Donora

In what might only be considered a happy happenstance, just today The Boston Globe published an essay about somewhere I just visited. Here's the beginning (but I urge you to read the whole piece because it's got some things to say that I won't even touch on below):

Sixty-five years ago, in October of 1948, the weather suddenly turned cool in the town of Donora, Pa. As the smokestacks of Donora’s steel and zinc factories went on spewing their usual mix of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and fluoride gas, the blanket of cold air created an inversion, keeping these poisonous gases trapped in the valley where the town lay. The air turned dark and murky. Streetlights burned all day. Motorists couldn’t see where they were going and had to navigate by scraping a front wheel along the curb. People got sick; people started dying. The factories kept running. After five days, the factories finally shut down, and the rains came. The air began to clear. By that point, 20 people were dead. Fifty more died within the next month, and a subsequent public health study showed that 6,000 more (approximately half the town’s population) had suffered permanent heart and lung damage.

Donora is the worst air pollution disaster in American history.

And, until recently, I had never heard of it.

l had heard of it. Because of Stan Musial.

Stan Musial was born in Donora, Pa. He wasn't living there in 1948; by then, he was among baseball's biggest stars and seems to have spent little time back home. His family was still in Donora, though. Here's a passage from Musial's 1964 memoir:

I was born on Sixth Street, near the center of town, but when I was about seven or eight we moved to Grandma Lancos' larger house, near the hilltop. By walking just a few feet from this house on Marelda Street, I could look down on the residential section, the distant ribbon of business houses, the switch engines darting between the smoke stacks and the barges moving slowly along the river. Across the Monongahela, the hills were completely bare, vegetation killed by the smoke and chemical fumes carried over from Donora by the prevailing west wind.

Today, its mills closed as obsolete, Donora is struggling harder for existence than my parents had to struggle to raise six children in the Depresssion. I remember the strong smell of sulphur from the zinc works, but the zinc works are no more. One damp, windless day in October, 1948, those fumes from the smoke stacks filled the narrow valley with poisonous smoke for four whole days. Twenty-one elderly residents of Donora died and nearly half the diminishing 12,000 population suffered in some degree. My father was one of those affected, and I brought him and my mother to St. Louis, where he died two months later.

In 1964, Donora was struggling harder for existence. We know the population was roughly 12,000 in 1948, when the zinc mills were working. I don't have the 1964 population handy, but according to the latest census the population's less than half that. And my recent visit to Donora suggests the town is now struggling harder than harder; I couldn't help wondering why Donora even exists at all.

Which is of course easy for me to say, as I've spent very little of my life in the midst of ruin. That "distant ribbon of business houses" stretches for more than a mile, but very few of those business houses seemed to be doing any actual business. Granted, if you believe this, there are thriving businesses in Donora. You sure wouldn't guess that by driving along Meldon Avenue, the town's main thoroughfare, which traces precisely the horseshoe bend of the nearby Monongahela. You'll see dozens of commercial buildings, and most seem to have been abandoned or neglected for some decades.

We visited Donora because of Musial, of course. Driving through town, we saw no trace of him, but we did come across the Donora Smog Museum. Within, we found artifacts of the town's history, including exhibits about that fateful day in 1948. There were also a few photos and stray magazine covers featuring Stan Musial, and other notable athletes (including the famous Griffeys, both Senior and Junior). But anyone hoping for something like a Stan Musial museum -- for example, the family of Cardinals fans visiting the Smog Museum while I was there -- will come away disappointed.

My friends and I did drive up the hill. We saw Grandma Lancos' house, which remains well-appointed (particularly in comparison with many of its neighbors). And atop the hill, old Donora High School, where young Stanley matriculated; now the building seems little-used in its role as administration building for the local elementary school. Next door is the old football stadium; the field had recently been mowed, but the bleachers looks exactly like something from Life After People.

Neither the high school nor the field exactly deserves landmark status. There are thousands of decrepit surplus buildings just like this one in America, and I've seen no evidence that Musial played baseball or any other sport on the adjoining grounds; his baseball career sprouted elsewhere in town.

Within scant days after the Johnstown Flood, curious outsiders were arriving to survey the scene, many of them armed with parasols and picnic baskets. Today we've got a term for that: disaster tourism. And that term comes with at least a hint of condescension and insensitivity. I could happily have spent a whole day walking around Donora, surveying the ruins of a once-thriving town; I could do the same in Detroit.

Well, maybe not happily. Because there is something condescending about it, and perhaps insensitive too. This might well be a fitting activity for an archaeologist or an economist or a sociologist. But I'm none of those things. I'm just some guy who enjoys seeing things he's never seen before. And I've never seen anywhere quite like Donora before.

If you hail from relative privileged circumstances, as I do, your natural reaction upon visiting a place like Donora is probably, "Something should be done. Something must be done."

But what, exactly? Yes, if someone wants to kick in a few hundred thousand dollars, a baseball museum featuring Stan Musial and the Griffeys could be created out of whole cloth. But to what end? Such a place couldn't possibly draw enough tourists to make more than a tiny dent in the town's obvious budgetary issues. One can't help concluding that Donora is a lost cause, a borough whose time simply passed more than a half-century ago ... until you drive just a few miles down the road to the town of Monongahela, where Joe Montana grew up. Compared to Donora, Monongahela's a garden spot, with shiny businesses lining Main Street. Same sorts of people, same geography, same natural resources ... and yet one town seems to thrive, the other decaying for what seems like forever.

Why? I don't know.

But I would like to visit Donora again. I just need a good reason. You know, for myself. Do you think Cement City is enough of a reason? Because we missed it this time around.

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