Category Archives: Book review

Scranton, PA: More Than Just ‘The Office’

greetings-from-scranton-pa

Editor’s note: This piece is a guest editorial from William Black, an organizer of the Pages & Places book festival in Scranton, PA, in October. Here he describes a number of other developments happening in his hometown. -KG

If you know Scranton, Pennsylvania, as the setting of NBC’s The Office—the U.S. version of Slough, the depressed and depressing overcast English city in which the Wernham Hogg Paper Company was doomed to eternally, if comically, fail—then your impression of the city is sunnier than the one most Scranton area residents have held of their hometown for decades.

I say this as someone who, at age seventeen, fled the area as fast I could. The Great Depression was slow to reach what had been a boomtown built on hard coal and locomotives. As late as 1937 rich New Yorkers took the train to Scranton to shop on Lackawanna Avenue and dine at the Casey Inn Hotel, where one could still get real silverware laid across the fine china from a real linen napkin.

But when the market for anthracite did finally collapse, it signaled a long, nearly fatal tumult for Scranton. Beginning in the 1940s, the city lost, on average, 1,000 residents a year. The loss of population was so swift and so devastating that the city hasn’t had a downtown grocery store since the 1960s. A recent look at photographs from the 1980s confirmed my impressions of the time: the city was dreary and dirty, distinguished by sooted-over architectural details and an abundance of garbage in the streets and on the sidewalks.

Yet now there’s a palpable sense that Scranton’s time is just beginning.  Several of the city’s most significant architectural landmarks have been rehabbed or restored and will, within months, be occupied by several hundred new downtown residents, most of them between twenty-five and thirty-five years old. This month, the Commonwealth Medical College, the first new medical to open its doors in Pennsylvania in decades, is matriculating its second class.  The University of Scranton has begun construction on a large, and expensive, new science research center.

And Scranton has begun to carve out a new identity for itself as a center of arts and culture.

Much of the credit for the turn-around goes to Mayor Chris Doherty, who leveraged Scranton’s proximity to New York and Philadelphia, what’s left of the splendid boom era architecture, and its air of great untapped potential into $400 million of investment in a little more than eight years. That’s enough for a pretty attractive facelift.

But there’s something else going on, too, another force that has laid claim to a city with a reputation for drab isolation—a grassroots effort driven men and women between thirty-five and forty-five years old to remake the city in their own image.

Some of these men and women are developers who, growing up in the 1980s, have never suffered the deprivation that made earlier generations of Scrantonians, who lived and then died on the dwindling market for coal, cautious, even pessimistic, with their investments.  Some are entrepreneurs who have committed themselves to the kinds of boutiques and restaurants they used to leave town to enjoy.

What gives me the greatest hope, however, is the seemingly spontaneous, even reflexive effort by disparate people to build new and serious arts and cultural traditions downtowns.

Groups of college students whose classrooms are twenty or thirty miles outside of town have chosen central city locations to convene their writers and artists groups, and they’ve brought along a new generation of university faculty that has begun moving into the city, despite having to commute to school. A then-high school student with a fondness for old movies opened the Vintage Theater, which has become Scranton’s for-the-people by-the-people art house cinema and the new generation’s first choice venue for readings, salons, and other art-centric events.

And then there are the festivals.

Scranton has long been a city of ethnic festivals—Irish, Italian—but six years ago Marko Marcinko, a jazz musician who at a fairly young age was performing in New York City and in the Pocono region’s world class jazz scene with some of the biggest names in the business, launched the Scranton Jazz Festival, a three-day affair that has made good use of Marcinko’s connections and drawn increasingly large and enthusiastic crowds from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia , and beyond.

More recently, the Pages & Places Book Festival, of which I am co-director, was created to make two significant contributions at once.  First, by doing what exceptional book festivals do, Pages & Places strives to offer a high end, daylong cultural event.  By “high end,” I mean that Pages & Places is bringing to Scranton the caliber of personnel and seriousness of topic that one would expect to find only on elite college campuses or at, say, New York’s 92nd Street Y.  This year, for example, Christopher Hitchens is joining Jay Parini, the author or editor of more than 40 books, in a discussion about the people, books, and debates that have most shaped American civic life.  Joseph Sebarenzi, who was president of the Rwandan parliament in the days after that country’s hideous genocide, will participate in a conversation about how societies rebuild, or reinvent, themselves in the wake of catastrophe.  An Icelandic novelist and an Argentine novelist and their translators will talk about the ways that ostensibly national literatures inform each other, in a panel moderated by their publisher, Open Letter Press’s Chad Post.

