Books and the Arts: Life After the Great Industrial Extinction

Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America

By Tracy Neumann

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016

 

From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City

By Chloe Taft

Harvard University Press, 2016

 

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, all eyes turned to the Rust Belt. We heard stories of Youngstown and Erie, of the misery of coal country, and of how the anger of laid- off factory workers drove them into the arms of Donald Trump. Two new books suggest we have a good deal more to learn about what has been happening in what used to be the arsenal of democracy. Tracy Neumann’s Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America and Chloe Taft’s From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City respectively examine postindustrialism in the former steel towns of Pittsburgh, Hamilton, Ontario, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Things are not so simple after the factory gates close, both argue.

Neumann and Taft both complicate and expand on the definitions and geography of deindustrialization offered in seminal works like Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison’s The Deindustrialization of America and Daniel Bell’s optimistic The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. These well-researched, passionately-argued books each show, in the words of Neumann, “the primacy of local place in understanding how global and national social, political, and economic processes that constituted postindustrialism were worked out on the ground.” In their close attention to the particularities, processes, and context of how local communities grappled with these large-scale transformations, they complicate not just existing definitions of postindustrialism, but also neoliberalism. Neumann and Taft’s approaches reveal the value in exploring what geographers Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore have deemed “actually existing neoliberalism” rather than simply critiquing neoliberal ideology.

While Remaking the Rust Belt and From Steel to Slots seem to cover similar ground, they are neither in conflict nor redundant. Both authors expand the parameters of the “community study” approach to scholarship, breathing new life into the method. Yet they are quite different books and offer distinct perspectives and approaches.

Remaking the Rustbelt redraws the geography of the Rust Belt, drawing in Canada and Western Europe. Neumann challenges the widespread assumption that postindustrial transformation was historically inevitable and the by-product of “natural business cycles” and  “neutral market forces.” Instead, she reveals how it emerged from the deliberate efforts of public-private partnerships between politicians and corporate elites. She defines postindustrialism simultaneously as a “pervasive ideology that privileged white-collar jobs and middle-class residents” and “a set of pragmatic tactics” of public-private partnerships, which “included financial incentives, branding campaigns and physical redevelopments.”

Pittsburgh is routinely celebrated as the success story in narratives of urban rebirth, while Hamilton—its smaller Canadian counterpart—is seen as Toronto’s unsuccessful sibling. The comparison between the two steel cities enables Neumann to show both that the Rust Belt was a transnational phenomenon and how postindustrialism developed unevenly not just within cities, but among them.

Neumann demonstrates that while postindustrial ideology doggedly emphasized the future, it had roots firmly in the growth coalitions that had dominated postwar cities. Upending many treatments of postindustrial and neoliberal urbanism, she contends that public-private partnerships did not emerge de novo in the 1970s, but were intensifications of arrangements forged during the era of urban renewal. The postindustrial city was not a form of rupture, but rather continuity.

Pittsburgh offers an effective case in point. In the 1950s and 1960s the city initiated a massive urban renewal program called the Renaissance aimed at revitalizing the central business district (“the Golden Triangle”), which created key alliances between the public and private sector. In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of mayors in the New Democrat mold joined corporate leaders to reinvigorate that model. The members of this growth coalition saw in the decline of steelmaking not an impediment, but an opportunity. They initiated “Renaissance II,” mobilizing public subsidies to draw corporate headquarters downtown, swapping smokestacks for skyscrapers. Renaissance II developed new retail, entertainment and leisure spaces beyond the Golden Triangle to transform the city into “a postindustrial utopia for young well-educated professionals.”

Neumann provides an insightful analysis of how the city’s branding campaign served as a “material and symbolic” to create a new mental map of urban space. Mayor Richard Caliguiri’s goal was a population of “less people with high incomes than more people relatively low earning and spending power.” He wanted “to tear every picture of Pittsburgh’s smokestacks out of the country’s textbooks.” While branding and other tactics stopped short of that ambition, they were able to transform Pittsburgh’s reputation and physical landscape. By the mid-1980s, it earned the designation as “America’s Most Livable City.” The mid-1980s, of course, simultaneously saw a Depression-scale social and economic collapse in the old blue-collar neighborhoods along the Monongahela River. “Livable” for whom?

