Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region

Edited by Joel A. Tarr
University of Pittsburgh Press
281 pages, $32 (cloth)

One question that's always vexed me about Pittsburgh is this: Who planted the gingko trees around Schenley Park, and why couldn't they find an ornamental tree that didn't smell like crap?


Thanks to Devastation and Renewal, a collection of 10 essays anthologized by Carnegie Mellon University professor Joel Tarr, I have an answer. As Tarr's introduction explains, when the city began planting trees in the late 19th century, the smoke from steel mills "necessitated the use of pollution-resistant trees." Gingkos fit the bill, and while they no doubt stunk in those days too, most Pittsburghers probably couldn't tell the difference. The mills are gone now, but the stink of the gingko remains.


That revelation is just one of many surprises contained in this survey of the city's environmental struggles -- a story literally as old as the city itself. (Gripes about Pittsburgh smoke date as early as 1782.)


It comes as little news that Pittsburgh has suffered through environmental crises, or that it has rebounded from them handsomely. Chapters on our polluted rivers, the killer smog of Donora, and the slow recovery of the city's slag-choked Nine Mile Run will be familiar ground to many. And as with any book of scholarship, the writing can be a bit dry, with lapel-grabbing essay titles like "Critical Decisions in Pittsburgh Water and Wastewater Treatment."


Still, the scholarly thoroughness of the book is such that, by the time you finish it, you wonder that any of us are here at all.


As Nicholas Casner writes in an essay on acid mine damage, for example, each form of pollution worsened the others. When the city began filtering its water, Casner writes, "industrial wastes often nullified the benefits of municipal water treatment" by raising acidity levels so high that water burned through pipes and purification equipment. Pittsburgh's polluting industries, meanwhile, worked against themselves and each other in coming to grips with the problem. "The steel industry ... castigated coal operators for acidic discharges" while "defending its 'right' to dump ... waste into the same rivers."


In the popular imagination, the enlightened leadership of Pittsburgh's public/private "Renaissances" put an end to our smoky past. But as the book makes clear, the reality is murkier than the Mon after a spring rain.


Even local heroes come in for a drubbing. Edward Bigelow is credited for being the father of Pittsburgh's park system, but he also argued against water treatment. At the turn of the century, Pittsburghers were dying of typhus -- a disease associated with polluted water -- at rates three times that of other large cities. But as Tarr writes in an essay with Terry Yosie, Bigelow refused to accept that polluted water was dangerous. Instead, he worried that "impugning [local water] quality would discourage investment in the city."


Even when Pittsburgh did the right thing, it was often for the wrong reasons. Angela Gugliotta notes that one reason air pollution finally did become a concern in the late 19th century was that "Smoke was a more tractable problem than ... inadequate earnings, long hours, or lack of unionization." Smoke control, in other words, was partly a smokescreen, clouding other issues while clearing the air. 


Still, Gugliotta and most other essayists give credit where it's due: Civic leaders eventually took environmental issues seriously, even if only to protect their investments. Longtime environmental activist Samuel Hays isn't so forgiving. "[T]he city and the region have sought to perpetuate a myth of vigorous levels of environmental achievement," his essay "Beyond Celebration" contends, but the reality is far less edifying. The much-touted smoke-control ordinances of the first "Pittsburgh Renaissance" did less to clean up the air than other, less-celebrated trends, like homeowners switching from coal to natural-gas heating. Other than a brief period of activism in the early 1970s, Hays says, environmental initiatives have been half-hearted or co-opted by industry.


Local observers will identify with Hays' gripes about regional boosterism, while many of the city's worst ecological problems were solved accidentally -- by the collapse of the steel industry, say. And the city still hasn't reckoned with some of its most serious problems: Pittsburgh may have a more serious sewage overflow problem than any other American city, Tarr notes.


But once you've read about yesterday's environmental nightmares, today looks good by comparison. Devastation and Renewal makes you marvel that the city survived its history, but it also gives you reason to be optimistic about the future.


Maybe someday we'll even replace the damn gingkos.

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