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In Aliquippa, Life Persists in the Wake of Big Steel’s Collapse

In 1909, Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation (J&L), which already had a mill on the south side of Pittsburgh, wanted to expand, so it purchased land along the Ohio River near the town of Woodlawn about 25 miles downriver from Pittsburgh. The company expanded the town, building homes and businesses to accommodate the workers of what would become the largest steel mill in the world, stretching for 7 miles along the riverfront.

Renamed Aliquippa in 1928, the town began to thrive, and in the early 1940s, the population swelled to more than 27,000, and as many as 9,000 people were employed at the J&L Aliquippa Works.

The beginning of the economic disaster came in 1984. LTV Corp., which was formed when J&L merged with Republic Steel, closed most of the Aliquippa Works, immediately laying off about 8,000 workers. It was not surprising, since most of the other steel plants in the region had already shuttered or cut operations. But the impact of workers leaving the area to look for work and the skyrocketing unemployment decimated the local economy. It was not long before the tax base followed as LTV Corp. sought and received drastic tax revaluations of its real-estate holdings.

United States Gypsum, a manufacturer of construction wallboard and building materials for the construction industries now occupies a part of the former location of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company along the Ohio River in Aliquippa, PA.
United States Gypsum, a manufacturer of construction wallboard and building materials for the construction industries now occupies a part of the former location of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company along the Ohio River in Aliquippa, PA.

As a result, Aliquippa’s population dropped to 11,734, according to the 2000 census. Today the population hovers just above 9,000.

Some of the old-timers still long for the good old days and talk about how things will be when the mill comes back, but most people realize those days are gone. Most of the storefronts along Franklin Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, are still boarded up, and a lot of empty lots remain between the buildings.

Recently, the city attracted United States Gypsum, which built a plant on part of the former J&L site along the Ohio River. While the new company has not replaced jobs on the scale of those that were lost when the J&L closed, it is a beginning. A lot of land remains vacant on the old mill site—along the river and a rail line. It is a prime spot for new industry, such as a car manufacturer.

The residents understand that the city needs to attract more businesses and jobs if Aliquippa is to fully recover. New businesses will raise the tax base and provide funds to rebuild the decaying infrastructure. The people of Aliquippa are strong, resilient, and proud of their heritage. They are doing their best in difficult times and continue to press forward.