All this sounds pretty elitist, doesn’t it?

Well, it ought to. That’s the idea, in fact. The festival’s founder and driving engine, Liz Randol, recognized what was already afoot in Scranton and identified the lack: of a cultural event that didn’t just serve the city’s extant population but brought to town precisely the kind of people—heavy weight writers and intellectuals and the people who go out of their way to hear them speak—that wouldn’t otherwise visit a small post-industrial city.

But this is not at all to say that Pages & Places is disregarding of Scrantonians. Quite the opposite. The Places part of the festival’s title signals the other half of its mission.

Places operates in two essential ways. First, all of Pages & Places highbrow panels are set in familiar local businesses—bookstores, boutiques, bars, restaurants. Likewise, the festival’s planning committee and board of directors are made up not of arts and culture administrators but area businesspeople, in fact many of the very same entrepreneurs I referred to earlier. The goal of this approach is to offer a singular cultural event that is, from its conception through its planning to its execution, as integrated into the larger working of the city’s revitalization, and as available to its residents, as it can possibly be without compromising the seriousness of its content.

Second, Pages & Places has implemented partnerships designed to draw local and regional cultural institutions beyond their borders and into the community. These partnerships began as cross-promotional endeavors, but these relationships are now driving toward bigger and more substantive partnerships on events to take place downtown rather than behind the walls institutions.

Scranton is a smaller, and therefore a lot easier to impact, than other post-industrial cities still struggling to invent new and functional identities.  But those of us who are starting to feel really good about our city’s emerging new image.

William Black teaches literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University but has accepted a post as Writer-in-Residence at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania, in order participate in Scranton’s revival.  He is Co-Director of the Pages & Places Book Festival to held in Scranton October 2. He can be reached at bill@pagesandplaces.org

4 Comments

Filed under Art, Book review, Economic Development, Editorial, Good Ideas, Headline, The Media

The Rust Belt’s “Unfinished Business” of School Desegregation

Take a look at this column, published in Buffalo’s weekly Artvoice.

It reviews a book, Hope and Despair in the American City by Gerald Grant (Harvard University Press 2009), which examines school desegregation through metropolitan-wide school reorganization.

The premise? This work “compares the sorry recent history of Syracuse, New York with the glad success of Raleigh, North Carolina. One town tried desegregation within the boundaries of the old city and failed, and is dying, while the other town regionalized schools, and has been growing by leaps and bounds,” writes reviewer Bruce Fisher. (Fisher is the founding director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College, where he is visiting professor of Economics. He lives in Buffalo and served as deputy county executive from 2000 to 2007. Nepotism alert: he’s also an old friend of my Dad’s.)

Metro-wide school districts are an intriguing idea. I’m not really familiar with school districts in the South, but apparently, “in the South, there are city districts and county districts, but not the little micro-districts that track closely to town boundaries. Unifying Raleigh with Wake County took a decision between two districts. In Erie County (New York), there are 29 school districts.”

Fisher explains, “Up until 1974, the trend was toward breaking down the barrier between city and suburb. Metro-wide schools early on proved dramatically successful in integrating poor and rich, black and white, urban and suburban kids, and the outcomes since then consistently prove that that success is academic as well as social. Test scores for kids of all income backgrounds and colors are much higher than in the isolated, city-only districts that are the norm throughout the Rust Belt; and in these metropolitan-wide districts, there is so high a level of civic engagement and popular support for maintaining the system that race- and class-based appeals for a return to segregation get voted down.”

The book identifies Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s as a turning point – for the worse.

This definitely sounds like an interesting book. “Gerald Grant’s short book tells this story very well. It is that rarity among policy tomes: a page-turner. The author interweaves his own experiences as a parent, teacher, and researcher into a coherent narrative of the forces that alternately evil and dim-witted politicians loosed upon the North,” Fisher says.

I’d love to hear the thoughts of anyone else who has read this.

-KG

2 Comments

Filed under Book review, Education, Good Ideas, Politics, Public Education, Race Relations, regionalism, Rust Belt Blogs, The Media, Urban Poverty

Introducing The “Water Belt”

don_carterbw

Check out this recent column by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill.

