Reaching the top of the hill in Homewood Cemetery, I inhaled deeply, taking in the familiar smell of cookies wafting from the Nabisco factory before racing my brother back down the hill. It was 1996, and I was 7 years old. The Nabisco factory loomed large in our neighborhood, a towering red-brick building with tall windows that reflected the sky. Many of our neighbors relied on Nabisco (originally the National Biscuit Company) for their income. At that time Pittsburgh lay in the shadow of its former self: The steel industry’s decline had resulted in a flight of residents from the city, and the no-longer smog-filled city was still tainted by its reputation for thick, dirty air. In 1982 the factory had almost closed, but union and city officials convinced Nabisco to stay in East Liberty. It was a place where you could work your way up to a stable, middle-class income, where families earned livelihoods for generations. In our struggling Rust Belt city, the buttery smell drifting from the factory represented opportunity.
In 1998 the Nabisco corporation returned to the question of leaving Pittsburgh. The building, built in 1919, was too old and too far from highways and railroads. Pittsburghers around the city boycotted Nabisco products. I remember walking with my parents past the factory, learning what a boycott was and why, despite my initial opposition, we would not be eating Oreos for a while. I learned that standing united as a community mattered in our city and reflected its history. The complicated dance between workers and industry has been particularly violent in this place; the best known of the bloodshed has been the Homestead Strike of 1892. The boycott of cookies in no way compares to the experiences of the generations of workers and activists who risked their lives or livelihoods for fair wages and working conditions, but I felt proud to stand united with my neighbors, 9-year-old pipsqueak that I was. The corporation made its decision quietly and quickly: Nabisco would leave Pittsburgh. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. The towering structure then hosted a few other bakeries for short stints, and then it stood empty.
Around this time my parents got divorced, and my mother moved out of the neighborhood. Later my father moved out of state and then out of the country, leaving me without a home in East Liberty. To my teenage self, it felt like the city was crumbling. The best way to find opportunities was to get out. I abandoned the city that raised me, leaving Appalachia and the Rust Belt for greener pastures.
In the years since, Pittsburgh has had a resurgence. Those who called the city Shitsburgh for all those years are now watching tech companies and hip hotels set up shop in the city. The Nabisco factory is now Bakery Square, home to Google, luxury condos, and stores like Free People and West Elm. The factory no longer stands empty, but my old neighborhood feels different. Housing prices are rising, as are the prices of just about everything. Some Pittsburghers are profiting from the new money coming into the city, but, predictably, inequality is rising. Historically, opportunities and wealth within the city have differed, and they continue to differ sharply along lines of race and class. It’s hard to imagine a citywide boycott today. It’s also hard to imagine a city that could thrive without new investment, jobs, and money coming in.
As I find myself coming back to this city more often, writing about it, sometimes pining for it, I wonder about its future and my own. When I walk through Homewood Cemetery these days, I still climb to the top of the hill and inhale. I think about the air that once was full of smoke, of the workers who fought for the eight-hour workday, and the activists who fought for environmental regulations to clean up our air. I remember the sweet smell of cookies and my neighbors advocating to keep jobs in our city. As the city gleams with new opportunities and investment, I hope that newcomers will learn and remember the history of people standing together in this place, of the individual sacrifices for communal good—that to be a Pittsburgher is to stand with the strikers and the strivers and to demand opportunities and access for all.