An insight into the city’s scrap history as assembled by its dealers
Like the metal that they sold, the scrap men have been repurposed. Bought out, died out, expanded or professionals in other trades, Pittsburgh’s scrap dealers depict an evolutionary cornerstone of American Jewish business.
For many regional Jews, scrap’s cyclical story begins more than a century ago with the arrival of Eastern European immigrants to the United States.
“My father [Barney Snyder] and his father [Louis Snyder, originally of Vilna] were in the scrap business,” said James Snyder, 67, former president of the Snyder Group. “My father didn’t follow his father; they didn’t see eye to eye. My father went out on his own at 13 or 14 years of age; he became a peddler. He used to have a horse and wagon and go up and down the back streets of town and in the city buying little pieces of scrap and rags and paper products and put it in the cart and at the end of the day go to a scrap yard and sell the wares.”
It was a decidedly Old World pursuit, the trade going by the Yiddish phrase alte zachen in communities throughout the world.
Eventually, Barney Snyder and other peddlers “grew, and they became the wholesaler where people would go,” the younger Snyder explained. “As the years moved on through the 1900s, scrap yards appeared in every major city and many towns along the way, and there were people who bought discarded old bikes, cabinets, racks and automobiles.”
As the 20th century unfolded, businesses evolved, and “very large scrap operations started to appear,” he added.
The Snyder Group was one example. From its humble peddling origins, the company flourished, eventually possessing recycling sites on Neville Island and in Brownsville, Fayette County, as well as feeder sites including Grand Avenue Inc., Assad Iron & Metals Inc., Heidelberg Metals Inc. (Neville Metals), Neville Recycling LLC and Platt Properties LLC.
In 2008, the Snyder Group was acquired by Metalico, Inc. of Cranford, N.J., for $76 million, as reported by The Tribune Review.
After the acquisition, Snyder and his family members remained at the company briefly, but the tenure had changed.
“It went from having Jewish family owners to having Wall Street types who wanted to become conglomerates,” he said.
“I guess public companies were looking for ways to increase their revenues. I don’t know if it added to their bottom line, but it added to their top line,” explained Robert “Rocky” Wein, owner of Wein Metals, Inc.
“People who used to buy and sell scrap or would hold it until it was profitable became Wall Street types who had to produce profits every quarter for shareholders,” echoed Snyder. The process “hasn’t worked very well.”
“The volumes fall and the margins fall and that creates a disincentive to be in business sometimes,” said James Joshowitz, vice president of Josh Steel in Braddock, Pa.
For two decades, Joshowitz has worked alongside his brother, Steve, who serves as president of their second-generation company. Their father, Isadore Joshowitz, created Josh Steel in 1948 after returning from World War II and discovering that his former partners in an auto-parts business had “sort of cut him out,” said Steve Joshowitz. “Somehow, he migrated into scrap. There were a lot of Jewish families in scrap; that was a very Jewish thing to do.”
But the business was tough.
“There were months where we couldn’t justify selling any scrap because the margins were just ridiculous,” said James Joshowitz.
To counter downward cycles, dealers looked for alternative incomes.
“We bought foundries. We made ingot molds until new furnaces came in. We bought many, many other businesses that we worked with and did business with,” said Snyder.
“My dad used to be in the demolition business,” said Joshowitz. It was something that “he could rely on.”
While peripheral businesses interested some, others found it tiresome.
“It creates a disincentive for later generations to want to enter [scrap]. Profit margins aren’t that high, or people had to work so hard, and there wasn’t much money in it,” said Joshowitz. Also, “from the outside it doesn’t look like the most glamorous thing, I’m not going to lie. You see how we dress, we get dirty by the end of the day.”
“When we would get together at conventions and meetings I remember sitting with many guys who’d say, ‘I’d rather my kids go to law school or become a doctor, it’s not as rough and tough as the scrap business,’” recalled Snyder.
The exodus hit its peak in recent decades.
“Some people didn’t have another generation to pass it on to. You find that you’re 67 or 70 or 75 years of age, and it’s time to cash in your chips,” said Snyder. Even though it is difficult to “recoup all of the money you have ever put into the business, people just decided I’m being made a viable offer to sell all of my assets, to get all of your eggs out of the basket.”
Levinson Steel, which began 114 years ago as a horse-and-wagon operation in which James “Jim” Levinson peddled scrap in the Hill District, grew to become the 11th largest steel fabricator in the United States. The company was purchased by Briton David Llyod-Jacob in 1983 for an undisclosed sum.
“I think we felt a little loss there,” Jeannie Miller, Jim Levinson’s great- granddaughter, said of the sale. “We didn’t have a family company anymore. It was not owned by a family member. It wasn’t Levinson Steel as we knew of it. We had a pride in it. We were proud we started it and ran it. I’m still proud of it.”
When Miller was a teenager she spent a few summers working in the office. She recalled her father, brothers, cousins, uncles and grandfather, Sam Levinson, the founder’s son, as having worked there.
“It was nice to get an insight into what my family was doing, nice to see what my family had built up,” she said.
Nearly 30 years have passed since Levinson Steel was sold and almost 50 years since Miller worked in its office, but sentiments remain.
“Scrap is a thing you throw out, you don’t want anymore, and that’s how my family supported themselves and grew,” she explained. “We really became part of the business world of this country. We supplied a lot of the steel that helped build this country.”
Such contributions were noted shortly after 9/11. When officials surveyed ground zero, “they found girders that were supplied to the World Trade Center,” Miller noted. The fabricated beams, marked “The Levinson Steel Co.” were part of the buildings’ 1960s construction.
“I had a pride that this small family company had sent something all the way to New York, to such a big important building in New York,” she said. “I went to see the World Trade Center Museum and Memorial, and I looked at the beams and I just felt like there was a connection to my family, to something in that building [that] sadly was destroyed in those attacks.”
But just as the story of the World Trade Center did not end with its destruction, the scrap business is not finished.
“Things have changed and evolved over the last 100 years, and I’m sure they will change and evolve over the next 100 years, but I’m sure there will always be a scrap business,” said Snyder. “You’re going to keep buying cars and steel is going to be made. Whether there’s a lot or a little, there will always be a scrap market. Out of the scrap they make new steel, and there is new steel that’s needed every day.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.