Due to the foul conditions that plagued Pittsburgh for over a century it was once known as the “Smoky City” or “Hell With the Lid Off”. Its geographic location and natural resources made it an ideal home for the industries that inevitably created the pollution problem. The city’s dark past has been described as a cautionary tale for cities lacking environmental control. Pittsburgh has an extremely long history of pollution and the struggle to alleviate it.
In 1762 a coal mining seam was discovered along the south bank of the Monongahela River. This resulted in some of the biggest and longest lasting impacts on our environment. Coal was an important energy source that fueled the industrialization of the country. However, Pittsburgh’s environment certainly paid the price. Smoke pollution was the most noticeable effect of coal consumption and gave the city its identity as the “City of Smoke.”
The rivers were a popular transportation route and disposal location for sewage. This caused them to become highly contaminated. In 1880, Pittsburgh had hundreds of boats struggling to navigate the crowded rivers. Between 1872 and 1908 the city had the highest typhoid fever mortality rate of any city in the nation. An individual in Pittsburgh was three times more likely to die of typhoid fever. Sewage discharge into the rivers was one of the contributing factors to the problem. This was also where The city drew its water supply making the sewage discharge into it all the more hazardous.
There were efforts made in the 1800s to reduce air pollution. Unfortunately, they were rarely enforced. Smoke control ordinances and the Bureau of Smoke Control were introduced. Also not very successfully due to lack of proper regulations, enforcement, and control technologies. It was difficult to convince residents that the smoke was a problem. Many people felt the smoke was a sign of productivity and prosperity. They believed the smoke was good for their lungs and helped crops grow. Pittsburgh’s dark haze inspired many poems and was an important part of the city’s identity.
Pittsburgh was dark at all hours of the day by the 1940s. Photographs from the past show dark downtown streets lined with bright streetlamps at ten in the morning. The city was reaching a breaking point. David L. Lawrence became mayor in 1946 and vowed to clean up the city. During his first inaugural speech, Lawrence said, “I am convinced that our people want clean air. There is no other single thing which will so dramatically improve the appearance, the health, the pride, and the spirit of the city.”
He had grown up in a tough working-class Irish neighborhood in the Point by Fort Pitt. The neighborhood consisted of many industrial buildings which included run-down and abandoned steel mills. He had lived among some of the worst impurities in the city and saw the need to improve conditions. This gave him a deep passion to clean up the city. After becoming mayor he began to clean up the city. The 20-year redevelopment effort included sandblasting the smoky grime off the city’s iconic skyscrapers. The city began enforcing smoke ordinance and making transportation improvements. Additionally, the war effort exhausted many of the industries that were the source of the pollution problem. The city began to improve dramatically as it found new sources of energy and other ways to provide jobs.
By 1954 smoke pollution had seen a 90 percent decrease. Pittsburgh underwent a large transformation. A new sewage treatment plant, our first two expressways and an airport were constructed. At the time other cities were experiencing deterioration in their downtown areas. Many families were moving out into the suburbs. So it was unique for Pittsburgh to be expanding and finding a new way to attract residents.
The collapse of the iron and steel industry during the 1980s had a significant impact on the air quality in Pittsburgh. The city was already going through an urban renewal. AT this time the service industries were seeing significant growth. The city began to redevelop land previously used as industrial sites. There was a rise in commercial, retail, and residential districts. This helped to clear the skies.
Pittsburgh has changed drastically over the past century. No longer are there any steel mills within city limits. It has moved toward a future of health care, education, technology, and financial services. The industries of the past have been replaced with technology and research companies like Google and RAND as well as global financial institutions like PNC and Highmark Insurance.
Modern day Pittsburgh continues to make environmental improvements. It reshaped its identity from “The City of Smoke” to one on the cutting edge of technology and business. These changes in the economy have certainly aided in our environmental transformation. The vision and promises of David L. Lawrence will continue to have positive and lasting effects on the city for years to come.