The Drive Home, Part V: The Scar

Photo from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

On October 13, 1962, John F. Kennedy stood in the parking lot of the A&P Supermarket at Donner Avenue and 6th Street in Monessen, Pennsylvania and stumped for his fellow Democrats who were running in that year's mid-term elections. All of Monessen turned out to see JFK, it seemed - actually rather more than that, if the quoted number of 25,000 is to be believed, packing themselves like sardines into the streets of the mill town that could claim roughly 18,000 residents at the time.

Even during that relatively prosperous era in the history of both Monessen and the nation at large, JFK's remarks hinted at troubles looming on the horizon as he spoke of "towns which have been hit hard by all of the technological and industrial changes that have come in this country." The President, as we know, would not live long enough to see just what a grave harbinger his words really were. Most of the population of Monessen, on the other hand, would have to suffer through three decades of cutbacks and layoffs as heavy industry gradually packed up and left. The death blow was dealt in 1986, when Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, the town's largest employer, finally terminated nearly all of its operations there. A single coke works is all that remains, still belching its vaporous refuse into the sky, a more incongruous visage today against a much bluer backdrop than could be seen a half-century ago in this part of the world.

This is the same story that was writ all up and down the valley of the Monongahela River as it slithers through southwestern Pennsylvania, from Pittsburgh to Brownsville. For almost a century, a perfect convergence of natural resources and innovative minds made this region America's Ruhr (in fact, the etymology of Monessen is an amalgamation of Monongahela and Essen, the city that was the hub of Germany's industrial heartland). Such intrinsic advantages were multiplied when these United States woke up one fine morning to discover they effectively had a monopoly on being able to build things after a few wars had ravaged the rest of the developed world's manufacturing capacity. In those heady days, rolling out of bed with a work ethic in hand was practically all that was necessary to land a steady and reliable job, if not also an arduous and likely fairly dangerous one. For those who persevered, though, the gate was left wide open onto a path to a financially comfortable and secure career and retirement beyond, not to mention that golden tenet of the mid-20th century working class: the desire to provide an even better life with even greater opportunity for one's kids.

The gate was open until it wasn't. At the beginning of the end there was no single precipitous moment, rather a slow burn over twenty-odd years. Corporations began to figure out that factories and mills were cheaper to operate in other, poorer countries, and besides, better to blacken their skies than ours until they resembled night in the middle of the day, sun blotted out by chemical clouds. What industry stuck it out on our own soil could be increasingly automated, further diminishing the need for a colossal labor force. These foreshocks eventually snowballed into the earth-shattering calamity of the 1980s, as plants were shuttered one after another like dominoes across the Northeast and near-Midwest, the phenomenon that led to the coining of the "Rust Belt."

Thirty years on and many of the larger cities within the Rust Belt have at least started to pull themselves up with heavy doses of eds and meds, tech and finance, reorienting towards the service-based tertiary sector of the economy, to varying degrees of success. It's the smaller towns that have fallen through the cracks en masse, and frankly, it's impossible to say where ample recovery might come from for most of them.

I spent four years working at an amusement park down here, and I'd be lying if I insisted that those long summer nights cruising the Mon Valley didn't leave an indelible impression on me. Double features at the Brownsville Drive-In off the Old National Road. Emerging bruised and bloodied, but invigorated, from pickup games of parking lot street hockey. Backyard bonfires down the endless cul-de-sacs of milquetoast 1960s subdivisions. Ghost hunting among the decaying ruins of McKeesport mansions, now folded into some of the bleakest blocks of urban prairie this side of Detroit. Three a.m. pancakes at charmingly shabby round-the-clock diners. Crossing the train tracks to Dravosburg, getting lost in Charleroi, stranded by a flood in Glassport.

And the green - oh, the green! From the spring soak through the return of autumn's benign reign, the color is the most loyal of compatriots while winding from crest to gully, along decrepit business districts and betwixt hulking industrial apparatus. It is limitless in its abundance, every conceivable shade, even tirelessly inventing new ones to be discovered the next time I'm swallowed in this world that tries to hide its unkindness behind such soft, plush velour.

The Mon Valley is a place for which I can't help but to have developed great affection, which is why it pains me so to be unable to convince myself that there's any feasible way back in the long run. No one seems to have the answers. Half-measures have been attempted; a new controlled-access highway was supposed to facilitate economic progress in the region. Instead, it's just helping what sparse traffic does use it to move through the area even more quickly and with even more of a force field between themselves and the dying towns they're flying past.

