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Pittsburgh History

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

As Pittsburgh is hosting the TESOL 2022 Convention with the participation of attendees from all over the world, I'm sharing an interview I conducted with Dr. Lou Martin from Chatham University. Dr. Lou Martin walks us through the history of Pittsburgh from thousands of years ago until the present with landmarks, events, and people that you may see and learn more about during your stay in Pittsburgh.

After reading or watching this interview, you can try this Kahoot game ending on February, 20, 2022.

Pittsburgh Night Time by Matthew Paulson

Click here to watch the recorded interview:

Dr. Linh Phung: My name is Dr. Linh Phung. I’m the director of the English Language Program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. I am also teaching a course called U.S Culture: Pittsburgh, and to be here with us today is Dr. Lou Martin, who is a professor of history at Chatham. Thank you, Dr. Martin, for joining us. Could you tell us a little bit more about you about your life history and how it is related to Pittsburgh?

Dr. Lou Martin: Thank you for having me. I grew up not far from here, about an hour and a half away. I grew up in northern West Virginia, and I went to West Virginia University, where I studied history. When I graduated, I applied for jobs all over the United States and I got a job offer here at Chatham, and so I could be close to home, I accepted the offer. I decided to study history because that was the course that I did best at after two years in college. I didn't have a very good grade point average, and I looked at all my courses, and I said, “These are the ones I'm doing best in and that must be for a reason.” As a graduate student I became interested mainly in labor and working class history, so that's my specialization and a lot of Pittsburgh history is labor and working class history.

Dr. Linh Phung: I have to tell you that when I was a student, I was not really great at history because we had to memorize so many things, but now when I am older, looking back, I just feel that history is so interesting, so I'm relearning history. My first question to you is: Can you give a brief overview of the history of Pittsburgh for an international audience?

Dr. Lou Martin: I'll start with the indigenous people who lived here prior to European colonization. If we went back 10 000 years, we would find that there was a civilization that we call the Mississippian civilization after the Mississippi River, and these people were, as we also call them, the mound builders because they built these grave mounds 100 feet tall, and in modern times, the tribes that lived in this area the Eastern Woodlands tribes who were likely descended from the Mississippian culture were the Shawnee, Delaware, Seneca, and Iroquois. The Iroquois were actually centered further up north in New York State and across the border in what is today Canada, but some of the outskirts of their empire stretched as far south as Pittsburgh. In the 1700s, Europeans began to enter the area beginning with the French who came from the north and settled the area and built a fort where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet and form the Ohio river here in Pittsburgh. During the seven-year war, the British took the fort over and renamed it after their prime minister William Pitt, and it became known as Pittsburgh in the 1800s. Pittsburgh became a manufacturing town supplying Americans who were moving west into the Midwest of the United States today, but what was the frontier at that time, displacing more indigenous people along the way. In the late 1800s, one industry emerged as the most important, and that was the steel industry, and Pittsburgh became known as the steel city. There were two individuals I want to highlight are Andrew Mellon, who we see, there's a portrait of him in Melon Hall, which was his house, and his family donated it to Chatham, and Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie lived further away on essentially what is today part of the north side, Allegheny City as i understand it. Those two guys Carnegie and Melon, their names are on the university down the street from us. Carnegie was important because he helped to develop, he financed new technology to make steel that helped centralize steel making it cheaper to supply railroads and skyscrapers and so on. Steel was an important product worldwide by the beginning of the 1900s, and then they headquartered the largest steel corporation here in Pittsburgh, U.S. steel. Then throughout the 1900s, the steel industry would be the most important industry here until the 1980s when this steel consumption worldwide began to decline and competition from other companies and other countries really meant that a lot of steel mills shut down here in the 1980s, and there was sort of a search for a new identity here in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Linh Phung: Thank you so much for that history. It's a long history, but also thank you for the highlights of the 20th century. I’m glad to share with the students that when you come to Pittsburgh you can see some of the landmarks as well as names and artifacts that are referenced here and I'm happy to take you around. So could you maybe briefly tell us some highlights of the 20th century? You already mentioned them, but could you give us a little bit more information?

