In Mon Valley Steel Towns, Shrunken Communities And An Increase Of Crime

Jul 8, 2014

The roads into Donora were built for traffic.

The four lanes of state Route 837 meet the Monessen Bridge that once carried bustling amounts of both foot and automobile traffic. But now, not many people have reason to come to this town 30 miles south of downtown Pittsburgh, says resident Edith Jericho, surrounded by the relics of the Donora Smog Museum.

The paint of the wooden sign that welcomes you to town is faded and dull. It declares the town the industrial hub of the Mid-Mon Valley, but it is a sentiment that is as dated as the 1940s and ’50s news clippings and black-and-white photos of mills and company picnics on the walls, according to Jericho.

“Donora was the hub,” said the 77-year-old museum volunteer. “You came to Donora for everything. If I wanted to read a book, I came over and got a book at the library. If I wanted to buy a dress, I came to Donora. Donora was the hub.”

People traveling into Donora from the Monessen Bridge are greeted with a large billboard proclaiming Donora as the “Home Of Champions” and the “Hub of the Industrial Mid Mon Valley.”
Credit Holly Tonini / Point Park News Service

Like the sign declares, Donora was once a town of industry. A wire factory, a zinc plant and steel mills dotted the banks of the Monongahela River within the 2-square mile town.

“Once they took the mill out (in 1967), that was the end of Donora, eventually.”

Twenty-five miles upstream from Braddock, the wire mill, built by the Union Steel Company, took up 300 acres along the western bank.

Industry still exists in Donora but not in the grand scale that it once was.
Credit Holly Tonini / Point Park News Service

In 1902, Union Steel built a 14-hearth steel mill. The American Steel and Wire Company leased the wire mill in 1903 and acquired the steel mill in 1908. In 1915, Donora Zinc Works was built and produced its first zinc.

“It was busy,” Jericho said. “Every store front was filled. You could find anything you wanted in this little town. This was a booming little town. Everybody made good money. This was where your bread and butter came from.”

The symptoms of the rising crime rates that have come to symbolize these former steel communities are everywhere. Earlier this year, 20 vacant storefronts in the 500 block of McKean neighbored the smog museum, which sits at the corner of McKean and Fifth avenues. The windows that are not broken are boarded, and faded brick facades sport multi-color graffiti. Notes to meter readers leave out-of-town phone numbers for owners who have come and gone.

It's quiet for the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Footsteps echo, and trains roll through more frequently than the cars. There is no lunch rush, despite the hour – restaurants are few and far between.

“Once they took the mill out (in 1967), that was the end of Donora, eventually,” she said.

It is a sentiment that stretches up and down the Monongahela River valley, which stretches along the river from Allegheny County through Washington County and into West Virginia – an area rich with steel mills and industry from the turn of the 20th century through the industrial decline that began, in some areas, in the 1960s and lasted through the 1980s.

The decline has brought crime to the city, Jericho said. Her car was broken into the night before.

“I think it's all through the valley,” she said. “Drugs. Drugs.”

The entryway to Hanna’s Hardware on McKean Avenue is narrow, but once you’re inside, tools of every kind, shape and size fill every available space. Owner Albert Hanna knows the customers when they come in, and he shouts a greeting.

“Everybody left their doors unlocked – their brooms and shovels on the porch, and nobody messed with anything,” he said of days past.

Upstream is Monongahela. Downstream, Monessen. They are Mon Valley steel towns that have not become local cultural reference points for comeback towns.

Looking Back

Frank Giarratani, a University of Pittsburgh professor who specializes in the economics of the steel industry, said to understand the crime increase, one must understand the boom and decline of the industry that built the towns.

“During the war, the steel industry was at its peak. The entire United States economy was converted to a wartime economy, and the foundation of that economy was steel,” Giarrantani said. “Just imagine the amount of activity around here and the importance of it.”

The industry could thrive in these Mon Valley towns because of the proximity to the river. Materials needed to produce the steel could be delivered cost-effectively on river barges. The valley was also rich in coal – a key ingredient in producing coke, which was needed to make steel.

After the war, he said, the industry emerged with serious issues in three areas: labor, technology and competitiveness.

“The steel industry had a really long history of terrible labor relations,” he said. “During the war, there was a lid on that. After the war, labor wanted payback.”

"A lot of these towns were created because of the steel industry. Take the industry away, and there's no coming back from that."

