Once I left western Pennsylvania in 1978, I didn't want to look back. I hadn't seen the ocean until I was seventeen, and I couldn't shake its allure. After four years at Pitt and another year working in a steel mill and for a trucking company, I packed up and headed for Boston.
I found a job working for a alternative newsweekly, The Real Paper, situated between Harvard and Central squares in Cambridge. Every day, I met a fellow baby boomer from another part of the country-we were a massive and mobile generation, going to school away from home and hitting the road to satisfy a sense of adventure.
Living in Nahant, a peninsula on the North Shore, allowed me to walk the beach every day, to wake up to chatter of gulls and the smell of the surf. Nobody mistook me for a local boy; I had Pittsburgh in my diction and the Steelers in my blood. But I played my roots down in an effort to adapt and I had little to say about the unremarkable, and, to me, insignificant mill town upriver from Pittsburgh where I had grown up. Times were getting tougher there, and I knew the mills would soon be shutting down. I wanted to leave all that behind.
Cambridge made forgetting my hometown easy. Everything fascinated me, from the Harvard students to the Scientologists, from the counterculture to the party scene at the apex of the Sexual Revolution. I felt a world away from home.
And then, one Friday, with my first paycheck in my pocket, I strolled into Harvard Square and heard the blues rising out of a rathskeller named Jonathan Swift's. A band was playing and I found a place to stand and take in the music and the atmosphere, pungent with the smell of summer bodies, hot amps, cigarette smoke, marijuana breath and Herbal Essence shampoo. I felt the hair of the girl standing next to me brushing my forearm and I didn't want to interrupt it, so I kept my eyes on the band.
Sticking my beer bottle in my jeans pocket to applaud, I looked down to see the woman beside me, tossing her long hair to the side, reaching over her head with her other hand and pulling it behind her ear. Nice beaded earring, I thought. She smiled at me then looked back to the stage, sipping from a plastic cup.
"I just love John Mayall," she said, turning her green eyes toward me.
She surprised me; I hadn't expected her to speak. And I didn't know shit about Mayall. "Why?" is all I could squeeze out.
She said something like, "His songs find me."
I didn't know what to say to that. But then she asked, "Are you from around here?" a question I took to mean that I didn't look like a student.
She was from Evanston, Illinois, which I knew was outside Chicago, geography-freak that I was.
"And you?" she asked.
"Oh, a little town, outside Pittsburgh."
"Which one? What's its name?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Yes it does," she shot back, a little perturbed.
She asked me to spell it, so I did.
"Oh, like Cambridge without the ‘C'?"
I laughed and she didn't know why.
The similarity began and ended with that initial letter "C."
Cambridge, originally Newtowne, renamed for its aspirations-its eventual power and privilege, erudition and stateliness, all its history and money, presidents, preachers and philosophers, its rowers pulling sculls down the Charles, sweating for sport. Ambridge (pronounced with a short "a"), originally Economy, named for its landlord, The American Bridge Company-its steel, smoke and football, corruption and soot, its displaced immigrants and fractured languages, thugs and brawlers, bookies and mobsters, bargeloads of ore and coal grunting up the Ohio, where nothing but carp and catfish could survive. Cambridge, a tangle of streets lined with bookstores and libraries, galleries and museums, coffee houses, theaters, dormitories and think tanks. Ambridge, a simple grid of company houses, bars, churches, pizza joints, machine shops, Sons of Italy, Polish Falcons, factories, vegetable patches, alleyways, all-night diners, shrines to the Virgin, more bars.
After a few moments of stunned silence and staring at the drop-ceiling, I looked around and the Mayall fan had wandered off. She probably thought I was stoned.
Since then, every time I came back to visit my family Ambridge, it looked worse. The American Bridge Company laid off my father, and other mills shut down one-by-one. As the fate of the town became more like the fate of every other industrial town west of New Jersey and east of Iowa, I knew that its story had become a sad cliché.
I fell in love and married a New England girl whose family kept us nearby for last 30 years. But I am still a Bridger, still a Burgh guy, with lots of family and friends back home. I have a Terrible Towel at the ready and a supply of pierogies in the freezer. In short, I'm part of the Pittsburgh Diaspora, a Rust Belt refugee.
Recently, I've consulted experts and tried to estimate how many baby boomers left the Rust Belt from 1970 until 2000. A convoluted formula led me to guess that the number stands somewhere around six million. I invite other estimates.
In 2004, a swashbuckling Australian demolition magnate named Robert Moltoni swept into my hometown with a new vision and pockets full of presidents. He rode in on a single word, a bland but powerful word that few in town had ever heard, a word that turned my head around and rekindled my faith in Rust Belt renewal - brownfields.
From what I've seen, brownfield development represents the model for public/private collaboration. Cities throughout the nation -- including Cambridge -- have enjoyed its benefits. This change in the fate of Ambridge has caused me to look back at my hometown, and there, buried beneath the slag and cinders, beneath the consciousness of my old friends and neighbors I found 300 years of startling events that shaped the nation and I uncovered a boyhood full of smokestacks, furnaces, kitchens, pig iron and unflinching love.
This post is taken from my recently completed manuscript "Rust Belt Boy."
Causes Paul Hertneky Supports
Monadock Area Transitional Shelter
Monadnock Humane Society
The Harris Center for Outdoor Education