Nuclear Suburbs: Cold War Technoscience and the Pittsburgh Renaissance

Nuclear Suburbs: Cold War Technoscience and the Pittsburgh Renaissance


Reviewed by Don Mitchell

First Published:

17 Aug 2021, 12:03 pm

Nuclear Suburbs: Cold War Technoscience and the Pittsburgh Renaissance

Patrick Vitale, Nuclear Suburbs: Cold War Technoscience and the Pittsburgh Renaissance, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021; 298 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-5179-0028-1 (hbk); $120.00 (hbk); ISBN: 978-1-5179-0029-8 (pbk), $30.00 (pbk)


It is hardly news that by the 1950s, the American suburbs had become ‘the dormitory of the new generation of organizational men’, in the words of William Whyte (quoted, p. 134). Nor is it news (even if it is a massive exaggeration) that Pittsburgh’s lauded ‘renaissance’, its transformation from a gritty, smoky industrial steel town into a gleaming corporate, cultural and research centre, was achieved by attracting a new kind of ‘creative class’ to its grey hills and murky valleys. After all, Richard Florida was a long-time denizen of the city and it was there that he formulated his influential creative class thesis and the policy recommendations that seduced urban boosters the world over. What is news, and what makes Patrick Vitale’s book, Nuclear Suburbs, so interesting, is that in the post-World War II period (and indeed, even before), organisational men and the creative class were one and the same.

Blue-suited IBM-men are not who we typically associate with the creative class, and indeed, in Pittsburgh, that is not who they were. Instead, they were Westinghouse-men, many of them nuclear engineers and nuclear physicists. As such, they were, Vitale explains, quintessential specimens of ‘Research Man’, an archetype that as early as the first decades of the 20th century, Pittsburgh’s capitalist elite was arguing had to be attracted to the city if it was ever going to be reborn out of the ashes of its industrial past, and which by World War II became the primary object of affection for the region’s proto-growth machine, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. ‘Research Man’ was a widely deployed term among organisational management theorists and promoters of science before World War I, used to describe the growing class of employees (almost always male) who undertook the increasingly important work of chemical, materials and other science that invented new industrial processes or did the engineering that mechanised and sped up the industrial process. As Vitale shows, research men were not mechanical workers, and definitely not of the same working-class strata, but rather the ones who invented the processes on which, and the desired results for which, mechanical workers toiled – often making the mechanical workers’ lives miserable in the process. They worked with their brains, their pipettes and centrifuges and their slide rules, and according to those who saw them as the future of not only industry but the city too, they had to be cossetted, entertained and cultivated. The city had to be remade for them.

The second part of Nuclear Suburbs details the invention of Research Man and shows how he was enrolled in the project of Pittsburgh’s renaissance. The first part describes this renaissance, tracing its roots back much further than the city’s famous deindustrialisation in the 1970s–1980s, showing how as early as the first years of World War II, Pittsburgh’s industrial and financial elite were already plotting its evolution away from heavy industry, like coke and steel production, and its reinvention as a banking and management headquarters and a centre of research and innovation. The Westinghouse company was a key actor in this transformation. As early as 1916, Westinghouse built a stand-alone research centre in a suburban area, which eventually became the heart of a whole campus of research and development buildings, replete with a ‘Westinghouse Atom Smasher’ built in 1937 ‘to lure prominent scientists to the laboratory and bolster the company’s image’ (p. 91). As Vitale details, Westinghouse had been a pioneer in Pittsburgh’s industrial suburbanisation (not just research, but a number of production facilities suburbanised before World War II) and this suburban constellation grew even more as post-war military and civilian demand for nuclear-generated power grew.

