Those who thought the last good thing to come out of Pittsburgh was Barbara Feldon, Get Smart’s Agent 99, will be pleased to hear that the heart of Pittsburgh has started beating again. In long-neglected Braddock, the Steel City is turning very green.
Preliminary note: PBS correspondent Paul Solman would be my pick for a Congressional Citation for picking great stories with huge relevance. If you read this PBS piece and just see how many sources are involved, you’ll get an idea of the kind of research required to put together something like this article.
Pittsburgh has seen some really tough times. From a peak of a million people, the city is down to 300,000. The city is having to reinvent itself. There are 14,102 vacant lots where there used to be houses.
Pittsburgh was the guts of the old US economy, the industrial giant of the mid 20th century. The steel industry got hit, hard, by competition, obsolescence, and a different economic perspective which didn’t even exist when it was at its peak. The steel industry, and Pittsburgh, were in decline. The decline gave birth to the Rust Belt, one of America’s heirloom problems.
Braddock is the Rust Belt, incarnate. It’s run down, it’s been ignored for decades. It was on the receiving end of Pittsburgh’s heavy industry’s heaviest loads, socially, economically, and physically.
Braddock’s mayor, “Mayor John” Fetterman, who has Braddock’s zip code tattooed on one arm and the dates of violent deaths of his citizens since his election in 2005 on the other, isn’t exactly an uncommitted person. Fetterman is working hard on the green revival. He’s bringing in his local Braddock people to do it, and they're achieving plenty.
PAUL SOLMAN: Reinvent itself environmentally. For starters, Mayor John wants to turn this 130-acre brown field into a site for eco-friendly businesses: biodiesel, wind, urban farming, the once-blazing Carrie Furnace itself into a museum.
Development consultant Chuck Starrett says they're even recruiting the local plumber.
CHARLES STARRETT, Economic Development Consultant: What he's been doing is been collecting rainwater for people so that they can recycle their rainwater.
PAUL SOLMAN: In short, the key to revival in blackened Braddock is to lure firms that are gung-ho green. And the luring has begun. Within coughing distance of the first Carnegie mill, 1875, an urban farm has put down organic roots.
JEFF JAEGER, Farmer: We've got new strawberries. This year, we've got some spinach from last year.
The produce is for the local market. This is about as green as you can get, local production for local markets. It's called "Locovore", meaning eating locally grown food.
As a horticulturalist, I can tell you that growing anything on industrial land is a job for experts and people who don’t give up. It’s a damn good idea, and it’s riding on the large new wave of the Locovore ethos, which means "marketable" in a major sense.
They’re also using “humanure”, human waste, which is a whole lot better than adding it to the rivers. There’s a lot of that on the market, despite some claims. In Australia it’s called Envirosoil, pasteurized waste and compost. It’s an ancient agricultural technique. By the time it’s broken down it’s quite safe.
They’re also working on vegetable oil fuel. Using recycled oil from French Fries, chicken oil, you name it, they’re’ working on something that might be a much better bet than biodiesel. That’s restarted a local oil company which was about to shut down, saved jobs, and prevented yet another part of the local economy dropping off.
They’ve even got the local steelworkers onside, who’ve seen a functional idea, not a pipedream. Working at grassroots level, in the most literal possible interpretation of the expression, they’re building a new Pittsburgh. Braddock is certainly a place that really deserves its kudos for getting this operation working.
I can also say that Braddock could be sitting on a goldmine. A few points:
Locovore is good local economics. Cuts freight, cuts costs, creates jobs, adds food quality. Done on a large scale, as a local export, it could be a major revenue earner.
Vegetable oil, done the way Braddock is doing things, is valuable intellectual property. It’s also good science. Biodiesel, ironically, is being developed from plants which aren’t particularly good oil producers. Corn produces oil, but sunflowers are a lot better as oil producers. They’re also tough plants, not pernickety growers like corn.
What I’d like to see is some permaculture for the organic produce. That’s a massive cost cutter, producing high value crops, and commercial volumes. Permaculture is very cheap, self renewing, and the overheads are basically paying people for harvesting. It even works in Africa, in tribal regions where education may not even reach high school level.
The main issue is the old industrial contaminants. From what we’ve seen, fungal decontaminants might be the answer to Pittsburgh’s chemical situation. Fungi can break down anything, and they’ve survived all of Earth’s major extinctions. They can even live in the Chernobyl sarcophagus, so they should be able to handle Pittsburgh.
Bob Ewing did an article on Bioremediation on DJ last year, and it was a classic. You can see the applications to a place like Pittsburgh, where the possible contaminants need a tough response.
Now- if you want your mind blown, watch the video, and see what the Braddock guys and Pittsburgh itself have to work with.
There's a very healthy "garage" vibe.
This is the relevance I was talking about: The Rust Belt could reincarnate itself as the heart of Green America, with methods like these. The Rust Belt needs good, cheap, workable, commercially viable industry.
There's probably a philosophy degree in it for someone, figuring out the change from Steel City to Sunflower City...