Welcome to Clairton, the City of Prayer.
Steel once promised vitality, growth and a sense of national import to this community along the Monongahela River, 15 miles south of Pittsburgh. And for as long as industry could provide, Clairton thrived. It was at the heart of our region’s defining steel industry and is home to America’s largest coke-producing facility — the Clairton Coke Works.
The shift change whistle used to send thousands of workers flooding into the streets. Musical icons once performed at clubs along State Street. The city had movie theaters and grocery stores. Now, there are none.
Today, Clairton’s main thoroughfares lay idle and crumbling. Closed storefronts and broken streetlights frame the tall white plumes rising from the coke works. It’s quiet, mostly, save for the drone of trucks and trains and the intermittent whine of an industrial siren in the distance.
A microcosm of the broader Rust Belt, Clairton represents a portrait of the varied impacts of steel’s decline.
Since its heyday in the mid-1950s, Clairton’s population has slumped from over 19,000 to just over 6,000. Today, the coke works employs about 1,400 workers, many of whom don’t live in Clairton.
To outsiders, Clairton is characterized by news clips headlining environmental concerns about pollution, reports on late-night shootings and features on the football season for the 1A powerhouse Clairton Bears.
(clockwise from top left) 1) A man’s silhouette frames the shadows of broken street lights on Miller Avenue in Clairton. 2) Coke sits in railcars next to the Clairton Coke Works. 3) Sunday service at Morning Star Baptist Church on Aug. 15, 2021. 4) Leaving football practice on Aug. 10, 2021. 5) Young Bears emerge from beneath the bleachers to take the field for a Saturday Little League game on Sept. 18, 2021.
For those who live and die in Clairton, it’s home — the place where children play in the streets, where churchgoers sing hymns on Sundays and where neighbors work together for a better future.
Photojournalist Quinn Glabicki spent 12 months in Clairton, documenting and speaking with more than 50 residents. They shared how their environment and community shape their lives, from illness and grief to hope and perseverance. The images follow five overarching themes of our time with them:
Editor’s note: It’s of utmost importance to PublicSource to recognize that no single endeavor can sum up a city’s past and present and the lives of its residents. In an effort to represent the community of Clairton in the most respectful and accurate way, we engaged three advisers who live and work there. We have incorporated their thoughts and understanding of the place and its people into this project.
Who makes up Clairton, Pa.?
Clairton’s population changed as the steel industry receded.
6,181 people live in Clairton as of 2020, down nearly 70% since the 1950s.
22.5% of Clairtonians live below the federal poverty line, according to 2019 US Census estimates.
60.3% of Clairton residents are white. Nearly 40% of residents are Black, largely concentrated in areas near the Clairton Coke Works.
Johnie Perryman descends from the second story of his Clairton home. “It just zaps all the energy out of you sometimes, the air does,” he said.
The people of Clairton breathe air that’s consistently ranked among the worst quality in the nation.
The airborne byproducts of coke production, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), are known causes of conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease and cancer. The pollutants have been linked to a long list of other health problems, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies coke oven emissions as known carcinogens.
In December 2018, an explosion at the coke works critically damaged the facility’s No. 2 control room, shutting down the pollution control system and causing U.S. Steel to send unfiltered pollutants, including excessive amounts of SO2, into the Mon Valley’s air. Residents weren’t notified for 16 days.
Like steam and soot, residents say illness, too, is a byproduct of steel.
A couple of months after the control room fire on Christmas Eve 2018, Johnie Perryman had open heart surgery. Doctors at Allegheny General Hospital placed a device in Johnie’s chest to ensure that his heart could continue to circulate blood throughout his body.
“They had to chop my chest open and put a pump in there. I’m wondering: How long is a pump going to last that spins 5,200 revolutions per minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week? That’s the sentence of death, is what it actually put in me.”
Johnie provided testimony in a lawsuit against U.S. Steel following the December 2018 coke works fire. After PublicSource sought comment about the health impacts from industry, U.S. Steel said some individuals we spoke to are involved in litigation and may benefit from “publicly disparaging the company.” The company said it would not comment on litigation outside the courtroom.
