When will the Department of Labor come up with a statistic (GEP or Gross Entertainment Product) to measure how much the economy depends on pleasure? The Pittsburgh Steelers are, if nothing else, the emotional heart of Pittsburgh. In season on Sundays, worshipers wear their shirts to church, and the city takes a reverential pause during games, as it did in last Sunday’s AFC Championship competition. Football victories in Pittsburgh are best understood as a divine rapture, delivered by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, despite his preseason time in purgatory.
The football industry has its factory lines across the river from downtown Pittsburgh. A joint venture between the Pittsburgh Steelers, the University of Pittsburgh and local government was the financial package that replaced Three Rivers Stadium with Heinz Field, a towering monolith that, instead of churning out steel at night, hosts football matches about twenty days a year.
At the same time, the city is replacing the baseball stadium and expanding the convention center, for a total expenditure of $809 million. Costs allocated to Heinz Field are estimated at $281 million, though the accounting is more impenetrable than the Steel Curtain.
Why would a city struggling to replace lost jobs in Asia put millions into two stadiums that are little more productive than Crusader strongholds in the Levant?
Some answers may be found in Obama’s appointment of Steelers owner Dan Rooney as US ambassador to Ireland. Presumably, Rooney and some local unions had delivered Pennsylvania to the Democrats in many elections, and their reward was a favored contract to build a football stadium and an ambassadorship.
The arrangement presents professional football in the guise of a protected guild, though perhaps as vulnerable as the steel tubes to competitive destruction.
If professional football did not have an antitrust exemption, the Koreans and Chinese could provide matches at far lower costs than those requiring a state-funded stadium ($158 million directly) in which the Rooneys pocket the $125,000 a year from each high- end sky boxes.
The first time I went to Pittsburgh, in 1972, I rode up the Ohio Valley in a series of buses that stopped at places like Moundsville, Wheeling, Steubenville, and Weirton. Pittsburgh was a city of iron and steel, even though the soot fog of London no longer hung over the city center. Yet it felt more like the past than the future, with the banks lined with rusting barges and empty steelworks as desperate as an Edward Hopper painting. The trip came after two weeks in Appalachia, studying coal mining for a high school project, with my friend and classmate, Kevin Glynn.
Approached from the south, Pittsburgh resembled America’s coal and iron ore capital, where rail, road and river traffic came together to form the hub of the carbon revolution. Opposition to cap and trade explains why Pennsylvania recently voted Republican.
As we traveled up the Ohio Valley, Kevin and I passed auto factories, rail yards, foundries and flarehouses, which I might have recognized as the eternal flame of industrial America if I had learned more about the economy. Heavy industry then moved to the Far East, which left downtown Pittsburgh looking like a frontier colony in which the saloon and company store had closed.
We stayed in a seedy hotel, went to a baseball game, and took an overnight train back to New York, having loved Pittsburgh more than we expected. After the narrow valleys of West Virginia and the claustrophobia of the declining coal mines, Pittsburgh had felt expansive, and the three rivers that converged off Fort Pitt suggested the city had currents to wider worlds, like Abraham Lincoln discovered it when he drifted from Kentucky to New Zealand. Orleans.
Thirty-eight years after my first visit, I recently returned to Pittsburgh, this time on the open back deck of a private railroad car, as if whistling a political campaign.
Although the private wagon offered great food, wine tasting, and good company, what interested me most was seeing how Pittsburgh had changed since 1972. A friend who owned the wagon, New York Central 3, told me invited to join him, and the tour made me feel like I was touring Rust Belt America in a steel gondola.
I did much of the trip west on an outdoor folding chair which gave me a box seat as the train passed through the Alleghenies and into Pittsburgh through the historically steeped valleys around Conemaugh and Johnstown, site of nature’s 9/11 flood. At each stop, I wondered how far Smokestack American was underwater.
In 1889, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club dam above Johnstown was said to have held 20,000,000 tons of water before bursting, equivalent to the amount that passed through Niagara Falls in 36 minutes. A wind tunnel preceded the wall of water that killed 2,000 people. A different type of tsunami has since swept through the modern American steel industry.
Along the banks of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, Pittsburgh’s steel mills that once breathed fire have disappeared, replaced by freeways, empty spaces, apartment buildings and hotels. Much of the local steel production was outsourced to Eastern Europe, which reminds me of seeing a train bearing the “US Steel Serbia” emblem on a trip to the Balkans. .
The extent to which Pittsburgh has shifted toward the service economy was clear, with universities, hospitals, government office buildings, and sports complexes representing local growth industries.
At the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, I collected some notes on how football is a thriving investment in the area. A wall map shows the location of the many local quarterbacks exported to the pro ranks. I marveled at finding names like Dan Marino, George Blanda, Joe Montana and Jim Kelly in places that once produced things like barbed wire.
My tour of Pittsburgh ended near Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, as a tribute to quarterback Joe Namath (of the New York Jets), who grew up on many of its rocky streets. A steel products company was still in operation in the town, but the factory appeared to be closed. Beaver Falls lives off of a community college and its sporting legends. In his memoirs, Namath writes that the area is “home to more All-Americans per square mile, I bet, than any other section of the country.”
I found the homes where Joe Willie grew up, including rooms above a bar & grill then called the 1223 Club, which may explain Joe’s remark that he loved his blonde daughters and his Johnny Walker Red. Inside the bar, both are always available.
On the way back to the station, I passed the location of Fort Pitt, whose battles, like Fort Duquesne, had started the Seven Years’ World War (1756 – 1763) between the English and the French. A young officer, George Washington, led a clumsy campaign against the fort then held by the French, but his reputation survived.
In the 1750s, Pittsburgh was the heart of the New World, as it later served as the industrial capital of an industrial nation. Today, the only wars fought in the Ohio Valley are over trade and the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh Steelers photo by pitt6rng
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical essays. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing for Harper’s Magazine..