He interviews ‘burgh native Don Carter, who recently retired president of Urban Design Associates and was named director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

For years, Carter tells O’Neill, he has hated the term “Rust Belt.” And he’s trying to get folks to start calling …the “Water Belt.”

In place of “Sun Belt?” Try “Drought Belt.” Cities here, Carter writes, “are low-density, auto-dependent, and survive on ever diminishing supplies of borrowed water. ‘Sun Belt’ economies are driven not by diversity but by the business of growth itself, such as home building and construction, which the great recession of 2008-2009 revealed as illusory and unsustainable.” Amen brother!

Someone I knew in Lorain (Ohio) actually used to use these terms, so I think they could certainly catch on.
I personally kind of like the term “Rust Belt,” but I think a lot of the people I know use it in kind of a proud, reclaiming the word kind of way, not in a derogatory way.
What do you think? Is it futile to try to change these terms used by people and the media? Or does Don Carter have the right idea?
-KG

5 Comments

Filed under architecture, Art, Book review, Editorial, Good Ideas, Headline, Real Estate, regionalism, Urban Planning

Pittsburgh: The Paris of Appalachia

pghparisbook

Rust Wire was able to spend a few minutes recently chatting with Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist and, author of the new book “The Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the Twenty-first Century.”

I liked that the book details all of what O’Neill loves about Pittsburgh, but has a very realistic assessment of the city’s problems.

For a more detailed review, read what the Pittsburgh City Paper had to say here.

Rust Wire: “What’s right and what’s wrong about Pittsburgh?”

Brian O’Neill: “I would say that’s what right about it is – as I say in the book – the legacy of all this incredible stuff that we’ve been left: the churches, the institutions, like the museums, the foundations, all this old money that’s still here, the architecture, the fact that we have three sports teams and probably wouldn’t if we were trying to get one now, the universities, all the stuff we’ve inherited, essentially.

And what’s wrong with it is, one- I don’t think we don’t place a high enough value on what we’ve inherited. And that’s recently been shown again by the idea of shutting down our branch libraries in this city. If we want these neighborhoods to come back, we can’t take out resources, we’ve got to figure out a way to keep them around.

And sometimes we don’t value the best things. I mean, everybody appreciates the Steelers, but you know we don’t so much appreciate the fact that we have this incredible architecture. I mean, in my neighborhood, in the book I mention this one bridge, this foot bridge that is incredible, but the city can’t even afford to knock it down…We don’t have the population to support all that’s worth keeping. And that’s a constant struggle.”

RW: Tell us about where you got the title for your book.

BO: “Well, I had heard it as a put down of Pittsburgh, a hipster put down, like, ‘Paris of Appalachia, like the sexiest guy on the Lawrence Welk Show’ kind of thing.

And I have heard it more than once, and I though, ‘What’s wrong with Paris? And what’s wrong with Appalachia?’ Appalachia is beautiful. In the mind, when you hear Appalachia, you think rural poverty, and our impressions are informed by a lot of black and white photos from the early 1960s and late 50s. But Appalachia is actually a lot more complex than that, a lot more nuanced than that. I think people in Pittsburgh don’t even realize we’re in Appalachia, they think these hills are on loan from Morgantown or something. But we are most definitely in Appalachia, we are the largest city in Appalachia…”

RW: It’s interesting to me because I have a friend who had always said Pittsburgh was like the Capital of Appalachia, in the sense that all the coal, all the resources extracted came here to be made into steel.

BO: “That’s true too, that might be an even better explanation that the one I just gave. When the G-20 was here…I went to a journalists roundtable and he [Howard Fineman of Newsweek] pointed out that 100 years ago, this was the Capital of Capitalism. Everything about capitalism, 19th century capitalism was in Pittsburgh, all the good things and all the bad things too. I’ve thought about that a lot since. As I mentioned in the book, Pittsburgh has had its greatest impact on the world already. It’s never going to be as important. It doesn’t have the same impact on the country or the world that it once did, but so what? You can still be great and have that in your past. That’s in Rome’s past, that’s in London’s past, that doesn’t mean it’s over. It just means you are a different kind of place that you were before. And I think this can be an even better place to live than it was [before].”

