What It Meant to Live in America’s Leading Steel Town

This article is almost entirely drawn from the only book I’ve found that covers the town’s whole history, Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town.  I read it soon after beginning this project, and I was fortunate to have had my eyes opened so early to all the implications of Homestead’s situation as a factory town:  what’s obvious to all of you who were there during the town’s heyday had to be told to me.  I might have tried to run errands on Eighth Avenue during the shift change! 

I am grateful that such a book exists; it would have otherwise been arduous to impossible for me to learn even a small fraction of what the rest of this article summarizes.  Moreover, it showed me a poetry in this rough town I wouldn’t have guessed at and which continues to inspire my own work.  For as detailed as the book is, it is useful as much for what it relates as for what it does not.  I comment on that in the afterword.

View of Abdiel McClure's estate (source: Heinz History Center, Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

View of Abdiel McClure’s estate (source: Heinz History Center, Homestead Exhibit Photographs).  Click to zoom all pictures in this post.

Homestead is a lovely, evocative name for a town once famous for its pollution, labor unrest, slums, and vice.   It hearkens back to the period after the Revolutionary War, when John McClure, the first permanent settler of Homestead, purchased and farmed the land now occupied by the town. He called his country seat “Amity” or “the Amity Homestead”; “no place…suited him so well as his ‘Homestead,’” explains an account of his life.  It was John’s grandson, Abdiel, and a neighbor who divided their collective holdings into lots they offered for sale “as a future pleasant residential suburb of smoky, industrial Pittsburgh” (32). The date of the sale, September 17, 1871, marked the founding of the town of Homestead, which retained its bucolic quality for nearly a decade despite the construction of a few hundred homes.

That Homestead seems pre-historic. “Homestead existed because of the mill,” the author writes. “It had been responsible for the creation of the town, at least for the manner in which the town had developed” (9-10). This Homestead, the famous industrial center that would enter the history books, was born in 1879 with construction of the famous steel mill, which opened in March 1881. Andrew Carnegie, who already had operations on the Monongahela River and throughout Western PA, purchased the Homestead Works in 1883 and transformed the Mon Valley (later dubbed “Steel Valley”) into one, big factory centered around the latest steel-making technology he installed at Homestead. “By 1890, it would be well known around the world and looked upon with awe by steelmen,” the book notes (36).

Scene of the Homestead Strike, 1892 (source:  Heinz History Center, Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

Scene of the Homestead Strike, 1892 (source: Heinz History Center, Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

According to the Homestead synagogue’s historian, “before 1890 Homestead was a void as far as Jewish population was concerned.  We had in Homestead 2 or 3 Jewish families.” Eastern European immigration at large to the town was also just getting started. Everything exploded with “the famous strike of 1892 [which] put Homestead on the map and in the history of the United States.” The strike, the culmination of five years of labor unrest in Western PA, ran from late June through late November. Carnegie and his deputy, Henry Clay Frick, succeeded in breaking the union, though not before a violent confrontation between the Pinkertons they hired and the striking workers killed seven workers and three Pinkertons and injured many on both sides. The state militia had to occupy the town from early July through early October to restore the peace. Afterwards, Homesteaders “were cheerless almost to the point of sullenness…the atmosphere was at times heavy with disappointment and hopelessness” (this book quoted on p. 91). Ironically, though the strike devastated the local steelworkers’ efforts to improve their working conditions for more than four decades, the international attention highlighted for outsiders, especially Eastern Europeans, the enormous opportunity for unskilled labor. As a result, the town grew faster after the strike, largely from immigration, and this period is when the Jewish community first attained sufficient numbers to organize, starting with High Holiday services the in the fall of 1893. As far as I have researched, Homestead’s Jews, then unwelcome in the mills, took on professions that contributed to the life of the town – merchant, tailor, grocer, butcher, and saloon/inn-keeper. In his oral history my cousin Bernard Keisler recalls that my great-grandfather also had a freighting business, so perhaps some were tied to industry in other ways.

Homestead Works 4 o’clock shift, c. 1973 (source:  The Digs)

Homestead Works 4 o’clock shift, c. 1973 (source: The Digs)

