The budding role of culture in Steel Town USA

Pittsburgh at dawn. (PHOTO: daveynin, Flickr CC)

For decades, the U.S. Steel Corporation stood as the single most powerful entity along Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. When local delegations needed something they doffed their hats at U.S. Steel Tower, not the capitol domes of St. Paul or Washington, D.C.

U.S. Steel officially headquartered in New York until 1970, when the company moved its command post to a new U.S. Steel Tower, still the tallest building in Pittsburgh. Moving to the Rest Belt put U.S. Steel’s locus of control near the historic blast furnaces that turned out a century’s worth of American steel.

They still call Pittsburgh “Steel City USA.” Though, like the mines of Northern Minnesota, times have changed. A combination of corporate consolidation, globalization and automation hit Pittsburgh just as hard as they struck the Iron Range. U.S. Steel, once the largest corporation in the world, fell well out of the top ten steel produces in the world. The late 20th Century represented a period of decline for Pittsburgh, same as here.

But around the turn of the 21st Century, the fates of the two place diverged. Pittsburgh used its advantages as an urban center to turn things around.

Lucas Peterson writes a “Frugal Traveler” column for the New York Times travel section. His April 12 column took readers to the Pittsburgh of today, a city that is diversifying its Rust Belt image.

Writes Peterson:

Pittsburgh is also known as Steel City, and while United States Steel still has its headquarters there, the industry collapsed in the 1980s, a devastating blow. But given two options, evolve or perish, Pittsburgh began growing in a new direction. Today, tech companies like Google, Intel and Uber have invested in the city, which has had a real effect on its citizens’ lives: According to a 2014 study, Pittsburgh is ranked second in intergenerational upward mobility. I arrived merely as a tourist, though one with a specific modus operandi — finding the best the city has to offer without straining my frugal budget. What I found was a city that has transformed itself into a vibrant cultural and artistic hub, all while remaining true to its Rust Belt roots.

Peterson describes a city that not only boasts a new economy, but a vibrant and unique cultural scene.

As this story shows, consolidation of the iron and steel industries need not doom every corner of the Rust Belt. However, it also shows that these places don’t automatically recover on their own. No city in recovery spends much time hoping for some fanciful return of 1970s Steelworker employment. The places that take pride in building a new world atop the old one will thrive. The rest will rust.


  1. My dad was an industrial engineer during the development of US Steel’s Minntac in the 60’s and 70’s, when decisions were increasingly made in Pittsburgh rather than Duluth or the Range. He told me that more than once he was flown out to Pittsburgh to settle confusion caused by the fact that in Minnesota iron ore was measured in long tons, 2,240 pounds, rather than the 2000 pound tons they used in Pittsburgh.

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