Johnie sits for a portrait in his living room.
“Who’s going to file murder charges against United States Steel when they kill me? Is anybody going to file charges?” he said, recalling statements he made to the Allegheny County Board of Health on March 6, 2019, several months after the fire.
“Everybody knows it kills people. People are dying all of the time in Clairton. I know people that have died, and then you have to question whether or not it was the air.”
No longer commuting to Monroeville for work during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris Wilding says she has been spending far more time in Clairton at her house just across from the mill. “Since I’ve been home, I’ve noticed a difference. I’ve gotten sick more and had more problems breathing,” she said.
When her lungs become irritated, “it feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest.”
Over the past year, Chris has been hospitalized four times with respiratory issues. Recently, her doctor placed her on supplemental oxygen at night to help her breathe while she sleeps. She’s been told by doctors to avoid going outside on poor air quality days. “The majority of the time, I am inside. And I hate it. I hate being inside.”
Youth football players take a water break at the practice fields along State Street, just across the road from the mill on Aug. 10, 2021.
The childhood asthma rate in Clairton is over 22%, nearly triple the national average. People in Clairton live with an excess lifetime cancer risk from industrial sources that is 2.3 times higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency deems as acceptable risk. U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works contributes about 98.7% of that increased risk, according to ProPublica.
Andre Hines stands in the halfpipe at the South Park Skatepark, where he and his friends have been learning to skateboard with Youth Opportunities Development, a local nonprofit youth program for boys in Clairton.
“I don’t go outside” when the air is bad, said Andre Hines, a sophomore at Clairton High School and a wide receiver on the football team. Andre uses an inhaler twice each morning and tries to limit outdoor activity on days when the air is especially poor.
For youth like 16-year-old Andre, poor air quality can often mean a choice between staying indoors or risking an asthma attack.
For over 10 years, Cheryl Hurt worked in the mill, just as her father did and his father before him.
“We don’t see what I grew up seeing,” she said. “The black soot that would be on your clothes — you would have to shake your clothes to get it all out. [The younger people] … don’t understand the small particles that are more deadly than what we used to see because we used to see it. Now they can’t see what’s killing us.”
Particulate matter that is smaller is more dangerous because the particles can enter the lungs and reach the bloodstream.
On her street, almost everybody has been sick, Cheryl said, gesturing down her block toward the center of town. “She had cancer. She had cancer — probably every two houses or every other one.”
Witnessing illness in people young and old, Cheryl questions Clairton’s future.
“In spite of our breathing issues, we’re still human. Our children still laugh, play football. But what kind of future will they have? This is the reality. We play just like other children. We die just like other people. But look behind all of this. It cuts our life shorter.
“In my heart, I cry. I cry over what they’ve done to us.”
A building on St. Clair Avenue displays a sign demanding clean air for Clairton on Sept. 9, 2021.
“It should be history, and it’s not. It’s our present day,” said Clairton resident and clean air advocate Melanie Meade, the exhaustion audible in her voice. “People are enslaved to this city. They think it’s home, but it’s not.
“This is the only place I have, but I will never call this place home. Home is where your heart is, where your heart is kept, not where they’re killing your heart.”
Melanie lost her brother in 2011 and her father died in 2013. Both lived in Clairton and died of heart problems.
“Nothing has changed in all these years. And I don’t think anything will until people take action, and they don’t know to take action when they’re not educated and when their mayor and their elected officials deny the need for action.”
(left) Standing in her front yard overlooking the Clairton Coke Works, Melanie Meade holds a Summa canister, a device used to capture environmental air samples for lab testing. She received the canister through a fledgling testing program at the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The program has since been paused due to COVID-19. (right) Many residents say they observe more emissions from the mill at night and in the early morning.
Art Thomas stands for a portrait in Clairton Park in early October.
“I’ve been exposed to this stuff all my life,” explained Art Thomas, a retired union safety worker of 36 years at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works, just up the road from the Clairton mill. Although the air appears clearer today than it did years ago, Art says it’s still harmful. “It used to be black, now it’s white,” he said, “but it’s got the same shit in it.”
