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Remaking the Rust Belt

The Postindustrial Transformation of North America

The decline of American manufacturing and what to do about it has been a key topic in the current election cycle. The demise of the nation’s industrial plant, and its implications for manufacturing cities such as Detroit, Akron, and Pittsburgh, has often been seen as inevitable, a result of blind market forces under globalization. Although the broad economic forces at work were and continue to be undeniably daunting, how local municipalities responded to the turbulence was not a foregone conclusion. Wayne State University historian Tracy Neumann tells a more nuanced story about the decisions made by governments, businesses, and communities in Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America.

Accounts of the postindustrial turn generally start with the late 1960s/early 1970s (see, for example, The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation by Michel Aglietta, and The Long Twentieth Century by Giovanni Arrighi, as well as The Coming of Post-Industrial Society by Daniel Bell). In the case of Detroit, historian Thomas Sugrue has shown that the process actually began sooner, right after World War II with the movement of automobile manufacturing out of the central city into the suburbs, the southern United States, then Mexico, and ultimately overseas. Neumann tells a similar story about Pittsburgh and its core economic driver, the steel industry, whose transformation began in the 1950s and was in sense a harbinger of postindustrialism for the rest of what came to be known as the Rust Belt. Neumann traces that history back into the 1950s and then surveys the period from the 1970s to 1990s, when the most active and apparent transformations took place. She sets her analysis alongside another case study from north of the border in the Canadian mill town of Hamilton, Ontario.

Both cities had to deal with the rapid decline of their core industries, along with the impact of that decline on the urban environment as a whole, including population loss, a diminishing tax base, and an increasingly frayed social fabric. Decision makers in government and business embraced the vision of a postindustrial economic environment starting as early as the 1950s, decades before the term was popularized by Daniel Bell, and actively sought to move their metropolises to a more service- and consumer-oriented model. The changes they implemented altered the urban landscape physically, economically, socially, and politically.

These changes were facilitated by financial incentives for business development and a focus on corporate command center, culture, and entertainment functions, effectively sidelining the needs of the working class and others in the lower economic strata that had been the cities’ historic residents and who had shared in their economic, social, and political benefits, however meagerly for some. The broader trend was to reinforce all aspects of inequality and accelerate the hollowing out of the middle class in the United States and Canada. While new job opportunities were created in the rise of the postindustrial economy in Pittsburgh and Hamilton, a great many other workers and local citizens were relegated to navigating on their own the risks of the gig economy and other realities of the life of the precariat.

Although many of the practices and outcomes in Pittsburgh and Hamilton were the same, there were differences. Importantly, city officials in Pittsburgh were much more successful in developing partnerships with corporate leaders to promote urban revitalization than those in Hamilton, where business was more resistant. (In truth, it was the business sector that was actually the more proactive force in Pittsburgh whereas Hamilton’s corporate sector relied more on local government to take the lead.) Pittsburgh also enjoyed more financial support from state and federal government than Hamilton received from the Province of Ontario or the national capital in Ottawa.

Both cities had their share of protests over the impending transformation of their localities, primarily from union members and community groups. Those in Pittsburgh were better organized, more effective, and sustained than those in Hamilton. However, neither cohort could stop the remaking of their respective urban landscapes in the end.

Remaking the Rust Belt is assiduously researched, drawing on contemporary newspaper reports, as well as the archives and papers of individuals and organizations in the United States and Canada directly involved with setting the agendas and making decisions that led to the transformation of Pittsburgh and Hamilton from centers of industrial production to centers for service and consumer recreation. Neumann originally wanted to be a journalist, and her reporting is a model for what is too often missing these days in the mainstream media. Whereas Sugrue’s 1996 study, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, lays out factors — racial discrimination in jobs and housing, along with capital flight — that hastened the precipitous fall of another Rust Belt icon, Neumann shows how the powers that were back in the day responded to remake two former industrial cities into what we know today.

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