Changing American Landscapes

Try traveling across the United States. Just go, with your eyes wide open, and see for yourself whether it is the ultimate measure of prosperity and stability. It is, after all, the richest country on Earth. Or, at least, so we used to say.

But, in reality, traveling across the United States today evokes a sense of great transformation. And curiously, for me, it evokes a similar, or even greater, sense of transformation (and a sense of deeper poverty) than what I experience when traveling across the Czech Republic, a country where I have spent a part of every year since 1993.

Why should this be? There has not, after all, been a changeover from a communist, command economy to a free market one in the United States, as there has in the countries of the former East Block such as the Czech Republic. And yet, as is obvious to me from periodic trips back to the Midwest and East, a significant and profound change has occurred and is occurring that goes well beyond the change due to population growth that we typically see in the western United States.

In the former industrial heartland – which used to stretch from central New York State across parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, and ended in eastern Illinois and Wisconsin — this change in landscape has been far more profound than that experienced by the main industrial regions of the Czech Republic since they transitioned from a communist system (there, generally, industry has been modernized as opposed to being abandoned). Much attention has been given in the press to the “death of Detroit” — how a once important world city lost its industry and now lies in ruins. But what has happened to Detroit has happened to almost the whole of the American “industrial heartland” (now called the “rust belt”) in the course of the last thirty or forty years.

Arguably, even more havoc has been wreaked on many of the smaller industrial cities of the region. Detroit, at least, still has some manufacturing – indeed, the corporate headquarters of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors remain in the Detroit metropolitan area. This is not the case for a city such as Youngstown, Ohio.

In 1960, when Youngstown was still known as “Steel Town, U.S.A.”, the city had 167,000 residents. Some 35 years ago the steel mills closed and the city now only has 65,000 residents. Truly, since I started visiting the city regularly in 1985 (it is my wife’s hometown), it often seems as though the main economic activity there is fruitless talk of economic revival as city officials, businessmen and the city’s daily newspaper latch onto first one and then another possibility for reviving the city’s fortunes.

Although the city’s most prominent landmarks are the abandoned steel mills, I have never seen anything more evocative of the city’s decline than when I was once walking through the city’s north side and saw an old plaque commemorating the dozen or so men from the “Smoky Hollow” neighborhood who had died fighting in World War II. But the neighborhood whose war dead the sign commemorated no longer existed – instead there were only vacant lots and four remaining houses, all dilapidated. And such is the condition of many of the city’s neighborhoods: a few surviving houses and many grassy fields where there once stood the bungalows which were a symbol of success and financial stability for the Italian, Polish, Slovak, African-American, Irish and Puerto Rican workers who worked in the factories. The city sometimes looks almost rural, which no doubt helps to explain why the city government’s largest budgetary expense is managing these vacated areas – tearing down the abandoned houses, mowing the grass on the vacant lots, etc.

A more recent visit reveals a further evolution — or devolution — of the city: the rise of agriculture on those vacant lots in the middle of the city. This phenomenon of urban agriculture, which I first heard of in connection with Detroit, should not be confused with the European practice of allotment gardens (which have never had any presence in the USA), i.e., areas carefully set aside on the outskirts of a city, under formal administration, for gardeners and enthusiasts to grow food. This, rather, presents an almost post-apocalyptic sight, for these gardens are spontaneously arising from the ruins of what were once some of America’s most intensely urban areas and are not led by gardening enthusiasts (though some might be involved) but by the remaining residents of these neighborhoods, attempting to generate some economic activity after decades of decline.

But despite the hope these gardens might offer some of its residents and an occasional bright spot in the city’s economy (such as the converting of some of the art-deco buildings downtown into condominiums and apartments, thereby drawing some young professionals from the suburbs looking for a more urban lifestyle, as well as students and staff from the nearby university), the decline continues. In fact, population loss in Youngstown, as in seven out of eight of Ohio’s largest cities, is actually accelerating percentage-wise.

As depopulated as Youngstown is, a journey across the rural parts of central Ohio and Indiana in the direction of Chicago gives one much the same feeling of an area that is strangely devoid of people. In this case, however, it is not due to the decline but the “success” of an economic sector — that is, the increasingly centralized and corporate agricultural system means that fewer and fewer people live and work in the countryside. The remaining farmhouses and barns that dot this landscape were mostly built in the first half of the twentieth century, when there were nearly 7 million farms in the country. Now there are only 2.2 million farms – of which a mere 187,816 account for 63% of sales of agricultural products – and so many of the houses and buildings that once served as the center of the classical “family farm” have either disappeared or are used to house transient farm laborers.

This landscape is not, however, as empty as it may seem. If one looks carefully, one can periodically see, well off the road, large buildings and complexes of buildings. It is difficult to make out what they are since they are often obscured by fences or dirt embankments and there are no signs on the main roadways to indicate what they are or who owns them. Indeed, they lend the landscape a sinister and ominous quality. This was in no way helped by the realization that these are some of the factory farms, slaughterhouses and rendering plants that produce the meat (and egg and dairy products) which raise, slaughter, and process the carcasses and parts of a terribly large number of animals (e.g., fully 9 billion chickens are slaughtered every year in the United States), and make it possible for Americans to consume an extraordinary 120 kilos of meat per person per year (the average Czech, by comparison, consumes around 80 kilos per year).