As a brand-new industry that combined advanced, risky science with greenfield engineering, nuclear power demanded not just a new research and industrial plant, but a whole army highly trained and presumably highly finicky scientists and engineers. Almost from the moment Research Man was invented, his apologists argued that this man would not settle for ordinary, industrial, urban environments, but needed space, greenery, places for leisure (despite often extraordinarily long working hours), access to cultural amenities, calm, security. He needed suburbs, but suburbs with good access both to work and to the urban centre. And, as Vitale shows in impressive detail, what this meant in practice – what this meant for regional land use planning, zoning, the provision of infrastructure, and more – was that what Research Man was thought to need were class-segregated and white suburbs. The place of production for Research Man was the research campus; the place for reproduction was the white suburbs. Pittsburgh’s post-war regional renaissance was predicated on remaking space in such a way that relied on, reproduced and deepened suburban white supremacy. Though I think Vitale overstates, or rather undermines, his case when he calls the Pittsburgh suburbs ‘white supremacist’ (p. 53, passim) – neither Westinghouse nor its Research Men nor the suburbs needed to be white supremacists, because white supremacy was simply, ineluctably what the suburbs were– he is absolutely right to show how the Pittsburgh renaissance was a racial project not only in, for example, its overt destruction of Black urban communities in the name of urban renewal but also in the ways the city’s professional suburbs allowed its white, finicky creative class, its organisational men, to pretend to have no culpability for the violence of such destruction.

The suburbs, Vitale shows, also allowed its Research Men, including its nuclear scientists and engineers, to pretend little or no culpability for, or even involvement in, the remarkable violence of both the hot and cold wars of the post-World War II era. This was true even of those Westinghouse researchers directly involved in developing the technology that made nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers possible. In the third part of the book, based largely on interviews with retired Westinghouse nuclear scientists and engineers (the other two parts are based more in historical reconstruction from archives, planning documents, newspapers and so forth), Vitale shows how the relative isolation of the suburbs, with their extensive lawns, restrictive covenants, spacious houses and exclusive schools, allowed Westinghouse and other organisational men to convince themselves of their separation from precisely the worlds they helped create: the bombs raining down on Vietnam, the structural violence that defined Black working class life in disinvested Pittsburgh, and more.

But this part of Nuclear Suburbs shows something else too, something that, in fact, is a central argument throughout the book and one of the things that makes the book so valuable. According to its apologists, Research Men, like (ironically enough) organisational men and the members (also mostly men) of the creative class, are independent men, men who live in their minds and by their wits, men who seem to match exactly the liberal ideal of self-determination and autonomy. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. If the research labs hosted an army of Research Men, they hosted an even larger army of lab assistants, clerical assistants, secretaries and cafeteria workers, all almost uniformly women, to say nothing of a further army (once again mostly male) of janitors, carpenters, machinists, electricians and much more. These workers, just as vital to the Pittsburgh renaissance, typically lived in the Black ghettos threatened by the wrecking balls, the industrial valleys still shrouded in coalsmoke, or the white, ethnic, working class suburbs that would be hit hard by the later, 1980s, deindustrialisation. These were not workers the renaissance catered to.

At work, Research Man chatted, joked, talked sports and flirted with these other workers, but then left them behind to return to their wives in their nuclear suburbs (sometimes these wives had been their secretaries, and almost inevitably they stopped working outside the home when they married). Research Man, organisational man, a member of the creative class of the time, existed not by his wits alone, of course, but because of a severely gendered division of labour. Pittsburgh’s renaissance and the suburbs that both resulted from it and made it possible were not only racist, they were intensely patriarchal.

Patrick Vitale grew up in these suburbs, he tells us, and Nuclear Suburbs is his attempt to understand where they came from and why they were as they were. The attempt has paid off, not only by extending his, and definitely our, knowledge about the long-history of the Pittsburgh renaissance, but also in how we should understand the ‘enrolment’ of techno scientists in the project of urban transformation, the perniciousness of constructing a world around a presumed need to attract a ‘creative class’ as the salvation of city and economy, and the way that urban morphology – and urban morphology founded in and reproductive of racism and patriarchy – is a key player in global geopolitics.


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