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Bearing Witness to the Boom and Bust in Pennsylvania’s Mill Towns

The fog in the river valley curls out from Pittsburgh and puddles back in to surround you no matter how many times you push it to the side. In those blue-gray early morning moments, when it dresses the potholed streets and clings to the skin of every bus stop congregation, there is a feeling both fleeting and forever—a combination of knowing both the inevitable clearing and coming again of the fog. The cities and towns of Southwestern Pennsylvania show their identities in the same way, working to reinvent themselves while starting each day wearing the memories of what made them. The tension between what was, what is, and what could be runs through the landscape and people. It pulls me in fast. Silences me. I watch and listen.

For me, documentary photography allows a way into conversations and situations I’m curious to experience. Growing up in a small town outside of Philadelphia, if Ben Franklin didn’t touch it or George Washington didn’t cross it, it didn’t make our lessons on local history. While my one week “visit” to Pittsburgh has extended itself to several years, my camera guided an exploration of the history and issues of the area. Patterns in race, economics, culture, and environment began to emerge in the stories people told me along the way, and I work to show those stories in a way that honors their complexity and the visceral mood that wraps them together in my eye.

01
Young women cross the street between the closed up storefronts along the main drag through downtown Clairton, Pennsylvania. Mayor Rich Lattanzi says a quarter of the city is boarded up, abandoned, or blighted. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

The photographs in this essay were born from a project I was working on about third class cities under Pennsylvania’s Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, more commonly known as Act 47. Lawmakers say that the legislation, which is meant to stabilize city finances through restructured debt and other measures, has become yet another burden for local leaders. When I started making these pictures, I initially investigated the third class cities of Clairton, Duquesne, and McKeesport. Since my first visit, Clairton has emerged from Act 47 while McKeesport teeters on the edge of financial solvency. And while a place like Clairton did the work to improve its finances under state oversight, a handful of third class cities in the state have been stuck under the designation for more than two decades.

I’ve always been drawn to communities transitioning between eras. Before moving to Pittsburgh, I collected stories in a rural Czech village in south Wallachia where people worked to preserve traditional farming methods and culture as social trends drew people to work in urban centers. I spent time on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, where tribal leaders at Chief Dull Knife College worked to pass down a language and oral history in danger of being lost. Now, I go to the Mon Valley to document the dwindling residents that remain in once-booming steel towns. These are places where a few thousand people bear the duties of caring for cities built for populations three or four or five times their current size. Without economic diversity, local governments struggle with insufficient tax revenue to support the public services, aging infrastructure, and government anatomy of the past. Looking further to the east and west from where the Mon Valley snakes south of Pittsburgh, the culture of coal and natural gas bring their own uneven cycles of boom and bust as rural traditions and landscapes give way to a different kind of life.

As I tell these stories, I’ve been lucky to be on staff as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which trusts me to explore and research on my own while allowing me a platform to share my work day in and day out. It’s increasingly rare to be able to work these kinds of jobs, and the access and stories I’ve been introduced to through the paper have embedded and familiarized me with the community in a way that is invaluable to me as a photographer. As media changes alongside the communities it covers, I hope it encourages a diverse range of voices to contribute to the larger documentary archive we are creating in the region—while honoring the people shaping the culture, environment, and legacy from inside the heart of the Rust Belt.

