This City is an Ogre, Squatting by the River

Tonight, in a pensive mood, I did something I haven’t done in a while: I picked a direction, started driving, and got myself good and lost. I ended up in Clairton. Clairton is a burned-out husk of a steel-town along the Monongahela river, 8300 residents and dropping fast. If you approach it as I did, on route 837 from the north, you enter one of those curious areas created by Pittsburgh’s hilly, riparian geography: a two-lane road with almost no turn-offs, a retaining wall on one side, and the river on the other. This may sound picturesque, but it is merely claustrophobic.

Once you’ve gone a certain distance down Route 837, you’re going to Clairton. There is no escape.

A sign announces your arrival and introduces Clairton, without irony, as the “City of Prayer.” The altar at which much of the praying is done is that of steel. On the edge of the river, sprawling across nearby islands like a metastasized tumor, is the U.S. Steel Clairton Works, the largest coke manufacturing facility in the US. The first indication that you are approaching the plant is the aroma, which weaves itself into your hair and clothes. You will carry the scent away with you when you leave. Next, if it’s night, you’ll see the lights. Finally, you will round a bend and see the plant, stretching for what seems like miles ahead of you and above you.

Next to the plant are two or three nameless bars, concrete bunkers with no visible names, but just a lone Budweiser or Miller sign in the window. Anyone who has ever worked in a plant has also been to one of these bars. The rules are simple: these are the places that will cash your paycheck. They will serve cheap food. There might be a local girl dancing for tips. And if you don’t work at the plant, you are very much not welcome there.

I worked in a factory, long ago. I didn’t go in to the bars in Clairton.

That is the heart of Clairton. The tattered streets lead away from the Works, a network of small appliance repair shops, funeral homes, shuttered hotels, and convenience stores. Up on the hills above the Works sit small houses (median value: $38,500) where the families (median income: $25,596) live. Some men lurk on streetcorners, making oblique gestures at cars that stop near them. The town is overshadowed by the Works. It is an afterthought. It is as if some small mammals have built a nest in a thicket of dinosaur bones.

The juxtaposition of the reality of places like Clairton and the party line that the Pittsburgh region is revitalizing (thanks to Pittsblog for the link) is jarring. Perhaps someday the Clairton Works will be gone, and something rich and strange will take its place. But for now, it is simply industrial carrion. It is a place that was.

There may be residents (about 20% of Clairton’s residents are below the poverty line) who have dear and fond memories of growing up in Clairton.

But to me, it does not feel like a place to live. It feels like a place to drown.

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