A few weeks ago, while digging through a cardboard box filled with ancient VHS movies we’d been meaning to donate to Goodwill, we found an old copy of “Flashdance.” It took us a while to get the dust-covered VHS player to work, but finally we got the worn, scratchy video to appear on our TV.
Yeah, we agree with the critics who panned the movie when it was released in 1983. It’s a corny film about a stunningly beautiful woman who works by day as a welder in a Pittsburgh steel mill and moonlights as an exotic dancer.
Despite its obvious flaws, we like the flick. It offers a glimpse of who we were — or, more accurately, who other people thought we were — when Ronald Reagan was our president and “Beat it” was a hit song.
The movie version of Pittsburgh was all rusting steel mills, bars, hard-edged workers and artistic dreamers who just needed a chance to get away from their crummy lives and jobs. Oh, and a few of us were pretty good dancers, too.
Truth is, many of us were having a rough time 30 years ago. Our legendary steel industry was proving much more fragile than we thought. We’re still amazed at how quickly all those massive sheds and furnaces disappeared. Not to mention the jobs. That’s where we really felt the pain.
In January of 1983, approximately 17 percent of our city’s workers were unemployed. The jobless rate in Beaver County reached a whopping 27 percent.
Many of the lost jobs were manufacturing gigs paying wages that allowed workers and their families to live solidly middle-class lives. Those paychecks were not easily replaced. Nor was the pride and sense of identity that went with making something so basic and necessary to modern life. Pittsburgh steel built cities. It helped win wars. Many of us watched those blast furnaces topple and wondered, “Who are we, if not the world’s greatest steel producers?” Any other identity seemed to diminish us.
In the 30 years since, we’ve learned a lot — about ourselves, about our city’s tenacity and resilience. And about change. We’re a greener place than we used to be. Medicine and education have replaced steel as the foundation of our local economy. We’re no longer viewed simply as that dirty, smoky city everyone wants to avoid. We’ve become hip and cool, even if those of us of a certain age remain confused as to what that truly means. Certainly it’s energizing.
After watching “Flashdance” (and drinking an Iron City while doing so), we returned the movie to its overstuffed box. We like who we were; we like who we are. We’ll watch the movie again in another 30 years. We’re hoping it’s on Netflix by then.
(Learn more about how the city has evolved since 1983 in the PG’s special report, “30 years, 30 changes.”)