The unrest among industry workers sprung from poor labor conditions and wage disputes, leading to contentious strikes throughout mill towns, he said.

“Ultimately, in the 1960s, the industry backed labor peace, but at a very high price in terms of wages and labor conditions,” he said. “That affected the cost structure of the United States industry in very, very significant ways.”

At the same time, industry technology was evolving, namely steel furnace and casting technology. Giarrantani said United States manufacturers resisted the change and remained conservative in terms of investing in these new technologies. While steelmakers in Europe and Japan invested in the newer technologies, steelmakers at home doubled down and reinvested in the old ways.

“Things didn't work out for that old technology because the new technology was better,” he said.

Meanwhile, newer, smaller, more efficient mills were cropping up, creating domestic competition as well as that abroad. Rather than producing steel traditionally through converting iron ore into steel, the new domestic plants simply recycled steel into new steel.

“They went out and got scrap metal and melted it into steel products,” Giarrantani said. “These new, very, very small plants simply recycled steel, and the cost structure was extremely low for certain product lines.”

Not only was the industry at a disadvantage compared to foreign steelmakers, but also when it came to these new mini-mills that could produce steel at a lower cost and with less manpower.

“The steel industry as we knew it at the end of World War II couldn't exist,” he said.

Because traditional domestic mills could not compete, they were forced to reduce capacity – something that cannot be done piece by piece.

“In that type of technology, there's no easy way out,” he said. “You can't just say, 'Well, here's a plant, I think I'll reduce its capacity by 50 percent, of 75 percent. It doesn't work like that.”

The first hints of the impending closure crisis came in 1973 during the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries embargo – 10 years before the mills ground to a halt. The embargo brought on a world economic recession, and steel production plummeted.

“All of a sudden, something was revealed that people had talked about but tried to avoid, and that is there was much more capacity in the world for making steel than the world needed,” he said. “The concept became very real at that point.”

Ten years later, with the effects of the recession still lingering, capacity utilization fell to near just 30 percent. By that point, because of the inability to compete with new domestic and foreign mills, the steel industry had painted itself into a corner.

“They could double down and take the old, decrepit plants and redo them, but the cost of production would still be higher than these recyclers,” Giarrantani said. “They said, 'We can't compete with these guys,' and they shut down the plants.”

The effects were unimaginable, he said.

“It's devastating. This was their reason for being. A lot of these towns were created because of the steel industry. Take the industry away, and there's no coming back from that.”

‘Monessen Memories’

The Monessen Historical Society is a sturdy brick building on Donner Avenue, the main west-east  street through the town. One block south, Schoonmaker Street carries traffic east to west. On the west side of the building – one of the first things you see as Route 906 carries you down the hill into town – is a mural that was commissioned by the society. But rather at eye-level, the painted mural is at top of the building. One must stand back – way back –  to look up and see it.

The out-of-reach placement was necessary, said Candis Elyanich Kelley, 65, a historical society volunteer and Monessen native.

A sign representing Monessen’s past hangs high on the side of the Monessen Historical Society so that it won’t become ruined by graffiti.
Credit Holly Tonini / Point Park News Service

“Vandals would get to it,” she said. “They'd paint over it just like that.”

“Monessen Memories,” the mural reads, with a colorful painting of a blast furnace. A few feet away, on the other side of the street, sits an abandoned multi-story brick building. What glass remains in the windows – those that aren't boarded and graffitied – is broken and jagged. The doors are shuttered.

It is a decline that has progressed since the closure of the mills – the life of the city, she said. From there, she said, crime has grown.

Emily Owen, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said the relationship between economic downturns and upswings in crime is not so simple. When industry suddenly pulls out of an area, crime can actually decrease in the short term.

“When someone first loses a job, people spend more time at home. They go out to eat less, they consume less alcohol, they aren’t as out and about,” she said. “In the short term, it reduces the opportunity for crime and increases home protection.”

But after that initial phase, she said, if unemployment remains steady and new jobs don’t fill the place of the loss of industry, crime can increase, especially as people leave the town in search of jobs. She said this is especially true for property crime.

“There’s a reduction in guardianship – the phenomenon of people being around,” she said. “People are walking around observing you do things, and it reduces the probability that someone steals or vandalizes. When there’s a reduction in guardians, there’s an increase in crime.”

