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Ambridge native returns to discuss book

| Wednesday, May 18, 2016, 5:54 p.m.

Ambridge.

The town's name says it all: American Bridge.

Growing up in the 1960s in Ambridge, Paul Hertneky saw the town as a mecca of shops, restaurants and bars all fueled by nearby steel mills, like that of the American Bridge Co., which brought thousands of immigrant workers and their families the American Dream.

But the fanfare was short lived. Decades later, as the mills turned to rust, throngs of people packed up to find work, leaving family and familiarity behind. Among those who emigrated a generation or so after family immigrated to the area was Hertneky, who, at times growing up, wondered what life was like beyond steel.

Decades after joining others in the exodus, Hertneky shares his story in his new book, “Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Child” (Bauhan Publishing, $21.95), released this month.

“The whole Rust Belt nomenclature is getting buzz,” Hertneky said of the resurgence of Pittsburgh and the region. “But for many years it was a place the country wanted to believe wasn't there.

“It was a widespread swatch of failure. It wasn't until Pittsburgh started to come back that people saw that there was a way for it to come back.”

In the book, Hertneky shares personal stories of visiting the Laughlin Memorial Library, the Tick-Tock shop, and whether he would one day become a steelworker. A writer by trade, Hertneky spent 10 years putting his memories into the book.

“It was a collage that dealt with history, business, community, family, love life and personal movement,” he said. “I had to find a way to connect all of those things.”

Hertneky, who lives in New England now, said he sees his hometown — like other victims of the steel industry decline across the region — improving.

“The locals are taking charge and improving things,” he said, noting a community network website Ambridge Connection and local business owners opening shops along the once-busy Merchant Street, such as the Tick Tock Cafe.

“Stories like that make me feel like, ‘OK, there's a stubborn sort of pride to make something good,'” he said. “‘If we're going to improve a place we've got to do it together.'”

The destruction of the brownfields was important, he said.

“When a city goes down hard and fast the way Pittsburgh did … it hits bottom harder so it's bound to bounce higher,” he said. “It was a single industry town in many ways.”

Does Hertneky see himself returning to the place he grew up? Probably not, though he visits several times a year.

“Even as a kid I had maps all over the walls,” he said. “I had happy feet. I needed to explore. I knew that. When people leave places, it's not because they're running away from them. I didn't want to get away from my hometown, I wanted to go elsewhere.”

Bobby Cherry is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rcherry@tribweb.com.

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