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Mon Valley cities, other Act 47 communities desperate for change

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Roselyn Norris, 63, of Clairton has a cigarette outside her son's business Soft Serve and Dee-Lites along Miller Avenue in Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. With the stadium right up the street, the food joint is covered in Clairton Bears football signs, the pride of the city. Norris' son and a few of her 23 grandchildren have gone through the ranks of Clairton Bears football.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Roselyn Norris, 63, of Clairton has a cigarette outside her son's business Soft Serve and Dee-Lites along Miller Avenue in Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. With the stadium right up the street, the food joint is covered in Clairton Bears football signs, the pride of the city. Norris' son and a few of her 23 grandchildren have gone through the ranks of Clairton Bears football.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Young women cross the street between the closed up storefronts along the main drag through downtown Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Young women cross the street between the closed up storefronts along the main drag through downtown Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - US Steel's Clairton Works is seen from a backyard hillside in Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. Once a thriving steel town, the city's population dwindled from 20,000 to 6,800 with the decline of the steel industry in the Mon Valley. Residents are left shouldering the aging infrastructure and government structure built to serve a population almost three times its size.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>US Steel's Clairton Works is seen from a backyard hillside in Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. Once a thriving steel town, the city's population dwindled from 20,000 to 6,800 with the decline of the steel industry in the Mon Valley. Residents are left shouldering the aging infrastructure and government structure built to serve a population almost three times its size.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Downtown Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. 'Nobody wants us,' said Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi, commenting on the city's search for neighboring municipalities and school districts to merge with. 'We wrote letters and received replies saying: 'Thanks for writing but no, thanks.''
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Downtown Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. 'Nobody wants us,' said Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi, commenting on the city's search for neighboring municipalities and school districts to merge with. 'We wrote letters and received replies saying: 'Thanks for writing but no, thanks.''
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Barber Corry Sanders (second from left) trims the beard of John Harper (left sitting), 65, both of McKeesport, at Kool Kutz, the barbershop Sanders runs in downtown McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'This is one of the few businesses that's still hanging in there 'cause he does good business,' said Harper. 'People come here to socialize.' The barber on the right is Laneel Phifer, 36, cutting the hair of Terrell Brooks, 15, both of McKeesport.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Barber Corry Sanders (second from left) trims the beard of John Harper (left sitting), 65, both of McKeesport, at Kool Kutz, the barbershop Sanders runs in downtown McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'This is one of the few businesses that's still hanging in there 'cause he does good business,' said Harper. 'People come here to socialize.' The barber on the right is Laneel Phifer, 36, cutting the hair of Terrell Brooks, 15, both of McKeesport.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Barber Corry Sanders (second from left) trims the beard of John Harper (center), 65, both of McKeesport, at Kool Kutz, the barbershop Sanders runs in downtown McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'This is one of the few businesses that's still hanging in there 'cause he does good business,' said Harper. 'People come here to socialize.' In the foreground are barber Michael Johnson (front left), 24, cutting the hair of Late Jackson, 6, both of McKeesport.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Barber Corry Sanders (second from left) trims the beard of John Harper (center), 65, both of McKeesport, at Kool Kutz, the barbershop Sanders runs in downtown McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'This is one of the few businesses that's still hanging in there 'cause he does good business,' said Harper. 'People come here to socialize.' In the foreground are barber Michael Johnson (front left), 24, cutting the hair of Late Jackson, 6, both of McKeesport.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Raven Herriott, 29, braids the hair of Bry'auna Davis, 9, both of McKeesport, as Coreyne McClellan looks out to the street in front of her McKeesport home on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'It used to be nice out here,' said Herriott. 'They get money and they fix up the nicer areas, then they leave us.'
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Raven Herriott, 29, braids the hair of Bry'auna Davis, 9, both of McKeesport, as Coreyne McClellan looks out to the street in front of her McKeesport home on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'It used to be nice out here,' said Herriott. 'They get money and they fix up the nicer areas, then they leave us.'
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - A rusting gate in Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. 'There haven't been many Lazarus communities that come back from the dead,' said David Thornburgh, executive director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. 'The reality is that many communities will just kind of continue to muddle along.'
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>A rusting gate in Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. 'There haven't been many Lazarus communities that come back from the dead,' said David Thornburgh, executive director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. 'The reality is that many communities will just kind of continue to muddle along.'
