Part I: The life and slow death of a former Pennsylvania steel town

In Sight sat down with award-winning documentary photographer Pete Marovich, who for several months in 2015, set out to document the slow collapse of a town that once stood as a titan of Pennsylvania’s steel industry: Aliquippa. Our two-part series explores Marovich’s personal connection to the town. His familial ties run deep in the former steel city that at one point was home to the largest steel mills in the world.

In Sight: What drew you to the story of this particular town?

Pete Marovich: These photographs are part of a larger project about the old steel towns along the banks of the iconic three rivers that converge in Pittsburgh. I had been reading in the media over the last year or so about how Pittsburgh is making a resurgence after the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s, and the stories were a bit unsettling to me.

The city, with its education, health-care and tech industries exploding, is definitely making a transformation. Even the city’s old U.S. Steel building is now topped with a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center sign.

But I could not help but notice, when visiting the region, that the smaller steel towns located along the rivers are still struggling.

Many of these municipalities entered Pennsylvania’s Financially Distressed Municipalities Act 47 program that was created in 1987 to help them regain their financial footing after their tax bases were decimated when the steel industry declined. Several of these towns including Aliquippa, Braddock, Clairton, Duquesne and Rankin have been in the program since its inception and are still struggling to exit Act 47.

These towns — that helped put Pittsburgh on the map and make the city an industrial powerhouse — seem to be left by the wayside and forgotten. I felt a need to document their situation and draw attention to their plight.

In Sight: How did Aliquippa come to a point where its primary steel industry left and much of its infrastructure is so dilapidated?

Marovich: In 1909, Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (J&L), which already had a mill on the south side of Pittsburgh, wanted to expand, so it purchased land along the Ohio River near the town of Woodlawn about 25 miles from Pittsburgh. The company expanded the town, building homes and businesses to accommodate the workers of what would be the largest steel mill in the world, stretching for seven miles along the riverfront.

The town was renamed to Aliquippa in 1928 and, in the early 1940s, the town’s population swelled to over 27,000, and as many as 9,000 people were employed at the Aliquippa Works.

The beginning of the economic disaster came in 1984. LTV Corp., which was formed when J&L merged with Republic Steel, closed most of the Aliquippa Works, immediately laying off about 8,000 workers. It was not surprising since most of the other steel plants in the region had already shuttered or cut operations, But the impact of workers leaving the area to look for work and the skyrocketing unemployment decimated the local economy. It was not long before the tax base followed since LTV Corp. sought out and received drastic tax revaluations of its real-estate holdings.

As a result, Aliquippa’s population dropped to 11,734 according to the 2000 Census. Today the population hovers just above 9,000.

In Sight: What made you want to document this small town outside of Pittsburgh in particular?

Marovich: Aliquippa is the town in the region that I know the most about and that I am most connected to since it is the birthplace of my mother and father.

My mother was born to Ukrainian immigrants on Plan 11, one of the housing areas built for the steel workers by J&L. My dad was born to Croatian immigrants in the area that is now known as West Aliquippa. My paternal grandfather worked in the J&L mill for 38 years, and my dad worked in the mill for a short time after returning from WWII, before returning to the Marine Corps and completing a 32-year career.

With the countless visits I have made to Aliquippa to visit family, I have seen firsthand how the city has declined. My parents and relatives tell stories about how wonderful and bustling the town was before the decline of the steel industry and the closing of the mill.

For me it seemed like the right place to start this project.

*Part II of “The Life and slow death of a Pennsylvania steel town” will appear on the In Sight blog, Wednesday, Nov. 11.