RW: In addition to all the good things you have to say about Pittsburgh, your book incorporates a lot of urban policy recommendations, such as encouraging more walkable, less car-dependent neighborhoods. Have you gotten any feedback from city or country leaders since the book has been published?

BO: “Not directly. I don’t think it has really reached them yet…it’s reaching regular people and they seem to like it, so I am pretty happy about that.”

RW: Another item you discuss at length is annexation, as well as the absurd number of municipalities we have in Allegheny County. Do you hold out any hope that the city will annex any of its suburbs, or we’ll ever see a smarter, more streamlined local government?

BO: “I do have some hope that that will happen. I think it will be slow and painful, but I think it is going to happen because it makes so much sense for it to happen…. [Pittsburgh Mayor Luke] Ravenstahl has this idea of selling the all the parking garages downtown to help shore up the pension system since neither the state nor the suburban communities have any interest in bailing out the city’s pension system. But what that would do is…those private operators are going to jack up the price at the garages and people will blame the city, but the city will say, ‘Hey, this is the structure we have. We have these legacy costs. Our largest employers that we host don’t pay taxes, don’t pay property taxes, so we’ve got to do something.  Things like that really exemplify and point out the bad hand that the city has been dealt in the modern economy. And maybe it will wake people up to say, ‘Maybe this governmental structure that we have isn’t the right structure for the 21st century.’”

RW: What could other cities in this region like Buffalo, Detroit, and Cleveland learn from Pittsburgh?

BO: “We’ve been lucky because we have at least two really great universities. CMU and Pitt have really been helpful. I think what they might learn…each city is unique, but what they might learn is that the stuff that is valuable may not be what the Chamber of Commerce is always clamoring for- like interstate bypasses and all that kind of stuff.…Having not lived in all these other places, I can’t say what they are doing. But I think it’s possible as  I mentioned in the book, as the price of gasoline inevitably goes higher, these walkable communities with good public transit and lots of water will look good again, or look better. Places like Phoenix are impossible if the cost of electricity and gasoline goes sky-high. More sprawling places might be in more trouble….”

Like Pittsburgh, they [Rust Belt cities] have this incredible legacy…if people would recognize that the task is to keep all that is worth keeping, and to value the things that make each place unique…those things that make Cleveland Cleveland, make Buffalo Buffalo, make Milwaukee Milwaukee. Lets not live in Generica. Let’s not go back and forth between the Olive garden and Applebee’s. Let’s live in real places and walk around in real places.”

RW: Do you have any favorite Pittsburgh blogs?

BO: “I like Chris Briem’s Null Space, …he has all these great graphs all the time. He sees my wonkish side. That’s the main one for me frankly.”

-KG

8 Comments

Filed under Book review, Economic Development, Good Ideas, Public Transportation, Race Relations, Real Estate, regionalism, The Media

“Buffalo Lockjaw” Author Interview

51acnrvgmxl_ss500_

Rust Wire is pleased to share an interview with Greg Ames, the author of Buffalo Lockjaw, a fantastic novel mostly set in Buffalo.

Here’s a passage:

“Turned out that Buffalonians loved talking about Buffalo, especially during happy hour, which lasted from five o’clock to midnight. Many of them felt an immense tenderness for this town. They were proud and protective of Buffalo. They dipped their pizza crusts in puddles of blue cheese and argued about where to find the best chicken wings in the city. They celebrated happy hour most nights and ate fish fry on Fridays. They had distinctive vowel-strangled accents, and the nasal sounds of certain words (“car” and bar”) rivaled Long island’s more jarring and annoying tonal variations. Their last names were Szwejbka and O’Shaughnessy and Torrentino. They distrusted book learning. Money talked and bullshit walked. They had provincial worldviews, and they definitely considered you show-offish if you used words like “provincial.””

For purposes of this blog, we focused on Buffalo-centric questions. But I also really enjoyed the book from a literary standpoint; there’s James, the likeable but screwed-up protagonist returning home to Buffalo, some very real family dialogue and dynamics, heart-breaking nursing home scenes, and questions every family could face at some point. Ames really captured the smells, sights, feel, and depressing-ness of a nursing home when he describes the main character’s visits with his mother.

RW: Tell us about growing up in Buffalo. Where in the city did you grow up and share some of your Buffalo memories.