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Max Cheney, 75, of McKeesport and the Rev. Helen Burkhardt, 82, of Port Vue (right), comfort a woman during service at Kiesell Soup Kitchen in downtown McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013. The woman, who asked to be prayed for, said she felt ashamed that she was kicked out of her apartment and could not find someone to take her in.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Max Cheney, 75, of McKeesport and the Rev. Helen Burkhardt, 82, of Port Vue (right), comfort a woman during service at Kiesell Soup Kitchen in downtown McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013. The woman, who asked to be prayed for, said she felt ashamed that she was kicked out of her apartment and could not find someone to take her in.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Max Cheney (back), 75, of McKeesport puts his hand on the shoulder of Patricia Baxley, 60, of McKeesport as he and Rev. Helen M. Burkhardt, 82, of Port Vue (front right) pray for her health at Kiesell Soup Kitchen in downtown McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Max Cheney (back), 75, of McKeesport puts his hand on the shoulder of Patricia Baxley, 60, of McKeesport as he and Rev. Helen M. Burkhardt, 82, of Port Vue (front right) pray for her health at Kiesell Soup Kitchen in downtown McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Rev. Helen M. Burkhardt takes a break from ministering to sit and sing during a service at Kiesell Soup Kitchen in downtown McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013. Burkhardt holds a service for several hours before the Sunday meal is served. 'I want to show them a better way of life,' she said about the people who visit her ministry/soup kitchen. Burkhardt, who was herself an orphan, has taken many people from the community under her wing and runs the soup kitchen on what she can scrape together from donations and money out of her own pocket.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Rev. Helen M. Burkhardt takes a break from ministering to sit and sing during a service at Kiesell Soup Kitchen in downtown McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013. Burkhardt holds a service for several hours before the Sunday meal is served. 'I want to show them a better way of life,' she said about the people who visit her ministry/soup kitchen. Burkhardt, who was herself an orphan, has taken many people from the community under her wing and runs the soup kitchen on what she can scrape together from donations and money out of her own pocket.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - People talk outside the Family Dollar along Fifth Avenue in McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>People talk outside the Family Dollar along Fifth Avenue in McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - 'We need business' reads the graffiti on the front door of one of the many abandoned buildings along the main drag through downtown Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. 'Businesses come into town, and all they see is dilapidated buildings,' said city Manager Howard Bednar. He doesn't feel changes proposed by state politicians will be much help to communities placed under Act-47.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>'We need business' reads the graffiti on the front door of one of the many abandoned buildings along the main drag through downtown Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. 'Businesses come into town, and all they see is dilapidated buildings,' said city Manager Howard Bednar. He doesn't feel changes proposed by state politicians will be much help to communities placed under Act-47.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - The Rev. Helen M. Burkhardt, 82, of Port Vue talks to visitors of the Kiesell Soup Kitchen that she runs in downtown McKeesport outside the kitchen/ministry's front doors on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'I want to show them a better way of life,' she said about the people who visit her ministry/soup kitchen. Burkhardt, who was herself an orphan, has taken many people from the community under her wing and runs the soup kitchen on what she can scrape together from donations and money out of her own pocket. 'They call me mom,' she said.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>The Rev. Helen M. Burkhardt, 82, of Port Vue talks to visitors of the Kiesell Soup Kitchen that she runs in downtown McKeesport outside the kitchen/ministry's front doors on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'I want to show them a better way of life,' she said about the people who visit her ministry/soup kitchen. Burkhardt, who was herself an orphan, has taken many people from the community under her wing and runs the soup kitchen on what she can scrape together from donations and money out of her own pocket. 'They call me mom,' she said.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Joyce Johnson, 51, of Duquesne waits under a dryer as owner Reta Wallace of McKeesport fixes a customer's hair at Magic Palace in McKeesport on Friday night, August 23, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Joyce Johnson, 51, of Duquesne waits under a dryer as owner Reta Wallace of McKeesport fixes a customer's hair at Magic Palace in McKeesport on Friday night, August 23, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - The Rev. Helen M. Burkhardt, 82, of Port Vue poses for a portrait in the front lobby of the Kiesell Soup Kitchen that she runs in downtown McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'It's so bad right now… people don't even have money anymore to play Bingo like they used to,' she said. Burkhardt uses funds from weekly Bingo games to help run the kitchen.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>The Rev. Helen M. Burkhardt, 82, of Port Vue poses for a portrait in the front lobby of the Kiesell Soup Kitchen that she runs in downtown McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'It's so bad right now… people don't even have money anymore to play Bingo like they used to,' she said. Burkhardt uses funds from weekly Bingo games to help run the kitchen.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Rev. Helen M. Burkhardt (far right), 82, of Port Vue, prays for the health of a visitor to the Kiesell Soup Kitchen that she runs in downtown McKeesport, PA. She holds a ministry service before serving a meal to community members in need. “It’s so bad right now… people don’t even have money anymore to play Bingo like they used to,” she said. Burkhardt uses funds from weekly Bingo games to help run the kitchen. Rose Ernst, 63, of Lincoln Borough, helps at Kiesell Soup Kitchen as well. “There’s a lot of competition between the different soup kitchens. Some people for some reason want a big audience,” she said, referring to the ministries that exist inside the different food kitchens. “I think with all the jobs disappearing its gotten much worse.”