Dr. Lou Martin: Yes, one of the ways that Carnegie drove down the price of steel was by recruiting immigrants from abroad particularly from Eastern and Southern Europe: Russia, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Italy, and so Pittsburgh had been a relatively small city until the late 1800s. Then immigration from Europe swelled its population, and neighborhoods like Bloomfield for example nearby became an Italian enclave, and we when we drive down Liberty Avenue, we can still see a lot of businesses with Italian last names. In World War I, when immigration from Europe was cut off, Carnegie Steel and others began looking to the south and recruiting African Americans who were still in in southern agriculture, who began a great migration to the north, and they settled in places around Pittsburgh, and the Hill District in particular became a center for African-American life and culture here in Pittsburgh. Probably the most important time in my mind was in the 1930s when steel workers, remember that Carnegie brought all of these workers here to drive labor costs down and people lived in poverty, and as steel workers typically were what we would say today below the poverty line. But in the 1930s with the change in labor laws, this made it easier for them, I shouldn't say easy, but it made it possible for them to form a union and to demand better wages and better working conditions. The number of accidents declined rapidly after unionization, and wages steadily increased during and after World War II, steel workers made gains to the point where they were no longer the poorest. They were, we might think of them as middle class. They began buying homes and letting their kids stay in school longer, and it increased the quality of life in Pittsburgh. African Americans still faced a lot of discrimination in a variety of ways. Banking laws and real estate laws were discriminatory. Schools and Pittsburgh became more segregated over the 1900s, and African Americans in the 1960s began to demand greater equality. In the 1970s, there was a large lawsuit where black steel workers won a settlement against US steel as well as a variety of other steel companies to address the discrimination in that industry. Unfortunately, they won that lawsuit right before the industry collapsed, and so they were never able to fully enjoy the benefits of the unionization of the steel industry the way that white workers were. I would say some of the highlights of the last 30 years would include the 1980s and 1990s as the mills were shutting down, people were trying to figure out what Pittsburgh would be about. Then this is also the time when there was more investment in colleges and universities, and school enrollment was on the on the increase, and at the same time there was new investment in hospitals and medical research and lastly in computers and technology industries. Pittsburgh itself has become focused more on universities hospitals and technology since then. It's still a relatively small town. It's not Silicon Valley. It’s not like some of these larger areas, but there have been a lot of people who moved to Pittsburgh for these white-collar jobs.

Dr. Linh Phung: It's so interesting to see those changes and I'm so glad that you mentioned the famous people but also the resistance in a way to fight for the common people and better living conditions. So let's talk about the 21st century. What are some highlights? It has been just over two decades, but what are some developments?

Dr. Lou Martin: When I think about Pittsburgh since 2000. I already mentioned the universities. I would say that one of the things that would distinguish Pittsburgh from a lot of other mid-sized cities in the United States are its professional sports teams and the stadium that Pittsburgh had for 30 or 40 years was known as Three Rivers Stadium. It was an aging structure, and one of the things that changed the landscape of Pittsburgh was they imploded that stadium and they built two more: Heinz Field and PNC Park for the Pirates, and so there's also a new arena for the hockey team that changes names every few years, and I can't remember what it's called now, but these professional teams in their arenas and stadiums are now an important part of sort of popular culture in Pittsburgh. Another highlight was, I believe it was 2008 that the g8 summit came to Pittsburgh, and part of the thinking of being in Pittsburgh was to highlight some of the changes: the focus on higher education and medicine as a potential answer for other post-industrial cities. The G8 summit was also protested by a lot of people who came to Pittsburgh to protest some of the worst effects of free trade on their towns and cities across the country and even around the world. A lot of college students would join those protests. I would say 2008 marks the beginning of a period of protest in Pittsburgh and the United States generally. Barack Obama was elected president that year and sort of like John F Kennedy in 1960, President Obama sort of called upon people to become more engaged and part of that became protesting some of the inequalities in our society. In 2011, there was a big protest known as Occupy Wall Street, and there was a smaller version here, Occupy Pittsburgh. Since 2011 people have been active protesting a lot of the problems that they see around them, most recently police brutality and in particular police killing unarmed black men, and so this was the spark of a wave of protest in the summer of 2020, and that also was here in Pittsburgh, and the mayor was trying to find solutions ways forward. I would say a lot of that remains unresolved today. So you've kind of got, on the one hand, these very well-paying jobs with Google and research jobs and high-tech jobs, on the other hand, you still have a lot of poverty and racism and problems that people are trying to address through protests.

Dr. Linh Phung: I have some memories of those things that you mentioned including the protest during the G8 summit. So thinking about the past and thinking about the present, how has the past shaped Pittsburgh as it is today or if you have to tell a story from the past until the present, what is that story?