The hold of the “corporation” (the Carnegie Steel Company before 1901 and U.S. Steel thereafter) on the town was thus fixed, and thereafter the town rose and fell with the steel industry’s fortunes, though frequent labor unrest characterized attempts at greater self-determination. WWI and especially WWII saw tremendous profits for the steel industry and, to a lesser extent, its Homestead workers, thanks to Carnegie’s early foresight in making the Homestead Works a leading manufacturer of armor plate. In both cases steel mill workers were lauded for their war efforts, and in both cases strikes broke out after the war ended when the steelworkers felt their patriotic efforts weren’t sufficiently remunerated. The industry-wide “Hunkie strike” in 1919, so-called after the many immigrants amongst the strikers who were unfairly accused of Bolshevik motivations 1, saw half of the nation’s steelworkers on strike, which crippled the industry. In the end this strike was violently repressed. The 1946 steel strike, the largest to that date, accompanied strikes in many other industries, but this time the steelworkers received close to their desired increase without any violence. The difference? During the Great Depression, which hit the steel mill towns hardest of everywhere in the U.S. 2, the steel companies finally recognized the union. As hoped, the ensuing decades brought increasing benefits and wages, producing a Golden Age for Homestead, its workers, and the corporation, but the good times masked that the corporation – in fact, the whole U.S. steel industry – was actually beginning to fall apart. Homestead was particularly vulnerable, as there had been no actual investment in the Homestead Works since the 1969 addition of a stainless steel facility. Many pieces dated back to Carnegie’s time. The end came between November 1979 and July 1986 when the corporation shut down the Homestead Works in pieces. With the end of the mill came the utter collapse of the town. “The logic of the time decreed that a town and the people who lived in it were as disposable as any other kind of industrial waste,” wrote the Washington Post in its review of the book, echoing its primary theme. The way the corporation treated Homestead, even its early days when it was valuable raw material, makes it hard to refute the author’s argument.  3

***

For me the most engaging aspect of the book is not the intricate history of the corporation or the union, most of which I’ve glossed over, but its assessment of the town’s unique character. The kind of Americans our Jewish ancestors became was influenced by the character of the town to which they immigrated, and all of the aspects summarized below I see reflected in the character they and their community assumed.

The 84" mill basketball team, 1916 (source:  contributed to the Heinz History Center, Homestead Exhibit Photographs by Robert Olson)

The 84″ mill basketball team, 1916 (source: contributed to the Heinz History Center, Homestead Exhibit Photographs by Robert Olson)

Despite its hardships, Homestead was an enormously patriotic place. Because the town was largely isolated (170), its residents put a special emphasis on family and communal life. 4 The town’s size permitted residents to know each other. Collectively, they loved parades and celebrated holidays in grand fashion. The shops on Homestead’s commercial street, Eighth Avenue, participated enthusiastically, and I’ve seen numerous advertisements in Homestead’s paper reflecting the eager participation of the Jewish-owned businesses as well. By the 1950s, Homestead’s heyday, Eighth Avenue was a Saturday destination for daytime shopping and nighttime outings, attracting even residents of the surrounding towns. “You couldn’t even walk on Eighth Avenue, couldn’t even get on the sidewalks, there were so many people,” one long-time resident told the author (284). Homesteaders followed sports closely and rooted for their local teams, which included the Homestead Grays, a successful Negro league team. They played sports actively, too, and star players became town heroes. 5 Its ethnic diversity translated to numerous social clubs and more than twenty churches, clustered around 9th and 10th Avenues (the latter is the synagogue’s location).

Homestead courtyard scene, 1909 (photographed by Lewis Hine; part of the Homestead Exhibit Photographs collection in the Heinz History Center

Homestead courtyard scene, 1909 (photographed by Lewis Hine; part of the Homestead Exhibit Photographs collection in the Heinz History Center)

But, it wasn’t all good, clean fun. “Homestead has two big industries—Steel and Vice,” wrote the Pittsburgh Bulletin Index in 1940. Its reputation for sordid fun extended far beyond the Pittsburgh area. Sixth Avenue featured “one of the greatest, gaudiest sin stripes in America, a wild wicked place of whorehouses, taverns, and gambling houses” (23). For much of its history Homestead had more than 80 bars, innumerable speakeasies, and a reliable selection of “sporting houses” (bordellos). Vice was lucrative for Homestead and ingrained in the life of the town. The town’s leaders profited by it, and though they made periodic raids, “the fix was always in” (289). 6 By the early 1950s, though, the “rowdy old days of steelmaking” were past, and the issue of vice “had become embarrassing in some quarters” (289). In 1951 Homestead’s mayor, police chief, three policemen, fire chief, and twenty-three others were indicted for not only permitting the rackets, but also letting them operate openly.  The resulting crackdown effectively put the biggest offenders out of business, though apparently not everyone got the news:

Two fellows, one in his late teens, the other maybe in his forties and fifties, came into the restaurant. They were heavily sunburned and wet with sweat and extremely tired…

The men sat for a time. Then one spoke, “Is this Homestead?” the man asked.

“Yes, this is Homestead,” Couvaris said.

“Great,” the men said, huge smiles on their faces.

“Where you from?” Couvaris asked.

“West Virginia,” the men said.

“How did you get here?” Couvaris asked.

“Walked,” one of the men said.

“What brings you to Homestead?” Couvaris asked.

“The girls!” the men said.