Pete Marovich, Sr., holds his father's Jones and Laughlin Steel Company ID card and badge on June 7, 2015 near Aliquippa Pa., USA. The company cut Tom Marovich's ID card in half upon his retirement after 37 years at the Aliquippa Works.
Pete Marovich, Sr., holds his father’s Jones and Laughlin Steel Company ID card and badge on June 7, 2015 near Aliquippa Pa., USA. The company cut Tom Marovich’s ID card in half upon his retirement after 37 years at the Aliquippa Works.
Children play on their dad's demolition derby car outside of their home in West Aliquippa, Pa. USA, on May 8, 2015. Since 1987, the city has been designated as a distressed municipality under the state's Act 47, a law that created a recovery program that's helped some 29 municipalities in the state stay afloat. The city now has fewer residents now than the local steel mill had employees (14,000) in its heyday. The mill closed down for good 20 years ago. With few good job opportunities available, children who grow up in the area may be faced with tough economic times when they are ready to join the workforce.
Children play on their dad’s demolition derby car outside of their home in West Aliquippa, Pa. USA, on May 8, 2015. Since 1987, the city has been designated as a distressed municipality under the state’s Act 47, a law that created a recovery program that’s helped some 29 municipalities in the state stay afloat. The city now has fewer residents now than the local steel mill had employees (14,000) in its heyday. The mill closed down for good 20 years ago. With few good job opportunities available, children who grow up in the area may be faced with tough economic times when they are ready to join the workforce.
A photograph of former Chicago Bears coach and Aliquippa High School alumni Mike Ditka hangs in the background in Mahoney's bar as George "Blackie" Miller pauses for a moment while talking about the good old days in West Aliquippa, Pa. USA, on May 8, 2015. Miller, who changed his last name from Dokmanovich years ago, was born in West Aliquippa and lived there all of his life. He has seen the town go from boom to bust along with the steel industry. "This town is done," says Miller.
A photograph of former Chicago Bears coach and Aliquippa High School alumni Mike Ditka hangs in the background in Mahoney’s bar as George “Blackie” Miller pauses for a moment while talking about the good old days in West Aliquippa, Pa. USA, on May 8, 2015. Miller, who changed his last name from Dokmanovich years ago, was born in West Aliquippa and lived there all of his life. He has seen the town go from boom to bust along with the steel industry. “This town is done,” says Miller.
Homes stand on the hillside overlooking West Aliquippa and an area that was once occupied by rail lines serving the now demolished J&L Steel Mill.
Homes stand on the hillside overlooking West Aliquippa and an area that was once occupied by rail lines serving the now demolished J&L Steel Mill.
Herb Bailey, Ministry Director at Uncommon Grounds Cafe', participates in a National Day of Prayer service at the Aliquippa City Building in Aliquippa, Pa., on May 7, 2015.
Herb Bailey, Ministry Director at Uncommon Grounds Cafe, participates in a National Day of Prayer service at the Aliquippa City Building in Aliquippa, Pa., on May 7, 2015.
Tony Gennaro, 84, stands on the front porch of his home in West Aliquippa, Pa. on May 8, 2015. Gennaro, a weightlifter who held both national and world titles is also a former steelworker that worked in the blooming mill at the J&L facility in Aliquippa.
Tony Gennaro, 84, stands on the front porch of his home in West Aliquippa, Pa. on May 8, 2015. Gennaro, a weightlifter who held both national and world titles is also a former steelworker that worked in the blooming mill at the J&L facility in Aliquippa.
Two women chat as one waits for her take-out lunch order at the Croatian Center in Aliquippa. Pa. There were clubs for Serbians, Croatians, Ukranians, Carpatho-Russians, Italians and countless others, most of which are dying off due to lack of interest of the younger generations.
Two women chat as one waits for her take-out lunch order at the Croatian Center in Aliquippa. Pa. There were clubs for Serbians, Croatians, Ukranians, Carpatho-Russians, Italians and countless others, most of which are dying off due to lack of interest of the younger generations.
Angelo "Tubby" Galzarano, 79, speaks to a customer on the phone in his repair shop, Tubby's Auto Service, in West Aliquippa, Pa. Galzarano was a steelworker at the local J&L mill before its closure in the mid 1980’s.
Angelo “Tubby” Galzarano, 79, speaks to a customer on the phone in his repair shop, Tubby’s Auto Service, in West Aliquippa, Pa. Galzarano was a steelworker at the local J&L mill before its closure in the mid 1980’s.
Bartender, Lisa Nicely, talks with West Aliquippa resident Chuck Forrester in Mahoney's West bar in West Aliquippa, PA. Mahoneys has been in operation in West Aliquippa for 40 years.
Bartender, Lisa Nicely, talks with West Aliquippa resident Chuck Forrester in Mahoney’s West bar in West Aliquippa, PA. Mahoneys has been in operation in West Aliquippa for 40 years.
