Making Industrial Pittsburgh Modern by Edward K. Muller and Joel A. Tarr

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Making Industrial Pittsburgh Modern
Environment, Landscape, Transportation, Energy, and Planning
by Edward K. Muller and Joel A. Tarr
University of Pittsburgh Press, 504 pp., hardcover $40

Discussions of “modern” Pittsburgh often begin and end with the Renaissance, the rightfully lauded postwar effort to spruce up the city’s tarnished image and clear its smoky skies. But there is so much more to understanding and appreciating Pittsburgh’s place in the history of American city-building. Authors Muller, emeritus professor of urban history at the University of Pittsburgh, and Tarr, an environmental and urban historian at Carnegie Mellon since 1967, ought to know. The two have devoted the bulk of their careers to examining Pittsburgh’s urban-industrial development in fine-grained detail. The fruits of their labor are on full display in this excellent compendium of 16 essays, some previously published (here revised and updated), others presented for the first time.

The book is organized into four thematic parts: a foregrounding section on Pittsburgh’s “industrial foundation,” followed by three sections exploring aspects of the modern city as it manifested itself in transportation, energy and the environment, and urban planning. Together, the essays tease out how Pittsburgh, so often reduced to a meme for the rise and fall of Industrial America, emerged as a modern metropolis in the 20th century, with all the complex systems, both physical and social, that implies.

Threading through nearly all of the essays is the interplay between human activity and the natural environment, a dynamic that Pittsburgh may embody more strongly than any other American city. The region’s unique configuration of rivers and hillsides created challenges and opportunities absent from urban areas without such defined physical features and boundaries. So too did the proximity of natural resources. There is likely no other city that was able to draw on such rich stores of coal, coke and natural gas to literally fuel that industry that earned Pittsburgh its nickname, the Steel City. Fittingly, there was probably no other city more bedeviled by the environmental aftermath.

Another leitmotif running throughout this volume is the uneven social outcomes of modernization, as revealed in everything from the location of streetcar networks and, later, auto thoroughfares to smoke abatement programs and the disposition of industrial (and human) waste. The private sector, exemplified by scion Richard King Mellon, played a disproportionately large role in directing the city’s fate, but thanks to the authors’ efforts, the many previously uncredited administrators, politicians, planners, civil engineers and historic preservationists who accomplished the heavy lifting also receive their due. The flops were sometimes notable: cue Skybus, the ill-fated 1960s mass transit project. At other times, Pittsburgh showed the way in riverfront reclamation, urban revitalization and, more recently, efforts to preserve its industrial heritage while continuing to, well, move forward and modernize.

Curtis Miner
The State Museum of Pennsylvania