02
Nizhae with her pet ferret outside her home in McKeesport, Pennsylvania on April 18, 2015. Her family’s house, full of colorful art and interesting pets, is flanked by abandoned homes. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
03
Janice Salac, 70, plays bingo at the Guyasuta Days Festival in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania on Tuesday, August 4, 2015. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
04
Jerry Robinson, left, 10; Brandon Turner, center, 4; and Shalen Burton, 8, play football in the streets of their neighborhood in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, September 17, 2014. The boys say they all aspire to grow up and play football for their high school. “Football is the last hope they have to learn the ideals they need in life,” says Sto-Rox assistant coach Tony Ruscitto, who coaches the high school football team with his son Jason. “This town, what else do they have besides football?” (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
05
Paul “The Pittsburgh Kid” Spadafora takes a deep breath as he prepares for a fight at The Harv, a part of Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack, and Resort in Chester, West Virginia. Spadafora rose from The Bottoms of McKees Rocks to the top of the boxing world at age 23 to become Pittsburgh’s first world champion in a half-century. After a bout with legal, drug, and alcohol problems detoured his career, the fighter returned to the ring. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
06
Barry Highberger, 61, walks along the path of an interstate shale pipeline that runs through his farm in Sewickley Township, Pennsylvania on May 23, 2013. Berger and his neighbors in Sewickley fought to stop Sunoco Logistics Partners LP from buying rights of way on their land or using eminent domain to take them, citing frustration from other pipeline projects that are still scarring their land, concerns over private property rights and value, and safety risks. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
07
Brothers Bentley left, 3, and Ethan Clark, 1, snooze as they are pushed along the final blocks of the parade route during the Pittsburgh Labor Day Parade in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Monday, September 7, 2015. The boys were there to support their grandfather, who is a part of the United Union of Roofers Local 37. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
08
“Stop the war on coal,” reads a sign outside a car repair shop and neighboring beer distributor in Charleroi, Pennsylvania on Thursday, October 9, 2014. The Washington County business sits in the Monongahela Valley, where people say they aren’t seeing as much of an increase in manufacturing growth from the natural gas boom as the northern and central parts of the county. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
09
The McKeesport Black Berets Save Our City Step Team lines up to march in the Canonsburg, Pennsylvania 2015 Fourth of July Parade. Miss Helene Phelps, known for being both tough and talented, brought back the group for young steppers after a years-long hiatus from the Berets previous 30-year run. Nearly 97 girls from ages 5–17 showed up to participate on the first call for practice. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
10
Matthew Young, left, 8, and his brother Noah Harrison, 6, look from the Jerome Street Bridge onto the site of a train derailment in their neighborhood of McKeesport, Pennsylvania on Sunday, June 8, 2014. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
11
Kayla Johns, 22, of Latrobe, strikes a pose in front of a taxidermy bear as her friend Virginia Halferty, 22, of Oakland, takes photos with her cell phone at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Thursday, October 24, 2013. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
12
Deer hang in a freezer in line for the butcher’s block at Rome’s Meat and Deli in Butler, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, December 11, 2013. Rome’s is one of a handful of processors across the state that are processing sites for the organization Hunters Sharing the Harvest, which delivers an average of 100,000 pounds of venison to Pennsylvania food banks, soup kitchens, and pantries to feed insecure people and families. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
13
Models represented by Pittsburgh Video Vixens pose for a video shot outside Highmark Stadium before modeling in the Pittsburgh Fashion Week Designer Showcase on Tuesday, September 23, 2014. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
14
A crowd gathers at the Healthy Village Learning Institute in the former St. Pius School in McKeesport, Pennsylvania on April 18, 2015. The center offers non-violence training and programs ranging from manhood and womanhood development to health and wellness workshops to leadership, job, and entrepreneurial skills. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
15
Micah Jeffries, 19, dances during the “Mystical Magical Mardi Gras” celebration marking the end of a school year at Don’t Worry Child Care Center in McKeesport, Pennsylvania on Friday night, August 23, 2013. Several students from the class from across the river in Clairton will graduate from the program and choose to come to school again in McKeesport. Clairton’s school scores are so low that there is funding available so students can go to school elsewhere in the surrounding area. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
16
Marching up the streets of downtown Clairton, Pennsylvania a drummer in the school’s marching band is reflected in a succession of broken storefront windows that hint at a once thriving city. September 20, 2013. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
17
Plumes of smoke rise from the US Steel Clairton Works along the banks of the Monongahela River on October 9, 2013. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
18
Bloomfield Laundromat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 20, 2015. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
19
Freshman Noah Hamlin, left, and sophomore Harrison Dreher rest on air mattresses in the stadium locker rooms before the Clairton Bears’ Friday night home game on September 20, 2013. With a record setting winning streak in the books for high school football, the Clairton Bears have evolved into a brilliant symbol for the struggling town that is home to above-average poverty and crime rates in the wake of the collapse of the steel industry. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
20
Lights begin to turn on along the North Side and Troy Hill as crows make their way to their nighttime roosts on Saturday, November 21, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

Photo Essay is a monthly series on the CMOA Blog that features images from both emerging and established photographers working in a variety of styles—from documentary and conceptual, to fine art and commercial. For past installments, visit the archives.

  • Don Henderson

    Congratulations Stephanie!

    • Stephanie Strasburg

      Thanks, Don… I swear there isn’t a photo post that gets by you this side of the Mississippi!

      • Don Henderson

        You’re welcome Stephanie. I think, in another life, I might have made a good photo editor or even a good photographer. 🙂

  • LZ

    title for the dog pic: “beware of the smoke”