CHART: Population decline in Donora, Monessen and Monongahela.
Credit Carson Allwes / Point Park News Service

It is a theory reflected in crime and population statistics from the towns, with a pattern emerging. Since the 1980s, when the final mill doors were closed, Monessen has seen a steady decrease in population, matched by an increase in crime, both violent and property crime.

While the crime numbers have not grown each and every year since the '80s, the numbers have climbed and stayed steadily higher, despite the steady decrease in population.

Monessen's population reached its peak in 1930 with 20,268, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. By 1960, it had fallen to 18,424. Between 1960 and 1980, it fell 38 percent to 11,928. That year, with nearly 12,000 residents, there were 24 reported instances of violent crime, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report – 20 per 10,000 residents. The state average was 36 per every 10,000. There were 431 reports of property crime.

From 1980 on, the population continued to tumble, to 9,901 in 1990 and 7,720 in 2010, finally to 7,718 in 2012, the last year for which Census data is available.

During that time, crime ballooned. In 2003, there were 89 instances of violent crime – 104 per 10,000 people. The state average per 10,000 that year was 40 violent incidents. Property crime averaged at 312 per 10,000, where the state averaged at 243.

It hurts Daniel Zyglowicz to witness this.

“It's sad,” said Zyglowicz, a professor at California University of Pennsylvania who grew up in Monessen. That sadness can be seen on his face when he speaks, remembering times gone by. “Seeing what I remember of the last of the boom times and then to see all those businesses go – we had a lot of big businesses at one time.”

CHART: Crime statistics for Donora, Monessen and Monongahela.
Credit Carson Allwes / Point Park News Service

In those boom times – the ’60s, ’70s and part of the ’80s – you could find anything you wanted in Monessen, he said. Shoe stores, clothing stores, kids stores, appliance stores – it was all in the city, he said. But now, one must leave the city to find those things.

“You remember what it did look like, and now it looks so sad,” he said. “You just wonder how much of that is salvageable and how much will be torn down and leave an empty lot or parking lot.”

That loss has helped bring in crime, he said.

“There's less opportunities. Even for young people, there is very little for them to do in town,” he said. “But still now, there is a lack of jobs in the area. Many people feel there is no other alternative.”

Owen said the loss of opportunity does have an effect on crime, and hard drugs like heroin are making a comeback, which is centered in small towns.

“People have free time,” he said. “People don't see much opportunity-cost to using heroin or Oxycontin or anything. At the same time, there aren't many legal labor opportunities, and people are trying to earn money by selling drugs. As opportunities dry up, opportunities in crime increase.”

Dodging the Worst

Monongahela residents consider themselves lucky. Though industry has left, the population has tumbled and crime has increased since the heyday of the mills, the town of just around 4,300 has managed to dodge the worst of the post-industrial collapse.

Susan Bowers, a Monongahela native, said a difference in industry helped shade the town from the economic downturn – that is, the city had industry, but the steel industry had not taken up residence in the town. Industry came in other forms, including a brickyard, macaroni factory, opera house, granite and marble works and planing mill.

A view from the top of the Third Street steps in Monongahela shows businesses, new and old, as well as many houses that make up the second-smallest city in Pennsylvania.
Credit Holly Tonini / Point Park News Service
“We’re not afraid. I’m never afraid to walk down the street in this town. I can’t say that about the other towns.”

“In other towns, when the mills closed, the other businesses went out. Businesses stayed here, and that helped,” she said. “Each little town had to reinvent itself. Our whole thing now is to bring people – especially those outside of Washington County – to show what we do have here. We have a health of history and that small-town ambiance people are dying for today.” 

Brian Britza, a resident and business owner, knows what true collapse looks like. Though he grew up in the West End of Pittsburgh, he lived for many years in Homestead, a Pittsburgh suburb built entirely around the steel industry.

A sign greets visitors as they enter Monongahela from the east.
Credit Holly Tonini / Point Park News Service

He started his antique and oddity business in Monongahela in 2008 after the business community caught his eye. He said he was surprised by the life in it and has spent years familiarizing himself with the history of the valley. He said the steadfastness in the town can be attributed to what he calls “old money.”

“I think that Monongahela is kind of an enclave. There's more old money here than money from steel,” he said. “People kind of found this area and liked it and moved here on purpose, not necessarily because of the steel industry. That's why it's been able to survive even though the industry has left.”

