Something Dramatic: The Orbit Interview with Monessen Mayor Matt Shorraw

four-story building mid-way through being torn down

“We need something dramatic.” Downtown Monessen building, mid-tear down, 2019

Even a broken clock, the saying goes, is right twice a day. That’s true enough … unless one of the hands is missing.

It wasn’t until I was looking back at the quick couple of photos I’d taken last weekend that I realized the City of Monessen town clock–manufactured over a hundred years ago by the Brown Street Clock Company, right here in Monessen–had lost an appendage.

Now, that could happen anywhere and I’m sure it will be fixed soon enough, but this clock–not even right once a day–is about as perfect a metaphor for disjointed local government as you’ll find.

City of Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of downtown clock

Even a broken clock is right twice a day…unless the minutes hand has fallen off. Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw and the town clock.

River City: We got troubles.
Monessen: Hold my beer.

With apologies to “Professor” Harold Hill and the gang, Monessen would love to have a new billiards parlor–or any other business, for that matter–set up shop in town. The small city, 30 miles upriver from Pittsburgh in the Mon Valley, has lost two-thirds of the population it had at its peak in the 1940s. The mills started closing a couple decades later and the real death blow came when Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel finally pulled out in the mid-‘8Os.

Downtown Monessen, a nine- or ten-block-long by two-block wide stretch of what was once bustling Main Street America, is now a gap-toothed poster child for the fallout of big industry in the Rust Belt. The remaining storefronts are equal parts gorgeous late Victorian and between-the-wars brick-and-stone, crumbling with decades of neglect, and newer, obviously-out-of-place attempts at mid-century modernization. In between are gravel-filled vacant lots and collapsing sibling structures, biding their time until the city has enough money to tear them down.

large ornate building in bad condition

“We need something to spark a conversation.” The “HEALTH” building, downtown Monessen.

“This is a great place to live. I like it here,” says Matt Shorraw, the 28-year-old mayor of Monessen, midway through his first term in office. “A lot of family members have told me, ‘Get out–there’s nothing left here,’ but I’m not leaving. I feel like I have to be here.”

Say what you want about millennials–and believe me, Mayor Matt’s constituents are saying a lot about one particular millennial–but a young person committing to a life of service in the home town his own family is begging him to leave does not fit any negative stereotype of the generation.

Shorraw continues with a boundless optimism about the past-is-prologue potential of his home town. “It’s not an accident that Monessen was centrally located between five different county seats. We have easy access to I-70, rail lines, and we’re right on the river.” Shorraw also cites the low cost of living and the city’s location between metro Pittsburgh and the Laurel Highlands as virtues. “Eventually the success of Pittsburgh is going to make its way down through the Mon Valley.”

Monessen mayor Matt Shorraw's tattooed arm including image combining downtown Pittsburgh with flaming smokestack of Monessen

“I’m not leaving.” Shorraw’s left arm tattoo combines downtown Pittsburgh with the flaming stack of Monessen’s ArcelorMittal coke plant (and a certain starry night).

The last 30 days have been eventful for the young mayor. In December, he released an exhaustive 103-page document titled Monessen: A New Vision–The Mayor’s Strategic Plan. The comprehensive vision statement covers everything from nuts-and-bolts city issues like what streets to prioritize paving and park maintenance details to long-term, broad aspirational goals. These include the creation of a light rail transit link from The Mon Valley to Pittsburgh and a tech-focused “innovation district” downtown.

“I know it won’t all get done,” Shorraw says of the plan, “But we need something dramatic. We need something to spark a conversation. If we could only get the tax base, we could do incredible things.”

“We’re constantly doing damage control,” the mayor says of trying to keep up with the flood of maintenance issues in the city, “We’ve only been able to focus on paving roads and tearing down houses. We’re not looking 10, 20, 30 years into the future.”

row of identical wooden houses, all missing windows and overgrown with weeds

“We’re constantly doing damage control.” Empty houses on Sixth Avenue

So, Monessen has an enthusiastic young mayor, immersed in a hands-on crash course on public policy, realistic in the short-term and committed to a long-range vision of revitalizing the city he’s vowed to remain faithful to–what’s not to like? Well, the city doesn’t have a coffee shop, or a movie theater, or a bowling alley, but it does have a particularly large elephant residing in this Mon Valley room.