Locals buy lottery tickets and discuss town issues in the Plan 12 Market in Aliquippa, Pa. USA, on August 7, 2015. The Plan 12 Market in Aliquippa is a mainstay for the local community. Operated by Jehad "Jerry" Jaber, 68, (second from left) and his brother Sammy, 58, (right), the market supplies food staples, household goods, tobacco products and food prepared by Sammy to the residents of Plan 12. As foreign-born workers flocked to western Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century to fill jobs at Jones & Laughlin Steel mill, the company built several planned communities, officially called the Plans by J&L. Eventually there would be 12 plans and the neighborhoods of Aliquippa are still known by those names today.
Locals buy lottery tickets and discuss town issues in the Plan 12 Market in Aliquippa, Pa. USA, on August 7, 2015.
The Plan 12 Market in Aliquippa is a mainstay for the local community. Operated by Jehad “Jerry” Jaber, 68, (second from left) and his brother Sammy, 58, (right), the market supplies food staples, household goods, tobacco products and food prepared by Sammy to the residents of Plan 12.
As foreign-born workers flocked to western Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century to fill jobs at Jones & Laughlin Steel mill, the company built several planned communities, officially called the Plans by J&L. Eventually there would be 12 plans and the neighborhoods of Aliquippa are still known by those names today.
Crossing guard and retired steel worker Frank Cangiano, 85, keeps a watchful eye as children walk along the streets of the McDonald Heights neighborhood of Aliquippa, Pa. on their way to catch the school bus.
Crossing guard and retired steel worker Frank Cangiano, 85, keeps a watchful eye as children walk along the streets of the McDonald Heights neighborhood of Aliquippa, Pa. on their way to catch the school bus.
A young girl runs past an old J&L company home that is slated for demolition West Aliquippa, Pa. As foreign-born workers flocked to western Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century to fill jobs at the Jones & Laughlin Steel mill, the company built homes for the workers. Many of these homes are still standing today.
A young girl runs past an old J&L company home that is slated for demolition West Aliquippa, Pa. As foreign-born workers flocked to western Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century to fill jobs at the Jones & Laughlin Steel mill, the company built homes for the workers. Many of these homes are still standing today.
Frank Purrachio, 86, plants a row of vegetable in his backyard garden in West Aliquippa, PA. Purrachio, a retired millwright from the J&L Steel Works, has lived in West Aliquippa all of his life with the exception of a few years in the Marine Corps.
Frank Purrachio, 86, plants a row of vegetable in his backyard garden in West Aliquippa, PA. Purrachio, a retired millwright from the J&L Steel Works, has lived in West Aliquippa all of his life with the exception of a few years in the Marine Corps.
An Aliquippa police officer watches as a young man rides his bike as a unicycle in the streets of Plan 11 in Aliquippa, Pa. USA, on September 18, 2015. Plan 12 is one of the city's most crime-ridden areas where the police enforce a "no loitering" ordinance. But many residents say there's not enough to keep the youth of the city from hanging out on street corners.
An Aliquippa police officer watches as a young man rides his bike as a unicycle in the streets of Plan 11 in Aliquippa, Pa. USA, on September 18, 2015.
Plan 12 is one of the city’s most crime-ridden areas where the police enforce a “no loitering” ordinance. But many residents say there’s not enough to keep the youth of the city from hanging out on street corners.
Aliquippa Police Sgt. Giovanni Trello, 33, patrols the neighborhood of Plan 12 in Aliquippa. Plan 12 is one of the city's most crime-ridden areas where the police enforce a "no loitering" ordinance. But many residents say there's not enough to keep the youth of the city from hanging out on street corners.
Aliquippa Police Sgt. Giovanni Trello, 33, patrols the neighborhood of Plan 12 in Aliquippa. Plan 12 is one of the city’s most crime-ridden areas where the police enforce a “no loitering” ordinance. But many residents say there’s not enough to keep the youth of the city from hanging out on street corners.
An Aliquippa resident in Wawro's, a local tavern in the downtown area.
An Aliquippa resident in Wawro’s, a local tavern in the downtown area.
An Aliquippa resident talks on her cell phone after stopping into Bert's Barber Shop to buy a couple of cigarettes from owner Bert Hart. 80-year-old Hart (left) has been cutting hair in his Aliquippa barber shop for the past 60 years. Hart moved to Aliquippa in the boom times of the 1960’s and opened Bert’s Barber Shop in 1966. At that time the town was home to over 26,000 people but most of the homes and businesses along his street are gone as well as most of the people. At one time Hart owned three adjacent buildings, housing a bar, apartment building and the barber shop, in the Plan 11 neighborhood. The three-chair shop is a place where people hang out here and talk about everything from politics to religion and sports as well as the good old days when Aliquippa was thriving.