He said the crime is there, mostly in the form of drugs, but not at the same levels it had been at.

Bowers agreed.

“All cities do have crime, but we do not like the other ones around – it’s nothing major,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s not here, but not to the extent of some of the surrounding towns. We’re very, very fortunate here. It takes a lot of people. Nobody does it alone.

“We’re not afraid. I’m never afraid to walk down the street in this town. I can’t say that about the other towns,” she said.

That is not to say the town has been untouched by de-industrialization. Between 1970 and 1980, Monongahela lost 15 percent of its already falling population, going from 7,113 to 5,950. It fell another 16 percent in the next decade to 4,928 in 1990.

“A lot of our residents worked in the steel mills, so we weren't isolated,” Bowers said. “But a lot of our men who worked in those places lost their jobs. A lot left. A lot had to be retrained. And a lot had to find a new way. You had to reinvent yourself, to reinvent the town. A lot have still never really come back.”

Jim Steiner worked in the mill when it closed down. He was transferred to another mill, which also closed. He was completely out of mill work by 1985.

“That was all I knew,” the 64-year-old said of the mill work. “I went straight from high school into the mill. I had no skills.”

He said knowledge of furnace and air-conditioning work from his stepfather was what he fell back on.

Bowers said the loss of the industry was an internal shock to those within it.

“It was a generational thing,” she said. “You're dad worked in the mill and the son usually went, the brothers went. They had nowhere to go. It was like, 'What do we do now?'”

The crime, however, is still there, despite dodging the de-industrialization bullet. In 1980, there were 10 reported violent crimes in the town and 233 property crimes. The violent crime rate hovered in the teens, mirroring the state average or falling below it until 2009, when there were 28 violent crimes, of 64 per 10,000 residents – much more than the state average that year of 38 per 10,000.

Monongahela is, of the three towns, the furthest from when criminologist Owen says is the third phase of what happens when industry pulls out of an area: depopulation.

“It's the start of total depopulation,” she said. “These are houses the Census doesn't even consider houses anymore – there are no doors, no windows.”

She said it's something that can be seen in areas of Detroit, where houses are not vacant, but rather do not qualify as houses anymore. She said small towns can experience it as an unending chain.

“It's a perpetuating cycle,” she said. “These small towns that used to have mines or factories – they leave and nothing comes back.”

She said it poses an interesting policy problem.

“What do you do about these places that no longer have sources of employment?” she said. “From a cold-hearted economic perspective, there's no use for these towns anymore, and maybe people should leave.”

Searching for Solutions

Monongahela Police Chief Brian Tempest said it took a concerted, forceful effort by not just his agency, but county agencies as well, to even begin to clean up the drug crime in his city.

“Drugs were pretty rampant. Heroin was everywhere. There was a police officer who worked here who was selling drugs while on duty. He was arrested. There was a lot of corruption going on,” he said. “You could drive down the street and see the drug dealers.”

He said with the help of Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone, the department cracked down on targeting those selling drugs in the city.

“We made, in a two- to three-year period, over 140 arrests for drug dealers. We’re not talking about someone having heroin or cocaine in their purse or pocket, but who openly sold to us. It was a really large problem,” he said. “We’re starting to make a dent into it. It’s a never-ending problem. When you arrest a heroin dealer, next week you’ve got two more selling to you, it seems.

“Is there a relationship between people losing jobs and being out of work and being depressed and using drugs? I don’t have the numbers, but I can see it being there,” he said.

Tempest knows the situation – he worked in a mill for 10 years before losing his job to a closing in 1982.

“A lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of people had to reinvent themselves, go back to school or go into other occupations. Jobs just weren’t there like they were in the steel mills,” he said. “If you didn’t go to college, you knew you could get a job in the mill.”

He worries it’s not enough.

“Sometimes you drove it underground was all you did, you think,” he said. “You take off a lot of these junkie users who go to Clairton and buy 10 (packets of heroin) use five and sell five to buy 10 more. Those are the people you see on the streets who would grab your purse out of the car and take off – the people who cause a lot of the nuisance crimes.”

Monessen is the only of these three communities not in Washington County.

“Crime is pretty high," said Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathon Held. "There is definitely a drug problem (in Monessen) right now, as there is county-wide and on a larger scale than that, too.

