My daughters will never see a Braddock sunrise. When I was young, my pals and I would spend long, lazy nights in the woods above the mill, sometimes passing a quart of beer or cheap wine. Talk in those days was about our dreams for the future and fears of the present — usually about the Vietnam War and who had served and who was about to be called and who we had lost.
Discussion was pretty active for much of the night — supplemented by a little doo-wop harmony and other distractions — anything to keep us together a little while longer. Invariably we hit the wall — that suddenly silent time, repeated every night, when everybody in the community who was going home had made it there and everybody who was leaving for work had not yet departed. At that moment, the world just sort of settled and even ambient noise dissolved into the background.
Suddenly, the entire sweep of the black sky would turn fiery orange as molten steel was poured in the valley below. It happened silently, but with such suddenness that you remember it as an explosive boom. You could be miles away, but still recognize a Braddock sunrise. It was an era when nature's cycle turned the sky from black to orange to gray — every single night in the valley.
The color of the sky was the barometer of our lives. During the long steel strike of 1959, I once called my Grandma out to the front porch to share my incredible discovery — the sky was blue. “I know Josie, it's pretty,” she said, “But remember — when there's no smoke in the sky, there's no bread on our table.”
These days I am often stuck in traffic on the old Homestead Hi-Level Bridge, ferrying my daughters and their friends to the Waterfront entertainment and retail metropolis. I try to get them to imagine what it was like: to the left and to the right, as far as the eye can see, the flatland was carpeted with sparkling, glowing, belching factories.
The water churned with riverboats and barges and you could feel the money being made — families eating well, saving for vacation and planning for new babies, new homes and new beginnings. Try as I do, I can never get the kids to see it as I remember it. People were making a real living, instead of struggling on minimum wage and praying for tips.
THE RACE FOR ACE
This year will be marked by the second election of the Allegheny County executive — a job that was created by the narrowest of margins in a referendum four years ago. Jim Roddey, a smart businessman who was elected as the first executive, just announced that he is running for re-election and his likely Democrat opponent is county Controller Dan Onorato.
For someone who ran as a corporate type, Jim has learned the politician's lingo in short order. In his campaign announcement, he claimed credit for creating a number of jobs in the last three years and promises even more if re-elected.
Let's be honest: any jobs that have come on line the last three years had to have been put in motion years before Jim took office. And any jobs that Jim has put in motion in the last three years will not be seen for some time — if ever. And Dan Onorato will have to do better than that if he is to win and succeed, because these are dark economic times, and the jobs body-count that has worked in past campaigns just will not work again.
So, here's the deal — let us happily give any politician credit for jobs gained on his watch, as long as he takes responsibility for those jobs lost during that same time. Using this approach, there are no likely takers. Moving on, let's get the candidates to talk about the real issues, since job creation is way beyond the control of local politicians in a declining national economy.
When the pendulum begins to swing towards prosperity — as it certainly will — our region must have the structures, institutions and programs in place to welcome it. Those are the foundation blocks of regional economic prosperity. All local and regional candidates in upcoming elections should be discussing our multiplicity of governments and bureaucracies, diffused incentive efforts and the diluted and competing economic strategies that continue to contribute to regional stagnancy.
I suppose the sky is still a barometer for life around here. It is no longer orange, frequently gray, sometimes blue, and always filled with pie — pie-in-the-sky promises that this politician or that is going to create real jobs for the hard-working people of our region. We are long overdue for intelligent public discussions that strike at the heart of our economic lethargy. Once we begin that process, the sky is the limit.