Pittsburgh is cheap, but it stinks. Or so says Google engineer Dennis Towne, whose recent PublicSource essay laments the city’s noxious pollution problem and urges tech workers to stay away. So bad is the smell, Towne observes, that he and a number of his colleagues are “transferring” elsewhere, even if it means they can no longer afford to walk to work.
My reaction to Towne’s essay was equal parts recognition and outrage. As a fellow newcomer to Pittsburgh, I, too, have struggled with the region’s air pollution. I moved here in 2017 to join the History Department at Carnegie Mellon University, where I teach classes on the politics of pollution, among other things. What I’ve learned since then is that this problem affects others far more than it affects me: a white, cisgender, able-bodied, upper-middle-class professional with an obscene degree of unearned privilege. Everyone breathes polluted air, but the distribution of resulting harms tracks inversely to that of wealth and power.
But that’s not the story I want to tell. Over the past two years, I have met a small but remarkable cross-section of the advocates, activists and community organizers who carry on the Pittsburgh area’s long-running struggle for environmental justice. I cannot speak for any of them, but I do try to listen. Here I’d like to share what they’ve taught me.
A history of struggle
Pittsburgh’s history of industrial pollution is news to virtually no one. What we often forget is the decades-long, grassroots struggle for better regulation that has unfolded here.
The Group Against Smog and Pollution [GASP] has been advocating for cleaner air since 1969. When I called her to discuss Towne’s essay, executive director Rachel Filippini reminded me that we know much more now than we did then about how air pollution affects our minds and bodies — asthma, cancer, dementia, behavioral problems, etc. It’s no wonder then that some families choose to leave. But who does so and why is a much more fraught question than accounts like Towne’s acknowledge.
For most of the communities GASP works with, especially those in the Mon Valley, relocation is simply not a realistic or desirable choice. Marginalized communities that bear the greatest burdens of toxic exposure face multiple barriers to mobility, to say nothing of the relationships and memories that attach people to their homes. Filippini told me she hopes that residents of all backgrounds will continue to speak at public meetings, organize their peers and hold policymakers accountable to their promises of sustainable, inclusive development. Citizens have a stronger voice today than they did in 1969, but that’s only because they have shown up to demand and express it.
GASP was certainly not the first group to take up this issue. Steel workers, and Black coke oven workers in particular, have also won reforms with wider environmental and health benefits. And, of course, this history goes deeper than the mid-20th century. A range of civic associations, especially women’s groups, have organized around environmental inequality since at least the late-19th century, when Pittsburgh had one of the nation’s highest rates of death from waterborne typhoid fever.
These grassroots efforts have helped the region achieve significant improvements in its environmental quality over the past half-century. But their work is far from finished. Allegheny County’s air quality remains among the worst in the nation, corporations continue to use the rivers as an illegal dumping ground and heavy metals like lead persist in the housing, water and soil. As a result, organizations like the Breathe Project, Pittsburgh United, FracTracker, the Environmental Health Project and Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh have promoted innovative technologies that monitor and report pollution, including, for example, the Smell Pittsburgh project that Towne mentions in his essay. If pollution is one legacy of Pittsburgh’s industrial past, its reinvention as a tech hub has made it a laboratory not just for self-driving vehicles but also for cutting-edge environmental activism.
But the real power of these organizations still lies in a much older tradition of grassroots organizing. Aly Shaw, an organizer with Pittsburgh United, told me that she is heartened by recent successes at the local, county and state levels. Electoral wins by progressives like state Rep. Summer Lee and Allegheny County council member Bethany Hallam underscore voters’ desires for better jobs, cleaner air and safer water. It’s still true, Shaw said, that powerful corporations and their lobbyists have disproportionate influence at all levels of government. This is all the more reason to continue building capacity for communities to determine their own futures.
Continuity and change
Just as Pittsburgh’s rise and fall as an industrial center was driven by larger geopolitical forces — think fossil fuels, steel, capitalism — so are ongoing transformations in the region. Just beyond the city limits, fracking rigs now tower over a landscape long since undermined for coal. A network of pipelines takes the “unconventional” fracked gas and its byproducts to new petrochemical plants being built or planned in the region.
Today, as ever, Pittsburgh’s environmental challenges cut across space and time. Even in the urban core, we are connected by the three rivers to everything happening up- and downstream, including acid drainage from old mines, runoff from new fracking wells, overflowing sewers and the list goes on. Our much-touted “renaissance,” while glaringly unequal even in the city itself, looks downright illusory from surrounding areas, where generations of laborers have produced tremendous wealth for industrialists while being able to keep little for themselves.
