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Devastation and Renewal

Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region

EDITED BY Joel A. Tarr
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    Devastation and Renewal
    Book Description:

    Every city has an environmental story, perhaps none so dramatic as Pittsburgh's. Founded in a river valley blessed with enormous resources-three strong waterways, abundant forests, rich seams of coal-the city experienced a century of exploitation and industrialization that degraded and obscured the natural environment to a horrific degree. Pittsburgh came to be known as "the Smoky City," or, as James Parton famously declared in 1866, "hell with the lid taken off."

    Then came the storied Renaissance in the years following World War II, when the city's public and private elites, abetted by technological advances, came together to improve the air and renew the built environment. Equally dramatic was the sweeping deindustrialization of Pittsburgh in the 1980s, when the collapse of the steel industry brought down the smokestacks, leaving vast tracks of brownfields and riverfront. Today Pittsburgh faces unprecedented opportunities to reverse the environmental degradation of its history.

    In Devastation and Renewal, scholars of the urban environment post questions that both complicate and enrich this story. Working from deep archival research, they ask not only what happened to Pittsburgh's environment, but why. What forces-economic, political, and cultural-were at work? In exploring the disturbing history of pollution in Pittsburgh, they consider not only the sooty skies, but also the poisoned rivers and creeks, the mined hills, and scarred land. Who profited and who paid for such "progress"? How did the environment Pittsburghers live in come to be, and how it can be managed for the future?

    In a provocative concluding essay, Samuel P. Hays explores Pittsburgh's "environmental culture," the attitudes and institutions that interpret a city's story and work to create change. Comparing Pittsburgh to other cities and regions, he exposes exaggerations of Pittsburgh's environmental achievement and challenges the community to make real progress for the future.

    A landmark contribution to the emerging field of urban environmental history, Devastation and Renewal will be important to all students of cities, of cultures, and of the natural world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7286-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction: Some Thoughts about the Pittsburgh Environment
    (pp. 1-10)

    One early june morning in 2002, while preparing the introduction for this book, I took a stroll in Schenley Park, which adjoins my university office. It was a beautiful morning, with the sun glistening through the leaves of trees that still held rain droplets from the previous day’s evening shower. The park itself is a marvel, 454 acres and based on land donated to the city in 1889 by Mary Schenley, an heir to a Pittsburgh landed fortune, at a time when Pittsburgh had no parks. On a high pedestal at the entrance to the park stands the statue of...

  2. The Interaction of Natural and Built Environments in the Pittsburgh Landscape
    (pp. 11-40)

    There is probably no city in the nation that can match the dramatic landscape changes that have marked the city of Pittsburgh during the last two centuries. The natural environment itself provided a striking panorama of flowing rivers and streams, steep bluffs, and deep valleys that would shape the configuration of the built environment. With nineteenth- and twentieth-century technology and the characteristic American disregard for the natural environment, however, Pittsburghers engineered and abused the landscape to accommodate the imperatives of industrial production, efficient transportation, communication, and city building such that it often became difficult to discern the land’s original configuration....

  3. River City
    (pp. 41-63)

    Water covers less than 2 percent of the area of the Pittsburgh metropolitan region, and yet one always seems to encounter water when traveling about the region. The existence of the three major rivers, three sizable secondary rivers, and a host of small tributary streams explain this paradox.¹ Because major highways, for example, wend their way through the river and stream valleys, motorists are frequently reminded of the rivers’ presence, especially when traffic converges, and often slows, to cross bridges. These rivers have been crucial throughout history in the development of the metropolitan region. They have not only sculpted Pittsburgh’s...

  4. Critical Decisions in Pittsburgh Water and Wastewater Treatment
    (pp. 64-88)

    One of the most serious environmental problems facing Pittsburgh throughout its history has been pollution of its neighboring rivers. This pollution, from both domestic and industrial sources, has severely impacted the quality of the water drawn from the rivers for drinking water and for industrial purposes as well as sharply curtailing the availability of the rivers for recreational uses. All cities have to deal with the problem of their metabolism—providing a supply of fresh water for domestic and commercial and industrial purposes, for street cleaning, and for fire-fighting—and then disposing of this water in a manner that will...

