(BLOG NOTE: The Google mapping car drove up this road in 2007 when people still lived on it. The car went back about 60 percent of the way until it had to turn around. There are images on Google if you search the road in Clairton, with many of those photos being taken in 2012 and 2013. Some of the photos were published in newspapers, trade publications, blogs and online portfolios. The road is now sealed off to motorists after a series of arson fires in 2015.)
In the summer of 2012, my brother Dan and I went golfing near his home in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. After we played nine holes, we decided to get some lunch at a local place on state route 51. In order to get there quick, Dan knew a few back roads via the small, tired mill town of Clairton, about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh. After he crossed the bridge near the US Steel Clairton Works, he turned right and started north on state route 837. About a quarter mile up the road on the left, I caught a glimpse of something improbable and apocalyptic: Lincoln Way, an accessible cul-de-sac, was left to rot.
Before I speak about the ghost street, some details involving the history of the region can assist in understanding the current fate of Lincoln Way:
During the height of Pittsburgh’s identity as a worldwide steel producer in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the region had 30 to 40 fully operational steel mills, depending on the year and how far you extended your radius from the inner city. Most of the mills were situated along the three major rivers that run through the Pittsburgh region: The Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela. Most of the mills closed in the early 1980’s after foreign markets produced the same steel at a fraction of the cost, and due to the companies deciding not to upgrade their aging facilities. Today, there are three mills in the Pittsburgh region, none of which are running at full capacity. Clairton has one of these remaining mills, which continues to suffer job losses despite being one of the largest coke works in the United States.
It took a few decades, but some parts of the Pittsburgh region are doing well. Unlike other large American cities who still suffer from the fallout of the manufacturing sector (i.e. Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo), Pittsburgh reinvented itself as an innovative hub for engineering, robotics and medical research. The central business district has low vacancy rates and new housing around the city has increased over the last decade. The north and west suburbs are booming areas of the Pittsburgh region. Many towns and townships in these regions of Pittsburgh have seen population gains of over 100% since 1990.
The south and east regions of Pittsburgh have not been as fortunate since 1990. Steeped in the manufacturing industry, many towns that once thrived are now struggling. Most of the steel mills closed down completely, but even other manufacturing businesses that survived the 1980’s have moved on from their roots. Engineering superpower Westinghouse moved their world headquarters to the booming north suburb of Cranberry Township from their roots in Wilmerding, which is in the east hills. Aluminum giant Alcoa has been operating their corporate offices in downtown Pittsburgh for many years, while their riverside production facilities in New Kensington continue to lie in ruin after they closed up decades ago. In the case of both companies, they now operate production facilities in foreign countries.
The reason why many towns like Clairton went flat after the manufacturing jobs left town is because the land is so hard to redevelop. The soil under the old facilities is polluted with toxic chemicals, which turns away potential investors to the south and east regions of Pittsburgh. The north and west suburbs of Pittsburgh were farmland before land developers started transforming the properties. It was more cost-effective to establish new industries in these markets. Another issue is air pollution. Since Clairton still has an operating steel mill, their air quality is always the worst in the Pittsburgh region.
I know ghost towns are not unique to the history of the U.S. (Or the world: entire cities in Syria are being wiped off the map due to war), but what is stunning about Lincoln Way in Clairton is how all of its 51 parcels of land go abandoned while the homes up on the hill via the next intersection down route 837 maintain a typical vacancy rate relative to the area. Even the most distressed towns around Pittsburgh have at least a 75% occupancy rate.
There are tales of ghosts and a demon. Tales of a great toxic event that forced residents out like Chernobyl in 1986. But what really happened was a combination of jobs leaving town, people getting old, an increase in crime and descendants not wanting anything to do with the “zombie properties” of their relatives.
On the Allegheny County Assessment page, Lincoln Way has many property owners listed that have long been deceased. The county only lists recent transactions on its website (My house has three since all of mine were done since 2007) and most of the parcels for Lincoln Way have a last transaction recorded between 1946 and 1981! About 40 of the 51 parcels were supposed to be for homes, but as of 2012 there were only about 15 homes left standing. Some of these 15 barely standing.
A few of the homes had everything in them from the last day it was occupied, so it would seem like a Chernobyl event happened there. If that was the case, thousands of people would not be living in Clairton today. These homes probably had one person living in it, and that one person died. The owner either did not have someone to bequeath the property to or the bequest did not happen since the property would have become a burden on a relative. After around 1986, it would have become more difficult to get a return on investment for a home in Clairton. Tax collectors can’t collect from a dead person, so the deceased stay on the deed and the house lay in ruin.
In its heyday, Lincoln Way would have been an appealing place to live. Its own little world tucked off the main road through the borough. I imagined their little utopia to be like the town of Spectre from the film Big Fish, where the residents were all one big happy family. Street festivals, music, food and optimism throughout the half mile of homes. But when crime took over the borough after many of the jobs left town, being alone on a dead end street would be a scary situation, especially if there were not many people around to hear your screams.
When I encountered the street, it resembled many of the photos I saw published online in 2012. There were about five homes that had a look of being occupied in 2010 or 2011, because they still had a clean look to them despite the overgrowth of weeds in the yard. These homes looked to be in better shape than some occupied homes in my old neighborhood back in Pittsburgh. I think that’s why I was curious about the street: How can these nice homes be left to die?
After assessing all of the facts I could find (For being a blogger; if I were a journalist I would have tried harder!), the stories I read and knowing the history of the region, Lincoln Way in Clairton, Pennsylvania is a lasting outward example of what many of us express when we are faced with a challenging time in our lives: Sometimes you just have to pick up the pieces and move on.