Pittsburgh, nevertheless, became an international model for other cities across the Rust Belt, including Ontario’s Hamilton. That steel center had its own growth coalition, which sought to remake it into a headquarters for the service and financial sectors. Hamilton’s bureaucrats emulated Pittsburgh, exchanging ideas and taking “policy tours” of their southern neighbor. However, Canadian policy constrained Hamilton’s leaders. The federal and provincial governments imposed a provincial growth policy requiring the city to remain a manufacturing center and preventing it from taking steps that might threaten Toronto’s position as the center of the postindustrial economy. Despite efforts on the part of the growth coalition and the consultants they hired, Hamilton had difficulty transcending its “lunch bucket” image. Ultimately city leaders had no choice but to embrace that reputation in a rather less successful urban branding campaign than Pittsburgh’s.

Rather than examine the hard-luck workers, Neumann focuses primarily on the efforts of the politicians, corporate leaders, technocrats, policy officials, and urban branders who together produced these new visions of the postindustrial landscape. She is careful to neither celebrate nor revile them. Neumann instead contends that that these figures pursued such a vision because they saw it as their only politically viable option. This was less “neoliberalism by design,” and more  “neoliberalism by default.” Such choices often emerged from forces beyond policymakers’ control; nonetheless, they inscribed inequality even deeper into the urban landscape.  

Neumann’s attention to urban policy is important for understanding the construction of key structures and systems of inequality. The book gives concrete meaning to abstractions like neoliberalism and postindustrialism. Her approach, nevertheless, demonstrates a tradeoff not only for policymakers but also for the scholars who study them. Neumann’s emphasis means that she gives less voice to the blue-collar and poor residents who absorbed the brunt of the urban transformation. She describes how branding campaigns glossed over Pittsburgh’s tradition of labor unrest, but at times she unintentionally replicates that tendency. She does describe the valiant and often dramatic efforts of activists against urban growth coalitions, though they were of little avail. In the epilogue, Neumann notes that by 2010 Pittsburgh had the highest rate of poverty among working-age African Americans in the forty largest metropolitan areas in the United States. While the book explains some of the policy that produced this calamity, there is little discussion of the people who experienced it.

While Neumann might not pay enough heed to how ordinary people made sense of the remaking of the urban economy and landscape, this is the central focus of From Steel to Slots. Taft provides an ethnographic analysis of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which sits 300 miles east of Pittsburgh.  Throughout the twentieth century it served as headquarters of Bethlehem Steel, at one point the world’s second largest steelmaker. Following the closing of “the Steel” in 2009, Sheldon Adelson’s Sands Casino Corporation—the world’s largest casino operator—opened an outpost on the former site of the mill. This transformation reveals an alternative model of public-private partnership and economic redevelopment rooted in the gaming industry. Yet the relationship between Adelson and local bureaucrats is not what interests Taft.  Rather, she concentrates on “how locals have variously embraced and grappled with the remaking of their steel town as a postindustrial city.”

. While Neumann defines postindustrialism in terms of urban policy and development, Taft is more invested in its cultural dimensions—what postindustrialism means to those who live it. She offers a literally fine-grained analysis, showing how particles of dust, Christmas lights, and mailboxes all became sites where residents grappled with the transformation of Bethlehem. In her examination of the texture of the city, Taft illustrates how economic restructuring left its mark on a range of spaces and experiences from churches and local festivals to heritage tourism exhibits. Where Neumann grounds her argument in planning reports and other evidence culled from municipal archives, Taft relies on interviews with 76 residents. These lend the book a conversational tone.

Taft’s source base also helps her show that deindustrialization was “not a finite moment or breaking point.” She finds instead a “diversity of experiences and interpretations of ongoing economic change.” Taft’s informants transcend class, racial and spatial boundaries and include representatives from Bethlehem’s sizable white-collar workforce and significant Latino population. These perspectives help her dispel the assumption that white steelworkers were the only people who lived in Bethlehem or who experienced deindustrialization.

