Pittsburgh – From Steel City to City of Champions
PITTSBURGH — At the start of the decade that gave us Watergate, Jimmy Carter and the Three Mile Island meltdown, Pittsburghers were watching The Doors at the Civic Arena, meeting a brash young quarterback named Terry Bradshaw and watching the last good years before the collapse of its defining industry.
While the 1970s tend to invite ridicule — think bell bottoms, disco and gas lines — they also were a time of transition that left a complex cultural legacy.
Fifty years after the 1970s started, many western Pennsylvanians remember the decade for the Steelers’ rise and the calm before the steel industry’s demise.
“This is the period where Pittsburgh transitions from the Steel City to the City of Champions,” said Anne Madarasz, chief historian at the Senator John Heinz History Center.
Title town emerges
Bradshaw, a 21-year-old from Shreveport, La., was the first overall player picked by the Steelers in the 1970 NFL draft, which also saw the team select future Hall of Famer Mel Blount. The Steelers had finished 1-13 the season before, even with the likes of burgeoning legends Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Andy Russell.
Five years later, the Black and Gold won their first Super Bowl. Pittsburgh won three more Super Bowls in the decade — Super Bowls X, XIII and XIV (played in January 1980).
Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” on Dec. 23, 1972, still dominates Steelers lore.
The Pirates began the decade with the opening of Three Rivers Stadium in July 1970.
The decade was bracketed by World Series titles — 1971, when Roberto Clemente was named MVP, and 1979, when Willie Stargell claimed the award. Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 while taking humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
In the middle of the decade, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers won the college football championship in the same year — 1976 — that Pitt running back and Rochester native Tony Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy.
And that’s just sports.
“In the 1970s, you had the projection of this image of Pittsburgh as this transcendent sports metropolis at the same time that it’s going through this devastating economic development,” Madarasz said. “As the news gets increasingly bad, with the downturn of the steel industry, sports becomes ascendant.”
In industry, the news went from bad to worse as the decade closed and the 1980s began.
In 1970, the year the U.S. Steel Tower was completed, one of every three jobs in the Pittsburgh area was in manufacturing. By 1980, that number was one in four, signaling a major transition in the local economy, Madarasz said.
As mill closings and layoffs continued into the 1980s, Pittsburgh came to lose more than 75% of its steelmaking capacity.
Madarasz noted that Pittsburgh’s reputation as a sports town grew partly as a result of its economic decline.
“The Steelers become a national team for two reasons — because they were playing their best football ever and on national TV, and because as people began leaving the city, those Steelers fans spread out across the country,” she said.
Sound of the ’70s
Pittsburgh’s rise as a sports town also paralleled its growth as a music mecca in the 1970s.
Ed Traversari witnessed that transformation during his time as a concert promoter with DiCesare-Engler Productions, owned by Pat DiCesare and Rich Engler.
The year after graduating from Robert Morris University in 1974, he started with DiCesare-Engler and stayed with the company until its sale to Live Nation in 2007. Since then, he has been a professor in the Sports, Arts and Entertainment Management Program at Point Park University.
Traversari remembers 1970s Pittsburgh as almost a golden age for the music scene, mainly because of concert venues such as the Stanley Theatre, Syria Mosque and Civic Arena. Pittsburgh held its own with Cleveland and other cities of comparable size, he said.
“It was a special time,” he said. “Everybody wanted to go see music. We were all seeing it for the first time, many of us.”
The Stanley hosted a wide range of performers: Kansas and Styx, Roberta Flack and Bill Withers, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead. Bob Marley & the Wailers played at the Stanley in June 1978 (as well as on Sept. 23, 1980 — Marley’s final performance before he died of cancer).
Things picked up for DiCesare-Engler in 1977 when the company purchased the Stanley. Under their ownership, the Stanley earned a No. 1 ranking by Billboard magazine among theaters of similar size. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust purchased the venue in 1984, transforming it into the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts.
“When we had the Stanley, we really had to step it up. We had a lot of concert seats to fill,” he said. “If you were a city like Pittsburgh and you had a promoter like DiCesare-Engler, you had to have somebody who owned their own theater.”
Traversari said he wants his Point Park students to understand the specialness of the 1970s in Pittsburgh.
“Music in the ’70s was just unbelievable,” he said. “Bands were touring, playing arenas, selling out like crazy. That was really new in the ’70s. … Everybody wanted to see the bands when they came to town.”
Steel’s last stand
While conventional wisdom sees the 1970s as a time of industrial decline, in Pittsburgh, major steel mills did not begin to close until the early 1980s, said Chris Briem, regional economist with the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research.
“In fact, the region hit new all-time employment peaks in 1979,” Briem said. “Manufacturing jobs, and in particular steel jobs, were very stable through the very end of the decade.”
Manufacturing jobs in the Pittsburgh region remained close to 300,000 throughout the 1970s but took a precipitous drop in the ’80s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The average number of manufacturing jobs dropped 33% from the ’70s to the ’80s — from an average of 288,000 in the 1970s to 193,000 in the 1980s, according to the bureau.
So were the 1970s the last gasp for the Pittsburgh steel industry? In a sense, yes.
“In general, there really were no major steel plants closed down here in the 1970s,” Briem said.
He noted that the “Black Monday” closing of Youngstown Sheet & Tube occurred in 1977 and was a harbinger of things to come for the Rust Belt. In 1979, J&L Steel idled its Ann blast furnace across the Mon River from the South Side and Heppenstall Steel in Lawrenceville closed in 1979 — although the latter had been in decline for some time, he said.
“There are many people who think the decline of heavy industry in Pittsburgh dates to the 1970s, and I disagree with that,” Briem said. “I think it really misremembers things for Pittsburgh, at least.”