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You Say It's Your Birthday?

For local lefties, the city's birthday is no piece of cake

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Pittsburgh's 250th birthday party won't reach its peak until November, when the city plans huge fireworks celebrations and other festivities. But the party's theme is already in place: It's all about innovation. As the official "Pittsburgh 250" Web site (www.imaginepittsburgh.com) boasts: "Our region has become a gateway to the future." And it produces new advances -- ranging from the polio vaccine to the emoticon -- "even more frequently than the Steelers make the playoffs."

But what's really being invented this year, Charlie McCollester worries, is our own history. Organizers of the city's birthday festivities, he says, "started with the French and Indian War -- without the Indians -- and jumped right to the branding effort," creating a Pittsburgh "identity" that omits much of our gritty past.

McCollester is a labor historian at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. And along with a few comrades, he's about to set off some fireworks of his own.

McCollester has just completed The Point of Pittsburgh, which does for Pittsburgh history what Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States did on a national level. It tells a story in which the silent (and often silenced) majority gets equal billing with the "great men" who usually get all the attention. McCollester treats Native Americans as more than just bit players, and he celebrates the struggle for dignity and equality, praising often overlooked heroes like Martin Delaney and Fannie Sellins.

These themes are distilled in an accompanying new album by local musician Mike Stout, a longtime labor activist. Stout's CD, also called The Point of Pittsburgh, offers a Pittsburgh birthday song and plenty to celebrate, but much of the music is less "Stand Up and Tell 'Em You're From Pittsburgh" than "Rise Up And Throw Off Your Corporate Oppressors." A song about the brutal 1909 McKees Rocks strike, for example, reminds us that "Immigrants were pouring in ... to do the dirtiest jobs for the lowest pay. / Kind of like the same situation you got here today."

The book and the CD -- which is being launched Sept. 13 -- are early steps in creating a "People's Pittsburgh" celebration later this fall. The goal is to create a bottom-up commemoration of the past. By contrast, the "official" Pittsburgh 250 campaign is backed by the corporate community, ranging from PNC Bank down to the cruel, oppressive owners of City Paper.

A native of Rochester, N.Y., McCollester began planning the book a quarter-century ago, after he moved here to work as a machinist. Given Pittsburgh's historic prominence -- as colonial-era battleground, industrial-era behemoth and postindustrial poster child -- he couldn't figure out why it didn't draw more scholarly attention. "When someone writes a history of Chicago, it's considered national history," he says. "But Pittsburgh history is considered only of regional interest."

For McCollester, Pittsburgh is about struggle, and he expects to touch off a few battles. His book wades into the city's shameful McCarthy era, its struggles with race, and gets tough on less-than-visionary labor leaders.

Still, the book ends in 1960, a pinnacle for unions. And when he looks to Pittsburgh's future, he touts the leadership of the building trades -- the carpenters, ironworkers and other unions who work on big construction projects.

That enthusiasm isn't universally shared. In the past, the trades have interfered when black workers sought construction jobs. And they often make common cause with developers and politicians ... an unholy trinity for those in the bulldozer's path. But even so, McCollester says, the building trades prove labor can get a seat at the table, and put people in the streets: "I was impressed with the support for Obama I saw from the trades during the Labor Day parade," McCollester says. They've built for the future too, creating some 20 job-training centers that McCollester ranks among the country's best.

"You want to do innovation? Let's do blue-green" -- creating blue-collar jobs to manufacture "green" technology like solar panels. But in a city that boasts of being postindustrial, McCollester worries, manufacturing seems taboo -- especially when it carries a union label. You'll hear a lot this year about how universities like Carnegie Mellon invent new technologies, but almost nothing about how unions could help build them.

But we can't live up to the promise of our future, McCollester warns, unless we own up to the past.

 

Mike Stout's CD-release party. 7 p.m. Sat., Sept. 13. Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $15. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com

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