An Aliquippa resident talks on her cell phone after stopping into Bert’s Barber Shop to buy a couple of cigarettes from owner Bert Hart. 80-year-old Hart (left) has been cutting hair in his Aliquippa barber shop for the past 60 years. Hart moved to Aliquippa in the boom times of the 1960’s and opened Bert’s Barber Shop in 1966. At that time the town was home to over 26,000 people but most of the homes and businesses along his street are gone as well as most of the people. At one time Hart owned three adjacent buildings, housing a bar, apartment building and the barber shop, in the Plan 11 neighborhood. The three-chair shop is a place where people hang out here and talk about everything from politics to religion and sports as well as the good old days when Aliquippa was thriving.
Aliquippa head coach Mike Zmijanac gives a final pep talk to his team before their homecoming game on Sept 18, 2015 in Aliquippa, Pa. USA. Zmijanac, the winningest coach of what is said to be the best high school program in the region, says that he loses six or so of his players to drugs and violence and the pull of the street each year. Pretty steep obstacles for a coach and team to overcome, but the team averaged 10 wins a year for the past 30 years. The team was the training ground to NFL greats like Mike Ditka, Sean Gilbert, and Ty Law, all of whom were Aliquippa graduates.
Aliquippa head coach Mike Zmijanac gives a final pep talk to his team before their homecoming game on Sept 18, 2015 in Aliquippa, Pa. USA. Zmijanac, the winningest coach of what is said to be the best high school program in the region, says that he loses six or so of his players to drugs and violence and the pull of the street each year. Pretty steep obstacles for a coach and team to overcome, but the team averaged 10 wins a year for the past 30 years. The team was the training ground to NFL greats like Mike Ditka, Sean Gilbert, and Ty Law, all of whom were Aliquippa graduates.
Aliquippa fans sit in the rusting steel and wooden bleachers of Carl A. Aschman Stadium for the 2015 homecoming game. "The Pit" as it is called is sacred ground and fans still come in droves to watch their beloved school's football team play in a stadium that was built in 1937. Although the city has its share of problems with drugs and violence, a home football game is said to be the safest place in the city as everyone puts their differences aside to support the team.
Aliquippa fans sit in the rusting steel and wooden bleachers of Carl A. Aschman Stadium for the 2015 homecoming game. “The Pit” as it is called is sacred ground and fans still come in droves to watch their beloved school’s football team play in a stadium that was built in 1937. Although the city has its share of problems with drugs and violence, a home football game is said to be the safest place in the city as everyone puts their differences aside to support the team.
Players on the Aliquippa High School football team walks across Carl A. Aschman Stadium following practice field to prepare for their homecoming game. The rusting steel of the wooden bleachers and the crumbling concrete shows the age of Carl A. Aschman Stadium, the home of the Aliquippa High School football team. The fans still come in droves to watch their beloved school's football team play in a stadium that was built in 1937.
Players on the Aliquippa High School football team walks across Carl A. Aschman Stadium following practice field to prepare for their homecoming game. The rusting steel of the wooden bleachers and the crumbling concrete shows the age of Carl A. Aschman Stadium, the home of the Aliquippa High School football team. The fans still come in droves to watch their beloved school’s football team play in a stadium that was built in 1937.
Aliquippa head coach Mike Zmijanac meets with his coaching staff before their homecoming game. Zmijanac has never played a down of organized football but he is the winningest coach of what is said to be the best high school program in the region.
Aliquippa head coach Mike Zmijanac meets with his coaching staff before their homecoming game. Zmijanac has never played a down of organized football but he is the winningest coach of what is said to be the best high school program in the region.
A truck leaves the former site of the Jones and Laughlin Steel mill that occupied a seven mile stretch along the Ohio River Aliquippa, PA from 1905 until its closure and demolition in 1988. The tunnel was once the main entrance to the mill for the workers. Now the site is home to several small industrial businesses including United States Gypsum where they manufacture construction wallboard.
A truck leaves the former site of the Jones and Laughlin Steel mill that occupied a seven mile stretch along the Ohio River Aliquippa, PA from 1905 until its closure and demolition in 1988. The tunnel was once the main entrance to the mill for the workers. Now the site is home to several small industrial businesses including United States Gypsum where they manufacture construction wallboard.
An woman shows off her Italian spirit during the 90th San Rocco Festa in Aliquippa. The festival, a three-day religious celebration, is held annually in August honoring St. Rocco, a patron saint of the city of Potenza, Italy where many Italians in Aliquippa can trace their ancestry.
