Growing up in the South it just wasn’t like this. On walks around the small towns of Virginia or North Carolina you wouldn’t pass buildings with Slovak Home engraved in stone; there were no Sons of Italy halls. We didn’t have onion dome Ukrainian Orthodox churches and one never encountered a cornerstone etched in Cyrillic. Kluski and haluski didn’t show up on diner menus or get sold by parents at high school football games. The Lawrence Welk Show was the only place you could ever hear polka.
Around Pittsburgh, these references to the old world are everywhere you look–they’re so common most locals probably don’t think twice about them. They appear in the surnames of your friends, neighbors, and co-workers; in the inscriptions on gravestones; the enduring ethic clubs, bocce leagues, pierogi-stuffing and sopressata-making parties; Polish mass, Dyngus Day, and the Tamburizans.
Last November, Hillary Clinton won Allegheny County by a decent count, but certainly not in the kind of large margin she needed to carry the state. Metro Pittsburgh, though, is a blue island in a sea of red on 2016’s presidential electoral results map. We are surrounded on all sides by exactly the type of traditionally blue collar Democratic strongholds that are now famously filled with the “forgotten men and women” who live among “this American carnage” and broke ranks to vote for Donald Trump in the fall presidential campaign.
There a lot of reasons why the returns ended up like they did–maybe as many as there are voters. We discussed the most obvious one (to the Mon Valley) in our earlier story “On Making America Great … Again” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Feb. 19, 2017), but at least one of the more blatant messages from Team Trump is the abject xenophobia pushed throughout the campaign. The implications that Mexicans are stealing our jobs and Muslims are terrorists weren’t even cloaked in “dog whistle” safe language–it was right there in the very public statements of our (now) president and lapped-up by his eager electorate.
This winter, Team Orbit found itself traveling again and again down Route 837 to the cluster of Mon Valley (ex-)steel towns that have been decimated by the transition from “big tool” heavy industry to the double-whammy of automation and outsourcing.
Lou Mavrakis, the Democratic mayor of Monessen, managed to coax a 2016 candidate Trump campaign appearance and photo op where he summed-up the city’s desperate position to The Financial Times‘ Demetri Sevastopulo, “If ISIS was to come to Monessen, they’d say ‘keep going–somebody already bombed the God-damn place’.” Its sister towns Duquesne, Clairton, Donora, and Charleroi have all suffered just about as much as anywhere in the country and the same could be said for each.
The experience led us to want more, and that came in the form of Cassandra Vivian’s 2002 book Monessen: A Typical Steel Country Town. This everything-you-could-want-to-know tale of the borough serves as a case history for all of the old world fingerprints we still see here a hundred plus years later.
For Monessen–a city itself named as a mashup of Mon (from the Monongahela River that forms the town’s northern and eastern boundaries) + Essen (Germany’s mighty industrial city)–immigrants weren’t just a “part of the fabric”–they were (nearly) the entire cloth. By the 1920s, Vivian writes, “There were 4,645 students enrolled in Monessen schools, representing 27 different nationalities.” Italians, Slavs, and Carpatho-Rusyns were the largest of Monessen’s groups, with sizable populations from Greece, Poland, Syria, Finland, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, and Germany.
The combination of fear and discrimination against newcomers/outsiders is, of course, nothing new. Vivian includes some fascinating data from 1919 on the differences in steel mill pay rates based on the national origin of employees. At the time, immigrant workers from Western Europe (England, Scotland, Wales, France) earned nearly twice what those at the bottom of the immigration ladder/pay scale (Slovenia, Italy, Greece) made. Between these two tiers were stratified layers for all other groups, including Germans, Poles, Russians, and black Americans arriving from the South.
Western Pennsylvania even has its own ethnic pejorative: hunky. The term is a bastardization of “Austro-Hungarian”, the general nationality of so much of the Big Steel workforce–at least, that’s our understanding. As an epithet–much like “the N word”–hunky is divisive and hate-filled, but can also be embraced by those who self-identify. Ultimately, it’s another way one group has defined a separate (past) generation of immigrants.
Two weeks ago, Monessen effectively elected a new mayor. Twenty-six year-old high school teacher and historical preservationist Matt Shorraw won the Democratic primary over first-term incumbent Lou Mavrakis. In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1, the primary is the election.
It’s unclear whether Mavrakis’ tacit approval of President Trump did him in, the town is looking for a new, youthful fresh start, or if it was really just low voter turnout and Shorraw–a “sixth generation Monessenite”–has a lot of local friends and family. The vote was extremely close. Regardless, there will be a new hand on the city tiller come 2018.
It is unlikely that today’s current immigrant populations will be headed for the Mon Valley…but you never know. Those coming up from Mexico and Central America are looking for work, and they won’t find it here…at least, not right now. Refugees from Syria and other war-torn parts of the world would likely love an invite to any community that would have them, but it’s a stretch to think the federal government will open its arms–let alone its borders–any time soon.
In many ways, though, a fresh wave of new, foreign immigration could be exactly what the doctor ordered for our upriver steel towns. There is cheap, plentiful housing in communities that have lost 50, 60, 80 percent of their population over the last half century. There are vacant storefronts, factory buildings, and wide open riverfront acreage just waiting for enterprising redevelopment and primed for industry.
The Orbit has no idea what Mr. Shorraw and team have planned for Monessen. [Matt: call us!] His first task may just be to figure out what the mayor actually does, and how to do it while being assistant band director for the school district.
When he gets down to the meat and potatoes, this blogger is sure there are a lot of potholes to fill, streets to pave, and garbage to pick up, but hopefully there can be some thought on how to bring new people in to fill all those vacant spaces. Monessen (and its sisters) desperately need to bring life to these once-vital and still-beautiful, full-of-potential small cities. We’ve got an idea of some folks who might be able to help.
 Cassandra Vivian, Monessen: A Typical Steel Country Town, Arcadia Publishing, 2002, p. 61.
 Vivian, p. 53.
 “Sharrow defeats incumbent Mavrakis in Monessen mayor race”, Observer-Reporter, May 16, 2017.
 Westmoreland County, May 17, 2017 election, unofficial precinct report http://www.co.westmoreland.pa.us/DocumentCenter/View/11446