RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
For the towns and cities that have lost jobs in the auto industry or seen an auto plant close, the future looks bleak - or maybe not. Just look at Pittsburgh. That city and its surrounding mill towns forged new identities after the steel industry buckled in the 1980s. NPR's David Greene is out talking to people about the economy during President Obama's first 100 days.
Today, he tells us about people who dealt with factories closing three decades ago and people dealing with it today.
DAVID GREENE: It's known as the Mon Valley, these gritty towns along the Monongahela River outside Pittsburgh. And in the 1980s, there was panic here. Steel mills, blast furnaces all were shutting down. When I drove through here recently, I found someone who remembered it all.
Pastor BILL THOMAS (Presbyterian Pastor): I'm Bill Thomas, a Presbyterian pastor, soon to be 75 years old. My wife Nancy is already 75 years old.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Pastor THOMAS: I thought I'd mention that while…
Ms. NANCY THOMAS: That was two days ago.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GREENE: Reverend Thomas and his wife live in Duquesne, one of these towns in the valley. I discovered the pastor on the Internet. The Presbyterian Church had honored him for his work in the '80s helping steel towns recover. The Thomases, who both use oxygen machines these days, generously invited me to their home for lunch.
Mr. THOMAS: Well, we hold hands and we say grace. God is great, God is good and we thank Him for our food. Amen.
(Soundbite of dishes clanking)
GREENE: How did you, as a pastor, deal with the hopeless feelings that people had when they lost work in a steel mill?
Mr. THOMAS: Try to find ways to show that they were necessary, that they were needed, that they had something to offer.
GREENE: Is there a memory that you have of watching him at work in the '80s? I mean, does something stand out?
Ms. THOMAS: Yeah. I remember coming over to the study in the church in Duquesne and looking out the window. He was talking about the rotting hulk of a steel mill on the riverside, and it was just making everybody feel terrible. They never tore it down. They just walked away from it and left it to rot.
Mr. THOMAS: And once it was taken down for the first time here in Duquesne, we could see the river.
GREENE: Fast forward to the present. These towns and the city of Pittsburgh don't claim to be perfect, but the area has come along. Pittsburgh's now known less for steel and more for its universities and jobs in health care and technology.
Mr. THOMAS: It's not a hard-nosed, dirty town like it used to be. It's a little more sophisticated. A lot of people seem to like it that way.
GREENE: After lunch, I drove a few miles down the river to the town of Homestead to meet Betty Esper.
Mayor BETTY ESPER (Homestead, Pennsylvania): Those are the ducks or goose or something flying overhead. Well, we have a beautiful riverside here.
GREENE: Esper is Homestead's long-time mayor. She's in here 70s now with snowy white hair. For 36 years, Esper worked in an office inside U.S. Steel's Homestead Works. She lost that job when the mill closed in 1986, and she was elected mayor a few years later. She remembers people fighting to preserve pieces of that old steel mill. She told them they had to move on.
Mayor ESPER: When the town was poor and they wanted me to save this and save that, I said, you know, I just cut my wrists and I'm bleeding to death and you want me to save buildings. We're trying to save a town, not buildings. You know, these are all these historical people. You know, I appreciate them now, but back then I used to call them hysterical - you know, worried about saving, and we're worried about surviving.
GREENE: And surviving was hard. Residents were out of work, and that meant less tax revenue, and so Homestead had to slash its budget and cut services. The key to recovery, Esper says, was replacing that old mill with something new and profitable.
Mayor ESPER: Giant Eagle, Chick-fil-A, McDonald's is doing pretty good.
GREENE: Mayor Esper's driving me around acres of stores and restaurants. The shopping area opened in 1999. That steel production building where Esper had years of memories? It's now a Marriott. But tax revenue from these waterfront businesses is fueling Homestead's economy, helping the town weather the current recession.
Mayor ESPER: We're not a one-company town anymore. Our big company was U.S. Steel. So, who often really hurt us that bad?
GREENE: Sometimes Esper does find herself thinking about cities and towns out in the Midwest where auto factories have cut jobs or closed. She knows what they're going through.
Mayor ESPER: Right now, they're in a dark tunnel. So all they see is darkness, as far as I can see. I can't tell them how long that tunnel is.
GREENE: A few hundred miles west of Pittsburgh, there are people in that tunnel today.
Mr. BRIAN BEACH(ph): (unintelligible). The GM truck and bus plant officially closes December 23rd, 2008.
GREENE: That's 28-year-old Brian Beach of Dayton, Ohio. As I was making my way west, I was checking him out on YouTube.
Mr. BEACH: Say goodbye to the GM auto truck and bus plants.
GREENE: This is one of his driving tours of Dayton that he's posted on the Web. Beach is documenting the area's loss of auto jobs. When I arrived, I met Beach just south of Dayton, in the suburb of Moraine. This is where the GM plant closed in December.
Mr. BEACH: Well, it was a big, big blow. I believe, honestly, when Dayton had lost GM, it lost part of its soul.
GREENE: All of the Dayton area is hurting, but especially Moraine. The acting mayor here is Jean Matheny. Her office is right across the street from the empty factory.
Mayor JEAN MATHENY (Acting Mayor, Moraine, Ohio): I've been down here in this city for 42 years. And to look over there and to see no lights on is just devastating.
GREENE: No two communities are identical, but Moraine, Ohio is feeling what Homestead, Pennsylvania felt in the '80s. People are out of work, and so tax revenues are down. And because of that, the town's had to make budget cuts across the board, including the Heritage Festival that everyone looks forward to each summer. No big name musicians at this year's event.
Mayor MATHENY: We don't need the big names. Go with our local people. We've got enough local people in this area that are great entertainers.
GREENE: The mayor says she believes the crowds will still come out.
Mayor MATHENY: We will survive. We're a strong little city, and I don't look for us to go anywhere but stay right here and get back on the map.
GREENE: She can always look back at Pittsburgh to know this kind of survival story is possible.
I'm David Greene, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: If you want to follow David's travels, you can go to npr.org/100days. You can even suggest where David should go next.
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