Donald Trump in Monessen on June 28 © Reuters
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature
or

When Johnny Talarico arrived in Monessen in 1947 to start his new life in the US, the young Italian barber from Calabria found a bustling river town with a booming steel industry that was the epitome of the American dream. 

Seven decades later, Mr Talarico still cuts hair in Monessen. But the city has fallen into deep decay with the exodus of the steel mills that were the life and blood of the Appalachian area for much of the 20th century.

A day after Donald Trump came to the city and promised to bring jobs back to the US, Mr Talarico said he will abandon his life-long support for the Democrats and vote for the businessman because politicians have done nothing to tackle the rot in the city. “Oh yeah, guaranteed, unless I have died,” said Mr Talarico, who will turn 92 the day before the election.

“It was good when I came to this country. Truman was president . . . the valley was booming,” he said, before describing the devastation over the past three decades. “The mills are gone, so all the workers took off . . . I told my wife I’m glad we’re both old and don’t have to worry about this crap.” 

Over the past year, Mr Trump has tapped into the frustration felt by people in areas such as Monessen that have not reaped the gains of globalisation that have accrued to other parts of the US economy.

Against a backdrop of condensed scrap aluminium blocks inside one of the few metals-related businesses in the city, Mr Trump told a small audience that workers in Pennsylvania had been given a raw deal over the years despite their role in building America. 

“The legacy of Pennsylvania steelworkers lives in the bridges, railways and skyscrapers that make up our great American landscape but our workers’ loyalty was repaid with betrayal. Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalisation — moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas,” he said in a speech tailored to the dilapidated city. “Many Pennsylvania towns once thriving and humming are now in a state of despair.” 

Lou Mavrakis, the colourful Greek-Italian mayor, was instrumental in bringing Mr Trump to Monessen, a heavily Democratic city whose last high-profile political visitor was President John F Kennedy in 1962. 

© Demetri Sevastopulo

Mr Mavrakis, 78, a retired steel workers union boss who previously campaigned for President Barack Obama, believes Mr Trump offers a better chance of restoring vitality to Monessen, a city that once made the cables for the Golden Gate Bridge but has seen its population fall from 25,000 in the heyday to 7,000. 

The mayor said Mr Trump will win more votes than any previous Republican in Monessen because people are rebelling against the establishment just as UK voters thumbed their noses at the elite with Brexit. “You are having a form of revolution in this country . . . Trump is even going against the Republicans to some degree. The people like that." He criticised Mrs Clinton for only visiting Pittsburgh, which has seen an impressive revitalisation in recent years. 

Monessen has been Democratic for as long as residents can remember. During his visit, Kennedy joked that he would find the 1,600 people who did not vote for him out of the 9,100 votes cast by the town in the 1960 election. 

“People here still vote the way their grandfather told them to vote,” said Richard Kopco, 81, an accountant. “When I told my mother that I was a registered Republican, she thought I was coming out of the closet and she was upset as hell.” 

© Demetri Sevastopulo

But Monessen is also changing in ways that mirror the rest of the US. Roughly one-third of US voters now describe themselves as independents, while many party members are frustrated with their own party establishment. “I am not supporting Donald Trump because he is a Republican, but because he will bring back jobs,” said Marianne Stearns, a Republican who attended the Trump rally. 

Sitting in his office overlooking the Monongahela river, Mr Mavrakis said he started courting Mr Trump after Mr Obama did not respond to letters in which he had asked: “If our government gives billions of dollars to foreign governments why cannot our federal government help our city?” 

“We have a gap between the rich and the poor (with) no more middle income . . . Trump is saying what the people wanna hear,” he said. “I haven’t heard Hillary Clinton say well we’re going to bring back steel, we’re going to bring back coal.” 

Monessen’s biggest employer is an ArcelorMittal coke plant, but the introduction of new technologies over the years and the dismantling of the integrated steel mills means there are nowhere near enough jobs to support the population. 

The fall in the tax base due to people abandoning Monessen and the related lack of jobs means the city cannot afford the roughly $8,000 a unit to tear down the several hundred blighted homes and buildings that litter its downtown and deter investment. Mr Mavrakis said he also cannot afford to replace the badly decayed 100-year old sewage system without big rate increases in a city where the median income is less than $33,000 and 20 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. “In Monessen, it is going to cost you more to shit than it is to eat. It is unreal.” 

One bright spot is a school called Douglas Education Center that trains students to create the special effects and characters used in horror movies. Mr Kopco says the young students bring some life to Monessen, but not enough for his wife of 58 years who moved back with him decades ago. “I think she’s still pissed off at me for coming back here.” 

@Dimi

White House Countdown: Sign up for our free daily US election email

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
myFT

Follow the topics mentioned in this article

Follow the authors of this article