I live right above the Ohio River, off of a thoroughfare called the Ohio River Boulevard. It is one section of Route 65 – a 51-mile stretch of highway that travels from downtown Pittsburgh, northwest to the city of New Castle. The route spans three counties, three major rivers and several neighborhoods, boroughs, towns and tributaries as it makes its way through Western Pennsylvania’s industrial belt.
For me, living so close to the Ohio River evokes mixed feelings. The river trail that I like to walk along near my apartment is scenic, yet long stretches of it are flanked by the railroad, warehouses and industrial sites on either side. At home, I drink water from a filtered pitcher because of years of elevated lead levels in Pittsburgh’s water, and I regularly learn about new water threats in the region. I feel a constant push and pull between the things that are good for me and the things that can harm me, but I know my perspective is just one of many.
My work focuses on how history shapes the contemporary experiences of Black people in the industrial Midwest, and I’ve been thinking about water as a gateway to explore the deeper forces that shape the lives (and livelihoods) of Black people in this region. Black residents have traditionally lived close to the waterways — sometimes by choice, but often because of racist housing and land-use policies. Over the years, the proximity to water allowed access to transit, jobs, bathing, washing, fishing and leisure, but it also placed these communities at a disproportionate risk for flooding, pollution, disease and other issues caused by water.
This history is encapsulated in the area that Route 65 spans. Like the rivers, it is a sort of connective tissue, linking people and places across the region. I set out to talk to Black residents living in communities along and near Route 65 about where they live and their experiences in these places, in the context of their connections to water. What you’ll read and see isn’t a definitive account of Black life in this area. Instead, it will present the stories of a few people, in a few places, and uses water as an entry point to the complex social, political and economic context of the region.
“I describe [environmental justice] as being very mindful of what our actions each day, in our livelihoods, how that impacts our environment… But, I also look at it as how it impacts different communities in different ways. A lot of these pollut[ing] plants … they typically go into areas that are predominantly poor and predominantly communities of color. They try to build pipelines on sacred land. If you want the benefits from these plants to benefit the whole, then why are we not putting these plants in other places? Why are they specifically targeted to go to places that can’t typically advocate for themselves?
“One of the things I’ve been fighting [in Northview Heights] is slow repairs. I mean, my courtyard always floods every time it rains. They’re supposed to be redoing it. They were supposed to be doing it for the last five years. So that type of thing, those types of fights. Just because we are living in public housing does not make us any less human. …How can we make sure that everybody’s coming along at the same rate to be able to fight against this? What creativity can we come along with to allow people to take ownership and be given the tools?”
“Historically, Black people didn’t cross over Woods Run Avenue in my father’s time. At the time I went to [high school], when we came out of school at the end of the day, it seemed like the Black people walked right, and the white people walked left down this way. I never made that left, even to explore or venture. I bought a house up here after getting outta college and been here ever since.
“When I first moved up here, when the wind blew, the smell was vicious. It would stop you in your tracks, and you’d be like, ‘Oh that ALCOSAN stinks.’ I don’t know what they’ve done over the years to mitigate that because it’s not as bad … except maybe after a lot of rain and then the wind blows. But I haven’t said that in a while.
“…It definitely keeps evolving geographically where Black folks are at. Black folks are finding it hard to live in the city. They’re finding it hard to find affordable housing within the city, and they’re going out to places like McKees Rocks … out into Beaver County, Ambridge. So it’s like, I don’t know — unless you own a home, I don’t know where you’re gonna go soon in the city, especially within the North Side of the city. It’s definitely becoming a challenge to find affordable, quality spaces to live within the city boundaries. It’s forever changing.”
“I’ve always been kinda leery about the quality of the drinking water. I went to school, I took my apprenticeship. I’ve been doing plumbing off and on since I was like 19. You know, working on the pipes and seeing cross sections of different pipes, and even when I was in the military and I purified water, I’ve always been kinda skeptical about the testing and the quality of the water. I really don’t have too much faith in the purification process, but once the water is purified and they run it through the piping system, in my eyes, it’s re-contaminated.
