Joseph Sabino Mistick: The lads who cleared Pittsburgh’s skies

When it was recently announced in Scotland that Pittsburgh will host the next big global energy and innovation conference in September 2022, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said “the Steel City” has shown how an “industrial-dependent economy can be transformed into a technology and innovation powerhouse.”

There are still those who have not kept up with the changes here over the decades, those who remember the old photos of smoke so thick in the sky that it was nighttime at noon, and they must have been scratching their heads. We were burning fossil fuel back then to make steel and heat our homes, and all that smoke was a symbol of our powerful place in the world.

My first lesson in economics came during the 116-day steel strike in 1959 when the permanently gray skies suddenly turned clear blue. It was something I had not seen in my first 10 years of life, and I was excited. But my grandma shared the best thinking of working families at the time, telling me, “Remember, Josey, when there’s no smoke in the sky, there’s no food on our table.”

None of us knew it then, but that thinking was already changing because of the leadership of two men whose names were not mentioned in any of the hoopla in Scotland. David L. Lawrence, an Irish Catholic who grew up in the tenements at the confluence of our three rivers, was elected mayor of Pittsburgh in 1945. Richard King Mellon, the Protestant scion of the Mellon banking family, ruled over a worldwide financial and industrial empire from Pittsburgh.

They became partners and invented modern Pittsburgh, knowing from the start that blue skies would be the future of Pittsburgh’s economy. Mellon used his power to slowly move industry in the right direction, and when the railroads balked at smoke control, they were reminded that Mellon-controlled industries could readily switch to more agreeable railroads. They caved.

And Lawrence put his political career on the line in his first term. There were 675,000 people living in Pittsburgh, all of them in homes with soft coal-fired furnaces, spewing smoke day and night. Lawrence gave them one year to convert to natural gas or smokeless coal, and the uproar was swift and fierce.

It was a crapshoot and the stakes were high, but Lawrence never flinched on his “smoke must go” policy, even though it fell hardest on his own political base. And his first reelection campaign in 1949 would make or break him, the partnership with Mellon and the future of the city they both loved.

Luckily for all of us, Lawrence beat back his closest mayoral challenge ever from councilman and union leader Eddie Leonard, who had played on the troubles caused by the clean air campaign. And Pittsburgh found its way to Scotland 70 years later.

Lawrence and Mellon knew before any of us that our economy could grow under blue skies instead of smoky skies. They knew the day could come when we no longer would have to make the choice between jobs and clean air.

So, it is good that the world is headed here in 2022. If they see what has happened in Pittsburgh, they can imagine what can happen in the rest of the world.

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