Something that the proponents of the "if you build it, they will come" philosophy that led to the construction of the utterly desolate Mon-Fayette Expressway evidently failed to take into account is that they won't come unless they have a reason to be there. Yet there are plans on the table to expand the MFE, the hyper-ambitious upshot of dreams that connecting it to the rest of the metro's highway network at another traffic-choked, commercialism-strangled, placeless 'burb will spur development in the numerous brownfields that are scattered about. We'll see. The cynic in me fears that the natural order of things is simply that these towns will quietly dissolve into nullity. Not immediately, likely not even for multiple generations to come, but what else happens when your reason for existence has been so casually and deliberately erased?

I don't know what compels me to do it, but I suddenly find myself veering off Route 51 and into the maze of service roads that leads to the sad husk of Century III Mall. Once upon a time, it was a true monument to Western consumerism and the industrial machine that made it all possible - literally, for it was built on top of a U.S. Steel slagheap. When it was completed in the late 70s, hubristically stealing its moniker from the passing of our country's bicentennial, Century III was purportedly the third-largest enclosed shopping center in the world. It's a staggering notion to consider now as I navigate the moonscape-like driveways, barely fit for an ATV, and pass by a crumbling two-story parking deck that has been completely barricaded off. No repetitive spiral around the lot required; spaces are vacant no more than fifty feet from any entrance.

The extent to which I grew up partaking in mall culture is mostly restricted to hazy but fond memories of my grandparents taking my brother and me to another local mall when we were foisted on them (that mall has already succumbed to the fate - extinction - towards which Century III continues to amble). Perhaps that's sufficient to explain the slight pang of nostalgia when I walk into the air conditioned confines, an involuntary emotional reaction that drifts in the direction of sorrow when I see how forlorn the place is.

Storefronts sit unoccupied, an unsettling number of them, with depressingly desperate "FOR LEASE" posters plastering the wall-to-wall windows, behind which resides nothing but blank ecru drywall and dusty beige carpeting. One whole wing of the mall has been blocked off to public access by a row of unused kiosks that in a past life would have hawked cheap jewelry and sunglasses. An hour before close and I can do a full 360-degree turn from the middle of a second-floor balcony and see virtually nobody else. One young mother and the toddler she is gripping by the hand are my sole accompaniment in this veritable George Romero homage apart from the Steely Dan track that wafts from hidden speakers and reverberates through the empty space:

I've seen your picture / Your name in lights above it / This is your big debut / It's like a dream come true

The song is randomly pulled from some pre-packaged easy listening Internet radio station, but I have to chuckle at the accidental metaphor: an ostensibly cheery, upbeat ditty that upon deeper examination is actually a dark commentary on the sinisterly spurious optimism of the entertainment industry, being piped into a complex that was a grand house of worship to the gods of material possession when it was shiny and new (as it happens, the ribbon was cut just a couple of years after "Peg" was recorded). Like what is implied will inevitably befall the tune's eponymous starlet, the mall was unceremoniously kicked aside when tastes changed and the trends dictating what passed for the vaunted American lifestyle kept evolving.

On some primordial level, the suburban enclosed shopping mall was designed to emulate the traditional Main Street shopping experience, only with ample parking, protection from the elements, and a private police force. But then strip malls and big boxes became the craze, aggregating a wider variety of products into fewer but larger stores, necessitating shuttling from errand to errand in the bio-hazard suit of a personal vehicle, achieving the desired effect of drastically reducing the chances of human interaction. As antithetical to positive things like urbanity, environmentalism, and independent business the idea of the indoor mall was and is, at heart it was at the very least trying to foster a quasi-social setting. Maybe that is where my perverse sympathy for this terminally ill mecca of excess is germinating.

Tonight, I very well may have been coerced inside by morbid pity, but I can plead hunger as a more rational excuse for my presence in this mausoleum. Quite possibly my guiltiest of culinary pleasures is crappy mall/airport Chinese food. You know, where you get to pick two flash-fried entrees, overloaded to the point of sogginess with "sauce" that probably oozed out of a cardboard carton, all physics-defyingly stuffed into a plastic container along with some microwaved rice? I am constitutionally incapable of turning it down.

So imagine my dismay to not only find the food court darkened, with a lone custodian performing the tedious task of overturning chairs and balancing them on tabletops one by one, cutting a tragically Rigbian figure given the likelihood of how few of those chairs were actually utilized throughout the day, but to also see that the crappy Chinese joint flat-out doesn't appear to exist any longer. A miserable-looking sub shop and grimy pizza counter are the only options remaining even when the lights are on.

This is all too much to bear, so I hightail it out of there. As I go, the music floating across the abandoned concourse is now Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen." It's again perfectly fitting: a song about death.