Saturday, February 13, 2010

Industrial archaeology: a race against time, as always.

The Homestead StrikeImage via Wikipedia

After reading in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette (02/09/10) about the plans to demolish Andrew Carnegie’s former Pittsburgh Locomotive Works, I immediately understood the the author’s outcry for public support. I also immediately understood was there was no public outcry for the old abandoned buildings. Why? The author of this article asks this very question. Why is the industrial past so esoteric to the people who live in these areas?

In the Monongahela Valley, industrialization and the subsequent de-industrialization is on the minds of every coal miner, steelworker, railroader, and heavy industry worker who resides along the river. During political elections, industry and placing people back to work is the number one concern in the valley. Yet in the industrial past, where tens of thousands of workers and their families endured the harsh reality of the blast furnaces, or the subterranean darkness of the coalmines, their voices are mute. In her dissertation, Hope and Rust (2008), Anna Storm points to this very issue. Perhaps the past is too close to these people, these workers. After all, the outcry from the community often comes from the descendant community of the workers themselves, the sons, daughters, grandchildren, etc. Granted, the time that has lapsed since the days of the Carnegie Locomotive Works would make this site invaluable to the descendant community. But where is the outcry?

Perhaps the silence is a signal of something else, an indicator that goes beyond the simple value of these sites. This is the silence of a dead endemic community. The people who were the closest, who valued and cherished these buildings are gone. Not physically dead perhaps, but gone- moved away to a different community. De-industrialization displaces people, forces them to move out of stable once communities, where families "inherited" their lines of work. Grandfather, fathers and sons worked in the mills, immigrants moved into the community to find stability, the community and the family was stable. After the closure of the mills, mines, factories, the workforce is pressured to change, to adapt, and in some cases become mobile. The lack of voices is an indicator of community health, the decedent community health.

Industrial archaeology, as others in the field have stated, cannot simply take the remains of structures at face value. Preservation starts at the community level, by involving the community and targeting those who have a vested interest. But as seen here in Pittsburgh and the surrounding Monongahela Valley, those most vested in these structures may in fact be gone. It is our job as archaeologists to educate, involve, and reach out to the existing communities in a way that creates value for them in these sites and structures. We must create the value in preservation verse destruction of these buildings and places. We cannot simply say they are valuable because of age or historical association. We must say they are valuable because if they are lost, a piece of the larger community, economy, and wider heritage of an area is lost.

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