Immediately after taking office, in January, 2018, things “got real” with the Monessen city council. New Mayor Shorraw immediately spotted what he saw as “improprieties” with regard to how management of the city police pension fund was being conducted and responded by alerting the Pennsylvania state auditor general.

From there, it got real ugly, real fast. Shorraw details the council’s threats, attempts to force his resignation, and then impeachment. (Not sure that last one is really a thing.) The mayor responded by refusing to attend any council meetings for the next 20 months.

large ornate building in bad condition

Nature’s Pathway Taxidermy, downtown Monessen

While Mayor Matt wasn’t at the official meetings, he didn’t stop, you know, mayoring. Shorraw was still out in the community and maintains that he was fully available, just a phone call or email away. Part of the ongoing work was authoring a series of essays, posted publicly on Medium.com, detailing a level of local government chicanery and sausage-making that most of us lay folk are never exposed to.

The seven-part (and counting) series, all under the title Fighting City Hall From Within, offers a brutally-frank, unfiltered insider’s view of city government–and the corrupt actions of its members–the likes of which you’re unlikely to see anywhere. The posts are thick with first-hand details and Shorraw is not afraid to name names–of council members, legal entities, business partners, and the like.

City of Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of the old Monessen Municipal Building

You *can* fight city hall … if you’re the mayor. Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of the old Monessen Municipal Building.

Now, your author is not a constituent of Shorraw’s, so he has no “skin in the game,” as they say. But I can imagine a very strong two-sided reaction to this whole thing if I were. On the one hand, it is incredibly refreshing to see a young, inexperienced politician come into an old-boys we’ve always done it this way environment and both start asking hard questions and then actually do something when he sees real governmental corruption. In this case, report it to the authorities and let the citizens know what’s going on.

On the other hand, you just can’t walk away from the office and expect to either affect change or earn the trust of your constituents. “Eighty percent of life is showing up,” they say, and it’s really hard to imagine anything in that elaborate city plan getting done from the couch at Chez Shorraw.

roofline of Foodland grocery store with flaming smokestack behind it

Foodland Fresh and the eternal flame of ArcelorMittal coke works, downtown Monessen

That absence ended dramatically the week before last as Shorraw returned to a calamitous city council meeting that included the abrupt firing of the city administrator and solicitor. The proceedings, in front of a standing-room-only crowd, devolved into a gavel-banging group shouting match. “I had to scream or nothing would get done,” Shorraw says. You can YouTube the whole thing if you’ve got the stomach for it. “I’m back. For good.” Shorraw told us.

Let’s hope that’s true. There are a whole lot of reasons why The Orbit makes the hour-long drive down to the Mon Valley again and again. As an outsider, it’s an incredible place full of lovely people, deep, important history, terrific old-world culture, and a brutal, tragic beauty. We’ll add that’s it’s also got some of the best pizza on the planet–well worth the trip for that reason alone. We wish the absolute best for Monessen (and its sister Mon Valley ex-steel towns) and really just hope that everyone can find a way to get along.


Links:

Election Special! Meme the Vote: Fourteen More Reasons to Pull the Lever on Tuesday

Closed offices of The News-Tribune, Beaver Falls

Failing media–SAD! Closed offices of The News-Tribune, Beaver Falls

The Orbit has absolutely no idea who browses its electronic pages. But if our readership is at all statistically similar to the rest of America, at least half of you don’t vote regularly. That cruel reality absolutely flips the wig of this blogger–and lifelong voter. I just don’t get it.

If you really don’t care about your fellow human beings, government accountability, or the future of the planet we’re all leaving your children–let alone your own self-interest–maybe then you shouldn’t be voting. But for everyone else, there’s just no reasonable excuse.

We’re not going to get in the business of telling anyone who to vote for. Rather, we’ll toss out a handful of things to consider, meme-style. The following issues–and plenty others–are on Tuesday’s ballot. The photos–all pulled from the Orbit archives–hopefully point out Tip O’Neill’s old quip that “all politics is local.”

