Saturday, June 30, 2007

Natrona, PA.

Earlier this morning M. and I set off to another area community sale. This time we headed north up route 28, to the town of Natrona. Its access point is an exit called "Natrona Heights", which is a community on top of the ridge- basically your typical American exurb, with modest homes and a few strip malls. The Heights are like any other place, outside any other city in the United States. However that's not the case with Natrona itself. It lies along the banks of the Allegheny River, occupying the flatland at the eastern edge of Allegheny County. The town is next to another called Brackinridge, which lies alongside Tarentum. From what I saw of those other two communities, they are small and struggling. But Natrona stands out amidst these places as palpable evidence for the utter decline of the Rust Belt.

The town was named after the mineral "natron". For those of you who skipped a degree in geology, that substance is a naturally occurring mixture of baking soda and soda ash. Blended with oil, it was used to make soap, employed as mouthwash, and helped in cleansing teeth. It could also be used to preserve meat and fish, solder precious metals together, make the color "Egyptian blue" or cobalt glass, and serve as an antiseptic to treat wounds. Ancient people used it as an insecticide and for mummification. Perhaps the mineral's namesake could use the stuff to mothball itself for some distant time in the future- because while Natrona still awaits its final flat-line, its dying gasps are almost audible.

For years the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company (later Pennsalt/Pennwalt- the operation was started by Quakers in 1850) operated in adjoining Harrison Township. Salt mining was the bedrock of economic activity in the Allegheny Valley. In 1985, Pennsalt used a 62-acre near Natrona as a Lindane Dump, for waste disposal of mining tailings (cryolite) and bottom ash. These materials included DDT tracings and benzene, and inevitably contaminated groundwater supplies. The dump was designated as a federal EPA Superfund site in March of 1992.

Pollution of the area's water seems to be an ongoing tradition. Allegheny Ludlum (a steelmaking company) still operates industrial plants in the area. In 1995, the PA office of the EPA charged the company with dumping high levels of acid and metals into the Allegheny River. Although cleared of most of the 800 allegations in 1997, the company was found guilty of nine violations of its discharge permits at their Brackinridge Mill between 1993-1996.

Aside from the environmental problems created by the remaining local industrial activity (which after all provides meaningful jobs to the region), Natrona faces other serious challenges. Earlier this year it was barely spared a future of isolation when the Port Authority decided not to cut the only bus route connecting the town to the larger Allegheny region. But with the long term future of public transportation in the county still uncertain, this temporary stay may have only a minimal effect in stemming the tide of population migration from Natrona. We noticed a large number of derelict and abandoned properties along the streets at the center of town. There is a grassroots organization (provocatively) named "Natrona Comes Together", which is working to identify specific houses for demolition. County leaders would like to raze entire blocks of degraded housing, but that presents further problems for the residents interspersed throughout the blight, who are trying to hold on to the integrity of their neighborhood.

No doubt today's community-wide sale was organized to demonstrate the spirit of the people struggling to maintain what's left of their community. M. was visibly disturbed by the condition of Natrona. She commented that this was the first time she had attended a sale of this size without finding a single thing to take home with her. Her reaction to the town was unsurprising, considering that most Pittsburgh inhabitants never find a reason to venture into such depressed and largely-forgotten hamlets in the county. I had made a previous visit to Natrona a couple of years ago to see a local band called Chai Baba. The show had been at The Vault, which was a former bank- reclaimed and operating as a local theater and community center. Charmingly, the changing room for the bands was housed in the building's walk-in safe. The Vault's proprietors were well-intentioned, but had set themselves up against some formidable obstacles. I was sad to learn of its closing.

Across the street from the shuttered building, and down an alleyway, I entered the storage/working space of an artist just entering middle age. His efforts to bring a touch of art amidst the decay was touching. He bummed a cigarette from me, saying that he couldn't run out for another pack for himself. Despite the fact that there were only a handful of broke kids browsing through his shelf of used horror and UFO-themed videos- he wasn't going to close up shop. This reluctance to abandon his post was striking, and (I believe) indicative of the hardscrabble tenacity of the remaining townspeople. Considering Natrona's history, the term "salt-of-the-earth" comes to mind.

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23 Comments:

Blogger Stephen said...

Thank you for your perceptive and intelligently-written observations on Natrona. I am a Natrona native, born and raised (I now live in the Southwestern US) and I can agree with all your thoughts. The last couple of times I visited Natrona, I was very much saddened to see how the town has decayed and declined. Everything has gotten so shabby, rundown and dirty. It wasn't always that way. You would never know to see it now, but Natrona was once a bustling, active and prosperous place. Harinski's drug store on the corner of Garfield street, Factor's drug store further up, Shirley's grocery store, Barranco's store, Nowicki's grocery on Spruce street and Center alley, not to mention the bank, post office, police station, churches, a bowling alley, bars, bakeries, insurance offices, a dry cleaner, Chernan's photography studio, even Rusiewicz's religious goods store. You didn't really have to leave Natrona - everything you needed was there for you. It was a great place to grow up in - little or no crime, everyone knew everyone else. I remember climbing up the hill to Natrona Heights and ice skating in the wintertime at the ballfield. And the carnival every summer. Sadly, all that is but a distant and faded memory. Natrona is like a patient with cancer, but there is always hope. Things will never be as they were, but I admire all the people that are still there holding on to their community, trying to make the best of things. It's true - you can never go "home" again, because "home" only exists in your memories.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Stephen,

It's good to hear from someone who has intimate knowledge of the community. There are so many little towns in Western PA that have so much promise. Nice old homes and tree-lined streets. History. But people seem inexplicably drawn to the cookie-cutter suburban and exurban developments. It's a shame. It's all part of the throwaway mentality of our modern nation.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

natrona was a wonderful place when i was growing up it has now hit rock bottom, as far as im concerned.

