Fins and Stripes in Duquesne Heights

In a December 1991 National Geographic article titled “Pittsburgh–Stronger Than Steel,” journalist Peter Miller and photographer Nathan Benn examined the city during the final days of its second Renaissance. Readers were given a glimpse of Pittsburgh in the wake of Big Steel’s collapse, and shown what the city had to offer outside of manufacturing.

While Miller’s piece is filled with fodder that any longtime resident of Western Pennsylvania can appreciate — i.e., Mayor Sophie Masloff shopping at Ron Casertano’s produce market; Braddock as seen from the vantage point of barber Joe Szwarc; and a visit with Fred Rogers — it’s the image of Robert H. Kenney exiting his Duquesne Heights home (pictured) that stands out.

“People don’t move around much here,” Kenney told National Geographic. “I’ve been in this house 39 years. A lot of my neighbors have been here even longer. They’re people you can count on, and they don’t wait until the Fourth of July to wave the flag.”

Kenney’s unabashed patriotism is a fitting complement to the photograph, which looks like it could have been taken at the height of America’s post-World War II housing boom, not some five decades later. Captured on Kodachrome color film, Nathan Benn’s photograph is a testament to the quiet dependability of a city like Pittsburgh. And though it wasn’t mentioned in the National Geographic article, Kenney was a decorated veteran of World War II. He died in February of 1998 at the age 72. He’s buried in a cemetery near his home in Duquesne Heights. In January of 2008, he was inducted into the Southwestern Veterans Hall of Fame:

Robert H. Kenney, who lived in the Duquesne Heights/Castle Shannon area, served in the Army during World War II. He was in the Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland, Central Europe and Normandy theaters. He received the European African Middle Eastern Service Medal with one Silver Star, the Good Conduct Medal and the American Theater Service Medal. He was devoted to his family, church and community.

Last August, photographer Nathan Benn told the New York Times about the history of the Kenney photograph: “That’s the picture that, in retrospect, they might not have published. It’s not a classic National Geographic picture. But I’m grateful that they liked it. There’s some nice serendipity.”

(Photograph: Nathan Benn; click to enlarge. Caption: Old cars and Old Glory flaunt their fins and stripes in Robert Kenney’s Duquesne Heights neighborhood, one of close to 80 in Pittsburgh. Many began as enclaves of immigrants who came in the 19th century to mine coal and work in the mills.)