Please consider getting your keister down to the voting booth on Tuesday … and nag your friends, family, and co-workers to do the same. It’s really important.

small mode of the Statue of Liberty, Burgettstown, PA

Ladies: rise up! Statue of Liberty, Burgettstown.

empty storefronts in Monessen, PA

A picture of health. Downtown Monessen could use some affordable care.

handmade diorama depicting history of the EPA, Donora Smog Museum, Donora, PA

Diorama on Donora’s role in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency, Donora Smog Museum

homemade anti-drugs sign on brick wall, Clairton, PA

There are better methods of addiction treatment out there. Anti-drug message, Clairton.

screen capture of scene from movie "Striking Distance" with dialogue "Stupid is almost as good."

Hell, let’s try “smart” for a change. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bruce Willis in a scene from “Striking Distance.”

portrait of supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on front door of house in Braddock, PA

Portrait of supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Braddock

woman holding handmade fabric "Vote" sign

Someone needs to save us, and it ain’t going to be dudes. Delli Speers, volunteer for Pole-2-Polls.

Artist Charlie Wallace and his piece "Freddie Mercury and Darth Vader," Pittsburgh, PA

If they can do it, so can we! Artist Charlie Wallace and his piece “Freddie Mercury and Darth Vader,” Vault Gallery, Garfield

faded decal of map of America with text "See All of America, the Beautiful"

There are no red states and there are no blue states. There are only peeling-off states. Winnebago decal, East Liberty

Colorful garage door mural with message "Bienvenidos a Brookline", Pittsburgh, PA

Have a corazon. Garage door mural, Brookline.

tattoo of Italy on man's leg

Let’s give nationalists the boot. Leg tattoo, Little Italy Days 2018, Bloomfield.

Storefront window with faded image of cupid, Clairton, PA

Love may be fading, but it ain’t gone. Storefront window, Clairton.

Office of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz with bouquets of flowers outside, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield office of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, killed last weekend at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Sew the Vote: Pole-2-Polls

Pole-2-Polls coordinator Penny Mateer

Penny Mateer with one of Pole-2-Polls’ handmade “Vote!” yard signs

A large table is covered in distinct, ordered piles. Scraps of fabric are chosen from every imaginable eye-popping design–striped and polka-dotted, neon pink and electric orange, fuzzy patterned and criss-crossing plaid. The selected swaths are inspected, stenciled, marked-up, and cut out with fabric shears. Final shapes are stacked in neat towers that form the distinct 3-D message V-O-T-E.

“It’s our power. It’s our voice–we can’t afford to waste it,” says artist and activist Penny Mateer of the group Pole-2-Polls, “Democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s our civic duty. People have died for the right.”

It, of course, is the simple act of voting for elected officials. The right to cast one’s ballot is the absolute bedrock of democracy; participating in biannual elections is every (of age) citizen’s bare minimum civic engagement.

Fabric V-O-T-E letters on cloth sewing board

Fabric V-O-T-E letters cut out and ready to sew [photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

But–you know where this is going–the number of eligible voters who actually show up on election day is depressingly low.

In 2016 , just over half of the country’s electorate [55.4%, according to CNN] cast votes for the big one–the next president of the United States. Pennsylvania, along with other “battleground” states, clocked-in slightly above average [we had 61.26% in 2016, per Statista]. Four out of ten voters in super-important media-saturated Pennsylvania still don’t care about who will become president? It boggles the mind.

When it gets down to primaries at the state and local level, the numbers drop off the cliff. I couldn’t locate an exact figure, but multiple sources have Allegheny County turnout for the 2018 May primary at “around 20 percent.” Ask the Costas if midterm primaries matter.

handmade "Vote!" yard sign on chain link fence

[photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

Pole-2-Polls began before anyone was talking about Access Hollywoodme too, Stormy Daniels, “The Mooch,” or Bart O’Kavanaugh. In 2013, the amazing–and completely non-political–Knit the Bridge project had gone up and come down over the course of one magical month at the end of summer. The organizers cleaned and donated the large, blanket-sized knit and crochet panels to homeless shelters but were left with miles of black acrylic yarn used to coat the railings of the Andy Warhol Bridge, downtown.

Andy Warhol Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh decorated with colorful knit panels

Knit the Bridge, August, 2013

So in advance of the 2014 midterms, an informal group–many fiber artists, all “excited about positive action”–met to recycle the material into yarn-bombed banners. The creations would go up just prior to the November election, temporarily attached to utility poles (hence the group’s name). The message would be simple, non-partisan, and direct: VOTE!