Several years ago, Art’s wife became sick with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease linked to air pollution. It began in her lungs, he said, and has now developed into neurosarcoidosis, which affects her brain. “She suffered strokes and seizures, all kinds of stuff. It has affected her ability to walk, talk,” Art said. “She’s still on the right side of the grass, you know, but it’s ridiculous,” he said, referring to the air quality’s impact.
Art works with Valley Clean Air Now [VCAN], a local grassroots advocacy group. VCAN is trying to secure funding for home air filters for Clairton residents.
If U.S. Steel can’t improve its pollution problem, Art says they should be forced to close.
“Clean up or close down,” he said of the corporation that once defined his career and put food on his table.
Last year, Art provided legal testimony detailing the negative health effects he and his wife experienced after the Clairton Coke Works fire.
Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi worked at U.S. Steel for 30 years. He retired in February. Earlier this month, he secured his fourth term in office.
The mayor was diagnosed with throat and colon cancer in December 2018. After two surgeries and six months of chemotherapy, he is now in remission.
“I know the area here has a higher rate, but there’s people all over the country who get cancer. I don’t know if it’s something in the air or something in the water or something in the food,” he said, noting that illnesses like his own are not unique to Clairton. “Something is just getting to everyone.”
U.S. Steel should “continue to get better,” he said, but pointed to the increasingly stringent standards the company is operating under and what it contributes to the community as reason to work with them instead of trying to run them out.
The company recently repainted the walls at the Clairton Education Center and the police department and contributed funding for a new concessions stand at Clairton Park. The city also receives funds from the Community Benefit Trust, which distributes money from emissions violation fines at the Clairton Coke Works to impacted communities. The City of Clairton bought a new public works truck and purchased a building to renovate for a community center.
“U.S. Steel is about one third of our tax base,” the mayor said. He doesn’t want to see the corporation leave for fear of what it would mean for the city financially. “I think this town would be done.”
(left) A football player pauses to catch his breath while practicing at the fields across from the Clairton Coke Works on June 15, 2021. (right) Dirty Gertie, the Poor Polluted Birdy, appears at a puppet show presented by the Group Against Smog and Pollution [GASP] in Clairton Park on Aug. 14, 2021. Regional environmental advocacy groups like GASP often point to Clairton as ground zero in terms of exposure to airborne pollutants, and to the coke works as the primary driver of the broader region’s consistently poor air quality.
Germaine Gooden-Patterson, a community health worker and Clairton resident who works with VCAN and Women for a Healthy Environment, said U.S. Steel is only concerned with its profit margin, not community health.
“It’s environmental racism,” she said. “They exist here for this long because they can. If it was a rich white community, it wouldn’t be happening.
“I would like to see, where the mill sits now, another type of industry that brings in clean air. The world is moving towards low or no emissions, and so that’s what that space needs to be. Still an industry that brings jobs, but [one that] does not kill people at the same time.”
On St. Clair Avenue, a Sept. 29 candlelight vigil remembers Robert Linnen, 41, who was shot and killed while leaving a bar in Clairton six days earlier. The murder remains unsolved.
For many people who live in Clairton, poor air quality is not the most immediate concern.
“The last thing we’re thinking about is the god damn air when we’re worrying about how to get by, when our kids are being shot in the street. We got deeper issues than the air,” said Annette Halcomb.
Annette’s oldest son, Kenneth Lamont Ward Jr., was shot and killed in neighboring McKeesport in 2004. He was 23 years old. Her cousin Robert Linnen was fatally shot leaving a Clairton bar in September. She worries for her living sons, ages 28 and 35.
“When my sons walk outside, I’m worried if they’re going to make it back at night.”
“When you do call the police to solve a crime, nobody tells,” explained Tina Ford. “They have that oath to the streets.”
Tina’s son, Armani, was shot and killed in Clairton in 2019. He was 23 years old, and his murder remains unsolved.
“They could be among us, you know what I mean?” said Tina. When killers walk with impunity, she said, an absence of justice leads her to question those in her own community: “Am I among the people that did it? Are they speaking to me? Are they coming to my house?”
Since 2015, there have been 16 homicides in Clairton; eight have been solved, according to Allegheny County police. The number of shootings, which often go unreported, are far higher, residents say.
