Sunday, August 30, 2009

Abandoned Things: Forsaken Cities of American Rust

(click on image for larger view)

I’m currently reading Philipp Meyer’s novel American Rust, which is set in Buell, a fictional town in the very real Monongahela Valley of southwestern Pennsylvania which is just south of Pittsburgh. While Pittsburgh has managed to reinvent itself after the decline of the steel industry by attracting high technology enterprises (partly due to the number of large universities and hospitals already located here), the economy of the Mon Valley has never recovered from the hard hit it took when the steel mills closed there in the 1980s.

Through a fluke of timing, my husband and I were living elsewhere during those days when the mills were shutting down. Kevin was born and raised here in Pittsburgh, and I’d moved here to go to school. When we graduated in 1978 and then moved to the west coast, the mills were still running and dominated the Pittsburgh landscape. When we came back in 1985, the mills were being torn down. For us, it was as though they’d disappeared overnight. Today, it’s almost difficult to envision where the mills once stood, and I’m often amazed at how close in proximity to downtown some of them stood.

One of the things of interest to me about the characters in Meyer’s American Rust is their internal struggle with the idea of leaving home. The two main characters, young men named Poe and Isaac, have spent their entire lives growing up in an economically depressed area and witnessing the grim outcome of people struggling to eke out a living where there are few jobs available. They see the older generation trying to hold on to their property and make ends meet on whatever work they can find, trying to hang on to what they still own. Older characters, such as Poe’s mother, know that they have missed opportunities by not leaving and choosing to stay in the place they know as home. The novel begins as Isaac, who has finally decided to leave for California, tries to convince his friend Poe to join him.

It’s always difficult to leave home. There’s probably some part of us that knows it will not be the same when we return. It was a very daunting step for me to take in moving from the mountains of rural central Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, which to me was a huge city. Later, the move to California was equally as daunting, but I knew I had to move on to a place where I could find work, and I wasn’t going to find it back on Jacks Mountain or even in Pittsburgh due to the large number of art school graduates being pumped into the job market here. I never gave a thought to the possibility that Pittsburgh might change, though. Maybe because back then I didn’t know I’d be returning to Pittsburgh to settle down. Or, possibly, the city simply seemed too big and established to change.

Kevin and I recently took a drive to Brownsville, which is located at the far southern end of the Mon Valley. We were both surprised by what an arduous drive it was even though we took the new Mon Valley expressway. It’s a long drive down Route 51, a winding gauntlet of traffic light stops on a road lined by shopping plazas with vacant stores. Once we finally reached the expressway, we found very little traffic using it.

Brownsville had once been a thriving city with several passenger trains stopping daily at the station. Now, on Market Street along a curving narrow stretch called “The Neck” through the business district, several blocks are lined with boarded-up storefronts and condemned buildings. At one end of this stretch near the Dunlap Creek Bridge once stood a movie theater which has been demolished, and at the other end Union Station still stands, although passenger trains no longer stop there and coal and freight trains comprise the rail traffic.

To further complicate things, an investor bought most of the historic buildings along The Neck, planning to restore them and revitalize the area as an historic business district. Unfortunately the investor went bankrupt, and now those buildings are caught up in litigation. Condemned signs are now posted on many of the structures and it’s not hard to imagine these buildings being torn down, leaving a big empty space.

Some towns have managed to preserve their historic districts. Other towns try to recreate vintage shopping districts by erecting new buildings with old fashioned facades, the structures usually laid out around a central town square, but the result often creates a feeling of Disneyland unreality. One such shopping district which has been successful stands on the site of the old Homestead mill site near Pittsburgh. Another very prosperous but more contemporary styled shopping district is Pittsburgh’s SouthSide Works on the site of the old Jones & Laughlin Steel Company’s South Side mill. Both of these open-air type mall complexes made up of retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, residential and office space are located along the Monongahela River.

For places which are more remote, such as Brownsville in the lower Mon Valley, there are fewer opportunities to reinvent and reemerge, and fewer residents to support them. American Rust is about the loss of the American Dream. That dream as we grew up to believe in it may be a relic of the past, and it is yet to be seen whether we can create a new version of a dream for future generations to believe in.

