Localizing the Apocalyptic

I have been looking forward to The Road for some time not so much for the novel itself, I’ll confess, but so that after I read the book, I can watch the film, and then see all the local places I grew up around, with Viggo Mortensen pushing a cart and wielding a gun through them.  As a Pittsburgher, you are, in some sense, innately in touch with the apocalyptic, or perhaps post-apocalyptic.  Pittsburgh is a place where, between 1980 and 1984 alone, 50,000 steelworkers lost their jobs, as the economy hemorrhaged and the region seemed doomed.  Today, in most ways, the economy has recovered quite well, with the region as a whole experiencing an unemployment rate below the national average.  Yet feelings of impending doom are embedded in the Pittsburgh psyche, and much of this is due to the scars of decades of heavy industry followed by a total collapse of that.  

A few episodes in our regional past which feature large in any Western Pennsylvanian’s identity formation truly feel apocalyptic.  After a freak weather event trapped a pocket of warm air over cold air in the valley of the Monongahela River near the milltown of Donora, about 24 miles upriver from Pittsburgh, the pollution from the town’s cokeworks became trapped in the valley.  For three days in 1948, Donora filled with a dense, yellow-gray smog, in an event now called simply the Donora Smog.  Residents recall they could not see their hands outstretched in front of them; vehicles used headlights all day and still found the roads impassible; yet still the mill kept running under ordered to close.  Twenty people died.

Things hadn’t much improved by the ‘50s, as a reporter for a New York paper gave Pittsburgh a nickname worn now as a badge of honor—“hell with the lid off.”  My mother remembers days when the streetlights would stay on all day because of the pollution; perhaps more nefariously, we suffer a high rate of asthma and other lung ailments, largely due to our industrial legacy and continued industrial activity today.

When I take the train home, I always know I’m near, even if approaching at night, as the train passes the Edgar Thomson Works, the first bessemer process mill in the nation, in continuous operation since the 1880s: the flares from the mill light up the night sky, blue flares from one section, orange and red from another, and a huge stack in the middle sending clouds of gray into the night.

All of this nostalgic digression is meant as a means for me to understand the utility of reading The Road.  Zombie culture, the post-apocalyptic, and other such genres are embraced in Pittsburgh in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else.  George Romero and Tom Savini are heroes, and the only reason worth visiting Monroeville Mall is as shrine to Dawn of the Dead.  The filmmakers of The Road chose to film in Western Pennsylvania because, in November and December especially, it’s a pretty bleak place.  We have the abandoned mills, the abandoned roadways, railways, streetscapes, that can look pretty post-apocalyptic.  We have an entire amusement park, near where my father grew up in New Castle, midway between Erie and Pittsburgh, that is totally abandoned, including a partially burnt-down dancehall no one can afford to tear down—yet that featured perfectly in the burned-out landscapes of McCarthy’s novel.  As a child,  I would hike with my friends down a big wooded hillside near our neighborhood to play near a massive gas well—we would climb the fence around it, and spend hours watching it silently go up and down, up and down.

The apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic, are strongly resonant in my hometown, and it simply makes sense why.  Though now named America’s Most Livable City multiple times, we suffer from an inferiority complex, born of decades of population loss—Pittsburgh’s population today nearly matches that of 1900, and is half its 1950 high—and a vanished identity, namely that of industry.  We are a city always fearing that the bottom will drop again, as it did in the early ‘80s; we are still one of the poorest large American cities or metro areas, and Pittsburgh is the only major US metro area located in the area under the aegis of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Perhaps that is why I feel a certain comfort in the pages of The Road.  The defense of person and child; the confrontation of the bleak, the fear-inspiring, the fully unknown; the passage of time as unimportant and inconsequential.  All of this resonates, in some way, and it provides a means of understanding those things beyond our control, which seem to have an intense power over the lives of whole regions of persons; as the son of a millworker, I can tell you that a world traumatized by something of unknown origin feels perfectly normal.  Things were never quite so bad in Pittsburgh that masses lived out of shopping carts, yet going to that extreme allows an understanding of the common experience which feels apocalyptic in itself.

One thought on “Localizing the Apocalyptic

  1. Hi Joe,
    Among the many things I admire about your description of your home city is how it shows that there are examples of grave devastation all around us all of the time. I think of the shopping cart men and women I see on the streets of New York City or people who live in subways, where life is threatened day in and day out, and whose survival remains tenuous. As you suggest, these are the daily apocalypses that people do survive, or not. This gives us a kind of meaningfulness as a response to the novel insofar as it suggests that we are on the road to widening these experiences as long as we continue to ignore the plight of people already there and continue to segment existence.

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