  5. Acid Mine Drainage and Pittsburgh’s Water Quality
    (pp. 89-109)

    In 1803, t. m. harris, traveling through Pittsburgh, noted the poor quality of the city’s water: “But the spring water, issuing through fissures in the hills, which are only masses of coal, is so impregnated with bituminous and sulphurous particles as to be frequently nauseous to the taste and prejudicial to the health.”¹ From the earliest days of Pennsylvania history, sulfur-laden water confirmed the presence of coal as an abundant natural resource. The taste and smell of water flowing through or over exposed coal beds signaled a potential for enormous wealth unrealized for centuries after its first recognition. With the...

  6. How, When, and for Whom Was Smoke a Problem in Pittsburgh?
    (pp. 110-125)

    In the long history of urban air pollution in the United States, no city is more prominent than Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh deserves its prominence because of its eighteenth-century head start and its dramatic mid-twentieth-century environmental transformation. Pittsburgh’s smoke story, like the story of urban pollution generally, is often told in terms of problem and solution or crisis and response. In such narratives, coal smoke, fly-breeding garbage, or raw sewage entering waterways are taken as materially given preexistent problems. The question for historians becomes how such problems were successfully solved or why they were not solved sooner. Environmental historians must count these...

  7. Revisiting Donora, Pennsylvania’s 1948 Air Pollution Disaster
    (pp. 126-144)

    An air pollution disaster in southwestern Pennsylvania forged the link between air pollution and serious damage to health in the public’s imagination, as well as among the residents of the Monongahela River Valley steel and smelter towns of Donora and Webster, where the disaster unfolded over the course of five days in late October 1948. During that time, a temperature inversion trapped cooled coal smoke and industrial effluent within the horseshoe bend of the river that enclosed the towns and the surrounding farmland, literally smothering the region’s fourteen thousand inhabitants beneath a thick blanket of sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, and...

  8. Strategies for Clean Air: The Pittsburgh and Allegheny County Smoke Control Movements, 1940–1960
    (pp. 145-173)

    Between 1940 and 1960, the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County experienced a major transformation in terms of their air quality—to a large extent, heavy smoke was eliminated from the atmosphere. How this feat was accomplished after smoke control advocates had, over the years, managed only sporadic improvements is a complex story, involving issues of public policy and public-private cooperation, active protests by women’s and civic groups, and major shifts in fuel type and combustion technology. This chapter will consider the smoke control movement in both the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. While there were a number of...

  9. Slag in the Park
    (pp. 174-192)

    While much of the focus of Pittsburgh environmental history has been on pollution of the air and the water and on efforts to restore these essential environmental goods, the land has also suffered from abuse. Throughout the Pittsburgh region the land has served as the depository for wastes of various sorts, including steel mill slag, coal mine debris, ashes, manufactured gas plant refuse, and garbage and other domestic effluents. These wastes have historically marked the landscape in the form of huge slag mountains, gob piles, filled in wetlands, altered riverbanks, and open garbage dumps.They have provided visible evidence that environmental...

  10. Beyond Celebration: Pittsburgh and Its Region in the Environmental Era—Notes by a Participant Observer
    (pp. 193-215)

    In the early 1970s when I began inquiries into modern environmental affairs I decided that they should include state and local as well as national activities. But I also found that this line of study faced a major roadblock. Each state and locality seemed to be convinced that its own environmental actions were superior to those of others, and around this self-satisfaction each had erected a climate of celebration of its environmental virtues that seemed to differ markedly from observations of its environmental circumstances. Hence, I wanted to find some way of exploring both environmental practices and environmental images, what...

  11. Afterword
    (pp. 216-220)

    The introduction to this book began with a series of observations made by various commentators about Pittsburgh during the years of the city’s heyday as an industrial center. The city they describe was filled with environmental horrors: the air dismal and dark due to persistent heavy smoke, the hillsides barren of vegetation, the valleys filled with slag, and the rivers and streams polluted with sewage and industrial wastes. Other commentators, however, were intrigued by the power of the “industrial aesthetic” that dominated the landscape—the huge mills casting tongues of fire into the sky, hills dotted with the red eyes...