Couvaris looked at them. There was a moment of silence. “Fellows,” Couvaris said,“you are about ten years too late.” (24)

Accident Victim from Homestead Steel Works (source: International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House via the Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

Accident Victim from Homestead Steel Works (source: International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House via the Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

Homesteaders played hard because they worked hard. Steelmaking was perhaps the hardest of all industrial labor. It’s unclear how much the Jews of Homestead, who largely did not work in the mills due to a combination of anti-Semitism and educational and financial advantages, could have appreciated the suffering of the steelworkers, though many were neighbors in the same, poor part of town. Steel making was dangerous, even deadly, “as close to hell…as the [workers] hoped to get” (55). Not long after the 1892 strike ended, one steelworker explained,

It brutalizes a man. You can’t help it. You start in it to be a man, but you become more and more a machine, and pleasures are few and far between. It’s like any severe labor. It drags you down mentally and morally, just as it does physically. (62)

Until the mid-1920s they worked twelve hours a day, seven days a weeks (including a twenty-four hour swing shift, followed by a day off, every two weeks when the men flipped shifts). Unlike Jewish immigrants, most were unskilled laborers who came for this work and required it to survive; striking for better conditions left families starving by the time they had to give up and return to work. Nevertheless, the aura surrounding steelwork made the men want to prove they were manly enough to meet its demands. There was more than 50% turnover during the early part of the last century, but soon sons started to follow their fathers into the mill, creating multigenerational mill families that ended only when the Homestead Works closed.

For all Homesteaders, whether or not employed by the mill, “the life of the town keeps time with the rhythm of the mill,” wrote Margaret Byington, a sociologist who studied Homestead in the early 1900s.  For me this information was not new; I grew up on stories of how my family’s beer business, located strategically outside the mill’s gate, operated around payday. But such quirks don’t capture what it really meant to live in a factory town, especially a factory town in the strike-prone steel industry. Our ancestors lived in a place that likely bears little resemblance to any place we have ever known. Understanding the kind of factory town Homestead was re-contextualizes everything we think we understand about their lives.

Environment

Housing and Mill (source: George Eastman House via Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

Housing and Mill (source: George Eastman House via Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

Homestead is small. Today it is just 0.6 square miles; at the time of the 1892 strike it was 1.6 square miles (before the corporation pressured the Homestead town government to split off Munhall to the east for tax reasons in 1900 (168)). (West Homestead, which may have been created for similar reasons, occupies just another square mile.) The factories – the steel mill and Mesta Machinery to its west – occupied the banks of the Monongahela River, and the residential part of the town began right outside the gates. Even though most of our Homestead ancestors never stepped foot inside, they could not avoid the pollution. The mill blanketed the town with thick, dark smoke. I once heard that if you parked a clean car on the street to do your shopping, by the time you finished your car would be covered in soot, and I read that businessmen had to change shirts two or three times a day. Even the headstones of the town’s cemeteries, more than a mile from the mills, were blackened by the smoke; there was a custom of washing them that persisted even after the mills were closed. Good housewives showed off white curtains as a sign of their diligent efforts to defeat the grime.

There was another way in which our ancestors could never forget that they lived near a mill: Wherever they were in the town, they could not escape the deep rumble emanating from the heavy machinery. I particularly enjoyed this story a Homestead man told about when he brought his new wife home:

Their first night, as they lay in bed in their new home, Jean McLean awakened her husband and asked him what that frightful noise was. McLean listened and said he did not hear any noise. Of course there is a noise, his wife said. Listen—that heavy, throbbing noise. McLean listened again and then realized what his wife was talking about—the noise of the mill. He had never heard the noise, he realized, for it was not noise to him. It was just the mill, just Homestead. (61-2)

Another worker who grew up in the neighborhood where most of the Jewish community initially settled recalled, “The mill sounded just like a locomotive, real loud—choo, choo, choo. And the ground shaking under you…Believe me, when that ground wasn’t shaking you knew something was wrong” (61). I’ve heard that sentiment often, that when there wasn’t enough work to keep the mills running, it was the silence that was frightful.

The noise and air pollution were the unintended side effects of the town’s proximity to the mill. The intended consequences were even more insidious.

After the 1892 strike, the Carnegie Company worked to establish control in Homestead and the other steel towns. The company men knew that it was not enough to break the union; the towns themselves had to be broken. The company strove diligently to seize the institutions of community life—newspapers, churches, schools, social clubs, police, municipal government. Only by doing this could they ensure that unionism would not rise again. (164)

After 1901 other “instruments used to gain control over workers and the steel towns” included:

spies, blacklisting, suppression of wages, pay-offs for jobs and advancement, corruption of priests and ministers, gift to communities, control of borough governments, exploitation of ethnic and racial differences, and countenancing corruption. Homesteaders were bitter about the authority that the Carnegie company and then the corporation exerted over almost every facet of their lives…But given the power of the employers, there was little the townspeople could do. (165)

Here’s a review of the areas in which the corporation controlled life in Homestead, covering the post-strike to World War II period (the years in which the Jewish community took shape and grew).

Social life

The corporation spied on the townspeople to detect union stirrings as early as possible to fire the offenders. The book describes neighbors spying on neighbors in language that evokes East Germany! Where there were unions, they infiltrated them to keep abreast of any plans to strike. Workers could be blacklisted for years if they actually participated in labor unrest. By the 1910s the corporation’s espionage system was pervasive. “If you want to talk in Homestead you must talk to yourself,” quotes the book of a contemporary sociologist (166).