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Rev. Helen M. Burkhardt (far right), 82, of Port Vue, prays for the health of a visitor to the Kiesell Soup Kitchen that she runs in downtown McKeesport, PA. She holds a ministry service before serving a meal to community members in need.  “It’s so bad right now… people don’t even have money anymore to play Bingo like they used to,” she said. Burkhardt uses funds from weekly Bingo games to help run the kitchen.   Rose Ernst, 63, of Lincoln Borough, helps at Kiesell Soup Kitchen as well. “There’s a lot of competition between the different soup kitchens. Some people for some reason want a big audience,” she said, referring to the ministries that exist inside the different food kitchens. “I think with all the jobs disappearing its gotten much worse.”
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - 'I'm not paying myself, but I'm paying the bills,' said McKeesport shop owner Stephanie Smalls. 'I don't look at myself as a gambler. I look at myself as someone who has faith.' Smalls, of Braddock, stands in her clothing shop, Unique Boutique, in downtown McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'I did all this with no grants, no help, one day at a time,' she said about recently starting the business in the relatively empty heart of the once thriving downtown. 'Whenever you take a risk you've got to be prepared to fail.'
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>'I'm not paying myself, but I'm paying the bills,' said McKeesport shop owner Stephanie Smalls. 'I don't look at myself as a gambler. I look at myself as someone who has faith.' Smalls, of Braddock, stands in her clothing shop, Unique Boutique, in downtown McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013.  'I did all this with no grants, no help, one day at a time,' she said about recently starting the business in the relatively empty heart of the once thriving downtown. 'Whenever you take a risk you've got to be prepared to fail.'
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - An entire street of abandoned homes sits crumbling in Clairton on Monday, August 19, 2013. The city is home to some 1,000 abandoned houses, some looking like families didn't bother to pack up their old lives before they moved on, with spice cabinets still full of jars and art hanging on peeling walls. The town's population of 20,000 declined with the steel industry to today's count of 6,800 residents. A quarter of those live in poverty, and an estimated 5 percent are homeless.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>An entire street of abandoned homes sits crumbling in Clairton on Monday, August 19, 2013. The city is home to some 1,000 abandoned houses, some looking like families didn't bother to pack up their old lives before they moved on, with spice cabinets still full of jars and art hanging on peeling walls. The town's population of 20,000 declined with the steel industry to today's count of  6,800 residents. A quarter of those live in poverty, and an estimated 5 percent are homeless.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi stands in an abandoned home that sits among a street of abandoned homes in Clairton on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'I thought I could make a change, but I didn't realize how many problems there are,' he said. Taxes and sewage bills went up in the already economically distressed area, which filed for Act 47 after the collapse of the steel industry. 'We've been gutted, we can't seem to get anything,' he said.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi stands in an abandoned home that sits among a street of abandoned homes in Clairton on Monday, August 19, 2013. 'I thought I could make a change, but I didn't realize how many problems there are,' he said. Taxes and sewage bills went up in the already economically distressed area, which filed for Act 47 after the collapse of the steel industry. 'We've been gutted, we can't seem to get anything,' he said.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Ushers Barbara Jones (center back left), 43, of Duquesne and Anna Summers (center back right), 60, of McKeesport sing along with the senior choir during Sunday service at Bethlehem Baptist Church in McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Ushers Barbara Jones (center back left), 43, of Duquesne and Anna Summers (center back right), 60, of McKeesport sing along with the senior choir during Sunday service at Bethlehem Baptist Church in McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Bobby Paige, 59, of McKeesport, lifts his hands during Sunday service at Bethlehem Baptist Church in McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Bobby Paige, 59, of McKeesport, lifts his hands during Sunday service at Bethlehem Baptist Church in McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - The Rev. Earlene Coleman of McKeesport delivers a sermon during Sunday service at Bethlehem Baptist Church in McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013. 'We need you to heal us today, God, turn us from our wicked ways, hallelujah, heal today God,' she said. 'I feel a stirring in the spirit, he's stirring, He's stirring up stuff, he's turning stuff around, he's fixing stuff, we just have to receive it and believe.'
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>The Rev. Earlene Coleman of McKeesport delivers a sermon during Sunday service at Bethlehem Baptist Church in McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013. 'We need you to heal us today, God, turn us from our wicked ways, hallelujah, heal today God,' she said. 'I feel a stirring in the spirit, he's stirring, He's stirring up stuff, he's turning stuff around, he's fixing stuff, we just have to receive it and believe.'
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - The Youghiogheny River flows to the Monongahela River along the shore of McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013. McKeesport is one of the 53 Pennsylvania third-class cities that experienced challenges as the industries that were once at their heart shrunk or boarded up completely as industry changed in the 1980's. Without the economic diversity of other towns, third-class cities were left spending more than their tax revenues to support the public services, infrastructure, and government left in industry's wake.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>The Youghiogheny River flows to the Monongahela River along the shore of McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013. McKeesport is one of the 53 Pennsylvania third-class cities that experienced challenges as the industries that were once at their heart shrunk or boarded up completely as industry changed in the 1980's. Without the economic diversity of other towns, third-class cities were left spending more than their tax revenues to support the public services, infrastructure, and government left in industry's wake.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Classmates Karma Howell (left), 5, of McKeesport and Damarjae Warren, 5, of Clairton, wait for their photo to be taken during the 'Mystical Magical Mardi Gras' celebration marking the end of a school year at Don't Worry Child Care Center on Friday, August 23, 2013. Warren is moving into the Propel McKeesport charter school for kindergarten this year at the decision of his parents, who said Clairton's school scores are so low that there is funding available so their son can go elsewhere. Warren's father Dimietre Arrington, 26, also grew up in Clairton, a town that has become a media darling as its football team rose from the rubble to collect record wins after the crash of the steel industry and the ensuing economic collapse. 'The people that were teaching me the facts of life, they're not here anymore. It's not as bad as people make it out to be though. It's just - the love is gone. Instead of us being neighbors and community we're divided. You just live here but you don't have to be a part of the negativity,' he said. 'It's an honor raising him here. It doesn't distract us from what we're trying to do every day… It's just that Clairton is smaller so it gets magnified.'
