Cake Eaters on the March

NPR's Morning Edition did a piece this morning on the surprising persistence of the steel industry in Pittsburgh. ("Pittsburgh Still a Player in the Steel Industry") What surprised me about the piece wasn't the premise ("Pittsburgh used to be the center of the steel universe, and now look at it!"), nor the basic theme ("But there is still a lot of steel business in the region"). What surprised me was that there wasn't single reference to the contemporary operations of U.S. Steel. If you listen literally, it's as if the company has disappeared, along with the Mon Valley Works (and the Edgar Thompson Plant), and the Clairton Works, and the company's recent announcement that it plans to invest $1 billion in the latter. But Pittsburghers know better.

Obviously, nothing today rivals the scale of Pittsburgh's steel industry of the middle part of the 20th century, but NPR's reporter seems to have been misled by the nostalgia distributed by guides for Rivers of Steel, who were featured in the piece. These well-intentioned folks seem to be singing a Pittsburgh-contemporary version of Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi: "They tore down the Homestead Works, and put up a Dave & Buster's." You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

To top it off (or make it worse, or both), Rivers of Steel encouraged the reporter in the idea that the phrase "cake eaters" is a fair description both for the white collar managers of steel works long gone and for the white collar owners and employees of steel firms today. Ouch! If there's cake-eating in Pittsburgh today, it's being done by the domestically-inclined Cupcake Class, which is a far cry from steel, especially if you take yours rolled cold.

Down here in Mt. Lebanon, we're especially sensitive to use and misuse of that outdated term "cake eaters" (in fact, some folks take an obtuse pride in the mistaken presumption that Mt. Lebanon is the home of the cake eaters). Can't we all just get along?

If you want to talk back to NPR, don't tell the network to ignore Pittsburgh's long-gone steel past in favor of its clean-room future. Let NPR know that Pittsburgh is proud of its steel tradition, and it's bullish on its steel future. But we'll leave the name calling to others.

Go Steelers! Beat the Lambs!


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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