NEW CASTLE, Pa. — On some July nights, colored blooms of gunpowder and magnesium used to burst above every gabled roof here, crackling over the blood-red end zones of Taggart Stadium and the bustling pottery plant and tin mills, their reflections turning the Shenango River and Neshannock Creek into ribbons of light.
No one in the "Fireworks Capital of America" ever needed much of an excuse to light the fuse and feel that familiar thump of a just-lit mortar against their breastbones. There were, by one account, approximately nine companies making fireworks in the 1920s. Fireworks went up during halftime of Red Hurricanes' football games, for one saint or another, for Italian pride, even for a funeral.
And of course, they always filled the sky around Independence Day in this scrappy city 55 miles north of Pittsburgh in Lawrence County.
"The people of New Castle are very passionate people about their fireworks," said Janet Falotico, a city resident and executive director of Visit Lawrence County, the tourism board. "Some may even say we're fireworks snobs."
New Castle, though, has witnessed economic duds in recent decades, as a long succession of industries closed up or moved out, including the sprawling Shenango China factory that employed "everyone," according to the mayor. The city of 22,142 — half the size it was in 1950 — is one of 17 municipalities under Pennsylvania Act 47, a program administered by the state Department of Community and Economic Development to "ensure the health, safety and welfare" of citizens in cities "experiencing severe financial distress."
The annual Fireworks Festival was canceled last summer after the county tourism board, the event's sponsor, said it couldn't put it together. It was another hit to the city's collective morale. And then came December, when one of New Castle's two remaining fireworks display companies, Zambelli, announced it was moving its offices and 12 employees 35 miles south to Cranberry Township, Butler County. It will still produce displays at a factory in Lawrence County.
"It hurts," said Anthony Mastrangelo, New Castle's mayor. "For a city in Act 47, it hurts when you lose any business, but this hurt a little more."
The company, he said, didn't even ask for a tax abatement as an incentive to stay.
Zambelli's founder, Antonio Zambelli, brought the company from Italy to New Castle in 1893, and it continues to design and light off major fireworks displays all over the world. In a brief news release last year, Zambelli said the "the move was dictated by the growth projections necessitated for ongoing demand of our architectural displays."
The company declined to comment further.
Vitale's great-grandson Stephen Vitale helms an enterprise vastly different than it was a century ago. Archives of the New Castle News, which has its offices downtown, are filled with stories about fatal explosions and injuries.
Today, few if any fireworks are made in the United States. Regulations have played a part in that, but so has China, the world's leader in fireworks manufacturing, with exports reportedly totaling $600 million. Pyrotecnico stopped making its own fireworks in the late 1980s.
Most of the massive displays the company produces, including for Philadelphia's Wawa Welcome America festival and fireworks for both the Eagles and the Phillies, are designed on computers.
"Every touchdown," Vitale said. "We were able to do the parade this year."
Pyrotecnico, which has offices across the country, also does special-effects work and fireworks for concerts.
"Last year, we did about 2,800 shows, which is good," Vitale said. "The demand for fireworks is strong. It's fairly recession-resistant."
The Chinese city of Liuyang would be considered the world's fireworks capital, he said. He visits twice a year to see what new products his company will purchase.
"The majority of our products, I would say 90 percent, come from China," he said.
Pyrotecnico, Vitale said, has approximately 97 employees and about one-third work in New Castle.
The city's fireworks manufacturers never employed large numbers the way the mills did, but they were a source of pride, and a source of marketing for the county tourism board, which trademarked "Fireworks Capital of America" a decade ago.
At PNC Field, home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Zambelli is responsible for "Fireworks Night" for games throughout the season.
"In our area, we don't just want to know where the fireworks are," Falotico said. "We want to know who did them."
New Castle still hosted some fireworks events last year, including the annual Italian Festival, but its Fireworks Festival was canceled. Falotico said illnesses at the tourism board made it too difficult to pull the festival off.
A common theme in downtown New Castle is for sale or rent signs in large old buildings. A newer Irish pub that closed in 2014 remains that way, and on Washington Street, the Fountain Restaurant looks as if it closed decades ago, everything left intact inside like a still-life painting.
"When I grew up, it was a lot busier. Now it's like dead," said Dana Antonelli, 27, an employee at the CloudNeun Vape Lounge. "There's not a lot of stuff in town anymore. A lot of the good places closed."
A memorial park for George Zambelli Sr., complete with a gazebo and firework-shaped sculptures, sits across the street from the shuttered pub. The park, like Zambell's fireworks, was meant to "light up" the lives of New Castle residents according to a plaque there. It was empty on this spring afternoon, a pack of Newport cigarettes and a hooded sweatshirt sitting on the ground by the plaque.
Still, some businesses, like Butz Flowers & Gifts, are busy, its floral displays as vibrant as the fireworks.
"There's a lot of negative things happening in New Castle, but there's good things, too," owner Mark Kauffman said.
The surrounding neighborhoods, Councilman Tom Smith said, have their share of blight, and he has expressed concerns that some empty homes could be purchased off a repository list for as little as $500.
Many, he said, should be demolished.
"These homes are in deplorable conditions," he said. "God bless people wanting the American dream, but I think as public officials we're doing them a disservice by allowing them to go into a house that can't be inspected and buying something as is, where the house may not have pipes or a furnace."
Across from Zambelli's former office on Mercer Street, cobbler Tony Frasso said shoes have stayed the same, but New Castle has changed.
"It was a progressive town at one point," said Frasso, 82, who's been fixing shoes at A&F Shoe Repair for 47 years. "The city is trying. It's hard. They're trying their best to do what they can."
In January, New Castle marked its 10th year under Act 47.
It is one of six communities under Act 47 within a two-hour drive from Pittsburgh, nearly all of them affected by steel mills going cold over the decades. Pittsburgh left Act 47 in February. In 2019, New Castle will find out if it, too, will exit the program.
"When I first started [as mayor], I had $500 in the bank and a $250,000 payroll," said Mastrangelo, who took office in January 2008. "I had junk bond status."
Mastangelo said things have improved in New Castle. Investors, he said, are eyeing many vacant properties and the city's bond status has been elevated high enough that it can borrow money if needed.
"We're coming along," he said.
A medical marijuana facility is now operating in the city, and more are applying to open there. One of the state's new "mini casinos" will open within a 15-mile radius of the city. New Castle's unemployment rate, as high as 16 percent in 2010, has fallen to 7.4.
The Fireworks Festival, thanks to a new sponsor, will resume in July, meaning those spider webs of light will spread over gabled roofs and old factories once more.