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Op-Ed column -- The plume is gone. But we can't forget Hazelwood

As development surrounds a former industrial area, the city has a historical obligation: Make the residents part of the future

Wednesday, May 27, 1998

By Joel A. Tarr

For more than 30 years I have walked one of two paths from my home to my Carnegie Mellon University office. One exposes me to a rather uninteresting vista of streets, cars, houses and dormitories. The second, in contrast, has elements of variety and surprise -- it takes me up 92 steep steps from Forbes to Gladstone and then on to the Schenley Park Golf Course. Here there are many pleasant vistas -- green grass, large trees, Downtown buildings and the ridge along the south side of the Monongahela River.

And, until recently, there was also The Plume. What was the plume?

It was the large steam cloud that arose from the LTV byproduct coke plant when the red-hot coke from the ovens was quenched. With the plant's closing, the plume is gone, and more than a century of coke and iron and steel making in Hazelwood has probably ended.

Hazelwood was not always a home to industry. In the 1860s and 1870s, the area was still rural enough to attract a number of wealthy and prestigious residents who commuted to downtown jobs via the Pittsburgh and Connellsville railroad. But these suburban amenities soon disappeared.

In 1859, James Laughlin, an Irish immigrant active in Pittsburgh banking, built two blast furnaces (the Eliza furnaces) and several beehive coke ovens on the Hazelwood riverfront. In 1861, Laughlin joined forces with iron-maker B.F. Jones who owned puddling furnaces and rolling mills on the south side of the Mon to form what became Jones & Laughlin Iron and Steel. In 1877, J&L constructed a railroad bridge to carry hot metal from the Eliza furnaces across the river to the rolling mills.

Hazelwood became increasingly industrial. By the turn of the century, its elite residents had left for more prestigious neighborhoods like Shadyside and the East End.

J&L grew on both sides of the river, enlarging its blast furnaces and installing both Bessemer and open hearth furnaces to make steel. The firm also enlarged its coke-making facilities, building, between 1899 and 1906, the world's largest concentration of beehive coke ovens -- 1,500 in number -- in Hazelwood.

Because of the potential devastating effect of fumes from the ovens on the neighborhood's homes and gardens, and also to avoid nuisance suits, the company equipped the ovens with 15 tall stacks, 90 feet high, to burn off some of the wastes.

Air quality conditions in the area, however, were abysmal. But this did not prevent thousands of workers from eastern European nations to move to Hazelwood to join the Germans and Irish who already labored in the mill; many Italian immigrants also came to Hazelwood, primarily to work for the B&O Railroad. To a great extent these workers lived in Hazelwood and walked to work.

In 1918, J&L responded to the great demand for coke generated by World War I and the need for coal tar chemicals formerly imported from Germany: It tore down the beehive ovens and replaced them with a modern byproduct coke plant. This plant was built somewhat south of where the beehive ovens had been located.

Over the following years, although experiencing major labor conflicts in the 1930s, J&L prospered, with the work force averaging about 12,000 on both sides of the river. Approximately 40 percent of J&L's total labor force worked at the Hazelwood site, and many mill workers continued to live in Hazelwood. In 1960, Hazelwood reached its population peak of almost 13,000 persons.

After about 1960, however, both the J&L work force and the Hazelwood population began to decline. By 1975, Hazelwood's population was down to about 9,500, and the number of workers at the mill had declined to 3,604. Large numbers of workers moved to neighboring Greenfield or the suburbs, and those living in Hazelwood dropped to 500.

Relations between the community and the mill were becoming frayed. By 1974, Cleveland-based LTV had bought out J&L.

In 1981, as the steel industry collapsed throughout the Pittsburgh region, LTV closed down the magnificent Eliza blast furnaces, leaving only the byproduct coke works active as a reminder of what had been one of the region's most powerful steel-making operations.

By 1998, when LTV closed the coke plant, Hazelwood's population was close to 6,000 people, and only a handful of the workers at the plant lived in the neighborhood.

This brief profile of Hazelwood's history and the community's relationship to the J&L works illustrates how, over time, what was an important community-industry link has gradually been reduced.

While it is important not to romanticize the difficulties of life in the mill community -- the ever-present smoke, dirt and noise -- it is clear that a once-thriving, primarily immigrant workers' neighborhood had lost its vital employment anchor.

Not only is the mill gone, but also Hazelwood's population is poorer, with a large minority population replacing the new immigrants of the first decades of the century and their descendants.

Now, with the LTV coke plant closed down and the future of the site indeterminate, the city needs to address three powerful questions:

How can it prevent a brownfield from developing on the byproduct coke plant site? What are the development options that will harmonize rather than conflict with the projects being constructed on the South Side, in Homestead and in Nine Mile Run? And what will the relationship of the community of Hazelwood be to this development?

Will Hazelwood remain separate from the new development or will the city attempt to develop vital links between the two, restoring the historical connection and providing hope for the residents?

If Pittsburgh is sincere about wanting to become a sustainable city, it needs to address issues of social as well as environmental sustainability for its citizens.

Joel A. Tarr is Caliguiri Professor of History & Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of The Brownfields Center at the university.

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