Twenty-Sixth Anniversary Photo, Second Baptist Church, 1941 (source: Russell Freeman via Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

Twenty-Sixth Anniversary Photo, Second Baptist Church, 1941 (source: Russell Freeman via Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

As a result, the character of the town was unshakably fractious and suspicious, especially towards outsiders (xxiii). It “divided along racial lines, although it has probably been no more and no less bigoted than most other American towns” (21) (though what this meant to the Jews is unclear, since the book only speaks of the effects of the KKK and segregation on African-Americans, who had it worse).  The corporation “made sure the workers did not unite by exploiting differences between ethnic groups and races” (169). And, of course, there was the natural antipathy blue-collar workers developed for white-collar businessmen and professionals, and vice versa.

Any of our ancestors who came with the standard socialist sympathies of Jewish immigrants of the time were in the wrong place. Rising through the town’s social hierarchy required being pro-business. To thrive in Homestead before unionization in the 1930s, you had to keep your head down and tow the company line, no matter your rank. Even the Homestead Daily Messenger (the source for almost all the newspaper articles on this site) was “long an organ of the corporation” (193).  But it must’ve been a difficult balancing act for merchants like many of our ancestors who relied upon the workers’ business and saw their plight up close.

Religion

Members of the Hungarian Reformed Church, 1922 (source:  Hungarian Reformed Church via Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

Members of the Hungarian Reformed Church, 1922 (source: Hungarian Reformed Church via Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

The set of people I was most surprised to discover under the thumb of the corporation were the leaders of Homestead’s many churches, both the Catholic and Orthodox churches of the unskilled workers and the Protestant ones for the skilled, with whom the corporation “established close ties… so that they would be beholden to the corporation and assist them in controlling the workers and townspeople” (167). Even into the 1980s clergymen who supported the workers were routinely driven from town and in one case imprisoned and defrocked. Charitable organizations operating outside the churches, like the YMCA, depended on contributions from the corporation and feared the repercussions were they to speak up in favor of better working conditions (167). “Homesteaders are churchgoing people and always have been,” writes the author, but the pastors in whom they sought solace could not address much of what caused their parishioners’ greatest suffering (18).

As an aside, I can’t help but wonder whether this control extended to the synagogue and its rabbi. Since few Jews were involved with the mills, were they considered irrelevant to the corporation’s concerns? In reading through the synagogue’s minutes, I did not get a sense that anyone other than the synagogue’s directors and members exerted any influence.  That said, the bishop of the church now occupying the synagogue building told me that he, too, had read old records from one of the churches and similarly did not detect outside control. 7

Politics

Visit of President Roosevelt to inspect the steel mill, 10/11/1940 (source: Personal collection of the Grinberg family)

Visit of President Roosevelt to inspect the steel mill, 10/11/1940 (source: Personal collection of the Grinberg family)

It will come as no surprise that Homestead’s politicians were in the pocket of the corporation. “Homestead had no leaders,” wrote Margaret Byington. What she meant was that Homestead had no real leaders. Its political structure consolidated power in the hands of very few men, most of whom came from the corporation’s executives or their families. They and the town’s policemen did the corporation’s bidding in large ways and small, whether suppressing strikes violently or merely preventing men from congregating at all to discuss labor issues. (During the Hunkie Strike of 1919, the county sheriff forbade foreign languages at indoor meetings entirely! One wonders about the side-effects that produced…) The repression extended to the state level. After the disaster with the Pinkertons in 1892, the state maintained a Coal and Iron Police to break up strikes. At the state level and within all the steel towns of Pennsylvania, the Republican party was firmly in power, and the corporation controlled the party. As a result, the government could never address corruption at any level.

One of the worst effects of having politicians with no real investment in the lives of Homestead’s citizens is that, to quote a worker who became mayor after the corporation left Homestead, “the politicians did not put any money into this town” (341). One of the reasons why they could get away with such neglect for so long was that an unlikely group did.

Civic Life

Second Ave. Playground, c. 1920 (source:  Heinz History Center, Homestead Exhibit Photographs, William J. Gaughan)

Second Ave. Playground, c. 1920 (source: Heinz History Center, Homestead Exhibit Photographs, William J. Gaughan)

You might think, given all that I have summarized so far, that the corporation didn’t have any regard for any aspect of its workers’ lives beyond their labor. But to a surprising degree the corporation did invest in Homestead and all the towns in which it operated. For many decades its official policy was to substitute welfare 8 and philanthropy – i.e. giving the workers and their towns what the corporation thought they needed – for actually giving the workers what they said they wanted. The major gifts the corporation’s leaders bestowed upon Homestead were the Charles M. Schwab School for the Manual Arts, Frick Park, and the Carnegie Library, which was really part-library, part-gym, part-bathhouse, and part-music hall. The corporation also covered more mundane needs like having a street paved, light posts installed at the athletic field, refuse picked up, downed trees removed, and streets salted, as well as providing assistance in emergencies, repairing bridges, maintaining the library, handling the hospital’s laundry, installing pumps in the high school, repairing the newspaper’s press, building cottages for the Boy Scouts, and even providing bells, towers, and doors for the town’s churches (168-9, 288). It was “the habit of everyone to look to the company for anything the community needed,” explained a former superintendent from another steel mill town about how they all operated (169).