Locals, however, know well what these plants are for since many of them work in them. Indeed, when we were in a supermarket in the small city of Logansport, Indiana, we got to talking with a sixty year old man who started complaining to us at length about the injuries he’d received working in a plant that processed the carcasses of slaughtered animals. This glimpse into the hidden world of the meat industry was complimented by a glimpse into another — not so hidden — aspect of rural life in America: while he talked, I couldn’t help noticing the extraordinary number of obese people coming and going from the supermarket.

It is true that I rarely spend time in rural areas of the Midwest (e.g., I was in Logansport only to visit the small graveyard where my father’s side of the family is buried). But that what I’d noticed there wasn’t necessarily atypical was brought to mind recently when I read the following account in the The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which was the National Book Award winner for 2013, of the realization of Dean Price, a struggling entrepreneur, that the rural economy in his home state of North Carolina was in crisis:

Some nights he sat up late on his front porch … and listened to the trucks heading south on Highway 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses—always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking—chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk—and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles’ up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens.

Chicago would seem to tell a happier story. Indeed, the part of the city I know best, the southern part of downtown where I lived for several years in the early 1980s, has undergone a transformation that rivals that which has occurred in Prague’s city center over the past 25 years. And, as with Prague, the change seems to reflect a dramatic increase in prosperity – so great, in fact, that the area has never in its history looked so prosperous, and certainly never so spic and span clean, whitewashed and renovated. Even in its heyday in the first half of the 20th century the South Loop (the name of Chicago’s downtown comes from the elevated train that “loops” around it) had a gritty quality to it, being in fair part composed of warehouse-type buildings that housed wholesalers and the city’s large printing presses, while the southern portion of State Street was lined with large department stores, though not at all as luxurious as the department stores that were on the famous North State Street. Only the southern end of Michigan Avenue – which featured some large and elegant hotels looking onto Lake Michigan – was considered to be upscale.

By the time I arrived in 1979, the warehouses and buildings that housed the printing presses had been mostly deserted as the wholesale and print trades underwent change and moved their operations elsewhere; the large department stores on south State Street were struggling and, indeed, by the time I moved away from Chicago in 1992 were all closed; and the grand and elegant Michigan Avenue hotels had faded enough so that I was able to live in one of them for a modest $400 a month in 1985 ($850 in today’s dollars). But a visit this summer showed that the large warehouses had been completely renovated and rebuilt to hold condominiums, making a significant portion of the South Loop an upscale neighborhood while the elegant hotels on Michigan Avenue had been restored to their former splendor and prices — the Blackstone Hotel, where I’d lived in 1985, now costs $250 a night for the cheapest room.

And yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that it all had a Potemkin village quality to it. I was, for example, well aware of the fact that the residents of the city’s south and west sides have started to say that they live in “Chiraq” (“Chicago” + “Iraq”), because the violence is so bad in those parts of the city that it is like living in a war zone (e.g., ten people were shot dead and 55 wounded over July 4th weekend this year, and fourteen were killed in the same weekend last year). In addition, the city had been in the news for announcing the closure of 47 schools – the single largest closure of public schools in the nation’s history.

Indeed, closer inspection even raised some questions about the South Loop’s seeming prosperity. I noticed that there were gaps in what had been in my time the monolith of buildings that lined State Street and Wabash Avenue (the street between State and Michigan, once heavily retail but featuring smaller, more specialized stores). These lots, now empty of the buildings that once filled them, had been converted into surface parking lots or even, rather incongruously, little parks with grass, trees and benches to sit in. The implication was obvious: the buildings that once stood here could not find enough renters to make a profit, and so the buildings were torn down. And then there is the fact that a high proportion of the current buildings, including two of the block-sized buildings once inhabited by the South State Street department stores, have been taken over by universities and the newer, high-rise buildings in that part of town turn out to be college dormitories.

Roosevelt University's new dormitory in downtown Chicago
Roosevelt University’s new dormitory in downtown Chicago

In other words, the South Loop could now be accurately characterized as a campus town and upscale residential area, much like what they’re trying to turn downtown Tucson into. But this means that this area, once an economic powerhouse of the wholesale and retail trade is now grounded in the boom and bust cycles of real estate and student loans.

It would be nice to think, of course, that in all of these cases the real prosperity and/or core economic activity has simply gone elsewhere in the country. That for every Youngstown one could point to a city such as Santa Clara in California, which in 1950 was a farming town with a population of 12,000 but is now wealthy city of 117,000 people in the heart of Silicon Valley. But, sadly, there is no quid pro quo here – Silicon Valley is far smaller in terms of population and geographical size than the old industrial zone. And while one could point to similar growth in the Tucson area, going from 50,000 residents to nearly a million now, few would claim that it is riding a wave of prosperity as it is the sixth poorest large city in the country and shares, with many other cities in the western United States, a low-wage economy.

My observations of decline, despair and an often contrived prosperity across broad swaths of America are hardly unique: singers such as Bruce Springsteen (in his song, “Youngstown”) and Billy Joel (“Allentown”, about another dead steel town, this one in Pennsylvania) have sung about the rust belt while Willie Nelson and John Cougar Mellencamp have not only sung about the decline of rural life but have held a festival every year (FarmAid) to help save the family farm.

And it is the theme of books too numerous to mention, including the work that I quoted earlier, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. The book’s author, George Packer, makes this clear in his preface: “If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding [i.e., “when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip … gave way”]. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools.”

Sadly, his observation that the only clear-cut winners in this unwinding are Wall Street and Silicon Valley seems, from my experiences as well, to be all too true.



Picture of abandoned building in Youngstown, Ohio by Chris Bentley, Creative Commons License

Picture of Roosevelt University dormitory by Ian Freimuth, Creative Commons License

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