Houses in Monessen. Photo courtesy of Matthew Shorraw.

More about Monessen 

To get a better sense of the city, there’s a new short video titled “Monessen: Who We Are” that tells the city’s story — one of resilience and promise — that ends with the plea: “Help us rebuild our city.” Also, Proud Places and First+Main Films made a short documentary about the city called “Small Town Spirit: Monessen, Pennsylvania.”

Monessen is home to a vast coke plant (used in making steel) located on the banks of the Monongahela River, which is a mixed blessing. It’s a major employer — about 180 people — as well as a major source of pollution in the region.

“It’s better than it was,” says Shorraw. “They got slapped with a bunch of fines with the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection). There was a class-action lawsuit, I think, that was in 2017. So they have cleaned it up a bit, but it’s still pretty dirty. Definitely not as big of a problem as they’re dealing with in Braddock and Clairton with their plants, but it’s difficult. Like, how do you develop a downtown when it’s 20 feet away from a mill?

“I mean, downtown, there’s still soot on buildings from Pittsburgh Steel from the ‘70s.”

It’s a delicate balance, with a status quo that nobody was willing to question for decades.

“How do you coexist with it?” asks Shorraw. “Because it does provide jobs … but you also need to do it responsibly with the environment. And so like we’re in this whole in-between phase. We created an environmental advisory board to try to find solutions like to work with the mill to find other things that the city can do.”

There’s an ongoing study to see where local pollutants are coming from, including emissions. They’re hoping to use that data to create a local climate action plan.

A vacant storefront in Monessen.

Shorraw doesn’t underestimate the challenges of Monessen, including the dwindling population. His beloved high school band was down to 13 kids this year due to Covid, and nine students are graduating in 2021.

“We don’t have any other kids coming up from the elementary school (in band) because we haven’t been able to teach lessons, so it’s making me really nervous,” says Shorraw.

Still, at least some people are finding the city is what they’re looking for.

“I hear a lot about opportunity today, and how people don’t have it, but here it is,” says Marc Frangipani, who is chronicling his experience on Instagram. “It’s right here in Monessen. It’s right here available to all the young people and artists and small business owners that can’t afford to pursue their dreams in Squirrel Hill or Shadyside.”

He’s working on restoring a two-story building from the early 1900s that used to be a pawn shop.

A former pawn shop in Monessen. Photo courtesy of Mkues Frago.

“My hope is to be able to save this beautiful building, live there as a part of the community and create some space or business that actually ‘gives’ this community something that they need,” says Frangipani. “I may not know what that is just yet, but I’ve had some ideas. Maybe that’s a market that sells real food, or an affordable cafe space for rent, or even a photo gallery for some local artist.

“There is so much opportunity in Monessen. Opportunity to own a home. Opportunity to raise a family, and actually be able to afford it. Opportunity to be a part of a community and help lift each other up.”