Patricia M. DeMarco
I spent some time this week with a group of students from the Carnegie Mellon University Urban Systems Studio and the North Braddock Residents For Our Future thinking together about the Past, Present and Future of the Edgar Thompson Steel Plant. It was a remarkable conversation, because the students reconstructed the history of this industrial operation from archives and historic records but wanted to include the lived experience of the people from the community. As the community conversation progressed, I began to reflect that we are once again at a major inflection point in the history of this place.
The Edgar Thompson Steel plant has been in operation since 1875, originally owned by Carnegie Steel Company. Generations of people have lived in the communities surrounding this 200-acre industrial site. At first, they were the workers, mostly immigrants who walked from homes on the hillsides and streets that bordered the plant to take their shifts. The Edgar Thompson plant was the site of the Battle of Homestead in 1982 when workers went on strike for better wages and working conditions. Carnegie famously broke the strike with Pinkerton Guards and scab workers. But the legacy of organizing and workers challenging managers for more equitable treatment stands as a hallmark in the struggle for workers’ rights. Even as they were reaping tremendous profits, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick successfully suppressed the movement for more equitable treatment of workers.[i] They treated workers as units of production to be paid as little as possible to maximize the profit margin. This industry has been the epitome of the extractive industry era that supported the Industrial Revolution.
Is there a better way forward for the future?
The Braddock Residents for Our Future believe there is. When invited to add their ideas to the scenario for the future of the Edgar Thompson Works site, several expressed the apprehension that US Steel would leave, and walk away from the mess that local taxpayers would have to clean up. Others were concerned that the operation could be taken over by an even less responsible foreign operator and conditions could become even worse. But several people thought about converting the area to farmed land, or to place a solar array with pollinator-friendly ground cover and beehives on the site to power the surrounding communities. Some thought there would be a good space for “green steel” instead. The possibility for non-polluting industries emerged as inquiries.
I felt that a pebble had been dropped in a still pool of despair and was now sending out ripples of hope. U.S. Steel ultimately owns this land, but perhaps there will be a moment of enlightenment with the catalyst of new federal dollars and programs to allow a new concept for industrial development to emerge. A new industrial operating system that includes community benefit agreements to build truly shared prosperity. A way forward that moves away from the extractive industries as a base of operation and adopts a system based on recovery of resources. Steel is ideally suited to a recovery and reshape operation. I thank the students of the CMU Urban Systems Studio for opening this avenue for imagination. Without a vision, nothing changes, but with a new vision, inspired innovation follows. If we are to achieve a vision for manufacturing based on “Made in America” it will be important to restructure the process. We cannot continue to use fossil fuels to power production- we need to look at technologies such as direct reduction using hydrogen from renewable resources to support manufacturing.[i]
Beyond looking at non-fossil fueled technologies, we need to examine the entire approach to generating economic activity. The process of producing inexpensive goods to be replaced frequently, with designed obsolescence, is inherently wasteful. To thrive into the future, we can return to a society that values durability, high quality and lasting usefulness, instead of the immediate gratification of convenience and buying things designed to be discarded. Made in America can be “Made to last.” It can be a hallmark of quality and legacy.
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