Sunday, January 16, 2011

From Milltown to Malltown: Poems by Jim Daniels and Jane McCafferty, Photography by Charlee Brodsky

Find the steel mill in this picture
or not . . .
(From “Find The Steel Mill In This Picture” by Jim Daniels)

The steel mills disappeared practically overnight – at least that’s how it seemed to me. They’d flanked the rivers in and around Pittsburgh for a hundred years, deeply rooted in the urban landscape when I first moved to Pittsburgh in 1976, still thriving in 1978 when I moved away to the west coast. But, when I returned to Pittsburgh in 1985 with my husband (a “Yinzer” by birthright), those mills were coming down. We got back just in time to photograph the final days of US Steel’s Homestead Works and its subsequent demolition.

The former Homestead mill site, which has been turned into a suburban mega complex known as The Waterfront, is the subject of From Milltown to Malltown (Marick Press, 2010), a book of photography and poems by photographer Charlee Brodsky and poets Jim Daniels and Jane McCafferty (all three on faculty at Carnegie Mellon University). Each of the thirty-six black-and-white photographs by Brodsky is paired with a companion poem by Daniels or McCafferty which was written in response to the images. Jane McCafferty describes the process of this collaboration in an interview which you can read here.

All that remains of the old mill at the Waterfront are a dozen towering brick smokestacks, dramatically illuminated by spotlights at night. Vast parking lots and traffic feeder lanes surround a sprawling shopping center, restaurants, cinema, office complex, hotel, townhouses and apartments. Up the hill a few blocks beyond the new commercial site, what is left of Homestead’s old downtown business district struggles to survive amid empty storefronts. Just upriver across the Monongahela stands Carrie Furnace, her rusting blast furnaces visible from the outermost parking lots at the Waterfront, a ghostly relic and possible future monument to Pittsburgh’s steel-making history.

The Waterfront Mall complex in Homestead is not the only Pittsburgh area mill site turned into a shopping district. SouthSide Works, which is more urban in design and layout, is built on the former south side site of J&L Steel, which operated mills on both sides of the Monongahela River that were connected by the Hot Metal Bridge.

Today, it amazes me now how close in proximity these mills were to downtown Pittsburgh, their smokestacks practically part of the city skyline. Back then, it seemed as though they’d always stood there, belonged there. The first time I saw them was as a child, from the backseat of my parents’ car when driving past on our way to Ohio. They made a lasting impression. It’s their fire I remember most – flames shooting high into the sky. But the mills were never part of my heritage in the way that they are for generations of Pittsburghers. I didn’t grow up with them looming in my future as Pittsburgh children did. Those mills were ingrained in their identity, and now they live with the mill ghosts. When they walk on the streets of SouthSide Works or drive through the Waterfront, they feel the absence, sense the void “in the land of Used-Ta-Be.”

This picture is so silent, not even dogs
can hear it. Not even the wind
has a point of view.
(from “Fresh Fish” by Jim Daniels)

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