“I would say the majority of this town — they see something and don’t say something,” said Clairton Police Chief Rob Hoffman. “They don’t want to come forward and are afraid of retaliation. And unfortunately, an investigation comes to a dead stop with that.”
Lt. Venerando Costa of the Allegheny County Police Department, which handles homicide investigations in Clairton, echoed that sentiment, saying that without material evidence, police are left to rely on eyewitness accounts.
A few months after her son was killed, Tina started a group called Moms of Murdered Sons (MOMS) to help herself and other grieving mothers cope with the stages of loss. “I have women that are from a year to 28 years since they have lost their child,” she said. “Just seeing the stages and knowing, and you get the same answers. You never get over it. One day at a time.”
Earlier this year, Tina traveled to Harrisburg to speak about legislation she helped develop with state Rep. Austin Davis (D-McKeesport) who represents Clairton. The bill was referred to the House Commerce Committee in June. “I wanted to get a bill passed so that whenever a mom loses her child to gun violence, we defer her bills,” Tina said. “The last thing you worry about when you lose your child is your light bill and your gas bill. I know a lot of women who have lost their home, became alcoholics or even committed suicide because of the depression and the stress.”
Rex Cole was 18 when he was shot three times. Sixteen years after his own brush with death, Rex’s younger brother, Isaac, was shot and killed behind the Fuel On convenience store in Clairton. He was 22 years old. A 2016 trial for the murder resulted in acquittal.
“When my brother was killed, it was never resolved. It’s an unsolved murder. Living in this community, how do you come to grips with that?”
Still, the trauma has not erased Rex’s hope for Clairton and its people.
“I believe Clairton will change because you have tough people here,” said Rex, now 39. “You know, all the things that these individuals have been through, you won’t break so easily. You will be able to face challenges.”
Eight years ago, Rex got a job at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works, just up the road from Clairton. In 2016, after his brother was killed, Rex moved his wife and seven kids to Peters Township. This fall, he began his first semester of undergraduate studies at Washington and Jefferson College on a full scholarship, and he continues to work full time at the Irvin plant.
Rex says he was introduced to the streets at 15 when he was arrested with a friend who was selling heroin in Clairton. Rex said he sold marijuana to make ends meet through his twenties and sent two of his seven children to private school with drug money. He then found steady work with U.S. Steel and is pursuing a college degree.
Violence in a close-knit community like Clairton is a mental health issue, Rex said. “Because in the community, they’ll love you one second, but they can kill you that same night. I had friends killing friends. And you just sit there thinking, like, ‘We’re all just hanging out, we’re all friends, what made you shoot him in his back?’”
Ty Law poses for a portrait at an offseason football practice on April 26, 2021.
“When I was a little kid, we could just walk around, have fun, anything you want, play football anywhere, just chill anywhere,” recalled Tyrese ‘Ty’ Law, 16, a junior at Clairton High School. “You get older, you gotta watch your back out here. It’s crazy out here.”
Late one evening in July, he learned that one of his closest friends had been shot several times near Clairton’s ice cream shop.
“I was up all night,” he said. “I never thought one of my friends would get shot or something. We’re young still and stay out the way.”
His friend survived, but spent several weeks recovering in the hospital. “Thank God he’s still alive.”
Several recent studies suggest that violent crime rises with increased air pollution.
Clairton High School graduates toss their caps in the air outside of the Clairton Education Center on June 9, 2021.
Growing up in Clairton, the future is often uncertain.
Young people are asked to overcome community-wide trauma and crumbling streets, air pollution and a school system consistently ranked in the lowest percentiles statewide.
Many seek support in local programs staffed by trusted community members that provide safe places to learn, socialize and be kids.
At 3 p.m. on weekday afternoons, 25 or so boys trickle into a red brick building along St. Clair Avenue in Clairton. This is Youth Opportunities Development — a local youth program, where boys from Clairton learn, socialize and talk about the issues their community faces.
The goal, says Brandon Ziats, the executive director, is to give boys in Clairton an alternate path. “To do that, we need consistent, everyday contact.” He drives the boys home each evening, often passing young men who left their group in favor of another path.
