The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was the United States's first large-scale working-class insurrection. Impoverished railroad and steel employees from Baltimore, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to St Louis in Missouri, refused to accept a further round of wage cuts while profits were on the rise. The strike's work stoppage halted half the country's rail traffic. In Pittsburgh, where anger boiled over to violence and the majority of the industrial Strip District was burned to the ground, stone-throwing protesters were met by six hundred National Guard troops. (The state, with the blessing of President Hayes, determined that local Pittsburgh militiamen were sympathetic toward their neighbours' cause, and sent for troops from Philadelphia to quell the riot.) When the troops resorted to Gatling guns, a rapid-fire precursor to the machine gun, and bayonets, 26 strikers were killed in just minutes of chaos. Many newspapers and publications of the time sided with the railroad businesses, ignoring the workingman's issues that motivated the rebellion. Deliberately playing on xenophobia, most accounts accused the strikers of being foreign agitators, primarily of German descent, while those who unionised were branded as communists and blackballed from future employment.
The incomplete historicisation of this event has recently been taken up by a group of six anonymous artist-activists and amateur historians. Dissatisfied by a lack of regional understanding of the strike, and the way it has been taught in schools, the Pittsburgh-based The Howling Mob Society (HMS) -- a name taken from a Harper's Weekly headline of the time, which depicted the striking dissenters as lawless men bent on a reign of terror -- spent nearly a year investigating voices that have been overlooked. Conscious that the accounts had been primarily written by media outlets owned by the economic magnates, like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and other 'robber barons' of the day, they offered a counterpoint, by way of ten historical markers placed within the public realm.
The HMS guerrilla campaign began early on a Sunday morning in November 2007 when the collective drove to places where the insurrection had unfolded: the Strip District, Polish Hill, Lawrenceville and the edge of downtown across from Penn Station. The members attempted to appear as official as possible, boldly blocking roads with cones and donning yellow construction vests. (Their methods are, in many ways, a nod to the 'accidental audience' methods of REPOhistory, who utilised illicit metal street signs to distribute 'other' histories during the 1990s in New York City.) The signs were fastened securely to telephone poles, a traffic light, a railroad crossing sign, and, in one case, a previously unused metal post. At first glance, there is little difference between the signs sanctioned by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and their Doppelgängers; the Howling Mob Society mimicked their blue and yellow enamel colour scheme and overall shape. The state's signage is made of visibly thicker aluminium, with the writing cast into both sides, while the lettering on the rogue signs has been printed on vinyl stickers. A sly modification is found in the Pennsylvania coat of arms as the two-harnessed black horses have been replaced with silhouetted wildcats, a sign of the radical workers' movement. The State's escutcheon has been altered from the original clipper and plough to a burning locomotive and a glowing torch lighting tracks ablaze. Of course, at first glance we don't see this difference. And the texts in the HMS markers are much richer in content and complexity, excavating and magnifying a two-sided story.
On a recent blustery weekend in Pittsburgh I spent an afternoon zigzagging between the neighbourhood's three main thoroughfares on a scavenger hunt for the eight signs that are still there. Within six months of the initial installation, two of the signs were removed, and as the work is in the public domain, the HMS and its admirers fear it will one day totally vanish. Most of the signs are near bus stops, on sidewalks where people linger. Distinctly pedestrian-friendly, they are often placed with their blank silver backs facing out towards the street. Given the project's unauthorised status and the city's reputation for prosecuting street artists, the HMS were particularly worried when police announced that they would be doing a clean sweep of certain neighbourhoods during the summer 2009 G-20 summit, but none was taken down. There is a nice irony in the fact that the signs have remained overlooked by those who enforce the defacement of open spaces. The HMS message is, for now, accessible to an observant public, but does this project succeed as an educational device? Do citizens read the signs?
A decade ago the Strip District sat as a Rust Belt hinterland of empty warehouses and a collection of bric-a-brac purveyors. Lately, rapid gentrification has resulted in reuse of buildings where blue-collar enterprises once stood. The benefit of the reshaped community is the ability for the signs to communicate with and inform a different, more prosperous constituency. An interesting juxtaposition is staged on Railroad Street. A sign positioned directly on train tracks between a posh cigar lounge and a cork factory turned loft building describes unregulated railroad traffic zipping through the city's core, with no concern for residents. It's doubtful that the high-end properties today would be so valuable if the trains were still rolling.
My favourite location for one of the faux signs is in Doughboy Square in Lawrenceville, where I discovered a local legend in the sign titled 'Pat the Avenger Returns Fire'. Though firsthand accounts can be difficult to confirm, legend describes Pat as a marksman who is believed to have killed several militiamen. Perhaps HMS is offering an identity to the Square's namesake, a towering sculpture of a lone infantryman, perched up high. The sign sits at the convergence of a traffic triangle, adjacent to a long row of abandoned buildings, including the deserted Wilson's BBQ Riblicious. Pasted in a long stretch are Shepard Fairey posters, which are currently blanketing the city in correspondence with his solo survey at The Andy Warhol Museum. While using different tactics towards the same goals, the coexisting artworks turn private into public, reappropriating contested sites and contested histories into open-air classrooms.