when they were students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Katase has been struck by how many people from the region “have come down and said, ‘It’s so nice to be back down here.’ ”
While the steel towns hope for a rebirth of manufacturing, in the meantime they may have to settle for a postindustrial destiny exemplified by hipster breweries, ethnic restaurants, artisan studios, film projects and heritage tourism, where steel is a signifier, a cool idea, if no longer a way of life.
Pete Marovich was recently awarded second place in the General Portfolio category by the White House News Photographers Association. To see more of his work documenting the old steel towns, go to searchingfordreamstreet.org. David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.