Photo Credits: Both photographs copyright ©2009 by Dory Adams
Top Photo: “The Neck,” Market Street, Brownsville, PA
Bottom Photo: Union Station, Brownsville, PA

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Graveside: Raymond Carver, "Where Water Comes Together With Other Water"

“. . . The places where water comes together
with other water. Those places stand out
in my mind like holy places. . .”
(from “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”

by Raymond Carver)

I visited Raymond Carver’s grave in 2005. Hard to believe that four years have passed since I sat on the bench beside his granite marker, high on a hill in Port Angeles, Washington above the Strait of San Juan de Fuco which connects the Pacific Ocean with Puget Sound.

That particular trip west had been for a family event, the wedding of a beloved nephew who has settled down in Tacoma. Following the wedding festivities, my husband and I spent a week vacationing. We explored Seattle, ferried across Puget Sound from port to port, toured Olympia National Park, fell in love with the town of Edmonds and wished we could live there for a while, and made a pilgrimage to Port Angeles simply because I wanted to pay my respects to Ray Carver, whose writing about blue collar life and his own struggle to be a writer so inspired me.

I discovered Carver’s work while taking writing classes at the University of Pittsburgh. In an introduction to fiction course we’d read Carver’s “Cathedral.” I soon bought all of Carver’s books, read and reread his stories, and loved his later work the best: “A Small, Good Thing” and “Boxes” and, of course, “Cathedral” are among my favorites. I read his poetry and found it to be beautiful and accessible. Poetry can be very intimidating on the page, but Ray’s pulled me into the language and the imagery, in the way that the poetry of Jane Kenyon, Maggie Anderson, and Irene McKinney also pulls me in – with directness and immediacy.

I found my way into an intermediate fiction workshop at Pitt which was taught by Chuck Kinder, a friend and contemporary of Ray, Toby Wolff, Richard Ford, and others of that group of writers. There’s a Zen saying that goes something like this: when the student is ready, the teacher will be presented. Now, Chuck is probably the most un-Zenlike person you’d ever meet, and I’m sure if he were ever accused of such, he’d immediately make up some hilariously self-deprecating title for himself as a hillbilly Zen Master. But the truth is that Chuck was the right teacher at the right time for me. I felt a kinship to this native West Virginian who allowed a middle-aged fledgling writer into a very full class and made her feel she had stories worth telling. It was clear while sitting in his class how much he admires and respects Carver’s writing, and that he misses his old pal. Chuck has since become the Director of the Writing Program at Pitt, and still teaches students who are lucky enough to get into one of his workshops. He also closes the gap in the standard six degrees of separation between me and Carver.

I spent an afternoon writing at Ray’s grave back in August of 2005. Kevin and I found the cemetery, and I then sent him off to photograph for a few hours while I wrote. At graveside, there was a small black box by the leg of the bench, and when I opened it I found a journal where visitors had left messages. When I turned to the first blank page, I saw that the last entry had been made the previous afternoon by Ray’s widow, poet Tess Gallagher.

(click images to enlarge)

I was still writing in my notebook when Kevin returned. It had been peaceful there in the cemetery – a quiet place to think and write, the silence broken only by the music of wind chimes on the gravestone. We took some photographs of the granite marker, which is engraved with two of Carver’s poems. Then we went into downtown Port Angeles, which happened to be hosting the annual meeting of the Northwest tribes that week. We watched some traditional tribal dances, admired the hand-carved red cedar ocean canoes on the beach, and watched the current flowing in the Strait under the changing evening light.

When I earned my MFA from Vermont College, Kevin surprised me with the gift of a signed first edition of Carver’s Where I’m Calling From. After the graduation ceremony, a small group of friends stopped by for drinks to celebrate our newly earned diplomas. We passed around the book, and I insisted everyone to take a turn lightly place their writing hand on top of Ray’s signature for good luck.

“. . . There’ll be a place on board for everyone’s stories.
My own, but also the ones belonging to my friends.
Short stories and the ones that go on and on. The true

and the made-up. The ones already finished, and the ones still
being written. . .”
(from “My Boat” by Raymond Carver)

Last week on August 20th, the Library of America released Raymond Carver: Collected Stories in hardcover, 960 pages of stories and selected essays. I’ve noticed that the pages in my paperback copies from my student days are beginning to yellow; what better excuse to treat myself to a new edition?

Photo credits: Both photographs of Raymond Carver’s grave are copyright 2005 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.