IMAGES OF A GHOST TOWN
by Mark M. Pecchia
Youngstown State University



 

HISTORY

This video clip, of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Brier Hill Works Coke Plant, was taken in 1987 about ten years after the steel mill was closed down. Located on the Northeast side of Youngstown along the Mahoning River, the Brier Hill Works, was an important symbol of the city�s steel history in the 20th Century.
The steel industry was responsible for the economic and population growth of the city that maximized in 1930 with 170,000 people. At that time Youngstown was one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and ranked third behind Pittsburgh and Chicago in steel production. The depression hit the city extremely hard because of its one industry economy. Thousands were unemployed. The city bounced back during World War II when steel was once again needed for the war effort, but it never reached it once predicted population of 500,000 by 1971.
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In June of 1978, Lykes Corporation, which bought out Youngstown Sheet and Tube in 1969,announced plans to merge with LTV. Once the merger was approved LTV closed down the Brier Hill Works putting 1400 people out of work. This was the second such mill closing in Youngstown that started in 1977, with the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Campbell Works and ended in 1982 with the Republic Steel Mill. According to some figures, approximately 40,000 steel and manufacturing related jobs in the Youngstown area were lost due to the plant closings.
 
 
 
 
 

ANALYSIS

I worked at the Republic Steel Coke Plant from the spring of 1978 to December of 1982 when the plant was closed.
Seeing the Brier Hill Coke Plant brought back a lot of fond and not so fond memories from my days in the steel industry. The video photographer was Mark Hanley, who at the time of the filming was a member of the musical group, Sister Ray. He is still currently living and working in the Youngstown area. I had an opportunity to interview him to find out his perspective on why he chose to film an old mill site and what he saw and felt at the abandoned mill site. Mark had friends and family that worked in the mills, but he never did, so he spoke from an artist�s perspective rather than someone who had personally experienced the mill life. When I asked him why he chose to film the mill he said, " there was something oddly compelling that he felt was worthy of documentation". What compelled him was the "desolate look of what was once the life blood of the community". This filming took place around the same time that his group was touring Europe and he wanted some representation of Youngstown for their album / CD label. The people in Europe were unfamiliar with the history of Youngstown and he felt the scenes from the old steel mill would show the transitional times the city went through, from heavy industry to empty mills. His group recorded the music that accompanies the video and he selected it with a purpose in mind. As he walked through the mill filming the video he felt a sense of emptiness and desolation. He wanted to add that same eerie dimension to the video so he chose the musical piece that he thought fit best.

My own personal experiences in the mill give me a different perspective when watching this video. I see the personal side of the mill closings, the lives that were forever touched and changed. When I started working at the mill I was looking for a good income that would help me provide for my family, the mill did that for not only me, but for thousands of others just like me. Providing for your family gave you a certain pride, and it earned you a certain respect from your peers. When the mills were shutdown we lost our income, and in a lot of cases our pride and respect as well. Experience plays a major role when looking at representations. It not only helps you to see what is there, but also to see what is not there, what is missing from the image. In Mark Hanley�s video the typical viewer does not see any people, but I see the video full of names and faces of days gone by.

To further illustrate my point of perspective in analyzing representations I would like to refer to a photograph that was taken by Michael Williamson in the book Journey to Nowhere authored by Dale Maharidge.The photo is of Ken Platt Sr. and his son Ken Jr. standing in front of the Jeanette blast furnace, which was part of the Brier Hill Works. With the blast furnace in the background and Ken Sr. and Ken Jr. in the foreground the viewer can get a sense of what pride and accomplishment Ken must have felt at one time. You can also get a sense of what the mill closings have done to the people of Youngstown. There appears to be a sense of sadness and hopelessness in Ken�s eyes as his past means of income stand in a pile of scrap and rubble behind him. In the video filmed by Mark Hanley, he took a shot of the Jeanette blast furnace also, but from a different angle and unpopulated. When I saw this without the shot of Ken Sr. and Ken Jr. standing in front, it lost something. I need to put a face and a name on something for it to give me more meaning. Without Ken and his son that picture is just a picture of a scrapheap, but when you add Ken Sr. and Ken Jr. the picture comes to life. They add life and emotion to the picture, but above all they add a story. Hopefully, by reading their story and the stories of men and women just like them we can learn how to prevent this catastrophe from ever happening again.
 
 

SOURCES

Personal Interview with Mark Hanley, May 24, 1999

Video of Brier Hill Coke Plant, Mark Hanley, June 1987

Journey to Nowhere, Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, Hyperion, New York, 1996.

History of Youngstown