Old and New

After raising my brother and I in apartments, my parents bought a house in the early 2000s. It was in Pittsburgh and there was a toilet in the basement.

I never thought about that basement toilet much. Mostly it creeped me out, encased in a rotting and dusty wood stall. I’d scurry past it on my way to and from the washer and dryer, terrified of the monsters – or at least spiders – that hid in its shadowy crevices. Only later did I learn the Pittsburgh toilet’s a relic of the city’s steel town past. Steelworkers would come in through the basement door, use the toilet, and rinse off the ash and dirt from the mills in the washbin before going upstairs. To my memory, my parents never did anything with the toilet, neither getting rid of it or fixing it up to the point where we could plausibly have used it. Instead, it was simply there.

I’m back in Pittsburgh after a six year absence – only visiting, not to stay. My parents have moved to a different house and this one doesn’t have a toilet in the basement. Despite that, I keep running into Pittsburgh’s past. The steel industry is long gone, replaced by a high tech and robotics surge that makes the place feel like a boomtown, but homages to the past remain.

For example, Google moved into an abandoned Nabisco factory in a poor neighborhood on the east end of town. The developers received millions in tax breaks and a grant from the state environmental agency because the place was a brownfield, poisoning the poor as they and it existed, more or less abandoned by the state. The factory is unrecognizable now, transformed into hip clothing stores and startup incubators and security guards watching over the lot of it. But in the Google offices, the catalyst of so much change – developers have already renamed one neighborhood in an attempt to rid of its stigma as a poor and black area – sits a huge cookie dough mixer from the Nabisco factory, a bizarre remnant of the past.

Uber’s bringing the future to a brownfield site too. In Hazelwood, a neighborhood on the other side of town, they’re turning an old coke works into the grounds for testing self-driving cars. As for the people in the area? They continue as they were, ignored by the new economy poaching the land around them. Once a community of 30,000, Hazelwood’s population hovers at 5,000, a quarter of whom live in poverty. The neighborhood still lacks a grocery store – as do many in the city – but unless their local political mobilization wins out, it will likely be redeveloped to accommodate a private access road directly to the Uber site, one that will cut through other underserved neighborhoods as shuttles carry techies to and from the site.

And yet Uber plans to keep the empty industrial shell of the coke works, presumably to provide an aesthetic quirk, an oddity to point out to investors and execs visiting the state-of-the-art track for the cars within its walls.

These tech giants – and the countless industrial-themed bars and restaurants, the murals on the side of condos that depict steelworkers – appropriate a past that’s central to the city’s identity. The steel industry shaped the physical layout of the city, the streets, and the houses, all jammed together with ancient toilets lined up in their basements. But while it is shaped by it, the Pittsburgh of today is not that past. For most residents, the blue collars the city’s so proud of have ceded to the pink collars of low-wage service work, a unionized workforce to atomization, and the tech economy brings with it ideological baggage that threatens the democratic structures of the city itself.

This is nothing new. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, Andrew Mellon – their names are scattered through our lives in this city because they had the same anti-democratic noblesse oblige that characterizes today’s tech billionaires. This philanthropic model gave us wonderful museums and libraries and universities that bear their names but not without also giving us the massacres of the Homestead Strike and air pollution so severe it made life in the city hell for hundreds of thousands who lived and worked within it.

When the past is ubiquitously evoked in the present, it’s worth being skeptical about which past we’re talking about. While that past is being cleansed, aestheticized and defanged by the city’s new elites, its salience as a reference point provides a means for working class Pittsburghers – Yinzers, if you prefer – to criticize what the new economy fails to replicate: a living wage and benefits, for one. Identifying which past is being kept alive by tech entrepreneurs and their counterparts in real estate, restaurants, and hospitality is the start. Countering with the city’s working class history comes next.

That last part’s not my role, prodigal daughter that I am, but what I am looking at is how the present echoes the past; the old, the new. The noblesse oblige of the industries remaking the city – and San Francisco, and Boston, and a whole host of others – to their taste sounds a lot like the ideology of the industrialists who built this city the first time around. Surely there is a ‘new’ to the new economy but the more time I spend looking at it, the more familiar it seems.

On that, more later


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