Clairton as strength? Or of survival?

A Public Source article, reported and photographed by Quinn Glabicki,[1] focuses on Clairton, but many of the problems it documents are not Clairton’s alone. They are endemic throughout the Monongahela River Valley (“Mon Valley”) and even in communities away from it.

Jason Togyer writes that “Pittsburgh’s TV news viewers are used to seeing the names of communities such as McKeesport, Duquesne, Clairton and Wilkinsburg mostly in the context of crime reports.”[2] In my reading, I see more about pollution. In Pittsburgh, and really throughout the wider area, as I often explain to my Uber and Lyft passengers from out of town, you are rarely far away from poverty and the problems associated with poverty. One of the more important of those problems is environmental injustice, with industry concentrated along Pittsburgh’s three major rivers where poor and working class people are also often concentrated.[3]

This is an area where people still feel bitterly a betrayal of the steel industry’s collapse, a collapse properly attributed to the capitalist class and to neoliberal trade policy, but with resentment more often manifest in a distrust of “elites,” including journalists, generally.[4] As I drive through the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, I see yard signs advocating “sustainable jobs” almost exclusively in “better off” places and I remember how the environmental movement pitted the spotted owl against lumberjacks; I think many of the poor and working class will never forgive the movement for neglecting their livelihoods. Even the story of fracking is largely a story about people who have little alternative and of wider communities suffering the practical effects of the lucrative-for-some deception claiming that the fossil fuel business means jobs,[5] jobs I do not see among my passengers, jobs I find advertised almost nowhere but in political campaigns.

Crime, in the form we more often understand it while we neglect the predations of the capitalist class,[6] too, is apparent. I have listened even as some Black passengers talk about Black-on-Black crime; the reported rate of such crime is actually only a little worse than that for white people,[7] but statistics ultimately depend on crime being reported. As Glabicki alludes, crime is underreported, sometimes for fear of retaliation, sometimes from a sense of futility.[8] Since coming to Pittsburgh, I have learned to understand police as white supremacist gangsters[9] and it is clear here that sometimes they are themselves the problem.[10] Fundamentally, Pittsburgh is a good example of the failure of so-called “justice,” a failure in which society refuses to confront the root causes of deviant behavior[11] and therefore reproduces it, defeating itself, even as to do so distorts the concept of “justice” beyond recognition.[12]

Glabicki writes of both trauma and strength. His photographs in Clairton are overwhelmingly of Black people[13] and this is consistent with my observation of poor areas around Pittsburgh generally. Because traffic enforcement around Pittsburgh is often more about race than safety and because of Pittsburgh’s wide intersection of race and class, Black people figure disproportionately among my passengers: The vagaries of crime statistics in racial comparisons are one thing; my observations of Black passengers who clearly can afford to live in “better” areas but do not, the Black families where children are clearly no less loved, and the struggles of Black people just trying to get by despite the injustices of race, class, and, yes, gender, against them are all quite another.

Togyer is rightly critical of the speed with which white hysteria and misinformation are communicated on Facebook.[14] But as I understand from the conversations I inevitably overhear, the network also serves Black people in similar ways, spreading information (and, presumably, misinformation) and binding their communities together. Sometimes, I have learned of events from their conversations before finding them in the news. Social conservative racists neglect these communities entirely in their yammering from the atomistic premise of two-parent families. These people are indeed strong and they are strong in a way that white people, rationalizing the status quo, too often take for granted.

They are stronger than I am. That’s why I had to move farther away, from Baldwin Borough to an even smaller apartment on top of somebody’s garage in Upper Saint Clair in part so I cover palpably traumatized neighborhoods less often; their trauma reinforces my own and I need less, not more. But as I do so, I have to wonder about those folks who can afford to live in “better” neighborhoods like the one I now inhabit but do not: How much of this “choice” is really a choice? Are they in those neighborhoods for the communities that lend them the comradery of friends and family, and yes, lend them strength? Or are they there perhaps because many landlords in places like Upper Saint Clair might not rent to them?

Even as Glabicki heralds this “strength” in the Black community of Clairton, he notes that some workers at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Works live elsewhere.[15] I often see the same at the company’s Edgar Thomson plant in Braddock, also along the Monongahela River, whose workers I may take to Penn Hills or Verona, closer to the Allegheny. Speaking of “strength” elides the advertising on bus shelters throughout the Pittsburgh area, which offer resources for housing discrimination. Perhaps we should speak more of sheer survival.

