a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, March 3, 2008

Decay in Donora and beyond

While walking around Donora today, through its seemingly endless blight, I came upon yellow tape strung around a sidewalk and a small pile of bricks that had fallen from a building.

The mess was beside a once-busy Ackerman’s newsstand where I used to buy penny candy as a kid in the 1960s when the Pennsylvania borough still held onto a few hundred steel jobs.

In recent weeks, water seeped through the roof only to freeze and then thaw in today’s warm weather, stretching the wall enough to peel off yellow bricks below the roof line and send them to the street.

A few blocks away sits a closed hardware store with a storefront window showing a dead sparrow that has been turning into a skeleton before my eyes over the past four years. Two years ago, the brick fa├žade on that abandoned building fell onto the street, burying a car parked along McKean Avenue, the main drag through the borough. This is the legacy of the steel industry that all but walked away from the Ohio River Valley in Southwestern Pennsylvania between 1960 and the mid 1980s.

Later I opened my e-mail, only to find a letter from a stranger, Sean Posey, a journalism student at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He wanted me to take a look at a slideshow he put together of Youngstown, Ohio, a former steel town where he grew up about an hour’s drive west of Pittsburgh.

It’s one more reminder of the vastness of America’s Rust Belt that inspires photographers to capture the severe problems our nation faces in its faded industrial heartland.



Amanda Gillooly said...

That picture is great, Scott, but the picture you painted in your story is even more colorful. But that's just my humble opinion.

Brant said...

My hometown of Claysville went through a much milder version of what Donora experienced. At one time, Claysville, in which Route 40 is Main Street, had a hotel, a motel, a couple of gas stations, several restaurants, a jewelry store, a newsstand, a bakery, a pool hall, a newspaper (complete with its own printing operation), a clothing store and at least three barbershops because it was on the National Road and because, at that time, there were no major malls or nearby mass retailers. Route 40 was the major east-west route for travelers, and the locals felt no need to travel elsewhere for their daily needs. Then, when I was a kid, Interstate 70 was built and pretty much all of the traffic went around Claysville. The hotel became an apartment building (It was recently torn down for the construction of a senior-citizen high-rise.) The motel became a nursing home. The restaurants mostly disappeared, and there are no barbers in town anymore. There are still a couple of grocery stores in town, a hardware store, a vet's office, but the town is no longer a full-service shopping destination for surrounding residents. The majority of folks travel to Washington and patronize the malls, the big-box department and hardware stores and, of course, Wal-Mart. The advantage Claysville had over places like Donora is that its residents didn't rely on a particular industry for their livelihood. Many folks were farmers, and the others worked various jobs outside of town. I could not have imagined a better place to grow up, but it's a different town now. Still a good town, but different. What I wouldn't give to spend one day in Claysville 1968 ...

Sean said...


I'm surprise I haven't run into you yet. I was driving around Donora yesterday (95 red Honda accord). The light and weather was beautiful for shooting. I made my way to Mckeesport later that afternoon. I've been through there many of times, but never really had time to look for photographs. What I found made me uncomfortable. I stopped shooting for the day and just looked around me. Almost every building is fallen in with it's windows shattered. I don't think I know how to photograph such poverty in our backyard. I don't know how to make sense of it.

How did it get like this?

Meanwhile, my girlfriend has taken up focusing her English studies towards working class literature. Something much larger has opened in my eyes about home, my family, and what it means to be from Pittsburgh over the past few months as I blur the lines between sociology and color art photography. My project will take a lifetime to complete, but my introduction this winter has come to an end. Your blog and images have been helpful in reminding me of the history and my enthusiasm for making photographs. Thank you for that. I hope with time I'll be able to narrow my thoughts on why I like photographing there.

Also, when I'm finished printing, perhaps I can share some prints with you sometime?