Author Paul Hertneky grew up in the Rust Belt town of Ambridge, north of Pittsburgh. He described his childhood as idyllic, filled with close knit communities and constant playmates. He chronicles his experience in his new book, Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood.
“We didn’t have a lot of money,” said Hertneky. “We did have a lot of community.”
The diversity of neighborhoods created what Hertneky called “ethnic islands.” Yet despite cultural differences, he said the community always came together when they went to work in the mills.
Laborers in towns like Hertneky’s Ambridge built was he described as “components of war,” such as troop transporters for World War II and armaments for the Vietnam War. Their economies flourished in times of conflict.
“To be an opponent of the Vietnam War at a time when that war was keeping a lot of the mills going was a risky proposition.”
As the industry grew, so did the worry. Hertneky recalls that his father worried about the increase in wages he received as a steelworker, almost recognizing it wasn’t sustainable for the industry.
“It was making us less competitive and at some point this might just blow up.”
Once it did in the 70s and 80s, nearly six million people left the Rust Belt area, a phenomenon familiar to post-industrial cities.
Able to change their industry and stabilize their economy in the 90s and 00s, Pittsburgh has become an example for Rust Belt cities struggling to come back.
“Pittsburgh is a great model for Buffalo, for Cleveland, for Detroit, for the other cities of the Rust Belt to retool.”
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