If I Grew Up In Allentown. With a Fast Car.

Today’s blogging prompt asked me to explain the socioeconomic class structure in the neighborhood where I grew up. That would be West Mifflin, PA.

I have six attempts in my drafts folder. All devolved from thoughtful class analysis of a working class suburb into various rants. Clearly, I have some unresolved issues with my hometown. Don’t we all?

My former classmates and playmates grew up in two directions – one ran away to better themselves, the other cling fiercely to their hometown pride, a pride that is about West Mifflin not Pittsburgh. They go to WM bars, they shop locally, they attend reunions and go to church and all of those things that make a community flourish. But it is a weird place – a fusion of Mon Valley steeltown with bedroom community neighborhoods. The mall is literally collapsing as is the movie theater which is rumored to house everything from youth gangs to international drug cartels. The airport is an unknown economic hub that still looks much the same as it did in the 1970’s but then again how much are airports supposed to change?

West Mifflin is the sort of community that doesn’t ask much about people’s personal lives, be that wife beating or being gay. I was one of them so my being a lesbian was relatively fine. I suspect two gay men of color moving from out of state to West Mifflin might not be so tolerated.

West Mifflin had two school districts until a merger in 1984 (West Mifflin North and West Mifflin South.) Some people are still fighting that war. It is a bit weird to me who lived through it and came out fine. I was so naive that I had no clue that discussions about “bussing” us from the South end to the North end was code for racism. No clue until I arrived at college.

I suppose the most honest thing I could say is that West Mifflin  has a working class ethic and a lot of good people trying hard to maintain their lifestyles and their neighborhood, but it also has a growing degree on people in poverty and reacts very harshly to that perceived erosion of their middle class dreams. And yes there are middle class folks who are doing fine, but feed into the veneer of being more Munhall than Homestead. None of that makes sense if you aren’t from the Mon Valley.

I believe that the economic devastation of the past 40 years has transformed West Mifflin into a new sort of blue collar community that has not found its footing or unity.

The best answer I have was written by Billy Joel in 1982 “Allentown”

This song is about young people living in the Northeast of America. Their lives are miserable because the steel factories are closing down. They desperately want to leave… but they stay because they were brought up to believe that things were going to get better. Maybe that sounds familiar.

I listened to this song when I was in junior high school and it resonated. But Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” spoke to me and helped me find my escape route. What I didn’t realize is that no one wanted to leave with me – they scattered to the win.




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