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Rust Belt Landscapes and Memory

• August 05, 2013 • 8:12 AM

Downtown Port Clinton, Ohio. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

In which Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame romanticizes his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio.

Today’s “save Detroit” is yesterday’s “save the family farm.” The urban sidewalk ballet becomes the new rural idyll. Mr. Social Capital, Robert Putnam (see Bowling Alone), romanticizes Rust Belt Ohio:

Growing up, almost all my classmates lived with two parents in homes their parents owned and in neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone else’s first name. Some dads worked in the local auto-part factories or gypsum mines, while others, like my dad, were small businessmen. In that era of strong unions and full employment, few families experienced joblessness or serious economic insecurity. Very few P.C.H.S. students came from wealthy backgrounds, and those few made every effort to hide that fact.

Half a century later, my classmates, now mostly retired, have experienced astonishing upward mobility. Nearly three-quarters of them surpassed their parents in education and in that way advanced economically as well. One-third of my classmates came from homes with parents who had not completed high school and, of that group, nearly half went to college.

Putnam implies the wealth of social capital in his hometown promoted “astonishing upward mobility.” Now, the crumbling buildings of Port Clinton, Ohio, reflect the crumbling community trust. If only we could time warp back to the “egalitarian ethos and reality of the 1950s.

Detroit crumbles because more and more people bowl alone. All I hear is a 1980s John Mellencamp singing for Farm Aid. First the good small town life dies and then the manufacturing cities of the middle class go. America is dying.

Farm Aid comes from the tradition of the rural as the antidote for the urban:

For most urban-dwelling English people since the industrial revolution the rural countryside has been a symbol of primitive freedom. The most seductive scenes are places where, in D.H. Lawrence’s memorable phrase, ‘the spirit of aboriginal England still lingers’. As a consequence, the word ‘landscape’ is usually taken to be synonymous with the word ‘countryside’. In this view, the countryside is a place that has evolved organically without reference to the people who live and work there. This rural other is contrasted with the more familiar urban – it is the English equivalent of the North American wilderness (an equally imagined construct) that provided, as Simon Schama has said, ‘the antidote for the poisons of industrial society’.

For much of the 20th century, the suburbs have served as the antidote for the poisons of the industrial society in the United States. However, the wilderness remains the refuge of aboriginal America. See the Leatherstocking Tales. The back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s was a final great exodus from distressed cities still charred from the MLK riots of 1968. Mainly educated whites fled urban dysfunction for rural communes where one could find the spirit of Natty Bumppo.

More recently, the city has gone from profane to sacred. The middle-class blue-collar worker is a hero. Joe Magarac replaces Natty Bumppo:

To the old steel mill, Big Joe went down
Joe Magarac.
He said, ‘All you hunkies gather round.’
Big Joe Magarac.
I heard they gonna build a railroad to Frisco and back
From Maine down to Mexico.
And whose gonna make the steel for that track?
Big Joe Magarac.
— The New Christy Minstrels

Those salt-of-the-earth hunkies would send their kids to college, save in Detroit, so the next generation could live the American dream. Not only did the hunkies bowl together in leagues that would have dazzled Alexis de Tocqueville, they cared about all the non-hunkies and made sure they were upwardly mobile, too. Back to Putnam’s folktale:

As we graduated, none of us had any inkling that Port Clinton would change anytime soon. While almost half of us headed off to college, those who stayed in town had reason to expect a steady job (if they were male), marriage and a more comfortable life than their parents’. …

… The manufacturing foundation of Port Clinton’s modest prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s began to tremble in the 1970s. The big Standard Products factory at the east end of town provided nearly 1,000 steady, good-paying blue-collar jobs in the 1950s, but the payroll was more than halved in the 1970s. After two more decades of layoffs and “give backs,” the plant gates on Maple Street finally closed in 1993, leaving a barbed-wire-encircled ruin now graced with Environmental Protection Agency warnings of toxicity. But that was merely the most visible symbol of the town’s economic implosion.

Manufacturing employment in Ottawa County plummeted from 55 percent of all jobs in 1965 to 25 percent in 1995 and kept falling. By 2012 the average worker in Ottawa County had not had a real raise for four decades and, in fact, is now paid roughly 16 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars than his or her grandfather in the early 1970s. The local population fell as P.C.H.S. graduates who could escape increasingly did. Most of the downtown shops of my youth stand empty and derelict, driven out of business by gradually shrinking paychecks and the Walmart on the outskirts of town.

I doubt more social capital would do much to ameliorate the spectacular collapse of manufacturing employment. Those who could get out, did. That migration, not Leave it to Beaver Port Clinton, fuels upward mobility. Everyone who left Port Clinton would not enjoy an abundance of social capital in their new communities. That’s where they learned to deal with people from other cultures, in Chicago.

Once upon a time, Port Clinton, Ohio, attracted workers from all over the country and the world. Outsiders learned to deal with other outsiders. Upward mobility ensued because everyone bowled with strangers.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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