Wednesday, May 9, 2012


From Clairton to College: Back in the late 1800s when I attended Clairton High School – or so my grandkids think that is when I attended – it was actually the late 1950s – Clairton was a booming mill town. African Americans, first generation European Americans, Anglo-Americans whose families had been here for generations, all worked side-by-side in the area’s mills and all studied side-by-side in the classrooms of Clairton High School and the many elementary schools in the community. Sub-communities were somewhat segregated with Slavs, Italians, and African Americans dominating parts of town but it was not uncommon for most of the neighborhoods to be integrated. The closest thing to a wealthy section of town was the mansion at the end of Mitchell Avenue. Work was plentiful, the economy boomed, and for the most part life was good.

People are people: The community was not without its blemishes. There were occasional skirmishes at the school and in the mill, accusations of political chicanery, a scandal when one of the teachers was accused of photographing nude underage girls, and there were even illicit drugs for sale on our little version of Mayberry. But overall, most residents had a goal for their family and that goal included having their children get a good education, graduate from high school then join the service, get a job, or pursue a college education. The Marines seemed to be the service branch of choice for many of those who opted for the military and jobs were plentiful in the mill as well as in supporting businesses for those who chose option two. Many scholarships were available to those who opted for college, from scholarships offered by affinity groups to the PICCO scholarship offered by the booming chemical plant at the bottom of the hill. The population was bursting at its seams with a high of about 28,000 residents including many returning young WW-II veterans who moved into cheap and available temporary housing to begin their families.

Our choices were sometimes overruled: I was never crazy about the academic side of school. From junior high school onward I did not do particularly well in my classes. Oh I learned most of what was taught, but for some reason did not earn stellar grades. I did not see scholarly pursuits in my future. My vision was to go to the Marine Corps and do whatever it was they did at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, then return to Clairton in my snazzy Marine dress uniform to wow the girls who did not give me a second look while in high school.  At least that was my fantasy.

BZZZZZZT!!!! Wake up call! My father had other plans for me and since I was the only son in an ethnic family those plans included post-secondary education. We argued. Service. College. Service. College. Service. College. And so the arguments went until a classmate told me she was going to a college 2,000 miles away that was sponsored by a religion that I’d barely heard of.

That was my answer! I would tell my father I’d go to college only if I got to choose the school. He’s balk at my choice and I’d be free to go to the Marine Corps! Wrong. He did not balk and at the tender age of 17 I ended up a stranger in a strange land, attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Times change: The only places where things stay forever grand and happy are in fairy tales and reminiscent blogs. I went on to college and to my surprise, actually graduated with a degree in Psychology and eventually earned Masters and Doctoral degrees. But the winds of change blew almost from the very day I left Clairton. First there was the assassination of a young popular president, then the war in far off Viet Nam, Woodstock, Watergate, gasoline shortages, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so many other changes worldwide and in the U.S. And of course, our little cornet of Camelot did not go unscathed. The booming steel industry was dismantled as Detroit manufacturers lost market share to foreign competitors whose cars were smaller, sleeker, more efficient and more dependable. Clairton became one more component of the rust belt when the mills closed up and down the river.  The city’s population base began to tumble to the low 20,000 mark then into the teens, and by the turn of the 21st century, to below 10,000 and by 2010 to around 6,500 souls lived in the once-thriving community. Those who had gone off to college and the military for the most part did not return and their parents who had worked their careers in the mills stayed in their paid off homes until they died out.

The worst was yet to come: As mentioned above, my first university degree was in Psychology; the study of human behavior. Two characteristics of human behavior have emerged in our town. First, it is human nature to not want to be at the bottom level of society. People at the bottom scratch and fight to get off the floor and that often means doing it at the expense of knocking somebody else to the bottom. Clairton appears to have been the "Somebody Else." We see this in the constant negative media coverage of our town regarding drugs, shootings, and any other negative sensational headline or gossip that attempts to put Clairton below surrounding communities. This phenomenon is exacerbated by those who still live there or who have moved away but join in on the bashing, making the community appear worse off than it actually is.

Are there real problems in Clairton that include drugs, violence, and a struggling school system? Of course. But those conditions are no worse nor better than many sister cities up and down the Monongahela Valley who have suffered similar downturns.

Turn the tide: Instead of dwelling on the negative, as is human nature, some current and former residents have begun to take an active role in erasing stereotypes by accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. Terrence Fort and a host of others have recently begun the CHS Mentorship program. Their goal is to get every CHS grad into some sort of post-secondary education program. Thus far they’ve brought in successful CHS alumni to speak to current CHS students, brought in a financial aid specialist to discuss the ins and outs of financial aid for post-secondary education, mentored students on a 1:1 basis, conducted mock interviews with students, and many other activities.

I’ve also gotten wind that another group is in the process of forming a not-for-profit corporation that will allow them to seek grants to raze and refurbish Clairton properties that have been abandoned. We’ve heard about the school’s successes on the football field and it is gratifying to see successes in other areas. I have every confidence that the tide will indeed turn in Clairton and the community will once again be a model for health and happiness. It might have to start small, but every acorn that grows to be a mighty oak started as a seed.

A little blogging music Maestro: “I Will Survive” by Cake.

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