`We Helped Build This Country, And Now Look At Us'

Town Manager John Cornelius steers his 1987 Chrysler LeBaron down past the Homestead High-Level Bridge to the old site of U.S. Steel's Homestead Works. There's nothing left here anymore but some bulldozers, a lot of rubble, and "No Trespassing" signs. We drive along the brown-blue Monongahela River, quiet today except for an occasional coal barge gliding past anglers on the banks.

This is Homestead, Pa., the town where I grew up. As a small child, I remember my grandmother would make sure I was off the streets by 4 p.m. because there was too much commotion. At that hour, Eighth Avenue would be swarming with steelworkers during the shift change at the giant mill on the Mon. Stores were thronged with steelworkers and their families enjoying the middle-class lifestyle that high industrial wages made possible. Homesteaders rarely traveled the six miles into downtown Pittsburgh because everything we needed--clothes, furniture, groceries--was here.

CUTE KIDS. It was a friendly place where people called out to one another on the streets and adults routinely handed out 50 cents pieces to kids just for being cute. With a population of about 6,000, everyone not only knew each other but also knew each other's business. We used to call it our own integrated Mayberry.

Homestead grew in the late 19th century around the Homestead Works, Andrew Carnegie's biggest mill. In the 1880s, thousands of Eastern Europeans--Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians--emigrated to Homestead to make steel. The town's place in history was cemented in 1892, when the Mon carried bargeloads of heavily armed Pinkerton guards to battle striking steelworkers in one of the bloodiest labor-management clashes ever.

In the 1930s and 1940s, African Americans migrated north and settled here. My grandparents were part of that migration. For decades, the Homestead plant was the world's most famous steel mill. Its rails and bridges united the country in the late 1800s, and its steel etched America's skylines and lifted the U.S. into its position as the 20th century's preeminent industrial power.

Stories abound about the town's heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, stories that now sound like dispatches from another world. People would come from Pittsburgh, Cleveland--even Philadelphia--to raise hell in the brothels, jazz joints, and nightclubs such as Skyrocket, Rathskeller, and Four Corners. When they weren't partying down the hill near the steel mills, they were cheering for Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays, the legendary Negro League baseball team celebrated in Ken L. Burns's Baseball TV documentary.

Then, in 1986, after months of rumor, during my junior year of high school, the Homestead Works closed forever. Today, Eighth Avenue is just about deserted at 4 p.m. The parks my friends and I used to roar through on our Big Wheels trikes as we played Starsky and Hutch in the late 1970s are now home to drug deals, broken swings, and weeds. Homes where the porches were always cluttered with wicker furniture and gossiping neighbors are boarded up. Few residents today even know each other, it seems, let alone speak or wave as they pass on the street.

LINGERING DOUBTS. Yet, standing on the 400-acre site of the mighty Homestead Works, Town Manager Cornelius, 44, sees more than rubble, debris, and dust. He envisions a future site for riverboat gambling, shopping centers, condominiums, research and development labs, and light industry. But he finds that Homestead's past sometimes gets in the way of its future. "There is still a perception that this is an area that has labor difficulties: more strikes and higher costs," he says.

Cornelius has just moved here from Detroit, where he was director of the Economic Alliance of Michigan, a labor-business coalition. His job is to rebuild Homestead, bringing in jobs and tax dollars, and he's finding it tough. Both he and Mayor Gary Graham have tried to lure such companies as Sony Electronics, Mercedes-Benz, and United Parcel Service to the shores of the Mon. Sony opted to buy an old Volkswagen factory and set up a nonunion plant about 60 miles east of here. Mercedes headed south to Tuscaloosa, Ala. United Parcel Service, which came looking for a site for a new distribution center, also went elsewhere.

Now, Cornelius has his sights on every town's favorite cure for decline: gambling. It's still illegal in Pennsylvania but is likely not to be by next year. The state government already is looking at three or four prospective sites, including the Pittsburgh area. The site of the Homestead Works is now owned by Cleveland real estate developer Park Corp., which purchased it from USX Corp. in 1988. Kelly Park, a company vice-president, has given helicopter tours of the site to representatives from the Sands Hotel & Casino. William Weidner, a director of Hollywood Casinos, parent company of the Sands, says Hollywood has made several proposals to bring riverboat gambling to the area. "We think Homestead would be a great place for one of our riverboat casinos," he says. Hollywood Casinos now operates riverboats in Aurora, Ill., and Tunica, Miss.

A Homestead riverboat would employ about 1,700 workers, earning an average of about $25,000 a year with tips. True, it wouldn't be a return to the glory days of steel. In 1980, the average Homestead steelworker earned $14.18 an hour, about $26,500 a year. And gambling might bring with it a host of social ills and problems of its own. But given the current state of affairs in Homestead, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. "Anything would be better than this," says Robert Harper, 67, a former mill worker. "We helped build this country, and now look at us."

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