GA: “I grew up in Kenmore, a suburb of Buffalo, so I was one of the ‘Kenmorons’ I referred to in my novel. Memories . . . As a third grader I was so disruptive that one day my teacher put an empty refrigerator box around my desk, segregating me from the rest of the class. The box fit around the desk perfectly. It was an unprecedented situation and nobody knew how to deal with it, including the teacher herself. I had a subscription to Mad magazine and the governing philosophy seemed to be: Hey kid, everything in America is fake. Success. Marriage. Careers. Families. Hollywood movies. Don’t be fooled. My first concert was the Violent Femmes at Buffalo State College. I was in 8th grade. Somebody in the audience threw a full beer can at the Violent Femmes’ drummer. The lead singer said, ‘Fuck you, Buffalo,’ and they all walked offstage. Thrilling. Later there would be Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Descendents, but I think that first show is still the best I’ve ever seen.

RW: Growing up, did you like or dislike living in Buffalo? When did you leave and why?

GA: “I liked Buffalo. I hated all the schools I went to, but that would have been the case no matter where I lived. My family moved to Rochester when I was between my sophomore and junior years in high school, and that was traumatic for me. I ended up at a Jesuit high school, a place where detention was called Justice Under God and you had to write ‘conduct’ and ‘discipline’ until your hand cramped. I was expelled three months before graduation. The principal, a man with hair sewn into his scalp, allowed me to take my final exams, alone, in a broom closet across the hall from his office. That summer I moved back to Buffalo for college, because all my friends were there. Over the years I moved away from Buffalo a number of times, but I felt I could always come back if I wanted to.

RW: I know for myself growing up in Erie, Pa., I began to feel a lot more pride about where I had come from after I left. Did you have similar feelings after leaving your hometown?

GA: “I’ve always had Buffalo pride. It’s a fine city. Some natives are a little obsessive about it, though, and they should relax. They won’t hear a single bad word spoken about Buffalo, and that’s obviously closed-minded—no place is perfect—but this defensiveness comes from being the butt of a joke for so many years. It’s annoying to hear elitists mocking you. Nobody likes that feeling. Some people in the publishing world actually think that if you set a story or a novel in Buffalo or Pittsburgh or Cleveland that it can’t be of interest to anyone outside that particular region.”

RW: Do you think you might ever live in Buffalo again? Why or why not?

GA: “I’m not opposed to it. I still have a lot of friends and family members in Buffalo, but for the time being I’ve made a life for myself in Brooklyn.”

RW: In your opinion, what’s right and what’s wrong about Buffalo?

GA: “I don’t know. The mistakes made in the 20th century seem to be endless. It’s sad to look back at what was and might have been. Read any history of Buffalo and you’ll see a story of corrupt government, passionate citizens who can’t make their voices heard, and the destruction of architectural and other historical treasures. There’s been a lack of imaginative vision. Most of the blue-collar industry has left town but nothing has replaced it. There are few jobs for college graduates, so they move away. City leaders have been kicking around ideas about the waterfront for at least thirty years now. You’d have to ask a city planner or a social scientist to answer this. I’m sure the answer is very complicated. The one thing I do know is that Buffalo is a city filled with intelligent, interesting people, and that’s where any growth and change has to start.”

RW: How much of your book is made up and how much is based on your real life? Are the “urban ethnographies” real or invented?

GA: “Like all writers, I borrow from my own memories and experiences, but this book is fiction. The urban ethnographies are fiction.”

RW: Can you recommend any favorite Buffalo blogs?

GA: “The two blogs I know about are the Buffalo Range and Buffalo Rising, but I’m sure there are many more good ones.”

RW: Is there anything else you want to talk about that I haven’t asked you?

GA: “No. I’ve probably talked too much already. Interviews make me nervous sometimes because I feel like I’m talking out my ass. I try to give conscious answers about stuff that is largely unconscious, and weeks later I think, ‘What the hell was I talking about?'”

-KG

3 Comments

Filed under Book review, Headline

Jeffrey Eugenides’ Detroit

The Daily Beast is carrying an article today celebrating the 16th anniversary of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides, a dark, whimsical, coming-of-age story set in suburban Detroit.

Eugenides, a Detroit native, later went on to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning and best-selling Middlesex, which also features the Motor City prominently, from the early days of immigrant tenements to red-lining, the race riots, and suburbanization.

