Monday, October 15, 2012

Bonjour Pittsburgh

Real people, like the woman at the library in Braddock, Sebastian explained in his soft French accent.

“When she show us the pool, her face—it was like a souvenir,” he said, and I knew he meant you could see the memory color her face, the childlike delight. “With a person like Vickie, you see in five minutes she has a lot of nostalgia. You can put the camera on the tripod and let her speak.”

Sebastian, a soundman from ARTE TV in France, was allowing an exit interview with me as we waited in the car outside the Strip District Obama campaign headquarters, where Vladimir Vasak, the reporter/cameraman, was inside getting keepsakes. The Parisians were here for nine days to document life in Pittsburgh during the presidential election season, and now they were about to leave the city before heading to the airport.

They’d wanted to film the U.S. Steel mill in Braddock, since steel is such an important part of our regional history. I tried to get them a tour of the historic Edgar Thomson Works, but no go. The guys could still film the outside of the mill and wanted to, but they needed a story—someone to interview in the town. I couldn’t set anything with some of the usual suspects, like the media-loving mayor, or Jeb Feldman of UnSmoke, one of the arts spaces in the town.

Jeb suggested Vickie Vargo, whom I didn’t reach at first, but got a hold of the next day and pressed over the phone to agree to the interview. She reluctantly gave in, and the guys had another interview set. I’d tried to explain to them beforehand that the borough is economically depressed, but you really have to see it to fully comprehend it. So I wasn’t surprised by Vladimir’s first comment after visiting Braddock: “It is really depressed there,” he said.

I told you it was, I said. But how was the interview with Vickie Vargo?

“It was excellent. It is a story of hope,” he said.

Yeah, I said. He was speaking my language.


“We are Socialists, in France,” Vladimir said proudly at a Lawrenceville coffee shop the Sunday prior. I jokingly shushed him, saying that many people here don’t like that term. I mention the socialist reference because a lot of Americans devoutly cling to varying notions of a Capitalist Ethos, yet we rarely stare at uglier sides of our American economic system, like towns that have been mostly abandoned, like Braddock, PA.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Braddock. The borough’s a living time-capsule of a boomtown gone bust—of an industrial peak that meant work and jobs and families and bustling streets I never knew and can only imagine. Its buildings represent heritage and opportunity to me. But having outlived its usefulness as a new home for cheap industrial labor, and suffering depopulation as have many towns in the region due to suburban growth and the loss of Big Steel, the old town clings to its existence mainly through the stubbornness of its iron-willed residents and merchants. Even so, you can buy a house there for less than a new Ford, and vacant buildings abound.

Vladimir came back to the car with his arms filled with several posters for Obama, each representing different ethnicities—Jewish Americans for Obama, Asians Americans for Obama, etc. He got into the car grinning like a kid who’d won at the carnival; an unabashed Frenchman for Obama. As we were passing through the Strip District, I mentioned how that area had changed since I was young, when my dad would take me down to the produce yards there in early morning, to get crates of produce and logs of cheese.

“What are those tubes where the mill was?” Vladimir asked, and I knew he was speaking of the stacks preserved after the demolition of the Homestead Works.

Those are the smokestacks from the ovens of the old Homestead Works—which was the biggest steel mill in the world and is now a mall, I said.

The Frenchmen shook their heads. A few days before, I’d first spoken of that transformation of the site from industry to retail, which left few traces of the rich industrial heritage. They were wide-eyed at the thought.

The day before the last-minute Obama campaign headquarters visit, I had interviewed Vladimir about their time here filming the documentary on various slices of Pittsburgh life. He called people like Vickie Vargo, and also Wilford Payne, of Alma Ilery Medical Center in Homewood, as well as others, “Pittsburgh Heroes.”

Why are they heroes, I asked.

“Because I think they have to fight. They are challenged every time, and they never give up,” Vladimir said.

The journalists were talking about were some of their favorite vignettes they’d created on life in Pittsburgh. Though they were toasted by some of the city’s rich and powerful during their stay here, their favorite stories were of the Steel City’s unsung heroes—people like Wilford Payne.

“For me, he is the real Black American man living in this country, taking care of others,” Sebastian said.

The duo often worked long days and covered a few shoots per day, pouring their hearts and backs into it, going from Braddock to Oil City, Washington County to North Side, and to many other places in the region. We’ll be able to see the fruits of their labor when the documentary goes go live very soon.

The project includes a 10-minute television segment on energy in this region, which will air on French TV and on the Web. All of the filmed vignettes will be available on the Internet—as souvenirs, so to speak, that each of us can enjoy.

-Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh journalist who helped ARTE TV with a documentary on Pittsburgh.

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