Sunday, August 24, 2008

Naming Rights

The ideas presented here are loosely organized, to say the least. Consider them reference points to ideas about place names and their connection to history, regional trauma, and Pittsburgh's public identity.

UPMC became the largest employer in the greater Pittsburgh region. With such a large economic footprint comes the right to buy naming rights, and UPMC went for the tower that historically represents economic power in Pittsburgh: the former US Steel Building.

Steel's symbology, steel's branding of the region. So common & familiar, we tune them out, these symbols, place-names, and people connected to a lost industry. I wonder, are they just names to the college kids streaming to CMU and Pitt from out of state this fall?

The Carnegie Library system. Fricke Park. Place-names resonant with the past direct traffic all over the city. The Hot Metal Bridge was once part of the steelmaking process itself.

Do I really need to reiterate this obviousness?

Those familiar place names may be integrated into our inner maps of Pittsburgh, but there is a necessary silence between past and present.

There's long slow loss of the steel industry, there's the population's attrition. The silence a friend of mine refers to as 'the puffy silence', the holding patterns she sees amongst men and women in their 40's and older on the bus, at her job.

The community-endured pain of family after family split by economic opportunity elsewhere, of grandparents stuck in devalued houses while the grandkids grow up in Oregon or Chicago.

Under those place names I see the long slow bruising that the region walked through during the ongoing 'layoff & rehire' patterns engaged in by US Steel and other companies. Millworkers waiting for rehire phone calls that never came.

Men and women in their fifties and sixties have whispered to me what they think needs to be said: the details of exactly how the steel industry beat the shit out of this town as it left. They say, "Nobody will come out and say it."

This industry so totally cleaved to in public symbols, in cult of personality, in cult of masculinity. It was an industry built on the bodies of the workers -- and now, UPMC makes its money "caring for" those bodies, the eldest of that generation of workers in this, one of the oldest communities in America.

People think that hospitals are a place to go to get well. They forget that it is also the place to go when one is preparing for death. Why do you think UPMC is so successful? We are an old, old county. And the eldest among us, many of them worked for US Steel. Now they go to the hospital for the last leg of their journey, and say goodbye to their (visiting) families from UPMC hospital beds.

Their bodies built the old industry, the one we lost. Their bodies build the new industry. It is oddly appropriate, isn't it, that we have the UPMC Tower.

Disconnect. Reconnect. What else won't be talked about?

1 comment:

Karen Lillis said...

Thank you for this insightful piece! I can see the UPMC sign on the US Steel building from my window. It's quite a bold branding, to say the least. You said it well.