Pittsburgh's Dark History
Pittsburgh, the "Smoky City"
Pittsburgh was once known as the "Smoky City" or "Hell With the Lid Off" due
to the overwhelming befouled conditions that plagued it for over a century.
Its geographic location and natural resource endowments made it an ideal
home for the industries that inevitably created the pollution problem. The
city's dark past has been described as a cautionary tale for cities lacking
Pittsburgh has an extremely long history of pollution
and the struggle to alleviate it. Extractive industries
such as coal mining resulted in some of the biggest and
longest lasting impacts on the environment. It began in
1762 when a coal seam was discovered along the south
bank of the Monongahela River. Coal was an important
energy source that fueled the industrialization of most
of the country, but Pittsburgh's environment paid the
price for it. Smoke pollution was the most noticeable
effect of coal consumption and gave the city its
identity as the "City of Smoke".
The rivers also became contaminated due to them being a
popular transportation route and disposal location for
sewage. In 1880, Pittsburgh had hundreds of boats
struggling to navigate the crowded rivers. The city had
the highest typhoid fever mortality rate of any city in
the nation between 1872 and 1908. An individual in
Pittsburgh was three times more likely to die of typhoid
fever than any other American at that time. Sewage
discharge into the rivers was one of the contributing
factors to the problem as this was also where the city
drew its water supply.
There were efforts made in the 1800's to reduce air
pollution, but they were rarely enforced. Smoke control
ordinances and the Bureau of Smoke Control were
introduced, but not very successfully due to lack of
proper regulations, enforcement, and control
technologies. It was also very difficult to convince
residents that the smoke was a problem. Many people felt
the smoke was a sign of productivity and prosperity.
They believed the smoke was good for their lungs and
helped crops grow. Pittsburgh's dark haze inspired many
poems and was an important part of the city's identity.
David Lawrence and His Vision of the City
By the 1940's, Pittsburgh was dark at all hours of the
day. Photographs of the past show dark downtown streets
lined with bright streetlamps at ten in the morning. The
city was reaching a breaking point.
Lawrence became mayor in 1946 and promised he'd
beautify and clean up the city. In his first inaugural
speech, Lawrence said, "I am convinced that our people
want clean air. There is no other single thing which
will so dramatically improve the appearance, the health,
the pride, the spirit of the city."
Lawrence felt passionate about cleaning up the city
since he had grown up in a tough working-class Irish
neighborhood in the Point by Fort Pitt. The neighborhood
consisted of many run-down and abandoned steel mills and
other old industrial buildings. He had lived among some
of the worst impurities in the city and saw the need to
improve conditions. After becoming mayor, he began what
has been referred to as "Renaissance I" to clean up the
city. The 20-year
redevelopment effort included sandblasting the smoky
grime off the city's iconic skyscrapers and making
transportation improvements. The city began enforcing
smoke ordinances. The war effort exhausted many of the
industries that were the source of the pollution
problem, forcing them to be reassessed. The city began
to improve dramatically as it found new sources of
energy and other ways to provide jobs.
Smoke pollution had seen a 90% decrease by 1954. A new
sewage treatment plant, the area's first two
expressways, and an airport were constructed.
Pittsburgh's transformation during this time was unique
because other cities were experiencing deterioration in
their downtown areas as families moved away from cities
and into the suburbs. Pittsburgh's downtown was
expanding and finding a new way to attract residents to
the Golden Triangle.
The collapse of the iron and steel industry during the
1980's had a significant impact on the air quality in
Pittsburgh. During this time, the city was already going
through an urban
renewal with Renaissance II. This time around, the
service industries were seeing significant growth. The
city began to redevelop land previously used as
industrial sites and saw a rise in commercial, retail,
and residential districts. This also helped clear the
skies to reveal the city's beautiful skyline.
Pittsburgh Today, a Hub of Technology and Research
Pittsburgh has changed over
the past century like no other American city has.
There are no longer any steel mills within city limits.
It has emerged from the darkness of the steel industry
and moved into the bright future of healthcare,
education, technology, and financial services. The
industries of the past have been replaced with
technology and research companies like Google and RAND
as well as global financial institutions like PNC and
Modern day Pittsburgh continues to make environmental
improvements as it reshapes its identity from a dark and
gloomy city of industry to a bright city on the cutting
edge of technology and business. These changes in the
economy have aided in the environmental transformation
of the city and surrounding area. Pittsburgh ranks among
the most livable cities in the world and often tops the
list for the United States. The vision and promises of
David Lawrence will continue to have positive and
lasting effects on the city for years to come.