Hell With the Lid Off

Pittsburgh, 1948
For the flood of immigrants arriving on America’s doorstep at the turn of the last century, one of the cities with the most to offer was the booming, belching city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the late 1800s, Andrew Carnegie pioneered the production of steel, which transformed the city into a major manufacturing center in the United States. As the steel industry grew – along with other manufacturing – the city’s population grew, doubling within decades. There was no shortage of work for the newly arrived European immigrants searching for the promise of opportunity.

During the two World Wars and in the years between, the city flourished and made at least a few men exceedingly wealthy. At the same time, Pittsburgh choked its water and air with pollution and smog, the byproducts of massive industry, so much so that one man described it as “hell with the lid off.” A layer of grime settled over everything. The thick dust churned in the air and could turn a white shirt black just from walking across town. Still, there was work for unskilled and semi-skilled laborers and, though it was a hard living, it was a living that drew people to the city from far and wide.

The Great Migration
It was not only immigrants from other countries that made their way to Pittsburgh and other northern industrial cities. African Americans in huge numbers, fleeing Jim Crow laws and the unfulfilled promise of an emancipated South, moved north as part of the Great Migration that took place during the first half of the 20th century.
In 1900, about 90% of the African-American population lived in the Southern states on farms or in small towns and villages scraping by as sharecroppers or continuing to work for former slave owners, unable to get ahead. There was widespread racism and violence against blacks, enough that even without a secure job, government assistance or any guarantees, individuals and families left behind their homes in the south and took their chances, making their way up to cities in the north, among them Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, New York, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Inequality and racism were not escapable in the north. White workers were often given higher paying factory jobs while black workers were relegated to harder manual labor or service positions, such as porters, waiters, janitors and domestics.

During the Depression, jobs became scarce but the wave of people moving up from the south didn’t stop, it just slowed temporarily. With the start of World War II, many workers were sent off to war, leaving jobs to be filled by the masses of people still moving into the cities. In a radical shift, within 75 years, the majority of the African-American population in the United States had become urbanized.

Living in the city
City life was much different than country life for the hundreds of thousands of relocated African Americans. Because so many people were arriving in Pittsburgh at the same time, the European immigrants and the growing black population competed not only for jobs, but also housing and resources. Lower income neighborhoods were flooded with new arrivals and became a mishmash of cultures trying to carve out a place to call home.

High population density was common in cities, especially in working class neighborhoods. The jobs available to black workers were typically far from the neighborhoods where they lived. Though in transition, many public services – including public transportation, jails and hospitals – were still segregated. Due to overcrowding and lack of access to medical care, infectious diseases spread rapidly in the black neighborhoods.

People who came from the south tended to cluster together for a sense of community and shared history. They also found help from those who had settled in the northern cities before them, using connections to find housing in a brutal and discriminatory real estate market.

Even though the living conditions were lacking, the black neighborhoods began to develop. Pittsburgh’s Hill District was the center of the African-American community in the first half of the 20th century. It was close to downtown but up steep hills (hence the name) making it an undesirable location for the upper classes. Packed with boarding houses and rentals, the Hill was a city-within-a-city, boasting black-owned clubs, shops, meeting halls, Pittsburgh’s black newspaper, the Courier, and Negro league baseball teams. There were opportunities for education and literacy and political activism that were never available or possible in the south.