Eugenides

Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides offers an exceptional descriptions of Detroit in its heyday; Middlesex an account of the tumultuous series of events that have made it the city it is today.

In an opening scene of The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides describes the setting in his quiet residential community following the suicide of the first Lisbon girl:

“That was in June, fish fly season, when each year our town is covered by a flotsam of those ethereal insects. Rising in clouds from the algae in the polluted lake, they blacken windows, coat cars and streetlamps, plaster the municipal docks and festoon the rigging of sailboats, always in the same brown ubiquity of flying scum.”

“[Celia] was standing by the curb in an antique wedding dress with the shorn hem like she always wore, looking at a Thunderbird encased in fish flies. ‘You better get your broom, honey,’ Mrs. Scheer advised. But Celia fixed her with her spiritualist gaze. ‘They’re dead.’ she said. ‘They only live for 24 hours. They hatch, they reproduce and then they croak. They don’t even get to eat.’ And with that she stuck her hand into the foamy layer of bugs and cleared her initials: C.L.”

Recommended reading for all Detroiters as well as those that are just interested in learning more about one America’s great industrial centers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Book review, Headline

Monongahela Dusk: Author Interview

john3001

Rust Wire is excited to share our recent interview with author John Hoerr.

Hoerr spent decades working as a labor journalist, covering labor in the era when unions were much larger and organized labor often made big news. His most well-known work is And the Wolf Finally Came, which is an in-depth, yet easy to read chronicle of the decline of the American steel industry in the 1980s, focusing on the Monongahela Valley. (For all you non-Pittsburgh readers, the Mon Valley is where the Monongahela River flows, through Pittsburgh, and a number of smaller towns, such as Rankin, Braddock, Duquesne, Hoerr’s hometown of McKeesport, West Mifflin, Clairton, Donora, and Monessen. Each of these towns had a steel mill, most of them have long since closed.)

And the Wolf Finally Came is a must-read for anyone interested in deindustrialization and the decline of our country’s manufacturing sector, particularly steel. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called Hoerr “a leading chronicler of the demise of industrial America.” A mighty tough job, if I do say so myself.

Here’s a brief synopsis of his upcoming book, Monongahela Dusk, courtesy of the publisher. Unlike his first three books, it will be a work of fiction.

Monongahela Dusk is a historical novel of the1930s and 1940s set in McKeesport, one of the largest of the legendary steel-producing towns of the Monongahela Valley. In 1937, as labor turmoil sweeps across western Pennsylvania, traveling beer salesman Pete Bonner picks up hitchhiker Joe Miravich, a blacklisted coal miner running from the law. The two overhear a plot to kill a national union leader in Pittsburgh and warn the intended victim only to become targets of the man who ordered the assassination, a mysterious industrialist who conspires with racketeers to control mill-town politics.

Over the next dozen years Bonner becomes a prosperous businessman. Miravich rises to union president in the local steel mill, where management and labor struggle over divisive issues. The two men form an unlikely alliance to defend themselves against sporadic attacks by political enemies. As the town moves from Depression to postwar prosperity, their lives are depicted in work and family scenes of middle-and-working-class life, exposing deep racial and class divisions. A violent showdown in McKeesport reveals the exploitative nature of the economic and political powers that would, forty years later, turn the mill towns of the Monongahela Valley into blighted relics of the industrial era.”

I can’t wait to read it.

Rust Wire: Why did you decide to write a novel about the Mon Valley in the 1930s and 1940s?

John Hoerr: “I really didn’t start out to be a journalist, I wanted to be a fiction writer from the beginning. For most of my career I wrote stories, almost none of which were published after my college years…

The second thing is that after I finished Wolf [And The Wolf Finally Came] I felt a sense of incompleteness. I had set down technically all the facts I knew – and it is 626 pages of facts, I just went back and looked at the pages – and I still felt I really hadn’t explained what had happened to the mills and the towns in the Mon Valley or anywhere.

I couldn’t point to one person or one organization, or one corporation, or one union, one union leader, one corporate figure like Henry Frick or Andrew Carnegie, I couldn’t point to one villain who was responsible for the social, economic, and political catastrophe.