Dr. Lou Martin: One of the things I would say is the neighborhoods. Pittsburgh, they say, is a city of neighborhoods that all have their own character. I think that's true of every city to an extent, but it's particularly true in Pittsburgh. For example, right near Chatham is Squirrel Hill, and this is home to a large Jewish population and we can see that these synagogues were constructed in early 1900s and the Jewish community began to grow, and it also swelled after World War II when refugees from Europe started to move to Pittsburgh, and they located where there were already synagogues and Kosher delis and other things that catered to their culture. So we can tell similar stories about a lot of neighborhoods. Then you can also go just outside of Pittsburgh to a place like Braddock, and you can see that the steel mill still is running. You can see some smoke coming out of the smokestacks, but you can also see that there's a lot of empty buildings and a lot of buildings that have fallen and been bulldozed. This is because of the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s, and there are parts of Pittsburgh that never recovered from that. Then I also think of a place like Regent Square, which is nearby, and this is a place where there's a park and a movie theater and a little downtown area and it seems to attract a lot of these computer programmers, university professors, people who have come from other places for this new economy of Pittsburgh, and so I think right there between Regent Square and Braddock, you can see the Pittsburgh of the past and Pittsburgh of the present in economic terms. Every neighborhood has a story like that to tell.

Dr. Linh Phung: That's a good suggestion for us and for the students to explore different neighborhoods and the history behind them. Another question that I have is: What does history teach us about the challenges and opportunities that Pittsburgh has or How has history informed us to solve the current day problems and and take advantage of the opportunities?

Dr. Lou Martin: One of the things I think about is I grew up, as I said an hour and a half away, and we had a steel mill where I grew up that began its decline in the 70s and 80s as i was growing up. During those years, a lot of conversations focused on what can we do to keep the mill alive to keep those jobs in my hometown. When I went to college, that was one of the questions I actually had in my mind: how do we hold on to this steel mill that was so important in our community? In studying this history, some of which I've just talked about, the reason that the steel industry located here wasn't because there was one man like Andrew Carnegie who was particularly brilliant and it wasn't because there were elements here in the environment like coal, iron ore that made it possible, but it was really a worldwide trend. Steel and coal and railroads were having a moment as we would say today meaning that these were the things that made the 1900s economy run from about 1880 through about 1960. These were the most important things, railroads, coal, and steel, but that began to end not just here, not just in the United States, but around the world. Today there is over production of steel, and it doesn't have to be located in one place like Pittsburgh or Staffordshire, England. It can be in Arkansas. It can be in Brazil, Mexico, and South Korea. That was a global trend, and for much of my childhood and early adult years, we were trying to fight it, and we were trying to think of how do we stop this from happening, and that was a lot of wasted effort in hindsight because there was no way that a chamber of commerce, a group of business people in my hometown, could think of something that was going to change the whole world and make steel remain as important into the 21st century as it had been in the 20th century. So I think being mobile, unfortunately, is important, and I say unfortunately because I think families and communities are better when they're able to root in one place, put down roots, thrive. Families gather. They build churches; they build schools; they build institutions together. There are bad things about these kind of tight-knit communities, but there's a lot of good too such as support networks and so on, but I believe that the people who are gonna be the most successful have to move. They have to be able to move to a new city like Pittsburgh or Seattle or wherever and then they have to be able to create that support network in a new place. That's what's happened in my home county. We started off with 40,000 people living there, and we're now down to about 20,000 people in just 30 years, and so people have moved all over the United States, and even to other countries to make a living, and they seem to be very happy. You know and it can be kind of sad actually to go back and see how the the old towns have withered away, so I think the future, just like the European migrants of the early 1900s, people are going to have to go where there are opportunities, and like I said I’m not a huge fan of that, but I think that's a reality.

Dr. Linh Phung: I want to stay in Pittsburgh. I don't want to have to move, either, but that's really interesting in a sense that we talk about a long history for thousands of years, but then change seems to be the only constant in the sense that things are changing and we have to adapt, so this is really interesting and thank you so much for all of the information that you shared and the history about Pittsburgh, and my last question to you is: How can international students learn about the history of Pittsburgh whether it is in person or virtually?

Dr. Lou Martin: I think that you had a great idea about visiting some of these sites. If you go to Point State Park, this is the site of the first fort, European fort, that was built there, and you can still see the outline of where the fort was and go to a museum there the Heinz History Center is a great place to go both in person and online, and Heinz was another one of these famous industrialists who left behind a lot of money and now the Heinz History Center really is a great place to learn about all phases of Pittsburgh history, and I think lastly I'll put in a plug for um the Pennsylvania state history site. There are these historical markers, road signs, that you'll see along the streets, and you can find all of them at the Pennsylvania historical and museum commission site, I believe or, I believe is the the address, and that's another great way to learn about it.

Dr. Linh Phung: Those are great ideas and after our conversation today, I will try to explore those things so that I can share with the students either in person or virtually. Thank you again! If you are interested in American history and when you come to Chatham, Dr. Lou Martin’s class. He teaches classes in American history and history of the world. Thank you and I hope to see you in person sometime!

Dr. Lou Martin: Yes absolutely

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