Shaking Off The Rust

While Pittsburgh has become more a city of technology than industry, its residents still harbor a fondness for the home team.

January 19, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

PITTSBURGH - Shannon Sharpe dissed this town royally, didn't he?

The Baltimore Ravens had just destroyed the Miami Dolphins to set up tomorrow's Armageddon with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Sharpe was discoursing on what a swell idea it was for the team to arrive in Miami early so the players could bask in the sun and cruise South Beach and lounge about their pricey resort hotel getting pedicures.

(Pedicures! That sound you heard was Artie Donovan choking on a Natty Boh.)

"We won't be going to Pittsburgh early, I can tell you that," said Sharpe, in summation.

And in that verbal backhand was contained all the pain, all the digs and slights and cheap jokes by late-night comedians this city has endured for generations.

So I came here to find out how bad it was. And the truth is, it wasn't bad at all. This is an old Rust Belt town undergoing a face lift, with a renewed bounce to its step, and the message I kept getting was this: The old Pittsburgh is pretty much gone and so are the old Steelers, and the rest of the country better wake up and smell the coffee.

In fact, if you want to tick off the city fathers and the movers and shakers, bring up the old Iron City image of a dingy town with smokestacks belching thick brown gunk into the air and armies of brawny men with lunch pails marching off to work in the steel mills.

Oh, yeah, they love that one. The steel mills are practically all gone, the air is fine, and the city's economy now centers on information technology, higher education, the health care industry and banking.

Still, says Bill Flanagan, chief communications officer for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, "we feel we're misunderstood. What's constantly reinforced [are] the traditional steel images, which are still around but don't represent the city."

Then, voice rising, Flanagan proceeds to tell me about an ESPN camera crew that came to town to do a piece to run during a recent nationally televised Steelers game.

Instead of shooting the piece amid the gleaming new skyscrapers downtown or the two new ballparks (Heinz Field, where the Steelers play, and PNC Park, home of the Pirates) perched majestically near the river, the ESPN crew went to Clairton, a small, gritty town south of the city and interviewed four generations of steel workers.

"It's such a tiny [segment] of the economy!" gripes Flanagan, who watched the finished piece when it aired and became so hot you could have stir-fried vegetables on his forehead.

It's not that the city runs from its storied industrial past. It's just that the era of Big Steel is over, has been for years. And with the NFL playoffs casting a spotlight on the city, Flanagan says, the city is trying mightily to change its image and market itself as a vibrant center of the New Economy - whenever the New Economy decides to bounce back.

"New Steelers for a new Pittsburgh," is how Flanagan puts it.

Unflagging support

One thing that hasn't changed: The Steelers are still a big deal in this town.

Baby boys still receive a Steelers cap and outfit when they're born - Flanagan's son Brent did back in '79, too - and the old Steelers players from the championship teams of the '70s are as widely revered as the Colts teams of the '50s and '60s are in Baltimore. And a big game, like the one tomorrow against the Ravens, still energizes the entire city and inflames passions like nothing else around.

I discover this firsthand at Primanti Brothers. This venerable eatery in the gentrified Strip district is famous for its sandwiches, which come with coleslaw and fries not on the side but - this is not as gross as it sounds - inside the sandwich itself.

Upon discovering a Baltimore reporter and photographer in her midst, a woman in her 40s comes over to our table, sticks out her tongue, then yells: "Ravens [blank]!" (No, she didn't say "stink.")

Nice to meet you, hon, we say.

The woman turns out to be the bartender, whose name is Shannon DeMarco and who is actually a nice person, although a little too wired for 12:30 in the afternoon.

As we eat our kolbassi and cheese sandwiches (I can feel my cholesterol levels red-lining with each bite), it's clear no one wants to talk about anything other than the big game vs. the hated Ravens.

In the local paper that morning, an inflammatory quote from Ravens linebacker Jamie Sharper had been prominently splashed on the front page of the sports section, something about how he hates the Steelers and all their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, too, and how they should rot in hell for all eternity.

OK, that's not really what he said.

What the quote really said was: "If the Bus is smart, he won't play." This referred to Steelers running back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, with Sharper apparently inferring that the Ravens defense was going to bust him up, leave the Bus on cinderblocks with a bashed-in windshield, so to speak.

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