“The first group of afterschool kids that we had coming in in 2016 and 2017, that first group, when we look at them now, we see a lot of problems out there in the community. Some of them are in jail right now, some got shot, some are engaged in drug dealing and that sort of thing. So it’s something that we see on a regular basis,
“The group that we have right now … they have all the same barriers, but for some reason they’ve taken to this model and are sticking to it and it’s kind of working out.”
“This group is astonishing. It’s filled with amazing people,” said Antonio Goodrum, 16, the oldest of the group. “It has amazing people to teach you the rights, the wrongs. It has amazing kids. They’re not into the streets as much as other little kids are.”
Now a tenth-grader at Clairton High School, Antonio has been a part of Youth Opportunities Development since he was in the fifth grade.
“I’m one of the people that all the other kids look up to,” he said. “So, technically I’m considered a role model, and that kind of makes me happy because I want to set a positive way for all the other people that come here.
“It’s a good place to come to instead of trying to be someone that’s in the streets like everybody else,” Antonio said. “I’d rather come down here.”
“[We’re] another family that they can look up to, somebody they can call when they have nobody else to call,” said Jhonna Newby, who works with Gwen’s Girls in Clairton, a youth program for girls. She grew up in Clairton along with the rest of the staff.
“Our end goal here is basically to make sure these girls have lives where they can be successful,” she said. “We let them know that college ain’t for everybody. There are different outlets, there are different routes.” The group helps the girls explore their talents and interests, she said. “I think that’s our end goal and of course have everybody graduate from high school.”
Coach Wayne Wade gives a pregame speech before leading the Clairton Bears in prayer ahead of their first home game of 2021 on Sept. 3. “[Football] almost means everything, because it’s an avenue, it’s an outlet,” he said. “For most of these kids, this is their opportunity to normalcy.”
The Clairton Bears hold the record for the longest win streak in Pennsylvania high school football, at 66 games.
The team has won 10 WPIAL championships since 2006 and is widely regarded as the standard among 1A high school football teams in Western Pennsylvania.
“There’s nothing different that we’re doing from other communities that look like ours,” Clairton head coach Wayne Wade said. “We’re fighting and battling the same things that they are. There are the same vices in those communities as there are in ours.
“But we’ve created a culture and a climate of being champions. And it’s so hard once you become a champion to take that from you.”
“It’s life,” said youth football coach Corey Wright. “’Cause that’s all we have. We don’t have nothing else but football.
“In every bar, every store, the library, school, wherever — it’s football. There’s no other conversation.”
Friday nights are a spectacle in Clairton. And so are Saturdays, when an even younger generation of Bears take the field, and a community comes together to support them.
“In Clairton, football is a very serious sport. It’s a game to most people, but we take it very serious,” said Zae-mear Correll, a 14-year-old wide receiver for the Clairton Mighty Mites. “It’s like my happy place. It’s my escape from all the other things.
“Most of us don’t have father figures,” Zae-mear continued. “These coaches, all the coaches, they’re like father figures. They make sure we’re straight and we got everything that we need. And that makes the sport 10 times better also, rather than just being a coach, but being a father figure and helping us with our responsibilities and stuff, and making sure our grades are OK.”
(left) Anthony Payne-Fuqua, 12, holds the trophy his Clairton Little League team won after beating Duquesne in a bitter rivalry game on Sept. 18, 2021. (right) Emissions rise from the Clairton Coke Works during a break in the action at a football game on Oct. 1, 2021.
Football players in Clairton grew up watching local legends Tyler Boyd, now a receiver on the Cincinnati Bengals, and Lamont Wade, a former star safety at Penn State, who recently played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Seeing them going to college then the next level in the NFL, it just makes me motivated,” said Ty Law, a junior guard.
He wants to leave Clairton to play football in college, but says his friends and family will keep him coming back: “I love Clairton. I’ll just take a break real quick. I’m coming back though.”
Quinn Glabicki is an independent photojournalist based in Pittsburgh. His work can be seen at quinnglabicki.com, and he can be reached on Twitter and Instagram @quinnglabicki.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
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