So when I finished Wolf, I had this sense of incompleteness. I also had a sense of wanting desperately to write a description about my upbringing, not my life as such, but things I saw as a kid and as a young man, throughout the Mon Valley.  When I was a kid, I traveled up and down the Valley, worked briefly in a U.S. Steel mill, -the National Tube plant in McKeesport – had other kinds of jobs in McKeesport, and knew the town pretty well. I never had a chance to write published descriptions [of that.] …

So, I put those two things together, that is, creating a story about people in the Mon Valley that in the end would, metaphorically anyway, try to give my explanation of what happened in the Valley. Not in its actual terms, but I think, metaphorically. The novel is not a coming of age novel. It is not about me. It is about the generation previous to mine, my father’s generation.

I put people together in situations that for me, tells a story about what might have happened, leading up to what, in fact, did happen 40 years later. Now, the story is confined to the 1930s and 1940s and it ends about 1950. It comes nowhere near in time to the 1980s shut down of the mills, but it sort of indicates what might happen in the future because of what has happened in the 30s and 40s.”

RW: How much of this book was influenced by your work as a reporter and by what you learned and saw as a reporter?

JH: “I would say it is greatly influenced by that. As I said, I knew the valley before I ever became a reporter, but nowhere near on such intimate terms as after I became a reporter, because for many years, I covered the Mon Valley as a reporter. Even when I was working out of New York, I returned to the Mon Valley and talked to people, especially, local union people I knew up and down the valley in the all of the mills. Without being a reporter, I never would have had that experience….

That’s what my life experience is and I used that as much as I could, because I talked to real people.”

RW: How does your new book relate generally to the decline of manufacturing in this country?

JH: “The book doesn’t attempt to be in any way, a text book, it is a novel, a fictional story. But most fictional stories, if they have anything to do with real people, and real situations – especially economic situations, political situations – most stories have something to say about the time in which they were written, the culture, the politics…

I show what happens in a fictional situation in a particular fictional steel mill in a community in the 30s and 40s. Those who wish, could project that forward to other towns and other industries, other plants, and get a sense of what might have happened.

By the way, my novel is in a town named McKeepsport, my hometown, but there are many fictional organizations of people in it, which I describe in a forward statement. I don’t use the name National Tube to refer to the mill, I have a fictional name because the stories that are set inside the mill are all fictional, and I wouldn’t  want it thought that I was trying to describe any factual current that I knew about. The same with the town…to the degree that I used political figures I used fictional political figures, and so forth.”

RW: Does your book address at all what could have been done in the 1930s and 40s, or even in the 1980s both by steel companies and unions in the US to have a better outcome and avoided the widespread mill shutdowns?

JH: “Only in an indirect way, and probably not for a lot of fiction readers. To some in industry and the labor movement, it might indicate what corporations and unions might have done, although I don’t set out to say so specifically. But the nature of the story I tell might indicate how they could have reacted. …“

RW: I had been planning on asking you if any parts of this story were autobiographical, that is, based on your own life and experiences, but you already said that isn’t the case.

JH: “In 1937, when it starts, I was a little kid. I appear in two scenes, one as an 8 –year-old, one as a 14-year-old, and I’m hardly shown as someone who made things happen. I’m hardly in this book at all, except to make fun of myself.”

RW: Let’s talk a little bit more about the differences between writing non-fiction and fiction.

JH: “…Journalism might have [impacted] the fiction writing too much, in that I put too many facts in. In journalism of course, that’s all you want to do is put the facts in…But friends commented on that, that my manuscript was saturated with facts. …I had to work assiduously to rid the fiction of facts. It sounds like a crazy comment, but it’s true, I did.”

RW: Do you have any other future projects or fiction you are working on now that you can share with us?

JH: “I wish I did, but not at the moment, my wife and I are contemplating getting ready to move. We recently sold our home here in New Jersey and we are going to move to Massachusetts where we have two sons, to be with family. We want to be up in that area.”

Monongahela Dusk will be published Aug. 15, but before that people can get a 25 percent discount by writing to the publisher, Autumn House Press, 87 1/2 Westwood Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15211. You must  apply before Aug. 1 for the discount.
Hoerr is scheduled to read selections from the book Aug. 29 at the Pump House, 880 East Waterfront Drive, Munhall, PA, which is run by the Battle of Homestead Foundation.

51luky7pypl_ss500_

And for all you other McKeesport natives out there, Hoerr recomends the blog/ news site Tube City Almanac. Check it out!

-KG

4 Comments

Filed under Book review