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Classmates Karma Howell (left), 5, of McKeesport and Damarjae Warren, 5, of Clairton, wait for their photo to be taken during the 'Mystical Magical Mardi Gras' celebration marking the end of a school year at Don't Worry Child Care Center on Friday, August 23, 2013. Warren is moving into the Propel McKeesport charter school for kindergarten this year at the decision of his parents, who said Clairton's school scores are so low that there is funding available so their son can go elsewhere.  Warren's father Dimietre Arrington, 26, also grew up in Clairton, a town that has become a media darling as its football team rose from the rubble to collect record wins after the crash of the steel industry and the ensuing economic collapse. 'The people that were teaching me the facts of life, they're not here anymore. It's not as bad as people make it out to be though. It's just - the love is gone. Instead of us being neighbors and community we're divided. You just live here but you don't have to be a part of the negativity,' he said. 'It's an honor raising him here. It doesn't distract us from what we're trying to do every day… It's just that Clairton is smaller so it gets magnified.'
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Children dance during the 'Mystical Magical Mardi Gras' celebration marking the end of a school year at Don't Worry Child Care Center in McKeesport on Friday, August 23, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Children dance during the 'Mystical Magical Mardi Gras' celebration marking the end of a school year at Don't Worry Child Care Center in McKeesport on Friday, August 23, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - A McKeesport firefighter uses a ladder to climb on the roof of a building that caught fire in Glassport on Monday, August 19, 2013. One of the area's last paid fire departments, McKeesport's fire department has one of the only ladder trucks in the area and is called for larger fires when nearby departments need help.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>A McKeesport firefighter uses a ladder to climb on the roof of a building that caught fire in Glassport on Monday, August 19, 2013. One of the area's last paid fire departments, McKeesport's fire department has one of the only ladder trucks in the area and is called for larger fires when nearby departments need help.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Boarded up storefronts in downtown McKeesport show a hint of the bustling city that used to be on Monday, August 19, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Boarded up storefronts in downtown McKeesport show a hint of the bustling city that used to be on Monday, August 19, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Patricia Baxley, 60, of McKeesport passes along a plate of food at the Kiesell Soup Kitchen in downtown McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Patricia Baxley, 60, of McKeesport passes along a plate of food at the Kiesell Soup Kitchen in downtown McKeesport on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - A young man takes his shoes off for the police to check as he is questioned after walking along the sidewalk in downtown McKeesport on Friday night, August 23, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>A young man takes his shoes off for the police to check as he is questioned after walking along the sidewalk in downtown McKeesport on Friday night, August 23, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Taymier Jamison, 17, of Clairton, stands among the closed up storefronts along the main drag through downtown Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. 'There ain't no jobs out here,' he said of growing up in the former steel town.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Taymier Jamison, 17, of Clairton, stands among the closed up storefronts along the main drag through downtown Clairton on Sunday, August 25, 2013. 'There ain't no jobs out here,' he said of growing up in the former steel town.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Marching up the streets of downtown Clairton, a drummer in the school's marching band is reflected in a succession of broken storefront windows that hint at a once thriving city.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Marching up the streets of downtown Clairton, a drummer in the school's  marching band is reflected in a succession of broken storefront windows that hint at a once thriving city.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Gary Schink, 72, of West Mifflin cuts a piece of Plexiglas for a customer who is patching a broken window on Thursday, August 22, 2013. Schink has been a co-owner of the hardware store in Duquesne for 54 years, and has found himself cutting more Plexiglas windows for people in town recently as breaking windows has become a sort of local sport for youth in the city.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Gary Schink, 72, of West Mifflin cuts a piece of Plexiglas for a customer who is patching a broken window on Thursday, August 22, 2013. Schink has been a co-owner of the hardware store in Duquesne for 54 years, and has found himself cutting more Plexiglas windows for people in town recently as breaking windows has become a sort of local sport for youth in the city.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Downtown Clairton reflects in the window of one of the many abandoned buildings along the main street on Sunday, August 25, 2013. Mayor Rich Lattanzi says a quarter of the city is boarded up, abandoned, or blighted.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Downtown Clairton reflects in the window of one of the many abandoned buildings along the main street on Sunday, August 25, 2013. Mayor Rich Lattanzi says a quarter of the city is boarded up, abandoned, or blighted.