8:48 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...

I was born in Tarentum, but grew up in Butler, about an hour south of the 'Burgh. In recent years I have moved back to claim the family home, and I must say its a bit of a culture shock. Butler was by no means ideal, but had a music scene, an art scene, lots of eateries. It also was very connected to Pittsburgh (Butlers bands played there, fans would travel ect.) Living here, noone around here seems to know that we are only 23 minutes from the city. One person commented that 'you never had to leave Natrona'... that seems to still be the mentality, and I dont know if its a good one. I feel if we were connected to the city it would enrich this area. Pittsburgh has much to offer. As it is, I feel oddly out of place in a pickup truck (covered in guns/country music/ stickers) town that doesnt want to explore the bigger city nearby. If I didnt enjoy my property and low mortgage, it would be nice to be somewhere where art and music, an aviary or museum garnered more attention than beer.

11:43 PM  
Anonymous Frank said...

Thank you for your very interesting commentary. I'm doing some research on the area, particularly Fawn Township, for a school project. Can you suggest other sources of information on history, pre-history, and geology?

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Mary Raimond said...

As a child I lived at 59 Federal Street in Natrona. My father, Joseph Zahorchak, was the company doctor for Penn Salt. Our house, a company house, was next door to Penn Salt and I remember watching the men punch the time clocks at shift change. Wonderful machines those time clocks. I attende St. Joseph"s School on Garfield Street from the first grade through high school. I graduated in 1950.
We did our grocery shopping at Erenrich's which was across the tracks at the head of Federal Street.
We went to the movies at the Roxy on River Avenue every Saturday (free babysitting,no doubt) Later, in highschool, my dates took me to the movies in Tarentum on the bus.

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was born in Natrona Heights, but my father lived there in his youth in a house on Spruce Street. My clearest memory of the place was the Russian Church across the street, the fact that there were no flies, anywhere, owing, I imagine, to the DDT factory, and the horrible cruddy air that blew over from Allegheny Ludlum when it blew that way. I haven't been back in many years--some friends sent a video tape of something about Natrona, and wasn't there a book written about it? I'm not sure about this last.

2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The author of dgrim.blogspot.com has written an excellent article. You have made your point and there is not much to argue about. It is like the following universal truth that you can not argue with: Progress cannot be achieved without suffering. Thanks for the info.

11:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father grew up in Natrona, worked for Allegheny Ludlum but raised us in New Kensington. I live in Cary, NC now. I took my children to see the town where their Grandfather lived and they were saddened and shocked that a town could be so abandoned, degraded and dirty. I felt sadness too. I had, for a time, gone to St. Joes HS and used to wait for the bus on the corner of Garfield and River. The Roxy and most of the stores were already closed in the seventies but we could get pop and candy at Bednardiks and another store on River.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One comment was the Russian Church on Spruce st. Well it was a Polish Church, St. Ladislaus and there were flies and mosquitoes. There was dirt deposited everywhere from the Steel Company but a lot of the smoke went up and away from the valley toward the heights. Just wanted to clear that up.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Bunnyman said...

When Allegheny Ludlum was going full blast in the 60s, it was the economic powerhouse of the area. I can clearly recall as a child being in my parents' car on a sunny day, but when we passed the steel mill they had to turn on the headlights, because the smoke blotted out the sun and plunged us into a surreal brown darkness. Nowadays it sounds incomprehensible, but back then people were okay with that because it meant jobs and prosperity. Often when we passed the mill we could see molten steel being poured out of a giant ladle into ingot molds, with a huge firestorm of sparks and smoke.

I can also attest there were flies and mosquitoes, but also honeybees and best of all, fireflies magically lighting up the warm summer nights. In many ways it was an idyllic life. The church on Spruce Street was indeed St. Ladislaus, with its huge central dome and artwork and statues. I attended the church school for 7 years.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Sherpes said...

