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West Homestead embraces industrial heritage

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008

When West Homestead Mayor John Dindak surveys the Waterfront complex, teeming with shops, movie theaters and waterslides, he remembers that this is where he lived, where he worked and where he lost almost everything.

Many of the landmarks of Dindak's life mirror the town where he has been mayor for 37 years.

As visitors continue to flock to the Waterfront, which sprawls over hundreds of acres in parts of West Homestead, Homestead and Munhall, other intrepid souls are sampling the towns' ethnic and industrial roots.

The Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center on West Eighth Street in West Homestead and the Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead in nearby Munhall have survived amid shuttered mills and lost jobs.

Local businesses that are not part of the Waterfront continue to vie for visibility, hoping to attract patrons from the thousands of motorists passing through town most days.

West Homestead is a town where Victoria's Secret is followed by Vernon's Welding in the business directory.

Industrial history

An icon of industrial might, U.S. Steel's Homestead Works was one of the largest mills in the country, blanketing a large swath of shoreline along the Monongahela River.

When the steel industry prospered, West Homestead, which sits between Homestead and Munhall, bustled with stores, bars, churches and mansions on the hill overlooking smokestacks and thousands of workers.

The borough of West Homestead grew up at one end of the Homestead Works steel plant, which began operation in 1881 and was sold to Carnegie Steel in 1883, and Mesta Machines, which set up shop nearby in 1898 to produce machines for steel-making. The town was incorporated in 1901, the same year that Carnegie Steel was sold to U.S. Steel.

Employing thousands of immigrant workers, the steel industry became a hotbed of labor unrest and ill-fated attempts for better wages and safer conditions at the turn of the century. The town became famous for the 1892 Battle of Homestead, during which some workers lost their jobs and their lives.

When workers turned down a wage offer from mill management, they were locked out, and the mill brought in hired guns via barge from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to settle the dispute. Combat ensued for several hours, and the workers managed to contain the Pinkertons, who eventually surrendered on the barge.

But the governor sent in the National Guard, which met no resistance. And the mill started hiring workers to replace the regular employees.

The Homestead Works, along with the Edgar Thomson Works across the river in Braddock, the Clairton Works and other mills made U.S. Steel the largest steel manufacturer in the world. In its heyday, the Homestead Works employed more than 10,000; Mesta, more than 4,000.

Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev visited Mesta Machines to witness the region's industrial might during his 1959 visit to the United States.

And England's Prince Charles dropped by in 1988 to view the ruins.

Steel collapse

When the steel industry collapsed during the 1980s, and more than 5,000 workers, including Dindak, lost their jobs, an exodus followed. The Homestead Works closed in 1986. And companies that sprouted up next to the mill, such as Mesta, also died.

So few stayed behind that Dindak had to shut down Little League.

"Everybody left, and there weren't enough kids to play," he says.

When Dindak visits The Waterfront, he remembers where he worked for several decades with U.S. Steel.

"I was heartbroken for a while," he said. "We lost everything: our homes, our jobs, our people. I was only 56 years old when they threw me out. I was able to get a little pension and benefits. It was pretty devastating with four kids. But we survived, ate a lot of jumbo and potatoes.

"I don't know how we survived. We became a ghost town" Dindak says.

The town was so broke that, in 1984, Dindak persuaded public workers and others to pitch in $2 a week to play the Pennsylvania Lottery.

The borough employees said that they didn't want raises, Dindak says. They wanted to keep their jobs. Roads and equipment were deteriorating.

That act of desperation attracted the national media, which portrayed the borough as a despondent town with no jobs, money or sophistication -- just Pittsburgh accents.

"I bet I got 1,000 letters from people around the country with money to play the lottery," Dindak says.

The town didn't hit the jackpot, but it came close. At the end of the gambit, the borough ended up about $700 ahead, he said.

Even in its poverty, the town roared.

And a developer listened.

Redevelopment success

Had someone said the word "waterfront" two decades ago, few people would have thought of West Homestead.

With industry hogging the riverfront, nobody noticed the scenery. Companies that went out of business left behind deteriorating buildings and, often, chemical contamination.

Saddled with an impossibly large industrial plot of several hundred acres, the municipalities that shared it saw the potential to grow a tax base.

In 1988, Cleveland-based Park Corp. bought Mesta Machines through bankruptcy, then bought the U.S. Steel property.

"(Owner) Ray Park told me that he was going to develop the land for a developer, and he leveled everything," Dindak remembers.

