Thursday, August 09, 2007

Unique Pittsburgh: Industrial Archipelago

How did Pittsburgh end up with such fragmented political landscape? An article in the Journal of Historical Geography (27, 1), details the growth pattern of metropolitan Pittsburgh from 1870 to 1920. Concerning the explosion of political entities, that served the interests of industrial barons:

Pittsburgh had long been a centre for the craft union movement and experienced years of contentious labour relations. Some owners wished to remove their plants and workers from this caldron of labour politics by relocating to isolated communities where they could exercise more control. After a bitter strike in 1893, the Apollo Iron and Steel Company relocated to a farm site across the Kiskiminetas River from its cramped Apollo works. Here, the Pittsburgh-owned company built a modern works that took advantage of the greater available space, but management also wanted to stabilize the labour force through the construction of Vandergrift, a model industrial town designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s well-known architectural firm. With an attractive plan and modern infrastructure, company president George McMurtry hoped to encourage workers to become homeowners and turn their backs on the unions that had beleaguered the original works across the river. By 1920, more than 12 000 people resided in the industrial communities of the Vandergrift area.

The physical geography of the region provided ample sites of isolation and the growth of Pittsburgh was more akin to a network than the typical pattern of outward sprawl. Towns became associated with a specific company and industry. Furthermore, the industrial process became increasingly dispersed. Rail and river links allowed for an awesome amount of geographic diversification, which in turn served up to ownership captive labor markets prime for exploitation.

Industry was mobile, at least within the region, while labor was stuck. What was so impressive about the pattern of development was the distribution of Pittsburgh's population in so many distinct communities. Pittsburgh's population was shifting to "industrial towns" within Allegheny County in much larger numbers than to residential suburbs. The resulting geography confounded attempts to define the boundaries of metropolitan Pittsburgh:

The spatially extensive and complexly patterned geography of the Pittsburgh industrial district led to confusion among the Pittsburgh Survey field workers, local politicians, and journalists as to what actually constituted the metropolitan region. Were the many communities not contiguous with Pittsburgh and its adjacent urbanized areas part of the metropolitan region?

That confusion is captured in Pittsburgh's current political geography, which is an artifact of the communal isolation that is the hallmark of the distinct regional culture. Also remarkable is the city's connectivity with the surrounding industrial towns. The regional economy was tightly knitted together yet restricted the geographic mobility of labor.

Next up, I'll look at Pittsburgh's isolation from the rest of the United States and the development of Pittsburghese.

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