Scenes from the Valley: When the Money Dries Up in a Company Town


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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

Wilmerding is an ongoing photo project documenting the postindustrial town of Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, which is located 12 miles southeast of Pittsburgh in the Turtle Creek Valley. Established in 1890 by industrialist George Westinghouse (known for the invention of alternating electrical current and a revolutionary air brake system for trains), this suburban enclave is a planned company town originally intended to house the workforce and families of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company.

My grandfather was born and raised in Wilmerding. It’s where he spent his entire life—not only as a resident, but like so many men in the area, as an employee at Westinghouse Air Brake. My introduction to the town was through his stories, which included growing up through the Great Depression, leaving home to fight in World War II, working at the Air Brake for 35 years, and his displeasure when the plant was downsized in the mid-1990s.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

After a family death in April 2013, I visited Wilmerding and was confronted with the reality behind my grandfather’s stories. His nostalgia became my own as I began to photograph his hometown, trying to decipher the relationship between the remnants of the community that he knew and what the town is like today. While my grandfather’s nostalgia for Wilmerding is still present in the eyes of others who outlasted him, it is quickly being forgotten as a new community of people moves into the town.

Today, Wilmerding and the Westinghouse Air Brake building appear lifeless when compared to the vibrant and culturally rich Pittsburgh suburb that it used to be. Although the company and its world headquarters still exist today, the plant produces a small fraction of what it used to, and without the collaboration of the town and its residents.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

When photographing, I try to remember the commonality that Wilmerding shares with other industrial towns in Western Pennsylvania and across the country. I’m interested in examining the relationship between past and present, and how history has shaped and influenced the current realities in this once-strong but now marginalized community—a familiar story echoed throughout the American Rust Belt.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

The images included in this photo essay are excerpted from a larger, ongoing series that explores Wilmerding through my wandering lens. In addition to documenting day-to-day life in this postindustrial town, I’m also interested in investigating how the community overcomes an industrial legacy that still weighs heavy in the minds of its lifelong residents.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

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From the series ‘Wilmerding’ by Stephen Speranza.

Stephen Speranza is a documentary and editorial photographer based in New York City. He received his BFA in photography from Lesley University College of Art and Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

  • Marty Romanik

    Thanks for the blog. I grew up in West Wilmerding and worked at the Air Brake for a short period. I left the area in 1972.

  • Donna

    I grew up in Wilmerding up on Russian Hill. When they built the Tri Boro Highway our hill slid and all of us had to relocate. I go down there all the time still have family and friends there. No matter how bad things get,it is still my hometown and I have the best memories growing up there. Its getting bad everywhere no a days. Really sad. Donna Tucker Bayliss

  • Sonya Boyd

    My hometown.