For 2016, the group changed their medium to fabric. Bulk-purchased at the yearly Salvation Army sale, the oddball hard-on-the-eyes, itchy-on-the-skin patterned polyesters would likely find few more appreciative homes. In the hands of Pole-2-Polls group members and volunteers, cloth is transformed into the ubiquitous political yard signs we see every October–just with a lot more love and a lot less detail to remember.

handmade "Vote!" yard sign in bed of fall flowers

[photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

“We’re not political scientists,” says Penny Mateer, “but any reminder of voting is a good thing. It’s good civic engagement. We’re makers, we love to make stuff. It’s a combination of the making and making it together–if you come [to one of the group Make a Sign, Take a Sign events] you can see for yourself.”

did come to the October 6 event and while I stupidly didn’t budget enough time to actually, you know, “be helpful,” I can tell you it’s a fun group and a great feeling to make something.

In addition to the group’s informal Make a Sign events, Pole-2-Poll has engaged with students at Duquesne University for a set of workshops and inspired offshoot groups in Montana and California. We should be seeing the fruits of all these efforts on front lawns, highway berms, and porch railings very soon.

handmade "Vote!" yard sign in large front yard of old home in Pittsburgh, PA

[photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

This blogger will admit to some skepticism over the ability of such a simple message to transform much larger societal apathy toward the political process. But one also hopes that maybe if instead of the generic red, white, and blue, mass-produced signs we’re used to glazing over every fall, Pole-2-Polls handmade banners offer a welcome alternative. The signs won’t yell at you, but just offer the encouraging suggestion of a good friend: Your voice matters. Vote. You can do it!

Whether we can convince America of it or not, these things are all true. The Orbit applauds Pole-2-Polls and all the other great activists and “craftivists” out there spending their Saturday mornings trying to convince your lazy ass to make one little detour on November 6.

collage of Pole-2-Polls volunteers holding handmade "Vote!" yard signs

Pole-2-Polls volunteers at an early October event [clockwise from top left: Kirsten Ervin, M.J. Shaw, Natalie Sweet, Delli Speers]

Pole-2-Polls will have one more group Make a Sign, Take a Sign event on Saturday, Oct. 27, 11 AM – 3 PM at the Brew House on the Southside. All are welcome. No experience necessary.

Whether or not you can make it on the 27th, Penny encourages everyone interested to get in touch via the Pole-2-Polls web site, FaceBook page, or Instagram.

Need information on your voting status or a look at the November 6 ballot? There are obviously a ton of resources out there, but the great Vote Save America site is a pretty solid one-stop shop.

On Making America Great … Again

President John F. Kennedy addresses a large outdoor crowd in Monessen, PA, Oct. 13, 1962

President John F. Kennedy speaking in Monessen, Oct. 13, 1962 [photo: Cecil W. Stoughton/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum]

The scene is likely one of–if not the–most remembered days in Monessen history. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, stands at a lectern on a stage erected in the parking lot of an A&P supermarket. There, he addresses a sea of faces as far as the camera can trace them in the distance. Dressed in business suits and Sunday best, the crowds peer from windows and crane from behind the stage and up the adjoining streets. The Post-Gazette reports there were an estimated 25,000 people–more than the entire population of the small city[1]–crowding in to be a part of it.[2]

Attendees carry signs of support: Hail to the Chief! and Monessen Welcomes Our President and Hello Hello JFK. Tri-color bunting hangs from buildings and lamp posts. Behind the president are billboard-sized welcome signs from the Croatian Hall, Italian Society of Mutual Aid, Ukrainian Club, and others. A banner fifty feet long stretches under the third floor windows of the Duquesne Hotel: Thank you Mr. President for signing our pay bill – postal workers of Monessen, PA.

parking lot of Foodland grocery store, Monessen, PA

The same scene today, 6th and Donner Ave.

A lot has changed in the last fifty-five years. For one, it’s hard to imagine a crowd today dressing up to thank a politician two years into his or her term. More than that, though, Monessen and the rest of the Mon Valley have suffered as much as anywhere in the country during this time. As a result, the city looks radically different today.

There’s still a grocery store at the same Donner Ave. location [it’s a Foodland now] but gone is pretty much everything else in this scene. The collection of three-story turn-of-the-century buildings between 6th and 7th Streets has been replaced by a couple of nondescript commercial storefronts, plus one small parking lot.

