A Rust Belt town and its changing politics

Written by

If you visit the town of Monessen, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, there’s a good chance you’ll see trains filled with coal that has been mined in West Virginia and headed for export overseas.

The coal trains pass through a community that can feel like a ghost town. The once handsome brick buildings in Monessen’s downtown business district are abandoned and boarded up, and there are few people on the street on an early weekday afternoon. That’s maybe not surprising considering the community has lost two-thirds of its population in recent decades.

But ask people who grew up here about Monessen’s past, and they describe a very different community. “I’d come home and my mother would say to me, ‘Change your clothes and get dressed up, we’re going to downtown Monessen,’” said Candice Kelley, a Monessen native who volunteers for the town’s small historical society. “And everybody was here. Everybody was dressed nice. And businesses were booming.”

Downtown, Monessen, Pennsylvania. As the American steel industry declined, so too did this town of now 7,000 residents outside of Pittsburgh. Most of the buildings in Monessen’s once thriving commercial district are derelict. Many have also been officially condemned by the city. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Like other towns in this part of Pennsylvania, it was steel manufacturing, during the heyday of America industry that forged Monessen’s prosperity.

Working in the steel plants wasn’t just a job; it was a way of life, said Monessen’s Mayor Lou Mavrakis. When he graduated from high school, Mavrakis himself went to work in the steel mills, and quickly earned more than his college graduate brother

“When you got out of high school, you went into the steel industry because that’s where you made big money, ” said Mavrakis.

Lou Mavrakis is Monessen’s mayor. Mavrakis grew up in the community and worked for decades as a steel worker and union official. He says the town was once reliably Democratic, so much so no one would dare put up a Republican lawn sign for fear of public ridicule. But Mavrakis says this election year, Monessen is up for grabs politically, with many voters attracted to Donald Trump’s message of economic nationalism. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

And if steel was what defined Monessen economically, what defined it politically was a decades-long allegiance to the Democratic Party. The town’s blue-collar, union member residents voted consistently for Democratic presidential candidates. Monessen was so high profile, John F. Kennedy visited the community twice.

But with the closure of the Monessen’s steel plants in the 80s and 90s and the community’s subsequent decline, political loyalties in this town, like other Rust Belt communities, have become much more fluid. That’s especially true this election year as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton vie for the presidency.

Because Pennsylvania is such a key swing state-and Monessen a poster child for America’s industrial decline- last month Donald Trump came here to give a speech. As he so often does, Trump promised to make America a manufacturing powerhouse again by cutting regulations and keeping U.S. industry from sending jobs overseas.

Trump’s message was sweet music to many here, like Mark Meslow, a 54-year-old Monessen resident who is one of the few still people still employed in the local steel industry.

“I believe him hundred percent. I think he’ll do it,” said Meslow when asked whether he thought Trump could help revive Monessen’s economy.

What’s left of industry in Monessen. Many in the community hope the next president will introduce policies that could at least partially bring Monessen’s economy back to life, but the town seems disconnected from a changing world economy and new technologies. Mayor Mavrakis, for instance, is proud he doesn’t use a personal computer. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Mayor Mavrakis said America owes Monessen, as well as other depressed industrial communities, a helping hand. He noted the steel that was produced in Monessen’s mills was used to help build California’s Golden Gate Bridge and New York City skyscrapers, as well as the tanks and ships America used to win World War II.

This community built this world and this country, said Mavrakis. “And the communities that built this world and country are suffering. They want to wash us off. It don’t work that way.”

Looking to this year’s presidential election, Mavrakis says he’s conflicted. He’s a lifelong Democrat and voted for Obama twice. But he’s also the one who invited Donald Trump to speak in Monessen and makes favorable remarks about the candidate.

When asked how he was going to vote, Mavrakis, who’s 79, would only say he was angry and disgusted with both political parties and accused president after president of breaking promises to help communities like his.

“They don’t do a damn thing,” said Mavrakis. “But at least come in and give me half of a promise that you are going to do something.”

But because things have been so bad for so long in Monessen, the big question might be whether this community can really be helped by the policies of either a President Trump or Clinton.