“You know, we all need water. It’s essential for life, so everyone’s connected to it … but at the same time, lately [for] something that’s supposed to be essential to life, [it] has been causing a lot of health problems. I mean we deal with water every day here at the restaurant. We cook with water, we have a filter on it. I just think we need to get better with the water all around. I don’t really think that it’s anyone’s fault to blame, because when these systems were put in, the information we have now wasn’t available. I don’t think it was done on purpose … it’s just being swept under the rug in terms of correcting the problem. So that’s what I think.”
“I was born in Rochester, Pa., not too far from where we’re sitting right now. I was born in 1930. Rochester, in the 19th century, was one of the most important towns around because it’s at the point where the Ohio River turns to go southwest. It gets to Rochester and the Beaver River runs into the Ohio at that point. And that’s why today Rochester has five major highways that go through it because of that juncture. It was also because the trains.
“My father was an electronic technician. He started out as a radio man, repairing and making radios and so forth. How we got to Beaver Falls, I don’t know, but my first memories of life were in the first house we lived in in Beaver Falls, because it was on First Avenue. Across the street from First Avenue were the railroad tracks, and across from the railroad tracks was the river. So one of my earliest memories is of my father taking me by the hand and walking me down First Avenue, towards the train station there, and it was during the spring of the year of the great floods in Western Pennsylvania — ’37, I think. He said, ‘When the water gets up to there [she indicated the high-water level with her hand] we will have to leave.’ So my first childhood memory is watching the river in the springtime to see how high the water was getting because the houses on First Avenue would be the first ones to go over.
“The river was very important to Black boys especially because there were no swimming pools in Beaver Valley that would allow Black boys to swim in them. So every year there would be a Black kid that drowned in the river because they went down to the river to swim. I don’t think the people thought about pollution in those days. And I don’t know how garbage or waste or sewage was treated. When you’re a kid, you don’t think about that. The only thing you knew is you flushed the toilet and it goes away. Where it goes, you don’t think about.”
“[I’m] originally from New York, but I grew up about a mile down the road from the pool, a place called Koppel. Small town. [Growing up in] Koppel, Beaver Falls, New Brighton — there was always something to do. You could always find a pickup game when it came to basketball or baseball, Wiffle ball … I used to pass here all the time, drive past, ride my back past, because I used to ride my bike all the way from Koppel to New Brighton, just to go play basketball. So I used to ride by and see tons of people outside. The city had owned the property. Trying to maintain the city and the property became too much for them, so they turned the pool over to the YMCA. That just became too much, so they just decided to shut it down.
“I just turned my life around six years ago. So before all that it’s been my dream to re-open all of this, but I didn’t know how — and I knew people wasn’t gonna take a drug dealer serious. As I kept growing and maturing, I saw that people started respecting me a lot more. I seen that I was getting my reputation back. So I was riding by one day and … I just took a glance at it and a light bulb went off, and I said, ‘I believe that I can pull this off.’ And three years later, [we’re] super close.
“My vision is to get these kids off the street. My vision is to give them some type of structure. What about the kids that don’t play football, that don’t play baseball, that don’t play basketball? What about the kids that the parents don’t have the funds at all? So all they got is these drug dealers that’s their influences and the streets that’s their influences. Nobody’s really thinking about that. That was my biggest problem, being a follower. Now I’m a leader, and I’m trying to give them a blueprint so they don’t have to take that same path that I took. This is a start right here. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere either.”
“My father worked in the steel mills. So did my grandfather and so did my uncle. …[The Shenango] is the river that goes down through the middle of New Castle. So, because of the way that the [mills] would use the water, the river was extremely polluted. It was something you ignored. We just know that oftentimes we did not use the water. We never drank from the water. There was a place that we could swim. It was called El Rio Beach, which is funny, ’cause it’s … still considered to be in the middle of New Castle.