A woman shows off her Italian spirit during the 90th San Rocco Festa in Aliquippa. The festival, a three-day religious celebration, is held annually in August honoring St. Rocco, a patron saint of the city of Potenza, Italy where many Italians in Aliquippa can trace their ancestry.
Ryan Beaver, 30 of Aliquippa, pours shots of Sambucca for the participants and spectators of the 90th annual San Rocco Festa procession. The festival, a three-day religious celebration, is held annually in August honoring St. Rocco, a patron saint of the city of Potenza, Italy where many Italians in Aliquippa can trace their ancestry.
Ryan Beaver, 30 of Aliquippa, pours shots of Sambucca for the participants and spectators of the 90th annual San Rocco Festa procession. The festival, a three-day religious celebration, is held annually in August honoring St. Rocco, a patron saint of the city of Potenza, Italy where many Italians in Aliquippa can trace their ancestry.
The 90th San Rocco Festa procession makes its way through Sheffield Terrace in Aliquippa. The procession resembles a parade, but it is different as the participants stop at houses along the route to have food and drink. The festival, a three-day religious celebration, is held annually in August honoring St. Rocco, a patron saint of the city of Potenza, Italy where many Italians in Aliquippa can trace their ancestry.
The 90th San Rocco Festa procession makes its way through Sheffield Terrace in Aliquippa. The procession resembles a parade, but it is different as the participants stop at houses along the route to have food and drink. The festival, a three-day religious celebration, is held annually in August honoring St. Rocco, a patron saint of the city of Potenza, Italy where many Italians in Aliquippa can trace their ancestry.
San Rocco Festa committee members, stand near the San Rocco Festa plaque on August 9, 2015 in Aliquippa, Pa., USA. Spectators who line the procession route come into the streets to pin money onto the banner. The money from the banner and other festival proceeds are donated to charities in the name of San Rocco. The festival, a three-day religious celebration, is held annually in August honoring St. Rocco, a patron saint of the city of Potenza, Italy where many Italians in Aliquippa can trace their ancestry.
San Rocco Festa committee members, stand near the San Rocco Festa plaque on August 9, 2015 in Aliquippa, Pa., USA. Spectators who line the procession route come into the streets to pin money onto the banner. The money from the banner and other festival proceeds are donated to charities in the name of San Rocco. The festival, a three-day religious celebration, is held annually in August honoring St. Rocco, a patron saint of the city of Potenza, Italy where many Italians in Aliquippa can trace their ancestry.
The Baby Doll dance is the finale to the 90th San Rocco Festa in Aliquippa. Legend claims the doll dance is derived from a story derived from an Italian folk tale about how a young girl bitten by a spider is saved by dancing out the venom while whirling with her true love. The festival, a three-day religious celebration, is held annually in August honoring St. Rocco, a patron saint of the city of Potenza, Italy where many Italians in Aliquippa can trace their ancestry.
The Baby Doll dance is the finale to the 90th San Rocco Festa in Aliquippa. Legend claims the doll dance is derived from a story derived from an Italian folk tale about how a young girl bitten by a spider is saved by dancing out the venom while whirling with her true love. The festival, a three-day religious celebration, is held annually in August honoring St. Rocco, a patron saint of the city of Potenza, Italy where many Italians in Aliquippa can trace their ancestry.
A tribute to composer Henry Mancini adorns an abandoned building along Franklin Ave. in Aliquippa, Pa. The Italian-American composer, conductor and arrange is best remembered for his film and television scores including The Pink Panther Theme and the theme to the Peter Gunn television series.
A tribute to composer Henry Mancini adorns an abandoned building along Franklin Ave. in Aliquippa, Pa. The Italian-American composer, conductor and arrange is best remembered for his film and television scores including The Pink Panther Theme and the theme to the Peter Gunn television series.
A boy stays warm under a Pittsburgh Steelers football blanket as he walks along the foggy streets of the McDonald Heights neighborhood of Aliquippa, Pa., USA on May 7, 2015.
A boy stays warm under a Pittsburgh Steelers football blanket as he walks along the foggy streets of the McDonald Heights neighborhood of Aliquippa, Pa., USA on May 7, 2015.

The photographs featured in this essay are part of the project Searching for Dream Street, an ongoing photographic expedition to document the status of the old steel towns along the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers within approximately 40 miles of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Photo Essay is an ongoing series featuring documentary images that examine the social, cultural, and political landscape in Pittsburgh and beyond.