Was there this past weekend, kind of hit it by chance from following some randomly-chosen roads. What impressed me was that it is a thick grid of residential streets, bounded by river, hill, and industrial plant. Very isolated. There is a brand new very vibrant playground. Yes, some of the houses seem vacant, but otherwise there were still lots of people in the streets, children playing. But without a car, it is hard to "climb" out of this riverbank. And the nearby Brackenridge, has the most interesting abbandoned downtown I've seen in a while, almost like in the movie "Back in the Future"

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I watch movies like silent hill, and the hills have eyes, Natrona pops in my head...My aunt lived there for much of my childhood, we had fun and always something to do, the bank, post office, magistrates office were all up functionally running, a few stores too. My grandmother purchased a building there on center and garfield, my husband and I came there to help her get things in order for the house,we rented a home there, we were the first family to live in the st. joe convent as residents and not nuns. But the area shows so much depression. There is a lot of vandalism, fires, thefts and cults (there are some of these existing there surprisingly). One of the most interesting things there are ghosts, ghost hunters would have a field day in Natrona, My stay in Natrona was brief for that very reason and I have an eery feeling when I go there to visit family. Oh on the fly thing, believe me there are plenty of flies and other insects there.

11:54 PM  
Blogger Bunnyman said...

Please share your ghost experiences, I'd love to hear about them. Also what kind of cults are you referring to?

5:45 PM  
Anonymous jeanne said...

I also grew up in Natrona and often revisit my childhood memories. I lived on Natrona Street which was above the railroad tracks. We were cloistered there even in a cloistered town. We were against the hillside near the TomTom, the stores in our neghborhood were Girty's, Marty's and Bernie the Jew. (not that we had to differentiate between him and Bernie the gentile...that's how he was referred...) I remember doing something on Spruce Street and my mom getting at least 3 phone calls before I even got home!!! I have very very fond memories of Natrona, perhaps its as a result of my perpetual optimism.. I rode my bike through Natrona yesterday, the empty lots where structures were lost due to fire are increasing. At least they are being turned into green space. I had to smile to myself at the sound of the shifter running between the plants of Allegheny Ludlum...sensory flashback. Natrona had a Dickens-esque charm to it, the narrow streets, small store fronts along Center Street, bustling with people. that's the memory of Natrona I hold in my heart and mind, just like a loved one who may have passed, you hold on to the happy times.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Sandi S. said...

Jeanne - I love your comments - and I'm sure I know you!! I too grew up there - not far from you - but on Vine rather than Natrona Street. I would have written almost exactly what you did - but now don't have to! ((smile)) It has now been five years since I've been back - since our "Baba" passed away - but I think about it every day - dirty and run down or not - it still feels like home. Probably why we chose to live in the town in Maryland that we did - it reminds me of Natrona as it used to be. There is still one brother living there too.

Thanks for the great memories of Natrona - I still miss it!

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am from Natrona Hgts but my husband is from Natrona!
But I remember walking down Argonne Drive to visit my Aunt in Natrona! I loved it down there! We used to go to Natrona Days! Run the streets and feel safe! My Dad used to work at the mill and we would go to the drug store down there! I spent two weeks in Natrona two years ago cleaning my father in laws house out! It has changed so much! It's sad to see what has happened to it! I did walk the streets with my daughter and showed her where the fire station used to be and the movie theater! I loved that the pop shop was still there and Floyds! I am not sure if they still call it that! The new play ground is very nice! Its nice that some people are trying to fix it up! I loved spending time in Natrona when I was growing up! It holds alot of great memories for me and my husband!

5:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While my roots are in West Natrona, I spent a good deal of the first 20+ years of my life in Natrona. I had several family members living in Natrona as well as attending Pond and Wood Street and more Polish weddings than I could count at the PNA, Legion, Polish Vets etc... The shame for the entire area is that it never recovered after the economic decline during the Reagan years. Most of us from the area were forced to find employment elsewhere. If economic opportunities were available I'm sure the majority of us would have stayed in the area. I still call the area home after being away for 30+ years.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your article brings back many fond memories. My grandparents lived in Natrona and I spent many weekends on the "front porch" listening to the pirates and talking to everyone that walked by. It was a safe place where a 10 year old go ride his bike without supervision because everyone knew you even though as a kid you might have not known them. I remember walking to St Lads on Sat evening and to the local groceries. I always felt safe. Sadly it is a product of an era gone by, however it is even sadder that we were unaware of the pollution and inevitable fall.

11:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in Natrona and do believe there are spirits there. One to mind comes of "Russian Nelly" a russian prostitute who at one time still roamed the alley behind Blue Ridge Ave.
One of the local pastors at that time was Father Henney of Saint Joe's church, the rumor was he went to the diocese for permission to enter the home, however, they determined there was a force in there and would not let him go in and bless it. Greg

10:26 PM  
Anonymous jeff said...

I know some you reading this might think i'm crazy. but I just bought a house in a Natrona, and yes this town is in bad shape. I joined up with the "Natrona comes together". its going to take some time but I think this town could be fixed up

8:37 PM  
Blogger Bunnyman said...

Jeff, it's because of people like you who are willing to take a big risk, that Natrona just might avoid being turned into a ghost town. Best of luck to you in your new home.

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such memories I am reading here. As a young girl, I lived in Natrona right next to the nun's convent on Pine Street. You are so right ... I always felt safe riding my bike around the neighborhood. Loved the little stores and the butcher shop up the alley. Its funny as we had a huge buckeye tree outside and I loved to play with them. Now I hope to move to Buckeye, AZ. I moved to the Heights around 4th grade but I will always remember how it was back in the day when Natrona really was the Mayberry of Pennsylvania.

3:12 PM  

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