Carnegie Library of Homestead c. 1907 (source:  ExplorePAHistory.com)

Carnegie Library of Homestead c. 1907 (source: ExplorePAHistory.com)

To be clear, it all amounted to yet another way in which the corporation strengthened its control over the town, and the people resented it. Quoting Margaret Byington again, “Though the people are very proud of [the generous gifts from the corporation], many a man said to me, ‘We’d rather they hadn’t cut our wages and let us spend the money for ourselves.’” The workers “resent a philanthropy which provides opportunities for intellectual and social advancement while it withholds conditions which make it possible to take advantage of them.”   But beyond the workers’ resentments, it was clearly a broken system. Through the early part of the 20th century the workers lived in slum-like conditions with no building codes or modern sanitary regulations. These neighborhoods, lacking toilets and running water, were where many of our immigrant ancestors settled, too, joining their neighbors in boiling and filtering their water to make it potable and suffering the unbearable stench of the stream west of Homestead used as an open sewer.  Perhaps the corporation thought the bathing facilities in the library were enough? Perhaps these aspects of home life were considered one level too far removed from the public sphere. And the town, forced to keep taxes on the corporation low, hadn’t the funds to take on the project itself.

Attitudes towards this system changed in the 40s and 50s, when money was rolling in for both the mill and its now-unionized workers. “Homestead and the other towns reveled in this system, for everyone benefited—the politicians, who claimed credit for the projects; the corporation executives, because by providing these services the corporation perpetuated its control of the towns; and the people, because they could get a newly graded and seeded playground, a new flagpole, an improved road, a new bell in the church tower, new lights at the football field. And it was free, or so it seemed,” because the town still wasn’t investing in its own services (288). When the corporation could no longer afford to provide so much, and especially after it left Homestead altogether, it crippled the town.

Economic

"Going Home from Work:  This picture sums up Homestead:--the mill at the left; the Carnegie Library on the hill in the center, and the mean houses of the Second Warn to the right." (Lewis Hines in Homestead: The Houses of a Mill Town)

“Going Home from Work: This picture sums up Homestead:–the mill at the left; the Carnegie Library on the hill in the center, and the mean houses of the Second Warn to the right.” c. 1910 (Lewis Hines in Homestead: The Houses of a Mill Town)

Besides all these intentional controls, the chief way the corporation controlled the town was just by its being there. They were the largest employer in town 9, paying the wages of most of the working-age men in the city when times were good, and causing mass unemployment when they were not, because many had no other skills. In turn, the town’s merchants prospered when the families had money to spend and suffered or shut down altogether when they did not. To the extent to which the town required tax revenue to operate, that sum also rose and fell based on how much prosperity the steel mill drove through the town.

Meyer Grinberg in front of his store (source:  Allen Grinberg via the Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

Meyer Grinberg in front of his store (source: Allen Grinberg via the Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

For as much as it was dangerous for the town and its people to depend overwhelmingly on one employer for all of its income, the corporation wanted to keep it that way and “worked to keep other businesses out” (168). Our ancestors were fortunate to arrive with skills (even if only literacy) and communal support to establish themselves and employ each other in their own businesses. The earliest members of our community ranged from business owners to the drivers, agents, or clerks who worked for them or non-Jewish merchants. That independence, however, was not enough to shield them from the mill’s economics; the book relates that even in good times the merchants had to accept credit in their stores between paydays every two weeks. In bad times, few workers could afford food or medicine, let alone even contemplate buying clothes, furniture, or most anything else the stores sold. At the height of the Depression, when steel production hit its lowest point for the entire 20th century, Homestead’s workers were averaging an income one-third the minimum level the government believed people needed to live, and this severely impacted those whose income came from the workers’ wages. (During these years the synagogue records show an unusual number of members dropping out because they could not afford the dues.)

***

In all of these areas the corporation maintained its control over the town. Though Homestead’s Jews, largely employed outside the mill, perhaps didn’t need to be kept in line the way other Homesteaders did, their lives must have been impacted by many of these conditions, though it is difficult to know how to what degree they may have felt inhibited. Perhaps their rabbis enjoyed relative freedom and their meetings avoided scrutiny, but they dealt with the pollution, the divisiveness, the political ineptitude, and the economic swings. Without question, though, the community was hit by the most startling effect the corporation had on the town: its destructions.   Both of them.

