An Ode to the Industrial City: Singing the City

0001.jp2.sI am not quite sure how I came across Laurie Graham’s Singing the City, but I am quite happy to have read it. Graham’s memoir/creative non-fiction is a both an elegy and a hymn to Pittsburgh’s fast-disappearing industrial past. Pittsburgh was once at the center of the American steel industry, so there are some close parallels between it and Hamilton, Ontario (the city I live in). However, what really made Singing the City come alive for me was Graham’s willingness to take the working class life on its own terms. At times she might run the risk of romanticizing it, but her interviews with current or former steel workers continually remind her that their steel mill careers were far from perfect. Graham’s book, then, works both as an intimate portrait of Pittsburgh, but also as an example to the many former industrial cities in North America that face the difficult transition from heavy industry towards a more diversified, white-collar economy.

Maybe part of the reason that I liked Singing the City so much is that the steel mills here in Hamilton have always been on the near horizon of my imagination. I grew up travelling past them on the way to my grandparents’ house, and they became a kind of mythical landscape. Their size and other-worldliness is truly something to behold. For someone who now works a desk job in a university, that world is nearly as far from my own day-to-day life as you can get. Yet, these places are slowly disappearing in North America as industry is outsourced in a globalized economy. Graham summarizes it best when she writes:

“The work of this place helped set the course of the nation. People have died here winning our wars, creating and building the world we know. The evidence of their existence remains, if only anonymously, in the buildings and bridges built with their steel. But the immediate evidence of their existence, the locus of their work, is gone. Looking out over an empty mill site, I can only wonder why it is that as a nation we are not more ready to recognize these places as hallowed ground.” (130-31)

The Calvinist upbringing in me resists the temptation to call factories and steel mills hallowed ground, yet I’m deeply attracted by Graham’s forthrightness. Entire lives, even generations of lives, have been lived within the shadow of steel mills. There is a wealth of stories in these places, yet these stories often go untold and unheard.Graham explains this: “The devaluation of working people is a commonplace in human history. It is also too easy, a failure of imagination maintained, I think, by a willful blindness to certain kinds of ability, a desire to discount what one cannot or does not want to do” (135). I think she hits the mark here because, if I am truly honest with myself, I would rather be at my desk reading a book or marking a paper than wearing the heavy fire-proof coveralls while handling hot metal with tongs for the rest of my life. I do take a deep pleasure in physical labour, but this is more from the lack of physical labor in my everyday life than from a deep connection to it. I worked on a potato farm throughout high school and university in the summers, and I know that these experiences easily dispel any romantic notion I have of seeing myself as a farmer.

Finally, what I think Graham’s book also offers is a model of a memoir of place. In its relatively short 166 pages, readers get a real sense of Pittsburgh as a place. It is a living place with a deep history and a textured surface that makes it unique from other industrial cities. I firmly believe that every city, town, or village is unique in its own way, and the best writing on place helps to bring this out. Near the end of her book, Graham writes: “I have come to realize that as I move through Pittsburgh, mentally and physically, I am carrying, living in, a story. The city is multilayered for me, so that in any view of the present I see adumbrations of what has gone before” (160-61).

I think this is summarizes her book in a poetic way. We as readers encounter Pittsburgh through her eyes, and we come to a budding relationship to the place even if we have never been there. Such writing can help us understand that globalization and consumer capitalism do not have the final say in turning every city into a carbon copy of every other one. Instead, we need to see the places we live as part of a much bigger story, a story that we need only hear to see that the places we live are multi-layered.

I would recommend this book for people who have lived in industrial cities and for fans of place-writing.

Graham, Laurie. Singing the City: The Bonds of Home in an Industrial Landscape. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1998. Print.

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