Park sold the land to Columbus-based developer Continental Real Estate.

"Frank Kass, the chairman of Continental, was a great guy. He used to come in on a helicopter every two weeks. We'd get a pitcher of cold beer at a local bar and talk. This guy had a vision.

"Without Continental and Frank Kass, we would not be where we are at today," Dindak says. "You wouldn't believe the problems we had with the three boroughs; they all had different ordinances, different building codes, etc."

The first stores at the Waterfront opened in 1999. The complex has continued to expand since.

It was happenstance that the Waterfront retained its signature row of red-brick smokestacks.

According to Dindak, Kass was in the process of tearing them down when the producer of the Hollywood film "Jimmy Hoffa" requested that they remain standing.

"Right after, Kass said, 'Why not dress them up and leave them up.' "

Kass refurbished the stacks, which stand like sentries at the Waterfront entrance, proudly displaying the area's industrial heritage.

The other West Homestead

People no long flee West Homestead's main drag, Eighth Avenue. They make it a destination.

A recent PennDOT survey tracked 30,000 vehicles a day motoring from the Homestead Grays Bridge to the Glenwood Bridge in Hazelwood.

"I don't complain about traffic," Dindak says.

The town's small businesses include family-owned stores, such as K&E Automotive, that have been around for decades, according to John Karafa Jr. of West Homestead and president of Steel Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Me Lyng restaurant, a print shop, a hardware store and other small businesses offer a mix of goods and services away from the big-box stores.

"But you've got some dilapidated storefronts on Eighth Avenue," Karafa says. "Something doesn't work out, and it gets boarded up."

Given the draw of the Waterfront, Karafa doesn't think it's unreasonable to hope for revitalization reminiscent of the South Side along Eighth Avenue.

"There needs to be more planning," he says. "The businesses, local and county politicians, police and fire departments all have to be on the same page to help the business people."

The Rivers of Steel heritage group in Homestead has been offering sold-out tours of the area as part of the "Babushkas and Hard Hats" tour, which are scheduled to resume in the spring.

Jan Dofner, director of communications at Rivers of Steel, describes West Homestead and its Mon Valley neighbors as "a phoenix rising from the ashes."

The watchword is "location" for riverfront sites like West Homestead.

"There's a reason these mills took that land," she says. "They are located on prime flat land along the river."

One of the stops on the tour is an old ethnic club called the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center, which offers a history lesson about the town's immigrant past and an authentic Bulgarian lunch featuring two soups, Bulgarian bread, yogurt, feta cheese, a salad and apple strudel.

With its ethnic dances, Soup Sega featuring 15 homemade soups available on Saturdays, and weekend events such as salsa and Cajun dancing, the club is revitalized, according to president Pat French, 78, a West Homestead native and Mt. Lebanon resident.

This year, the club has attracted abut 4,000 visitors from 42 states and 15 countries, she says.

And Dofner credits the Bulgarian club for being a beacon of cultural preservation.

"They're an incredible model for heritage development," she says.

"The Bulgarian club is entrepreneurial," Dofner says. "They walk the tightrope between staying authentic and marketing themselves commercially."

"We like to talk about the Bulgarians and other immigrants from this area such as the Slovaks, Hungarians, Croatians. We all spoke different languages," French says.

Consequently, they all had different clubs.

The Bulgarian club survived because it opened its doors to other ethnic groups, French says.

"Back then, there were a lot of long young people who wanted to dance with us, and they weren't Bulgarian, so we opened up our membership."

The club still has an active dance group.

French's nephew, Nick Jordanoff, 44, a borough native and a former dance instructor at the club, uses the kitchen as a base for his catering business, Hazelnut Catering.

He recently whipped up salmon filets with caramelized onions and fresh spinach with a caper, lemon and dill mayonnaise, all topped with Swiss cheese, to please the palates of Grateful Dead alum Bob Weir and his band Rat Dog, who performed Nov. 1 at the Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead.

"I spent my entire life in this place," say Jordanoff, a Robinson resident and former owner of the Old Europe Restaurant in the South Side.

"When I got out of the (restaurant) business, this was a natural place for me to work out of."

People ask French why she still volunteers at the club.

"I grew up here," she says. "My thing is, this is our legacy. Our parents came as immigrants and became great Americans. You have to remember your culture. That's what makes you who you are."

Additional Information:

On the Web

• Rivers of Steel tour: www.

• The Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational Center:

• The Waterfront:

• Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead:

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