Lower Homestead after Property Demolition, June 15, 1942 (source: Archives of Industrial Society, University of Pittsburgh via the Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

Lower Homestead after Property Demolition, June 15, 1942 (source: Archives of Industrial Society, University of Pittsburgh via the Homestead Exhibit Photographs)

The first came in 1941, even before Pearl Harbor, when the federal government selected the Homestead Works for expansion because of its armor plate manufacturing capabilities. The section of Homestead the government purchased was the land below the railroad tracks called “the Ward” or “Down Below.” 10 This area included the poorer neighborhoods I mentioned earlier where unskilled workers and immigrants were concentrated. The author claims that unlike other Homestead merchants, the Jewish merchants were largely unaffected because they lived in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh’s Jewish neighborhood directly across the river, but here he is wrong (220). My ancestors and many other members of Homestead’s Jewish community lived in the Ward, though many could have long ago afforded to leave. I don’t yet understand why they stayed – out of habit? Safety in numbers?  Proximity to their businesses?  Whatever the reason, much of Homestead’s Jewish community was uprooted along with eight thousand other residents, 40% of Homestead’s population. 1,1225 homes, 2 convents, 5 schools, 12 churches, 28 saloons, a dozen social clubs, confectionary shops, and grocery stores were appraised, and after their owners were compensated, destroyed (218, 200). Even the town’s leading madam had to relocate her establishment, which the local newspaper reported freely! Many people left Homestead entirely – the U.S. census shows that Homestead lost 47% of its population between 1940 and 1950 – but some of its Jews still remained in Homestead, moving to new homes on the hill, which had previously been where the better off, more established Homesteaders lived.

The Homestead waterfront after the destruction of the steel mill and before the erection of the shopping complex.  (source)

The Homestead waterfront in the 1990s after the destruction of the steel mill and before the erection of the shopping complex.  Note that the only structure left standing are the smokestacks on the left. (source)

Homestead’s population continued to decline dramatically over the coming decades, but Homestead’s best years were in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Both because of the new records the mill kept setting for steel production, and the effectiveness of the unions in ensuring that the record production led to record wages and benefits for the workers, money coursed through the town. Sixth Avenue thrived until it was decided vice didn’t belong in this new Homestead; Eighth Avenue exploded with activity until its old-fashioned trolley was replaced with a less convenient bus in 1965. By the 1970s the shopping district started to look rundown. Customers were shopping elsewhere, shops left or closed and were not replaced, and arson destroyed building that were not rebuilt. At the same time the early 60s saw the first round of layoffs by the corporation, though it wasn’t until the late 70s that everything fell apart rapidly. By the summer of 1986 Homestead no longer had a steel mill. After that, the trickle-down effects of high unemployment, plus exacerbating factors like all the ways the corporation’s control had handicapped the town and the rapid departure of close-knit communities and transition to Section 8 housing, meant that Homestead unspooled even faster than it might have. It was worse than the Great Depression, because then at least people had faith that the mill would one day reopen (362). Its traditions, communities, and institutions faded. Everyone who remained, even if they had had nothing to do with the mill, knew they were on a sinking ship. A couple years after the mill closed, the town, much more so than the other dying mill towns, received the attention of preservationists – even Prince Charles visited as part of a March 1988 conference remembered by almost everyone I’ve spoken to – but nothing came of their facile ideas. In 1993 the last of old steel mill buildings were demolished, and the land stood vacant until the late 90s when it was turned into the Waterfront, an open-air shopping mall.   The old smokestacks stand in the parking lot like gravestones marking what once was (in person, the author told me they appeared to him like a gothic ruin).  11

I have one last story from the book to share, and that is what Homestead’s steelworkers did in the early 80s when there still remained a shred of hope that the worst could be averted.

Plants were closing in steel towns, coal towns, auto towns, across America. In most cases workers and communities made little fuss; there might be a flurry of action, speeches, even threats, by politicians and labor officials, but, in most cases, nothing substantial happened. In the Monongahela Valley it was different. A combination of factors—history and happenstance, militance (sic) going back over a hundred years, plus the existence of the maverick Homestead local [union chapter]—had produced what rarely happens in this country, an energetic and effective working-class insurgency.   (354)

Ron Weisen, center, president of Homestead's union local in the 1980s, who led many of the protests (source: Steelworkers Fight Back)

Ron Weisen, center, president of Homestead’s union local in the 1980s, who led many of the protests (source:
Steelworkers Fight Back)

Their ideas ranged from the inspired – attempting to purchase and operate the defunct facilities themselves – to the theatrical – reading “ninety-five theses” of demands on the steps of a church or leaving rotting fish in safe-deposit boxes of a bank – to the counterproductive – disrupting services and even a Xmas pageant at Pittsburgh’s “power church” with tirades and balloons filled with skunk oil.   Throughout it all, Homestead’s union hall was the center of protest in Steel Valley. “The activists were excited,” the author recalled. Now he is writing about events he witnessed firsthand as a reporter. “They were rallying people as the radicals one hundred years before had rallied the Homestead populace against the Pinkertons” (361).

Ultimately the outcome was the same as it would have been, though the corporation claimed the protestors brought about the end more quickly (361), and in the aftermath more attention was paid to preventing protests than to actual redevelopment planning (409). The failure of the protests to avert the closing of the mill that had oppressed and sustained them for a century was the last defeat of a town whose entire history to this day is colored by remembrance of their first defeat in 1892. But as at the birth of Homestead’s steel industry, so, too, at the end: they went down fighting, and reminded the country the best of what it means to be from Homestead.

