It was a different time.
The 1980s began with a fourth Super Bowl victory by Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain and ended with the collapse of an iron one stretching across eastern Europe. Patriotism was en vogue, the air was thick with hair spray and Pittsburgh still lived up to its “Steel City” moniker. Well, for a bit at least.
It’s been 35 years since December 1982, when the southwestern Pennsylvania economy tumbled off a cliff and unemployment reached its all-time peak. As a whole, the decade would put tremendous stress on many western Pennsylvania families. Once the steel mills began to close, the city found itself in the unenviable position of seeking financial stability and a new identity at the same time.
But like any holiday worth celebrating, Independence Day seemed to provide a brief respite. Just as they will today, Pittsburghers clamored for the perfect picnic spot and families filled the Point to see an annual fireworks display. They came by foot, car or boat, with more than 70,000 people attending the 1986 celebrations.
The times were changing, but the excitement of seeing colorful explosions light the sky was alive and well.
Others preferred more local fare, attending neighborhood parades and parties. Cultural groups like the McDonald Pipe Band represented the contributions immigrant ancestors made to the country celebrating its birthday. Dance troupes and marching bands from Pittsburgh schools performed on a Downtown stage surrounded by American flags and sparklers, some of the streets coated in painted designs.
As their parents sipped Budweiser and Tab, children popped firecrackers in the streets. Pulling out hoses while nobody looked, a patch of dirt suddenly became an impromptu, muddy Slip ‘N Slide. Some men dressed in 19th century clothing to put on musket demonstrations, while others fired replica artillery. After all, they couldn’t let Zambelli Fireworks have all the fun.
And then, as always, there was the food. Hot dogs and hamburgers covered grill tops while the apple pie filled coolers. Iceberg lettuce salads and Jell-O Pudding Pops attempted to balance each other out, and aerobics sessions were postponed in favor of absentminded grazing.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Pittsburgh without crockpots full of kielbasa and sauerkraut creeping into a few pictures. Pierogies don’t appear in any of these photos, but you can be sure they weren’t far behind. At least one girl seemed to find complete satisfaction with a cob of corn, smiling as melted butter ran down her chin. In another photo, a woman slices pepperoni rolls for her family next to a pan of fried sausages.
At the time, the rise of a new, conservative president was altering how Americans viewed their history and neighbors. The country was moving in a more conservative direction after years of war and fraught social change, rejecting special interests in favor of market growth. The media turned on its head as news cycles sped up and became flashier, while musicians strove to balance computerized glitz with timely social awareness.
But July 4 still brought Pittsburghers out to the Point in their finest red, white and blue, and together they would try to outshine the real stars with some of their own.
On second thought, maybe the 1980s weren’t so different after all.
— Matt Moret