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Employment is low but hope is high in Aliquippa

By Keith HendersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 19, 1985

Aliquippa, Pa.

WE've got some of the best people in the world living here -- they're going to regroup,'' affirms a laid-off steelworker, voicing a faith shared by most of the 14 other former LTV Corporation employees gathered in a second-floor room of the United Steelworkers hall in Aliquippa. ``People have parents, grandparents, great-grandparents here,'' says another. Working in the local mill was ``the traditional way of making a living,'' he adds, and people here expected it to last indefinitely.

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As these comments indicate, family roots run deep in this steelmaking town, one of many that radiate out from Pittsburgh along the region's major waterways. But those roots have been wrenched as never before over the past few years as activity has plummeted at the LTV mill, whose rust-colored superstructure stretches for 61/2 miles along the Ohio River. Currently, fewer than 1,000 workers remain on the production line at a steel plant that used to provide jobs for 16,000.

Since 1980, the layoffs have come in big waves, rather than trickles. A University of Pittsburgh study found that after large layoffs in 1981, earned income in the town dropped by over 50 percent.

The effect on the community and its families has been dramatic. A downtown that was once a shopping mecca for much of Beaver County is now virtually deserted at midday. Half the storefronts on Main Street are boarded up. Aliquippa's borough government is running annual deficits in the $500,000 range. The town's police force has been cut from 35 officers to 17 -- at a time when crime spurred by economic need, including domestic violence, is rising.

And the families? Some younger couples have taken what many here would think of as the extreme step of relocating. But for others, the ties to this town of tree-covered hills and company-built brick bungalows, though frayed, still hold.

``Most of the people in Aliquippa grew up here,'' notes Cathy Cairns, organizer of the Aliquippa Alliance for Unity and Development (AAUD), a grass-roots agency formed in response to the town's economic and social predicaments. She says the University of Pittsburgh study found that many younger families, instead of leaving the area when employment dries up, have opted to sell their own homes (if possible) and move in with parents or other relatives.

While this offers a temporary alternative to leaving the area, it also ``causes a lot of stress within families,'' she says. ``Younger people set up one life style, but when they move back in with parents, many of the older generation aren't able to adapt.''

According to Ms. Cairns, ministers in the area report that up to 90 percent of their counseling time is devoted to soothing the domestic tensions created by these home situations.

Adding to the community's burden, some of the unemployed fall into alcoholism and, eventually, suicide, says Ms. Cairns.

But hope still glows in this town, which sprang many years ago from the paternalism of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, the company that established the local mill and ran it until bought out by LTV.

Jones & Laughlin built most of the homes here, laid out neighborhoods for the various ethnic groups represented among its employees, and contributed land for schools and hospitals.