***

Afterword

“Homestead is a place where America can be heard, felt, seen, understood. Homestead, with its ethnic traditions, its patriotism, its love of sports, the willingness of its people to work hard, the desire of many to pull themselves up, to make something of themselves, its institutions—the stores, the taverns, the library, the funeral parlors, the sporting houses, the mill, always the mill—all this combines to make Homestead an elemental American place, an American touchstone.

“Much of what makes up America can be examined in Homestead: the rise of industrialization and the breaking apart of industrialization, the role that immigrants have played in American life, the migration of black people to the North, authoritarianism and the acceptance of it, contention between workers and employers, the role of unions of American life, the heroism of ordinary people in the face of the strongest adversaries, how America uses things—people, resources, cities—then discards them.” (25)

And also – you’d think – the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. For the most part, though, what a reader can learn from this book about the relationship between these two communities is from the absence, not the presence of material.

The first mention of the Jewish community is an offhand mention that Homestead has a synagogue that is “hardly used anymore” (18).   The second is the blanket generalization that “the more skilled workers and many of Homestead’s merchants–except for the Jews, who tended to move across the river to the largely Jewish area of Squirrel Hill–generally lived on the Hill” (220). By far the most telling is the book’s third and final mention of Homestead’s Jewish community: “Many people did not like Jews,” the author relates, “because most of them owned businesses and could afford to move across the river to Squirrel Hill, a more attractive place – ‘Kike’s Peak’ as some Homestead people called it” (411).

Take a moment to digest that.

One on level, these comments are a fairly unremarkable sort of anti-Semitism. Jews are rich, Jews keep themselves apart, Jews are disloyal. So, nu? You’re surprised to hear that some Homesteaders were anti-Semitic? Even the author shakes it off quickly; “all towns discriminate and always have” is his answer to the “Kike’s Peak” comment. Its backwards logic, though, points to a more interesting set of questions. Was there anti-Semitism because the Jews left, or did the Jews leave in part because of the anti-Semitism they experienced? Was there anti-Semitism because Jews didn’t work in the mill, or did the Jews find employment elsewhere in part because of the anti-Semitism expressed by the steel workers and management alike? (For what it’s worth, this exclusion is not true in all mill towns in Western PA.  McKeesport, for example, always had a significant number of Jews working in its mill, which was under different management from the Homestead Works.)  In essence: is this anti-Semitism new or old? To what degree was it present before, and to what degree did it flourish belatedly in the absence of friendly shop clerks or economically similar neighbors to serve as a corrective? And what does the 1980s perception of the Jewish community hint about the perception in earlier generations when the Jewish community was much larger and presumably more visible?

To me the book’s sparse commentary is more interesting for what it omits: the Jews whose lives intersected on a daily basis with their non-Jewish neighbors’. The Jews who volunteered in many of the town’s service and booster organizations, even at the time the book was researched.   The Jews who served in prominent positions on the school board and as fire chief and football coach. And really, any civic or social interaction between the communities at all, because it did happen, widely. A book like this one is only as good as its sources, and what I quoted above is apparently all that is noteworthy of what the people living in Homestead in the 1980s had to tell the author on this subject. In his many years of research, it seems there was no one who contradicted this version of a Jewish community long removed from the town, let alone who showed him how the Jewish community actually did contribute to the life of Homestead just like every other ethnic group that put down roots there.

It’s too bad:  part of the Homestead story is why its people — even its most overlooked and unloved — retained such a positive connection to such a difficult place, especially after it fell apart. 12 Homestead’s Jewish community was tied to the fate of the town as much as the communities with which the author’s sympathies lie.   Listening to the words of the last generation of Homestead Jews, whether via their earlier oral histories and newspaper quotes or straight from themselves today, the sadness is palpable even a generation on.  We know that there endures a strongly identifying Homestead diaspora whose hearts remain in that town and who mourn their lost community in ways Homestead’s other groups would find familiar.

And interestingly, of all the defunct Jewish communities of Western Pennsylvania, it was this one that was most preservation-minded. No other has (yet) taken the trouble to donate its records and find a home for its Judaica and photograph its shul and take oral histories of its last generation before disbanding. 13 Their insistence on defying forces of history larger than themselves makes them 100% pure Homestead. These people – their community – its institutions – their nostalgia – all are part of what made Homestead an elemental American place, an American touchstone.


  1. Hunkie, from “Hungarian,” was then a common slur against all foreign-born workers  

  2. 56% unemployment for steelworkers, and those who worked did so only part-time for the lowest wages in fifteen years  

  3. Even after re-reading parts of the book multiple times, I am still baffled how the demise of the U.S. steel industry came so quickly and so irrevocably. Reasons given include the lack of investment in new technologies and R&D, lack of investment in old plants and unnecessary investment in new plants, inability to compete with cheap overseas producers, laziness and waste (when not outright corruption) within the industry and the union, skyrocketing labor costs, emphasis on production quantity over quality, extensive overstaffing at all levels, isolation of steel management from on-the-ground workers, and government meddling in pricing and environmental regulations – all of which was exacerbated by willful blindness and arrogance across the board. In 1977, the year per-capita steel production peaked in the U.S., “everyone continued to say that the steel industry faced a prosperous future” (322), but the bankruptcies started that same year! U.S. Steel went from a $242MM profit in 1978 to a $293MM loss in 1979! How does that even happen?!

