The City of Aliquippa
The history of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania offers profound insight into the daunting challenges facing many American industrial centers in an increasingly post-industrial age. As a city whose identity emerged as American industry was reaching its heights, Aliquippa once stood as an exemplar of American ingenuity and productivity that was born out of tenacity and the will to work. As the will to work was met with growing opportunities provided by the steel industry, Aliquippa flourished. In the J&L Steel plant alone, some 13,000 jobs were at one time made available to the 30,000 residents of the community. As jobs flourished, so too did the life of the city, bringing with it a vibrant economy and cultural life centered around Franklin Avenue. Ironically, the very same forces that produced Aliquippa’s thriving economic and cultural boom simultaneously established the preconditions for its dramatic decline. As the steel industry prospered, there seemed little need to look ahead and to prepare for a world in which American industrial might would find its ways to distant shores. Although life in Aliquippa was not without economic struggle, the rise and growth of the steel industry served as a long-standing force of economic stability. With steel in Aliquippa, there was substance behind the region’s identity, its strengths and its future. As this identity was dramatically stripped from the area, far more than an economic void remained to be filled. The work provided by steel and its supporting industries provided an important cultural narrative, a kind of collective identity that helped to unify people, that provided a ready-made set of social structures and expectations, and that offered numerous opportunities for meaningful and rewarding work.
Aliquippa’s post-industrial decline is all too familiar to long-time citizens of the region. As the closing of the steel mills met with the forces of suburbanization, Aliquippa witnessed a dramatic exodus of its citizens. By 1984, some 8,000 of J&L Steel’s employees were out of work. Within short order, the business district, centered around Franklin Avenue, felt the impact of such loss. As businesses struggled to survive, the lure of the once-vibrant city grew increasingly dim. Throughout the 1980s, the city’s debt grew exponentially, due to the combination of population loss, the decrease of property values, and the consequent decline of the city’s tax base. The cumulative impact of such realities prompted the 1987 declaration from both the state and federal government that Aliquippa was officially a “distressed community,” a designation that is still recognized nearly two and a half decades later. By the year 2007, the population of Aliquippa had fallen below 11,000 people, an approximate 60 per cent decrease since its height in the early 1960s.
To assume that challenges facing Aliquippa are merely the result of an economic downturn vastly oversimplifies numerous interrelated and complex realities. In all of its varied manifestations, poverty and the challenges attending it rarely emerge from a single causal source. Profound poverty is always the result of a systemic failure that, when allowed to take root and grow, slowly finds its way into the very depths of a community’s identity. Aliquippa’s hardships did not emerge merely because a steel plant went out of business. And yet neither can one overstate the dramatic importance that the existence of meaningful work plays in bolstering the health of any vibrant community. Even in the face of the most profound opposition, the existence of meaningful work can provide an important measure of what William James once referred to as “what makes a life significant.”
In the face of Aliquippa’s recent past, it would seem obvious that businesses would shy away from this admittedly troubled area. As one area business man recently confessed, “One of the things we don’t like about where [our business is] now is that we have to use an Aliquippa post-office box…. It would be very nice to drop the name Aliquippa altogether.” Although one cannot, perhaps, fault the business owner for this sentiment, at the root of this comment are two critically-important assumptions, neither of which the leadership of eQuip Books believes to be true. The first assumption is that the only legitimate function of a business is to maximize profit. The second assumption, which is closely related to the first, is that any reasonable business owner concerned about the “bottom line” should disassociate him or herself with Aliquippa at all costs.
Although at its core, eQuip Books is a for-profit entity, the generation of profit is by no means the only reason that we exist. Neither are we convinced, after much deliberation and study, that Aliquippa should be avoided by any business hoping to sustain a profitable company. To the contrary, we believe that many of the very same realties that many business owners fear can, if approached thoughtfully and in collaboration with other long-standing organizations, prove to become significant competitive advantages over other companies content only with pristine real estate and overly qualified employees. In spite of what dominant voices have long said about Franklin Avenue, we believe that downtown Aliquippa offers uncommon possibilities and considerable financial advantages for the creative and agile business owner.
The expanded provision of meaningful work is a pivotal step in furthering the continued rehabilitation of the Franklin Avenue area. At eQuip Books, we remain convinced that the very same ethos that once established J&L Steel as a global economic force remains alive in Aliquippa even after years of atrophy and neglect. That will to engage in meaningful work is, we believe, alive in all men and women and continually longs for dignified and productive forms of expression. We believe strongly that Aliquippa’s best days are yet te come, and we hope to do all we can to bring that belief into reality.