3-story brick former EIS Manufacturing building with broken windows and roof caved-in, Monessen, PA

Former EIS Manufacturing plant, Schoonmaker Ave.

What’s changed more, though, are the opportunities for finding anyone to fill these spaces.[3] Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel employed thousands of people at solid, union wages until it ultimately shut its Monessen operation in the 1980s. A raft of other, smaller industries were based on the same giant swath of curling riverfront and thrived through most of the last century. Today, the city’s population of 7,500 is around a third of its 1930s peak.[1]

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the small city boomed in all possible ways. Monessen steel built the Golden Gate Bridge and helped defeat the Nazis in World War II. Cassandra Vivian’s Monessen: A Typical Steel Country Town describes a rich cultural environment where immigrants from dozens of countries (mostly eastern and southern Europe) both blended with each other and held onto the food and language, music and dance of the old world. I’m sure it was rough, but it must have been a fascinating place to grow up.

late Victorian wood frame 4-square house, vacant and dilapidated, Monessen, PA

When you lose two-thirds of your population, you end up with a lot of these. Vacant home on Reed Ave.

The slogan Make America Great Again is an easy one to write off cynically as reactionary, nationalistic, resentful, even hate-filled–it’s that appended again that really twists the knife. When, exactly, was America “great” the first time? Was it back before we could conceive of a black president? When a woman’s place was safely in the kitchen? When we pretended that gay people don’t exist? Or was it just when white men were reliably in charge of everything?

The industrial towns and small cities of the Mon Valley suggest such a different reading of this phrase that it’s important to try to see the appeal not on social or cultural terms, but as pure economics. Towns like Charleroi, Donora, Monogahela, and Monessen are achingly beautiful and heartbreakingly vacant. The valley’s need for something better is palpable.

three-story late Victorian retail/apartment building, vacant and dilapidated, Monessen, PA

A picture of Health, Donner Ave.

The commercial districts of these towns share a common general design: compact, late 19th/early 20th century two-, three- and four-story brick façades built to support a workforce of thousands who commuted on foot to the local mills and small factories just blocks away.

Those big commercial stretches obviously once thrived with green grocers and dry goods, butchers, bakers, theaters, and hardware–you can still see some of it in the ghost signs fading on brick walls. Today, though, the ghosts are often all that’s left on blocks and blocks of vacant storefronts, empty lots strewn with debris, cracked windows, and caved-in roofs.

ghost sign for Brooks Department Store, with text "Everything for Everybody, chinaware, oil cloth, millinery, cloaks & suits", Monessen, PA

“Everything For Everybody” sounds pretty appealing, almost like a campaign promise…hey, wait! Ghost sign, Donner Ave.

Like Kennedy, Donald Trump (and, notably, not Hillary Clinton[5]) also visited Monessen during his presidential campaign last year. It was for an invite-only crowd of just 200, where he was photographed in front of a bunch of crushed aluminum[4]. Whatever. Eighty percent of life is showing up, right?

Those of us who inhabit the “liberal bubble” may cringe at the pandering macro-jingoism of Make America Great Again and the pathological lies and hate-filled rhetoric it came with. But to look closely at the desperate mill towns upriver from Pittsburgh, it’s not hard to hope Monessen has a brighter future than its fading present. Whether honest or not [we’ll go with not], in that way Trump was ultimately selling the same thing as Barack Obama eight years earlier, Hope.

Old drug store window with word "Prescriptions" painted on glass, Monessen, PA

We’re going to need a bigger pill. Former drug store, Donner Ave.


See also:
* “24 Hours with JFK and Teenie Harris”, Kerin Shellenbarger, Carnegie Museum of Art blog, Nov. 22, 2013. A great account of JFK’s full two-day, five-stop campaign swing through the area in 1962 with terrific photos from Teenie Harris.


Notes:
[1] Wikipedia lists Monessen’s population at 18,424 for the 1960 census.
[2] “In Monessen, in 1962, JFK was one of the people”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 16, 2013.
[3] In fairness, both replacement buildings appear to be currently-occupied (by a daycare center and pair of professional offices), but there are many more in downtown Monessen that are not.
[4] “Trump campaign rolls through Monessen”, TribLive.com, June 28, 2016.
[5] That Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign in Monessen–or any individual town–is no crime, but it’s pretty clear that ignoring much of the industrial North hurt her vote significantly in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.