“People — Black people especially — would go in the summertime, and we would run across and splash across. If the water was high enough, we’d ride the rapids down across the rocks in the creek. When the rain would come, the sewers would wash out and we’d play in the open sewers they were developing ’cause the water was clean, and it was flowing. Very dangerous. We didn’t realize it, but that’s what we did to keep cool in the summer.
“When I was 17, 18 years old, I left here because the economic plight was so bad. It was so hard to get a job. You know the steel mills, they fluctuated like the tide. Some days you could not not get a job. And then there were other times where they would do layoffs and shutdowns and cut back on production. By the time 1975 came around, when I was getting ready to graduate, there was nothing for me to do as a Black person that I knew of except for work in the grocery store or flip burgers.
“[Now] I’m assigned here, by our Bishop and my vision of God. I wanna do things that make health happen. I want to create a garden — two of them. There are natural springs in New Castle. I want to create a water treatment plant where we create our own bottled water. My hope for the role of the church is that we awaken people to the need for economic and spiritual and social empowerment. New Castle has declined. It’s shrunk in population base. The population is much older. That’s the challenge for the church: how to be a relevant agent of change for the better, where harmony and a healthy existence can occur. And my vision and hope is to create that.”
Octavia Payne: “I’m from North Carolina and I met my husband at Knoxville College. We were married and we came here to New Castle in 1970. New Castle was my husband’s home. I had my baby with me, and that was Ursula. And we came here, we taught school here for 35 years. We had an uncle, Big Jim, who, when we first moved here, we stayed with him. And I remember how rusty the water was because he had well water. We drank it; it was good water! He had big picnics out there, a garden — he had a green thumb. He had a lot of property out there, he liked to cook, and his water was good.”
Paulette Booker: “Back then, all our family outings was at his house. I came from Pensacola, Fla. I came up here in January of 1963. This is my father’s home, and I’ve been here ever since. When we were in Florida, we were always surrounded by family and having family get-togethers and family fun, and then when we came here, it was the same thing, so the transition wasn’t as bad. And we grew up fishing, too.”
Ursula Payne: “My stories about water are kind of folkloric tales. I don’t want to say folklore because [my stories] are true, but I always remember the story of my grandfather’s brother … who drowned in the Shenango River. I remember family telling stories about that. It was always, ‘That’s why you don’t go by the river or go swimming in the Shenango River because you can get caught up in the currents.’ So I remember some of those tragic stories. And the other thing about water I remember is my father, he used to fish all the time. My father and my Uncle Lenny.”
James Burley Jr.: “[I was] born and raised in New Castle, my whole life. I started going fishing, and that’s the main thing I do with water. I’d walk the whole Neshannock Creek. …We were pulling in all kinds of fish at the time and then all of a sudden they made some regulations and they blocked it off, so we weren’t allowed to go for a while. So then we started going to the Shenango River and started doing really good in the Shenango River, then all of a sudden they started blocking, fencing that off, so we couldn’t go. There were warnings: Don’t eat the fish because of all the mercury. We did it for the fun anyway; we didn’t really care about eating them.
Carl Booker: “The water wasn’t safe. Most of [the pollution] came from [the factories] up in the Sharon area, but they never update nothing. They put [the warnings] out what, four years ago? They haven’t updated it. They say it’s still not good, though. I was born and raised here. I don’t do nothing ’round the water ’round here [now], but when I was younger we used to swim in it. I lived on the tracks. The West Side, that’s what we called it … where the bypass is now.”
Octavia Payne: “There was a whole development down there. Not one house down there now. It’s highway. They wiped out a whole community down there — but the river’s still there.”
Correction (11/21/2019): A previous version of this story spelled Tyrone Zeigler’s last name incorrectly.
Njaimeh Njie, the author and photographer, is a multimedia producer and founder of the nonfiction storytelling company Eleven Stanley Productions. Njie was named the 2018 Emerging Artist of the Year by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and her work has been featured in outlets including CityLab, HuffPost Black Voices, and the Carnegie Museum of Art Storyboard blog. More information can be found at njaimehnjie.com.
Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.