    Stranger, the author argues that U.S. Steel had actually been in decline for much of the 20th century! Even in the 1920s the corporation “coasted…its share of the steel market…was falling dramatically…[it] continued to run in the grooves that its immense size had sourced for it, demonstrating almost no creativity” (157). World War II was an exception, during which time “the corporation performed admirably, demonstrating astonishing creativity and diligence” (226), but “had it not been for military production in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, and guaranteed production from such projects as the expressway system and airports, the corporation, like the other [steel] companies, likely would have fallen years before” (330).

    Whatever the reasons, the problems that erupted in 1979 were so severe that nearly all U.S. steel manufacturing shut down in under a decade. While some companies recovered their financial footing, Homestead and the other steel mill towns they left never did. Industrial waste, indeed.  

  4. I’m not sure I understand why he feels the town was isolated. It was surrounded by suburbs, not countryside, and was situated just across the river from a major city. By the late 1800s there was efficient public transportation linking Pittsburgh and Homestead, and people went into Pittsburgh for shopping and entertainment. Perhaps it wasn’t so much isolated as insular, as most of the Mon Valley steel towns seem to have been?  

  5. The town’s small newspaper, I’ve seen, included a disproportionate number of sports pages covering local teams. Their victories became front-page news, such as when the high school’s basketball team won the state championship in 1924 and went on to play in the national tournament. The team included one Jewish player, my cousin Sam Hepps, whose photograph and name often made the front page alongside those of his teammates.  

  6. Bootleggers and gamblers especially thrived during the Prohibition era, when Homestead’s racket boss was Joseph Frank, a leading member of the synagogue! The book didn’t include that part, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote on 10/27/1951, “No more dramatic figure has come out of the underworld of Western Pennsylvania in two generations than this same Joe Frank.” Despite the book’s claim that people got off, somehow our guy got himself convicted multiple times and nearly deported.  The book does mention frequently the name of Homestead’s leading madam, but perhaps for the best it excludes that she, too, was Jewish!  I will bring you both of these stories in full soon.   

  7. In general, he did not read any reflections on the mill. The records discussed moral issues like alcoholism and debauchery.  

  8. The welfare programs, instituted in the early 1900s in hopes of tamping down union aspirations, were a form of early employee relations. Maybe they constituted “charity meant to keep [the workers] in line,” but they were extensive – doctors, nurses, first aid stations, swamp draining, home and school building, housekeeping and hygiene instruction, and establishment of bathhouses, churches, schools, restaurants, restrooms, playgrounds, and athletic fields (185). Whether for respectable or contemptible reasons, the corporation recognized that employee happiness mattered. When labor unrest rose after WWI ended, the corporation’s president exhorted his subsidiary presidents to “make the Steel Corporation a good place for [workers] to work and live. Don’t let the families go hungry or cold; give them playgrounds and parks and school ad churches, pure water to drink, every opportunity to keep clean, places of enjoyment, rest, and recreation” (150).  

  9. The author never indicates just what percentage of the town was employed by the mill, though Byington says of the 1907-8 period, “A large machine manufactory (Ed: Mesta) and the steel mill employ practically all the inhabitants except those who provide for the needs of the workers.” She has 6,772 men employed in the mill in March 1907 and 12,554 residents of Homestead in 1900. Two problems with just dividing these two numbers is that while it is likely most of these men lived in Homestead, surely not all of them did, and also, it is unclear whether this number cover the three towns or just the one, especially since I don’t think Munhall and West Homestead were separate entities yet. That said, even with these fudge factors, it seems like we’re talking about the vast majority of men of working age in the town.  

  10. After the war the corporation purchased from the government for $12MM the new sections of the Homestead Works, which cost $124MMM to build (243).  

  11. I am not yet able to precisely trace the parallel chronology of the erosion of the Jewish community. I have a sense that the destruction of the Ward in the 40s impacted it more than other communities, since they were less tied to the mill and therefore less tied to Homestead.   I also have a sense that the downturn of Eighth Avenue in the 70s also impacted them harder and was their death knell more than the closing of the mill in the next decade. However, starting in the 40s and continuing after the synagogue closed, out-of-towners retained their ties to the shul. Most of you reading probably know more far about this period than I do, since you and your parents lived through it.  

  12. A book which examines this connection is A Town without Steel:  Envisioning Homestead.  

  13. And all of this happened in the early 1990s, a full generation before organizations like the Jewish Community Legacy Project came along to help educate declining synagogues about how to close in a historically responsible way.  

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