Taft avoids declaring Bethlehem’s transformation a success or a failure. She does not offer a nostalgic view of the city’s bygone industrial era or castigate Bethlehem’s links to a global gaming network extending from Las Vegas to Macau. Bethlehem has long been enmeshed in a wider world. The Steel’s products were always part of the global market. The same roadway built to carry Bethlehem’s products to market now brings Chinese immigrants from New York and New Jersey to test their luck at the Sand’s baccarat tables.  “Lived from day to day,” she writes, “postindustrialism reflects an ongoing process marked by complicated, and at times paradoxical, continuities that also challenge well-worn categories of ’before’ and ‘after.’”

The casino itself highlights this duality. The Sands Corporation decided to abandon the Venetian-themed aesthetic of its other casinos for an industrial style, designing the building to evoke a steel mill in 1942. Taft suggests that by selecting that particular year, which represents the apex of production, the casino’s design offers as much of an escapist fantasy as the gondolas in Las Vegas. The decision of the Sands to embrace an industrial aesthetic might appear perverse—even cruel. Taft, though, finds a signification that the process of creative destruction was never entirely as complete as it might seem.

Taft provides a fascinating and detailed discussion of the ways in which the casino operates as a “postindustrial factory”—a phrase that succinctly collapses the dualities of before and after. While the dealers’  jobs reproduce the routinization of factory work without the midcentury social contract, many of the dealers have absorbed the company ideology about the value of entrepreneurship, individual responsibility, and flexibility. She suggests the dealers’ labor and attitude stands in for the broader experiences of postindustrial employment insecurity. However, if casino workers have indeed bought in to management ideology, it seems doubtful that they would join in the kind of collective action that Taft repeatedly suggests the built environment and processes of “place-making” could bring.  

From Steel to Slots suggests that the casino itself reflects the larger financialization of the “new economy.” While Taft’s focus on Bethlehem allows her argument an intimate scale, her discussion of aspects of economic and political structures is much more vague than Neumann’s. Taft frequently alludes to a neoliberal and free-market logics without explaining what she means. This type of analysis ultimately makes the forces of the market seem inevitable and natural rather than the product of policies, deliberate decisions by politicians and corporate leaders, or even identifiable economic processes. Despite a few references to Adelson, managers, bureaucrats, and politicians play a minor role in the book and there is little attention to specific policies—those that Neumann draws out so well. (For example, what process led Pennsylvania to loosen regulation on the gaming industry in the 2000s, allowing the casino to be built in the first place?) Taft’s attention to how residents made cultural and social meanings out of economic restructuring is compelling; ultimately, though,  without more context about local, state and international political economy, it is hard to grasp in material terms how such meanings provide building blocks to create the “more equitable future” she calls for. It might make some readers skeptical that it would be possible.

As Neumann points out, policy decisions shape “the material possibilities and daily lives of urban dwellers.” By now it has become clear that our national politics are being whipsawed by the retribution for decades elite control over such material possibilities. In facing the new political order emerging throughout the North Atlantic, sensitivity to the unevenness of postindustrial development—to “actually existing neoliberalism”—is needed now more than ever. Neumann and Taft’s collective analysis is extremely important for demonstrating that there is no one definition or uniform set of policy prescriptions that will work in all communities. There is no singular Rust Belt space, resident, or experience; nor is there a singular postindustrial city. Economic change has gnawed away quickly here, slowly there, creating a variegated map of deprivation and prosperity. Such understanding will be crucial in organizing to resist policies that do not take such forms of unevenness into account and for proposing ones that do.

In 2016, Uber deployed its first self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. The high-tech car service giant has come to represent both the transformation of American cities into “livable” playgrounds for the affluent and, at the same time, the worst kind of gig economy working conditions. The growing tech boom in Pittsburgh—reflected in Uber’s presence—is the fruit of the urban redevelopment efforts of the postwar years and particularly the 1970s and 1980s. This approach to postindustrial renewal has, on its face, been successful in bringing about a new economy. But we should not overlook the irony that even cab drivers are now at risk of replacement by automation. Professional-class Democrats counting on “retraining” to make the Rust Belt working class vanish and drop its grievances would do well to take note, and to heed the lesson of these books: the Rust Belt did not just happen, but was made. Those who live through economic restructuring do not always have the same experiences, or interpret those experiences in ways that are predictable. No one is immune to creative destruction, but we are not helpless before it either.