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Class determination

Pennsylvania cities fall into one of four categories based on population:

First class: 1 million or more

Second class: 250,000-999,999

Second class A: 80,000-249,999

Third class: 250,000 or fewer

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are the state's only first- and second-class cities. Fifty-three communities are third-class cities. Scranton is the only city classified as second class A.

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Richard Gazarik and Adam Smeltz
Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 10:03 p.m.
 

A sign leading into Clairton welcomes newcomers to “The City of Prayer.”

“We could use a few,” says steelworker Rich Lattanzi, mayor of the Monongahela Valley community, where a quarter of the 6,800 residents live in poverty and 5 percent are homeless.

The former boom town needs prayers partly because it lost huge numbers of jobs and tax revenue in the post-steel decline — it once had 20,000 residents — but still carries the government trappings of a larger city.

Residents' tax dollars support a stand-alone zoning office for Clairton's 3 square miles. Residents pay for a parks department, a finance office and a public works department, even as the city labors for its 25th year as a state-designated “distressed municipality.”

From Clairton and Duquesne to Aliquippa and New Castle, expensive, bloated and geographically fragmented relics of local government threaten financial recovery in Pennsylvania's shrinking third-class cities, warn independent observers and scholars.

“You had houses, factories, stores and streets built for 30,000 people, but now you have 5,000 people there. You have to find ways to keep the infrastructure from imploding, from not falling down,” said David Thornburgh, executive director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. “The reality is that many communities will just kind of continue to muddle along.”

While Pittsburgh, a second-class city, grabbed a national spotlight for its downturn and rebirth after the 1980s steel industry collapse, smaller post-industrial towns struggled mainly off the radar. Eleven of 27 communities placed under the state's Financially Distressed Municipalities Act since 1987 are third-class cities, many of them former industrial hubs such as Altoona and Reading.

Lawmakers say that legislation, known as Act 47 and meant to stabilize city finances through restructured debt and other measures, has become another burden for local leaders. Five third-class cities have been stuck under the designation for more than 20 years.

“When the act was written, no one realized how long a community would be in it,” said state Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona, who co-chairs a legislative task force rewriting the act. “Municipalities need to work their way out. They need to have an exit strategy.”