The coke plant in Monessen can be seen down left along the Monongahela River from the Donora-Monessen Bridge.
Credit Holly Tonini / Point Park News Service

“Part of the problem is when industry moves out, the tax base moves out. You get some of the common problems that come with poverty in areas. I think that leads to drug use and therefore drug selling,” he said.  “If you look throughout many of the communities along the rivers that had steel mills – Homestead, West Newton, Elizabeth, Duquesne – and you go down the river down into Monessen even, it is a common pattern amongst these communities."

"Any town will tell you that it will only improve if the job base comes back."
McKean Avenue in Donora today is a quiet street. Before the closing of the mill it was bustling with people and businesses.
Credit Holly Tonini / Point Park News Service

He said there is no easy solution.

“It’s a tough question to answer. As far as drug problems go, it’s multi-faceted,” he said.

He said arresting criminals only goes so far, and prevention and education are key components, particularly educating pharmacists. He said many who use illegal street drugs begin doing so through prescription medications. Teaching pharmacists how to more closely monitor how people use prescriptions can make a big difference, he said.

The solution to the problems – the crime, the blight and the economic and financial issues – goes beyond criminal law, said business owner Albert Hanna, of Donora.

“We had jobs. Jobs bring people. They bring good people, responsible people. No jobs, no people. We have this hideous decay. These are mini Detroits all over the Rust Belt. It’s horrible. How do we get the jobs back?” he said. “How do we get them back?”

Joseph Kirk, executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council, works to answer that question.

“Look at Donora as an example," he said. "It probably faced the whole issue of de-industrialization more severely than any other community in the valley. But it has also faced the return of some level of industry, though not to the degree as before. But they did lose everything. So this is good.”

He referred to the Donora Industrial Park, developed at the former U.S. Steel plant. He said the park employs about 1,000 workers, and there are around a dozen companies that do business out of the park.

In Monessen, the ArcelorMittal coke plant has reopened, and more than 100 former steelworkers have been recalled to jobs at the plant.

Kirk stressed that a return of industry does not fix all of a community’s problems.

“Other challenges these communities have faced are that as these industries require fewer and fewer works, the youth move out. The population becomes significantly older than it used to be and significantly poorer,” he said. “Combine that with the suburbanization of the country, and a town like Donora has a significant financial challenge and host of community issues.”

And while the $50 million investment in the Monessen coke plant is a good thing, he said, most of those employed there do not live within the city. He said he doubted more than 10 percent live in Monessen.

He said the solution is incentive packages: getting those who are employed in these towns to move into – or back into – the town.

“Offer everything from low-interest loans to tax breaks to recover that population,” he said.

Lenny Dominick has lived in Monessen for his entire life. His family owned a fruit market for more than 40 years. After high school, Dominick went to work in the U.S. Steel-owned mill until it closed in 1987. He’s now re-employed at the coke plant. But the town, he said, has changed.

“It’s a lot different now. You have your different sections of town. Up here on the hill, it’s pretty quiet,” the 59-year-old said. “In other parts of town, there’s a crime problem – I’m not going to deny that.”

Kirk said the progress council is looking at ways to address crime.

One arm of the progress council is the Mid-Mon Valley Intergovernmental Cooperative – essentially, a council of governments, Kirk said. The cooperative has been looking at ways to established a more regionalized police force, he said, which would allow police to better work among communities.

“It would allow for greater investigative powers and be able to do more investigations over multiple communities. That, to me, is an element of addressing this,” he said. “Crime doesn’t stop and start in Monessen. It doesn’t stop and start in Donora. It’s all over the region. If they’re busting meth labs in Donora – those meth labs don’t serve just Donora.”

Dominick said he is unsure whether the town can ever really bounce back from its fall from industrial grace.

“Any town will tell you that it will only improve if the job base comes back,” he said. “If it doesn’t, well – right now, Monessen is pretty much an elderly town. It’s going to stay that way until jobs come in or people find jobs and still decide to live here.”

Albert Hanna, the hardware owner in Donora, feels the same about his town. He said he cannot see how it can become what it once was: “We had grocery stores, pharmacies. We had gift shops, men’s shops, women’s shops, shoe stores.”

He said he hopes the town can come back, even 30 and 40 years later. He wishes it would.

“I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime.”

This story was reported and written for the Point Park News Service by Megan Guza, who earned an MA in Journalism and Mass Communication from Point Park University this year.