The history and people of Homestead, Pennsylvania, have drawn my interest since I was a child. My mother grew up in this small town just outside of Pittsburgh and our family would drive back to visit two or three times every year. My grandmother still lives in the heart of Homestead, in the house my great-grandfather built just up on 12th avenue–not five minutes from where the steel mill once stood.
My emotions surrounding Homestead are heavily rooted in my own family’s history, in our immigrant ancestors, in my gracious grandmother who devoted her life to her seven children, in the paradox who was my grandfather, in the struggle of hardworking friends and neighbors, in the sound of coal trains and the beauty of fireflies flickering in the darkness. Homestead faces serious economic and societal problems today, but if the town’s history proves anything, Homestead is tough enough to bear the storm.
I became interested in the history of Homestead when I was still a child: listening to family stories, exploring the streets and alleyways of my mother’s childhood, and trying to piece together my past and where I came from. My grandfather and his brother both worked in the Homestead Steel Works. Their experiences there shaped what my family is today, just as the mill shaped many lives throughout Homestead and the Steel Valley.
Homestead is a town of pride in of the sweat of a long day’s work, but also of distress and corruption. I grew up hearing my family’s stories of what it was to work in a mill or grow up in a mill town. Homestead ran on steel. Everything from the town’s pace of life to its architecture was defined by the massive hulk of industry that sat on the waterfront below Homestead. For well over a century, the personal histories of this small town were shaped by the growth, struggle, and eventual downfall of the great Homestead Steel Works.
When the mill closed its gates for the last time in 1986, Homestead lost its economic center, but it also lost a big part of how the town defined itself. The town underwent a huge societal, cultural and environmental shift. What fills the hole left by the mill that defined this town’s landscape for over a century? Without steel, how does a steel town find a way to move forward?
This project is all about finding out the answer to that question, about looking back in time and revisiting history, but also looking forwards. The central question of how to save the memory of such a place will always be present in the film–and how memories and memorials are not always the same. I hope to contemplate as a filmmaker and as a documentarian themes such as changing landscapes, working-class rhetoric, and art’s role in memory. By speaking with Homestead ex-steelworkers whose lives were shaped by the steel industry, I hope to give a more human side the town’s history. The contrast between past and present, memory and loss, a steel mill and the mall that replaced it, will be explored in the film. Through personal interviews, archival footage, and images of today’s Homestead I hope to find some common ground between these contrasts, and to capture a small glimpse of deindustrialization’s shuddering effects on small town america.