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.


A boy walks along the foggy streets of the McDonald Heights neighborhood of Aliquippa. (Pete Marovich)

A dilapidated and overgrown house sits between two better-kept homes in the Plan 12 neighborhood of Aliquippa. (Pete Marovich)

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.


George “Blackie” Miller sits in his bar, Mahoney’s, in West Aliquippa. Miller, who changed his last name from Dokmanovich years ago, was born in West Aliquippa and lived there all of his life. He has seen the town go from boom to bust along with the steel industry. “This town is done,” said Miller. (Pete Marovich)

Pete Marovich Sr. holds his father, Tom Marovich’s Jones & Laughlin Steel Company ID card, which was cut in half when he retired, and ID badge. (Pete Marovich)

United States Gypsum, a manufacturer of construction wallboard and building materials for the construction industries now occupies a part of the former location of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company along the Ohio River in Aliquippa. (Pete Marovich)

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.


A tribute to composer Henry Mancini adorns an abandoned building along Franklin Ave. in Aliquippa. (Pete Marovich)

Bartender Lisa Nicely talks with West Aliquippa resident Chuck Forrester in Mahoney’s bar in West Aliquippa. (Pete Marovich)

A check from the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation is taped to a display cabinet in the home of 86-year old Frank Purrachio. Purrachio, a retired millwright, has lived in West Aliquippa all of his life. (Pete Marovich)

Angelo “Tubby” Galzarano, 79, speaks to a customer on the phone in his repair shop, Tubby’s Auto Service, in West Aliquippa. (Pete Marovich)

Sammy Jaber, left, works with his brother Jerry at the Plan 12 Market in Aliquippa. “I wish the mill was still here. People would make a better living for themselves and their family. I keep hoping that someone comes in and builds some kind of factories here for the people to get better jobs,” said Jaber. (Pete Marovich)

Jehad “Jerry” Jaber has owned the Plan 12 Market in Aliquippa for nine years. The market supplies food staples, household goods, tobacco products and food prepared by his brother Sammy to the residents of Plan 12. (Pete Marovich)

A once bustling community, West Aliquippa now has empty storefronts. In its heyday, West Aliquippa boasted grocery stores, gas stations, hotels, hardware stores, shoe repair shops and banks. Today one bank remains and is open on only certain days of the week for a few hours. (Pete Marovich)

Baker Street in Aliquippa. Locally known as Plan 2 or Logstown, the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company constructed homes here for the immigrant steel workers who were employed at the mill. (Pete Marovich)

A young couple sits and waits for a bus on Franklin Ave. in Aliquippa. Most of the storefronts along Franklin Avenue have been boarded up, and there are gaps where entire buildings have been torn down but not replaced. (Pete Marovich)

A young girl runs past an old J&L company home that is slated for demolition in West Aliquippa. (Pete Marovich)

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.