The Center for Coalfield Justice [CCJ] understands this. Their office sits not at the confluence of the rivers in downtown Pittsburgh but about 30 miles southwest, in Washington, Pa., where coal mining, fracking and post-industrial capitalism collide. On a tour with CCJ, my students and I stood speechless in an old cemetery surrounded on all sides by mining and fracking operations.
CCJ organizer Sarah Martik described to me how the narratives she encounters in Pittsburgh and other urban centers misrepresent the communities she works with. Urbanites are, for example, often surprised to learn that coal mining continues on a massive scale in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Coal may well be in decline, but its past and present extraction continues to have tremendous impacts on peoples’ lives and worldviews.
Nor is it fair to portray the area as an ideologically dogmatic part of “Trump Country.” Like their urban counterparts, Martik says, rural communities want inclusive, sustainable development. They increasingly reject the all-or-nothing narratives that extractive industries (and some environmentalists) impose on them.
Martik reminded me that the region’s urban and rural communities are connected, not just by the air we breathe and water we drink, but also by our entangled fates. When urban activists fail to see these connections, they alienate potential allies in the struggle for a better world and thus strengthen their opponents.
Pasts and futures beyond pollution
Longtime Pittsburghers often normalize the city’s pollution problems:
“Oh, you should have seen it before.”
“Well, those plants put a lot of kids through college.”
“All old cities have lead in their water.”
People are protective of things they love, and sometimes protection looks like denial. But love is also an intimate form of knowledge, one that prevents us from reducing a beloved place to its negative qualities. Longtime residents know and love this city for its complexity — for the capacities and potentials that persist amid its hazards and inequities.
Raqueeb Bey is among them. Her love for the city’s more-than-human landscape began to form in her father’s backyard garden. She later left a successful career in finance to found Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh and serve as garden resource coordinator for Grow Pittsburgh. She sees the effects of air pollution in her urban gardens, where the soil requires regular remediation. But this only sharpens her resolve to advocate for Black farming in the city. For her, environmental quality is determined by a larger set of structures that shape people’s access to health and opportunity. You cannot address one without addressing the others.
Black Pittsburghers contend with some of the worst racial inequality in the country, and they are far more likely than white residents to face toxic exposure in their immediate environments. Google’s Pittsburgh office is adjacent to the gentrifying East Liberty neighborhood, where many Black residents have been displaced. Bey reminded me that Pittsburgh as a whole is rapidly losing Black residents, not because they are fleeing air pollution but because they are systematically excluded from the opportunities and services that enable people to live here.
Bey knows that her efforts alone cannot undo these realities. In urban gardening and farming, however, she has found a powerful way to build community and capacity in opposition to the social structures that inflict pollution, inequality and decline. Those structures are absolutely part of life in Pittsburgh, just as they are everywhere in this country and world. We cannot escape them by moving. We can only pretend to do so by ensconcing ourselves in privilege.
Am I good enough?
For whom is Pittsburgh not good enough? Many of us who come here for opportunities in the city’s universities, hospitals and tech firms do so in a state of willful ignorance. We take advantage of the “low cost of living.” We relish the “walkability” of the neighborhoods we gentrify. Many of us smugly believe that we are the city’s rebirth, its salvation from rust and blight. Too few of us learn about the historical and ongoing realities that make it “most livable” for some and most toxic for others. And what happens when that reality intrudes on our most-livable lives? We threaten to take our talent (and our entitlement) elsewhere.
Maybe Pittsburgh is too good for us. Maybe we should earn our place here by paying our fair share of taxes, investing in our communities and forcing our employers to do the same. It’s our privilege to call this city home, to support the visions of those who came here before us and to strive to live respectfully on this occupied Indigenous land. When we fail to see this — when we accept opportunity without also accepting responsibility — we tell the world more about ourselves than we do about this place.
I do worry about air pollution. But I worry more about my own moral worthiness as a human being. This compels me to learn about and fight for the land that I inhabit, and I thank Pittsburgh’s environmental justice community for teaching me how. Their work, not the tech industry, is what makes this a place I want to be worthy of — and what gives me hope for its future.
Noah Theriault (@anthronoah) is an environmental anthropologist in the Carnegie Mellon University Department of History.
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