Employment is low but hope is high in Aliquippa

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

But it was a paternalism bound to disappear. A couple of years ago, recalls another of the men sitting in the union hall, ``my pastor told the whole congregation, `J&L' is not your source -- look somewhere else.'' He nods solemnly, commenting that he didn't realize then how true that was.

Sister Carol Burgur, whose many efforts to aid the unemployed have included setting up a soup kitchen, sees cause for hope in the still vibrant spirit of the community. ``One thing I feel very strongly about is AAUD,'' she says, explaining that the alliance proves that people in the town can work together.

Both Sister Carol and Cathy Cairns point out that the town's economic crisis has sometimes brought out the strengths in people. They've had good response to calls for volunteers to help with their various programs, ranging from the soup kitchen to an AAUD committee that analyzes the local business outlook.

Lee Katroppa, also active in the community alliance, just became director of a job-training center for local youth. Although the program is new, she has been swamped by calls and ``drop-ins.'' ``I'm telling you it's unbelievable,'' she says, a smile lighting her face. ``Twenty kids in the past three days,'' and these kids are ``really motivated, willing to do anything.''

Ms. Katroppa, incidentally, grew up in Aliquippa and returned here a couple of years ago after having lived in Boston and San Francisco. The ``warmth'' of the community drew her back, she says. But she was aghast at the town's problems and wanted to pay back what she felt she ``owed the community.''

That type of commitment is echoed among the 14 men and one woman sitting around a U-shaped configuration of desks in the union hall. There are plenty of downbeat comments, and more than a little resentment toward LTV, but there are also expressions of pride in this struggling town. ``If all these people together could pool their resources, do you think for a minute that things couldn't jell?'' one of them asks.

``The country ought to see that we're serious about making everything work here,'' says a young widower with two children. ``We want to work -- just let us work!''

``My own family is closer now, working out problems together,'' says a man sitting across from him.

The former LTV workers are gathered for a job retraining program set up by the Allegheny Center for Career Development, which draws on federal money distributed by the state, as well as some funding from LTV itself.

The retraining effort is another ray of hope for this town. It's a branch of an organization that began in equally stricken Midlands, Pa. There, the program has placed nearly 50 percent of its unemployed clients in new jobs, many of them in the region. Typically, however, salaries are considerably lower than the steelworkers' former pay.

Nick Fetkovich, on the staff of the Aliquippa program, says the goal is to ``show them they have a lot more skills than they think they have.'' He points out that many of the skills learned as a steelworker -- for example, operating heavy equipment -- are in fact transferable to other jobs.

For most of the people he's working with, the hope remains that while their skills may be transferable, they themselves won't have to leave a town they love to put those skills to work.

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