Pa. steel town subject of French documentary
When I can't sleep at night, I don't count sheep. Instead, I fill up Pottsville storefronts with the shops I used to know as a child.
Back then, around this time of year, my Aunt Mildred, a former principal of Yorkville school, would take me downtown for an Easter dress and shoes. Sometimes we went to Matt's Kiddy Shop on East Norwegian, sometimes to Wolowitz's on Centre Street or to one of Pottsville's two department stores, Pomeroy's or S.S.Weiss. For shoes, there were Raring's or Puddu's, Triangle or Paramount.
My aunt, who was as generous as she was kind, would then take me out to lunch and on very special occasions, we'd dine at the Necho Allen, where we'd order a "Wimpy," the hotel's famous hamburger. If we were in a hurry, we'd stop by Green's Five-and-Ten and, seated at the counter looking out on Centre Street, order hotdogs and a Coke. Our last stop was at an iron railing overlooking the taxi dispatcher, who had his office beneath W. H. Mortimer Jewelers at Centre and East Norwegian streets. He knew my aunt, who did not drive, and we'd have a taxi in no time.
Of course, I've only mentioned a few of the downtown stores. There were dozens, along with restaurants, diners, movie theaters and bars where the local brews were served, a "Bavarian" from the Mount Carbon Brewery or a Yuengling on tap.
Those were the days â¦ or were they?
By the 1950s, coal employment in the anthracite region (Carbon, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Northumberland and Schuylkill counties) was less than half of what it had been in 1917, when the number of workers peaked at 156,148.
By 1960, those figures had dropped to 20,000. From then on, there was only sharp decline. In the year 2000, a workforce of 945 produced about 4 million tons of coal, as compared to more than 100 million in 1920 (all statistics are from government tables reprinted in "The Face of Decline, the Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the 20th Century" by Dublin and Licht, 2005).
Still, I grew up believing "Old King Coal" ruled in the kingdom of anthracite, home to that clean, slow-burning fuel that made America great. What would my country be without it, I asked myself, proud to be a coal miner's granddaughter.
My father, also proud of his roots, drove us to the edge of the strip mines that were replacing underground mining in the 1960s and together we looked on as giant shovels tore up the earth. In 1963, we went to Sheppton and, standing behind police lines, watched rescue teams at work after the collapse of a mine that left one miners dead.
Our family history and the history of coal were interlocked, tragic and glorious, unique. At least, that's what I used to like to believe.
Now I know that anthracite's history, very interesting and essential, is just one chapter in a long story of industrial decline and decay.
A recent French documentary brought that home to me.
The film, "Braddock America," directed by Jean-LoÃ¯c Portron and Gabriella Kessler, is about the western Pennsylvania town of that name. A borough of Pittsburgh located about 7 miles from the city center, Braddock is home to The Edgar Thomson Steelworks, the first steel mill constructed by Andrew Carnegie in 1873. In 1901, Carnegie sold his mills to the group that became US Steel, the biggest steel producer in the world at the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1974, steel production in the U.S. reached a record high - 132.2 million tons. Less than a decade later, that figure dropped to 66 million and at Edgar Thomson, the massive layoffs began - 1,000 workers lost their jobs at the end of 1981.
During the following three decades, as China climbed to the position of number one steel producer in the world, Braddock saw its population drop from about 6,000 to 2,000, a tenth of what it had been in 1920, the heyday of both steel and coal.
"Braddock America," currently playing in movie theaters across France, gives a voice to those who chose to stay in what has come to be known as a "shrinking town," as stores and services close (most recently the local hospital) and many move away, simply abandoning homes they cannot sell.
Standing in the middle of a street lined with homes and a couple of brick warehouses, a setting that could just as easily be found in Schuylkill County, a local history buff proudly proclaims that Braddock's steel made America strong.
Seated in his living room, a former steel worker recalls his pride and that of his father. They did a hard, dirty job that paid well. During WWII, the same man points out, the Pittsburgh mills produced two thirds of the steel for the Western European front.
The work was dangerous, too. Accidents and death were common but the man who worked in the steel mill took care of his family, earning union wages, offering his children a better life. Many were immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who became proud Americans while keeping their traditions alive.
All in all, it's a story that sounds a lot like those told in Schuylkill County. Once you've substituted "coal mine" for "steel mill," there's little else that needs to be changed: the same pride in a hard job requiring skill and strength, a belief in the industry's role in making America great, similar risks and dangers, labor strife and a long struggle for decent wages and finally, dramatic and lasting decline.
In "Braddock America," where film footage from Braddock's past is artfully interwoven with shots of Braddock today, we see a booming town, a crowded, prosperous main street, payday at the mills - and then a long strip of boarded-up shops and empty lots. Braddock then, Braddock now, two different worlds.
Yet, there are a few dedicated community activists who hang on, organizing volunteer crews of street-cleaners, sprucing up the local ball field, participating in local government, fighting for a better future, the way their parents fought before.
Ultimately, "Braddock America" holds up a mirror reflecting an image I'd rather not see, one of a very wealthy nation that has let the "little guy" down.
Americans should be grateful, then, for people like Mike Stout and his sister, Nina, two dedicated activists from Braddock. They keep on fighting, losing battle after battle against the rich and powerful, but that doesn't stop them. Who knows? Maybe someday they'll win the war.
(Honicker can be reached at honicker.republican firstname.lastname@example.org)