Addiction and the Collapse of Big Steel

In a recent photo essay for Pittsburgh magazine titled “The Way We Were,” former Pittsburgh City Council member and longtime community activist Sala Udin captioned a selection of photographs by Teenie Harris that span from the early 1940s to the late 1970s. As was Harris’ trademark, the photographs are stark, beautiful, and often harrowing. One image, however, was particularly resonant, a photograph of graffiti on a neighborhood wall that read: “Stop Dope: the pusher is our ENEMY.” In his caption to the image, Udin writes:

Along with the devastation that accompanied “urban renewal” and suburbanization, urban communities were saturated with illegal drug traffic as the steel-manufacturing economy collapsed. Illegal gun trafficking followed. The related increase in drug addiction, incarceration, homicides and exposure to HIV and AIDS continued to plague the communities through the 1980s and beyond the turn of the 21st century.

While the negative and complicated impact of urban renewal is a topic that’s been greatly discussed over the years (see Dan Fitzpatrick’s phenomenal Post-Gazette series “The Story of Urban Renewal“), particularly how it helped destroy neighborhoods like the Hill District and East Liberty (see The Digs’ look at the disturbingly cyclical nature of development in East Liberty), detailed accounts of the ways in which illicit drugs and guns took over these same neighborhoods has not. Instead, the stories we often hear from marginalized neighborhoods — homicides, drug busts, and blight — seem to exist in a void lacking any social or cultural context.


East Liberty, 1960s (click to enlarge).

When Pittsburgh’s steel industry began to decline in the early 1970s, for example, and eventually collapsed by the early 1980s, it created dozens of economically impoverished towns up and down the Allegheny and Monongahela River Valleys — places like Braddock, Rankin, Duquesne, and Clairton in the Mon Valley; New Kensington, Arnold, and Springdale along the Allegheny. But it also dried up the economies in the numerous pocket neighborhoods throughout the city proper, communities like the Hill District, East Liberty, Garfield, and Homewood. Big Steel’s decline and eventual collapse created what I’ve often referred to as a “survivor culture,” or factory towns where people continue to live even though the factory and its jobs are long gone. In these scenarios infrastructure crumbles, blight gives rise to more blight, and bad neighborhoods often deteriorate to the point of becoming gentrification-proof (i.e., no reasonable amount of money can resurrect what’s been dead so long).

No jobs often means no hope. At least, that’s the unspoken message in Teenie Harris’ “Stop Dope” photograph. But in the form of “The Pusher” it also reveals an even darker side to economic collapse, the opportunity to profit on the misery of others.

(Photograph: Teenie Harris. Caption: Pittsburgh, early 1970s.)