Pittsburgh's heart of steel still beats amid transformed city

President Obama is scheduled to welcome world leaders to the G-20 summit here with an opening dinner Thursday at the celebrated Phipps Conservatory. The botanical gardens' eco-friendly sheen underscores the president's summit message: This former heavy industry mecca retooled after hard times with "green" pursuits that offer the world a path out of the current economic downturn.

"As a city that has transformed itself from the city of steel to a center for high-tech innovation — including green technology, education and training, and research and development —Pittsburgh will provide both a beautiful backdrop and a powerful example for our work," the president said earlier this month.

As Pittsburgh prepares for its moment in the global spotlight, the industry that once defined this region finds itself an unacknowledged guest. About as close to center stage as Big Steel is likely to get during the two-day summit is this low-profile link: The conservatory is named for Henry Phipps, who established the institution in 1893 with part of the fortune he made alongside his business partner, steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

"There's a certain irony. ... It's OK. We're somewhat used to all that, and we're pretty thick skinned. We're pretty content with who we are, and we'll be pleased with whatever little recognition we might receive," says Carnegie's modern successor, John Surma, CEO of U.S. Steel.

Steel's current presence here represents only a sliver of the role it once enjoyed, but the industry is far from inconsequential. U.S. Steel, x the world's eighth-largest producer, still makes its headquarters downtown. The company's sprawling Edgar Thomson mill, established by Carnegie in 1875 a few miles outside the city, produces steel that's used to make refrigerators, washing machines and dishwashers. Nearby, metallurgists, engineers and chemists brew up new steels at a research center on the site of a legendary 19th-century labor dispute.

Until the financial crisis hit last year, U.S. Steel was enjoying the strongest financial performance in its 108-year history.

"There's really no reason why we can't be very competitive here for a long, long period of time," Surma says. "The experts that say we should all be massage therapists and retail store greeters and all that — you know, that's really a road that has a very sad ending to it."

While the major mills that once lined the city's riverbanks have been replaced by stylish new baseball and football venues, Pittsburgh also retains a rich cluster of steel industry suppliers. More than 320 specialized firms, such as mill services provider Tube City IMS, serve steelmakers in the U.S. and beyond. Their current payroll is unknown, but in 2003, they employed about 12,000 people, according to the Center for Industry Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

"These are high-wage jobs, so they're very attractive in terms of the new Pittsburgh," says Frank Giarratani, the center's director.

Today's U.S. Steel relies on Ph.D.s probing new materials with electron microscopes, as well as heavily muscled workers employing brute force on the floor of smoky mills. Quiet calculations at computer terminals are as essential for modern steelmaking as the fiery rivers of molten metal streaming from 75-ton cauldrons.

"When you go into a modern steel mill, it's as high-tech as NASA," says Leo Gerard, the president of the United Steelworkers Union.

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