H.L. Mencken once described Pittsburgh as "...appalling desolation. Here was the very heart of industrial America, the center of its most lucrative and characteristic activity, the boast and pride of the richest and grandest nation ever seen on earth--and here was a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a macabre and depressing joke."
Many people still think of Pittsburgh that way, but the fact is, this old coal town from the "heartland" ain't what it used to be.
Pittsburgh has experienced a renaissance over the last ten years. A series of major city block renovations, new civic centers and shopping complexes, parks, theaters, and restaurants have capped a program all aimed at drawing people back into the city. So far it's been successful; young working couples no longer flee to the suburbs, they rent fashionable brownstone apartments in the Shadyside quarter or buy and restore one of many beautiful but dilapidated "Pittsburgh style" houses, built on a grand scale around the turn of the century.
Never known for its scenic beauty, recent films like "Dawn of the Living Dead" and back-home segments of "Deerhunter," location in Pittsburgh, have done little to enhance its reputation. The "Smoky City" has been a hard image for Pittsburgh to shed.
For the first three decades of this century Pittsburgh citizens lived under a literal blanket of smoke. Streetlights had to be lit day and night, forming a network of luminescent arteries up and down the hillsides, even at midday. People who grew up in Pittsburgh in those times will tell you how they used to walk through the streets holding handkerchiefs over their faces, and of youths spent in continual shower-taking without ever getting clean.
The mills contaminated every aspect of life. The rivers were soon choked with chemicals and sludge, heavy acid rain ate through the city's beautiful masonry-work and could strip a car of its paint in a matter of three months.
Through stricter pollution controls, first initiated by the Pennsylvania State legislature back in 1947 and increasingly tightened since then, Pittsburgh has slowly begun to regain its natural beauty. There is a unique, understated beauty to this region of the country. Set amongst the rolling foothills of the western Allegheny Mountains, Pittsburgh rises out of a triangle formed where the Monongehela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers come together. Along the banks of the rivers stand the mills, sprawling giant furnaces that shoot flames thirty feet high into the night, a spectacular and terrifying spectre of beauty.
The horrible smoke is all but gone now, there are water skiers in the Allegheny river on summer days, and you can see the sharp silhouette of red and gold dappled hills in the autumn.
Yet it never was these efforts at rehabilitation that brought national attention and new respect to Pittsburgh. It took the Steelers to do that. After eight straight division championships and four of the past five Super Bowl titles, no Pittsburgh native had to feel ashamed admitting his heartland origins. To come from "Steeler Country" or "The City of Champions" was suddenly cool, and while the suppressed smirks and W.C. Fields wisecracks didn't disappear, they became tempered somewhat by envy and natural respect for power.
With last Thursday's Steeler loss to Houston, a 10-0 error-ridden travesty of a football game, the long reign of the Steelers may suddenly be over--at least for this year. There was no joy in Mudville this past weekend. The morning after the game, a drizzing, cold, overcast Friday, the gloomy atmosphere seemed to be mirrored and intensified by each passing face. Old men stood around street corners with their hands in their pockets and their heads hung, staring stupidly at the ground without speaking, or muttering softly to one another in sympathetic comraderie.
The Pittsburgh Press covered the front page with a picture of a dejected Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers' cowboy quarterback, and devoted the entire sports section to self-pity. Pittsburgh's other daily paper, the Post-Gazette, didn't even have the heart to mention the game.
If the reaction to a simple football match seems exaggerated or inappropriate, consider Pittsburgh for a moment. Primarily a blue-collar worker's town, most of the people who live here, from lawyers to contractors to mill workers to coal miners, are in some way involved in the steel industry. Consider also, that the recent slump in the steel market, aggravated in part by the recession and by competitive foreign steel markets such as Japan's and West Germany's, has forced many plants to close down, leaving many thousands of steel workers unemployed. The layoff of the steelworkers has serious repercussions for all levels of city life.
The television program "Sixty Minutes" this fall questioned a laid-off worker from the Jones and Laughlin Steel plant about the worsening situation: "I'm not worried about me, no, things are alright here. We've still got the Steelers." To a man who thinks like that, and Pittsburgh there are many, the Steeler's loss last Thursday was not just a football game, it was an event that has broken the heart of the city.
Putting things back in perspective, the Steelers are not all washed up yet; they still have a very distant shot at the American Football Conference division wild card berth, and furthermore, Pittsburgh will certainly survive the blow if they do fold. On the street you can already hear people talking about next year's game schedule, whom the Steelers might get in the draft, who will retire and who will be traded. You can hear plenty of personal analyses of the Steeler-Houston game, too--everybody's got their own version.
Some have said the Steelers are getting old and can't perform physically as well as they used to. Perhaps, but old age was not the major reason, injury was. The Steelers have suffered heavily from injuries all season, a blow to which they inevitably had to succumb. Quarterback Bradshaw, ailing from two injured wrists and a weak knee, has either played handicapped or been sidelined most of the season. Franco Harris, Pittsburgh's top running back and a 1,000 yard rusher for seven of the past eight seasons has also been out much of the season. Harris only played briefly in last Thursday's contest and with disasterous result--two costly fumbles that led to Houston scoring opportunities.
The graceful gyrations and tenacious mits of wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stalworth have been badly missed this season. The Bradshaw-to-Swann combination has been for many seasons the biggest punch on the Steeler offense.
So too the Steeler defense has suffered from injury. Mean Joe Greene has been meaner than ever, but even the coke commercial kid can't be a one man defense. The "Steel Curtain"--Pittsburgh's defensive line that has given new neaning to the term Cold War--is showing signs of rust. The line averages over thirty years of age, and the comparatively youthful lineman Robin Cole has been out injured most of the season.
Another reason the Steelers have faltered this year has to be a mental disadvantage. It isn't easy to be the guy on top, especially five years in a row. Everybody's gunning for #1 spot, the initiative and motivation is all with the underdog. There is no special glory in retaining what you've already got, in maintaining the status quo. Perhaps the pressure of being number one finally got to the Steelers.
Anyone who thinks the Steeler's loss will soon be forgotten just doesn't know Pittsburgh. Football and Pittsburgh have always had a special affinity to one another. For the steelworkers and coal miners who put in eight to twelve hour days of hard, physical labor they, more than anyone, can appreciate and identify with the physical life of a football player. Football offers a diversion to a grueling, unglamorous existence--the sequences in "Deerhunter" where steelworkers congregate after their shifts in local bars to drink Iron City beers and watch the Steeler game are no figments of the scriptwriter's imagination, they are slices of real Pittsburgh life. Except for the Steeler's die-hard fans, no one will dispute that the Superbowl title by rights ought to be circulated. The Steelers have had their day and now it's someone else's turn. Maybe it will be Houston, they've shown how tough they can be. Maybe it will go to the Eagles, and the City of Champions will only have to move across state. But whatever happens, the Steelers are all but out of the running for this season. There won't be any rioting in the streets this January, no wild exuberance or painting the town black and gold--just a normal city with slushy, muddy brick streets, a quiet sense of loss, and an eye to next season.