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How the Rust Belt came to need saving


Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland

By Edward McClelland


344 pages, $27

By Bradshaw Hovey


It is a story Buffalonians have heard and told and retold and most of all lived, along with several generations of their fellow citizens across the greater Great Lakes – in Cleveland and Detroit, Flint and Youngstown, Gary and Lackawanna, Chicago and Pittsburgh. It’s the story of how steel mills and auto plants built great cities populated by a great blue-collar middle class and then, over the course of several decades, how it all came undone.

The whole sweep of that story is here in Edward McClelland’s “Nothin’ But Blue Skies,” from the fabled United Auto Workers sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Mich., in 1936-37, through the post-war era when every teenager in Flint or Lansing or Detroit expected to go to work in the plant and many an established autoworker owned a house and a boat and a cottage on the lake, through the long downward slide of the American auto industry and the unemployment, dislocation and impoverishment that followed, and the divorce, alcoholism, crack wars, violence, mortgage scams, housing abandonment and brownfields that came free with all of that, ending up in the eerie quiet of the new urban prairie.

McClelland presents this tale in a series of vignettes, each one featuring another city, another industry (corn sweetener, you know, is as industrial as steel or cars), and another talking head. Some of them are ordinary folks who worked the assembly line and got caught in the collapse. Others are more well-known, like Flint’s own Michael Moore, or former Cleveland boy-mayor, Dennis Kucinich.

The author describes the work as “an attempt to answer, on a historical scale” the question he asked himself looking at the shuttered Fisher Body plant across the street from his old high school in Lansing: “What happened to the factory?”

Unfortunately, especially for any reader who wants some insight beneath the surface of the all-too-familiar story of deindustrialization, the book contains no answer. McClelland is a writer, and an artful and entertaining one, but not a historian, and the book defines the difference between journalism and scholarship.

Which is not to demean journalism, but journalists watch and talk to people and write it down and quickly spin what they hear into stories that are often less substantial than they appear. There’s some of that here, and the fact that versions of the material appeared previously in a wide range of periodicals (Z, Utne and Salon, among others) accounts for a certain patchwork quality to the narrative. It doesn’t follow either a plot or an argument so much as it traverses a territory, like a travelogue.

If McClelland doesn’t explain in any detail why unionized factory work went away, he provides plenty about what happened because of the factory and because it closed. A whole way of life came and went in “America’s industrial heartland” in the space of three generations and the social and human costs were staggering.

McClelland’s felicity with the written word is evident in his summary of an interview with 90-something sit-down striker Everett Ketchum:

“America went from agrarian society to foundry of the world to postindustrial nation. And Flint went from a small town where building cars was a cottage industry, to the city with the highest per capita income in the United States, to a depopulated slum with the highest murder rate in the nation. How did all this happen, in the span of one man’s years?”

Well, there was company complacency, union militancy, auto industry failures like the Corvair and the Pinto, foreign steel, Toyota and Honda, slowness to modernize, environmental regulation, but ultimately the corporate decision not to let the workers have such a large share of the proceeds. McClelland sprinkles the stories with such interpretation. But you knew all that, didn’t you?

“After a car maker or a steel mill wears out a factory,” McClelland concludes with characteristic flourish, “extracts all the tax breaks a treasury will bear, and accumulates more obligations to its workers than stockholders will bear, it flees town like a deadbeat husband, leaving a worn-out, exploited patch of land no one else will touch.”

For the local reader the most disturbing part of the book may be the chapter entitled “Lackawanna Blues.” It contains an almost charming inventory of plant species growing up among the ruins, but for people who know their city, the details are just a little off. It wasn’t “Lackawanna Steel.” The old Buffalo waterfront wasn’t just “a slum of dilapidated wooden shanties, saloons, and brothels for beached sailors.” There was also a solid Italian community there that fell victim to the insanity of urban renewal. And as hard as times are in Riverside, it’s just not true that the only “remaining businesses are a tattoo parlor, a liquor store, and a deli…”

It seems clear McClelland didn’t stay long enough and didn’t talk to enough people. Surely, there are some who might argue with the notion that Rep. Brian Higgins somehow single-handedly created the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and personally negotiated the Niagara Power Project relicensing agreement to bring $350 million back to his beleaguered hometown. Such discrepancies cast a shadow on every other “fact” in the book. McClelland, however, seems loathe to let any complexities interfere with the speed of a sentence.

More significant, however, might be the selections he makes along the way. Buffalonians will not be happy to see their city represented by the Lackawanna Six nor will they understand just why the story of those unfortunate young Yemenis is relevant to an account of deindustrialization (nor will Chicagoans understand why they are asked to remember politician Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak).

“Nothin’ But Blue Skies” is a pretty good read. But ultimately it’s a story we are tired of hearing. There’s next to nothing about the work of people who are trying to bring these cities back.

There’s no glimmer of the hope that many Buffalonians, and others across the Great Lakes, feel these days. McClelland’s characters are people for whom blue skies were a bad thing. Potential readers are likely not ones nostalgic for the orange glow that rose in the sky when molten steel was poured.

Bradshaw Hovey is a former Courier Express reporter and a planner at the University at Buffalo.