Brewing a crisis

Communities across Pennsylvania — from boroughs and cities to suburban townships — saw their landscapes shift when industry began moving out in the 1980s.

But the 53 classified as third-class cities have another layer of complications.

Built at the height of boom times, many elected municipal officials oversaw dramatic expansions of public services. Manufacturers clustered in small-city centers, becoming the hearts of one-trick local economies without the economic diversity of larger towns.

Small businesses set up shop along busy main streets where just about any worker could find a job and walk to work with lunch box in hand — lives timed to their shifts.

Third-class cities began spending more than their tax revenues, as the Pennsylvania Economy League warned in 1958. Cities coped with deficits by borrowing more and more money.

Five years later, the league sounded the alarm again, warning that cities in southwestern Pennsylvania were spending more than double their tax revenue for police, fire protection and public pensions. Fringe benefits for police alone increased 74 percent in 1963.

Today, most city pension funds have liabilities that exceed their assets, according to the Public Employees Retirement Commission, and many former industrial cities never scaled back public services as populations declined.

“You make promises to people based on what a thriving community of thousands can generate, and then you find yourself with a fraction of that,” Thornburgh said. “You find yourself in a spiral that's very hard to get out of.”

To escape that spiral, Clairton and its school district sought mergers with neighboring municipalities and school districts, said Lattanzi, the city's mayor.

“Nobody wants us,” Lattanzi said. “We wrote letters and received replies saying: ‘Thanks for writing, but no, thanks.' ”

Michael Panza, superintendent of the West Jefferson Hills School District, said he was unaware of Clairton's request, but said merging school districts is not easy.

“School districts are political subdivisions,” he said. “Even if they wanted to merge, it will take action of the Legislature to do that.”

Helping the helper

To leave Act 47, Lattanzi said, cities must develop recovery plans that involve debt restructuring and often mean tax hikes on residents struggling with their tax burdens. Some have scuttled recovery plans because they didn't want to increase taxes.

Last year, New Castle rejected a plan because it would have required city council to pass tax hikes amounting to 17 percent in 2014 and the following year.

Farrell in Mercer County, the first city to enter Act 47 in 1987, increased wage and property taxes in 2012, Mayor Oliver McKeithan said. The city's paid firefighters double as street department workers and the fire chief as director of public safety.

“Act 47 is a death sentence,” said state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, a former mayor whose district includes a half-dozen third-class cities. He supports a series of amendments under Eichelberger's task force.

Those changes include a standard five-year limit for placement under Act 47 and a requirement to implement fiscal recommendations from the state. Distressed municipalities unable to emerge from the program would be dissolved and incorporated into neighboring communities.

Others would be offered financial incentives to make consolidation politically and financially palatable.

In Clairton, where about 1,000 abandoned houses have long since replaced bustling streetscapes, city Manager Howard Bednar doesn't expect the proposed changes will help such desperate communities much.

“The financial incentives would have to be astronomical,” he said. “You won't see any municipal mergers. The Mon Valley is old. A lot of problems they have are because infrastructure is collapsing. The revenue isn't there to fix it.

“Businesses come into town, and all they see is dilapidated buildings.”

Rebuilding a legacy

Not everyone has lost faith in the distressed cities and boroughs.

Stephanie Smalls of Braddock opened Unique Boutique in May in a narrow storefront on Fifth Avenue. After working 25 years at Del Monte Foods on Pittsburgh's North Shore, Smalls was laid off and decided to go into business.

“I'm not paying myself, but I'm paying the bills,” she said. “I don't look at myself as a gambler. I look at myself as someone who has faith.”

Natalie Koedel was furloughed as a middle school English teacher in McKeesport. She and her husband, Kevin, sell hotdogs on a corner of Fifth Avenue for two hours every day.

“The potential is here.” she said. “The leaders have the best interests of the city at heart. They believe in the city as much as I do.”

McKeesport, in Allegheny County, has been trying to avoid Act 47, along with the cities of Jeannette and Latrobe in Westmoreland County, both of which are receiving state help to avoid the designation.

For as much as the communities want to escape a downward spiral, the track record for attempted turnarounds isn't good, Thornburgh said. He said towns supported by the natural-gas boom, college towns and those close to transportation hubs might fare better.

“There haven't been very many Lazarus communities that come back from the dead,” Thornburgh said. “This question has been around for 50 years now. It would be terrific if we were able to gather the political will, break through the bubble and make it so the next generation doesn't have to cycle through the same issues.”

Richard Gazarik and Adam Smeltz are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Gazarik can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com. Smeltz can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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