  1. [1]Quinn Glabicki, “The City of Prayer: Clairton’s residents persevere amid persistent pollution and violence,” Public Source, November 19, 2021,
  2. [2]Jason Togyer, “Year of Fear, Chapter 15: In towns like McKeesport, the future was already precarious. Then came coronavirus,” Columbia Journalism Review, May 22, 2020,
  3. [3]Jessi Quinn Alperin, “Clairton, PA, wants to be clear: Residents demand accountability from U.S. Steel,” Environmental Health News, May 13, 2019,; Mark Byrnes, “What Pittsburgh Looked Like When It Decided It Had a Pollution Problem,” CityLab, June 5, 2012,; Ryan Deto, “Two large air pollution sources will soon be offline. Will Allegheny County’s air quality future be as clean as it can be?” Pittsburgh City Paper, June 23, 2021,; Ryan Deto, “Majority of voters want fracking in Pennsylvania to end, says poll,” Pittsburgh City Paper, September 8, 2021,; Ryan Deto, “U.S. Steel is challenging an Allegheny County proposed air quality regulation,” Pittsburgh City Paper, September 22, 2021,; Ryan Deto, “Proposed natural-gas power plant near Pittsburgh cancels plans,” Pittsburgh City Paper, October 6, 2021,; Ollie Gratzinger, “Allegheny County issues another fine to US Steel for air pollution violation,” Pittsburgh City Paper, January 17, 2020,; April Johnston, “‘That’s vinegar:’ The Ohio River’s history of contamination and progress made,” Environmental Health News, November 14, 2019,; KDKA-TV, “Allegheny Co. Health Department Joins Federal Suit Against U.S. Steel,” June 18, 2019,; KDKA-TV, “‘It’s Making Clairton Sick’: Poor Air Quality Impacting Clairton, Liberty Areas,” December 23, 2019,; Hannah Lynn, “Report: Pittsburgh ranked 8th worst for air pollution among US cities,” Pittsburgh City Paper, April 22, 2020,; Kris Maher, “Pittsburgh Breathes Easier After Repairs at U.S. Steel Coke Plant,” Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2019,; Kris Maher, “U.S. Steel Suffers New Fire Knocking Out Pollution Controls in Plant Near Pittsburgh,” Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2019,; Jamie Martines, “U.S. Steel facing a 2nd federal lawsuit tied to December fire at Clairton Plant,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, August 26, 2019,; Jamie Martines, “Settlement over bad air in Clairton calls for U.S. Steel to cough up $2 million,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 11, 2019,; Jamie Martines, “U.S. Steel to hold info sessions about Clairton, Braddock plant upgrades,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 27, 2020,; Jamie Martines, “U.S. Steel, Allegheny County finalize Clairton Coke Works emissions settlement,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 10, 2020,; Kristina Marusic, “Pittsburgh’s air quality continues to decline, new report finds,” Environmental Health News, April 24, 2019,; Kristina Marusic, “Pittsburgh’s air was unsafe to breathe for 3 months in 2018,” Environmental Health News, January 28, 2020,; Kristina Marusic, “Environmental injustice in Pittsburgh: Poor, minority neighborhoods see higher rates of deaths from air pollution,” Environmental Health News, June 12, 2020,; Kristina Marusic, “U.S. Steel abandons clean tech plans in Pittsburgh region following damning health study,” Environmental Health News, May 6, 2021,; Kristina Marusic, “Pittsburgh’s air was unhealthy to breathe for 57 days in 2020,” Daily Climate, October 6, 2021,; Kristina Marusic, “Should oil and gas companies be exempt from Pennsylvania’s hazardous waste laws?” Environmental Health News, October 7, 2021,; Oliver Morrison, “Mon Valley air was the healthiest it’s ever been in 2020; region still receives an ‘F’ grade,” Public Source, April 21, 2021,; Oliver Morrison, “‘Today is a difficult day.’ U.S. Steel announces closure of several of Clairton’s ‘dirtiest’ coke oven batteries,” Public Source, April 30, 2021,; Oliver Morrison, “U.S. Steel faces lawsuit alleging that Clairton Coke Works ‘decrepit’ condition continues to endanger Mon Valley residents,” Public Source, November 19, 2021,; Oliver Morrison and Jamie Wiggan, “A thousand little cuts: Locals say a fire on Neville Island shows the pollution didn’t stop after Shenango Coke Works closed,” Public Source, June 23, 2021,; Andy Sheehan, “Air Quality In Mon Valley Once Again Hits Unhealthy Levels,” KDKA, February 24, 2020,; Teghan Simonton, “Health department: Air pollution in Mon Valley exceeded federal levels over Christmas,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 27, 2019,; WTAE, “U.S. Steel, health department have deal to settle 2018 air pollution violations at Clairton Coke Works,” June 28, 2019,; WTAE, “Allegheny Co. Health Department announces fines against U.S. Steel for violations at Clairton Coke Works,” May 28, 2020,; WTAE, “Strong odor reported in Pittsburgh area reportedly coming from chemical company on Neville Island,” September 2, 2021,; WTAE, “Enforcement order issued after strong odor reported in some Pittsburgh communities,” October 5, 2021,
  4. [4]Jason Togyer, “Year of Fear, Chapter Seven: Fear and Loathing in the Time of Coronavirus,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 25, 2020,
  5. [5]Kate Aronoff, “Fossil Fuel Companies Are Job Killers,” New Republic, April 5, 2021,; James Bruggers, “A Decade Into the Fracking Boom, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia Haven’t Gained Much, a Study Says,” Inside Climate News, February 11, 2021,; Daniel Boguslaw, “Joe Manchin’s Dirty Empire,” Intercept, September 3, 2021,; Geoff Dembicki, “Joe Manchin Makes $500K a Year From One of the Dirtiest Coal Plants in West Virginia,” Vice, July 28, 2021,; Lee Epstein, “I grew up in Pennsylvania coal country. It wasn’t pretty and it’s time to move on,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 26, 2021,; Paul J. Gough, “Pittsburgh-based natural gas driller files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection,” WPXI, November 9, 2021,; Colin Jerolmack, “They Couldn’t Drink Their Water. And Still, They Stayed Quiet,” New York Times, September 17, 2021,; David Moore, “Manchin Bailed Out a Power Plant That Helps His Family Profit From Coal Waste,” Truthout, August 7, 2021,; Joe Napsha, “Report: Drilling spills ruined wells and polluted streams in Westmoreland, across Pennsylvania,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 9, 2021,; Michael Sainato, “The collapse of coal: pandemic accelerates Appalachia job losses,” Guardian, May 29, 2020,
  6. [6]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  7. [7]Michael Harriot, “Why We Never Talk About Black-on-Black Crime: An Answer to White America’s Most Pressing Question,” Root, October 3, 2017,
  8. [8]Quinn Glabicki, “The City of Prayer: Clairton’s residents persevere amid persistent pollution and violence,” Public Source, November 19, 2021,
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Hey cops! Do you know what year it is?” Not Housebroken, August 27, 2019,; David Benfell, “Stephen Zappala’s resignation would be nowhere near enough,” Not Housebroken, November 6, 2021,; David Benfell, “The revival of lynching,” Not Housebroken, November 23, 2021,
  10. [10]Amy Marcinkiewicz, “Channel 11 uncovers new details about alleged corruption in Aliquippa Police Department,” WPXI, May 10, 2019,; Erin Moriarty, “Rachael DelTondo Murder: Did a Secret Lead to the Killing of the Aliquippa, Pa., teacher?” CBS News, September 7, 2019,
  11. [11]Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, “Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers’ Cage,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, eds. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529.
  12. [12]David Benfell, “On the pretense of ‘law and order,’” Not Housebroken, September 11, 2020,
  13. [13]Quinn Glabicki, “The City of Prayer: Clairton’s residents persevere amid persistent pollution and violence,” Public Source, November 19, 2021,
  14. [14]Jason Togyer, “Year of Fear, Chapter 19: How Facebook has undermined communal conversation in McKeesport,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 18, 2021,
  15. [15]Quinn Glabicki, “The City of Prayer: Clairton’s residents persevere amid persistent pollution and violence,” Public Source, November 19, 2021,

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