High, Steven. Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt, 1969-1984. Toronto; University of Toronto Press, 2003.
There are varying definitions of what constitutes the Rust Belt. Some descriptions include mainly the Great Lakes region, while others include more of the mid-Atlantic states with cities such as Utica, Trenton, and Baltimore. Either way, Ohio is firmly a part of the Rust Belt, though Cincinnati and Columbus may or may not make the cut. (Cincinnati is sometimes too South and not automobile-and-steel-manufacturing centric enough, and Columbus is often included with the Sun Belt cities, perhaps because it is the least unsuccessful city in Ohio.)
I like to think of the Rust Belt as cities that grew up around mass production (usually closely tied to the automobile) at the turn of last century. The life of these factories, without new investment, lasted until approximately the economic downturn of the late 1970s. Other common attributes include decrepit cities surrounded by aging suburbs, extreme racial segregation, and dramatic population loss over the last 50 years. (Basically, one would recognize the Rust Belt if one saw it.)
Stephen High’s Industrial Sunset is not a history of the Rust Belt. Rather, it is a study of the forces that converged to make the Rust Belt, beginning with the removal of large-scale manufacturing. Industrial Sunset looks at the moment the factory closed down from different angles – those of the workers, the communities, the industries, and the politicians. Interestingly, High also provides a running comparison of how things played out in the United States versus industrial Canada – or the “Golden Horseshoe” of southern Ontario.
The final two chapters focus on how the community and greater society reacted to decline. Up until this point, the comparisons between Canada and the United States did not diverge greatly. In Canada, those opposed to the closing of factories were much more successful at building consensus, to bring differing interests together to develop marginal legislation in regulating how plants shut down and compensation given to former workers.
In the United States, however, it was trickier to bring regional or national interests together, as cities and states were generally competing with each other for manufacturing jobs. Here the author discusses two events in Ohio – the (falsely) rumored relocation of Dayton’s Frigidaire operations in 1971 and post-closing local activism in Youngstown. The Frigidaire rumors eventually were able to draw enough concerns in the community to extract concessions from the union. High notes that this became a general modus operandi for future labor disputes. The Youngstown story is of local activists attempting to re-open Campbell Steel Works as a community owned industry. Though the city received much attention regarding this plan in national media, there was very little support from the international unions, state and federal government, and even local politicians.
The chapter that stands out thematically from the rest is “Back to the Garden,” which focuses on postwar factory design. High looks at articles from the trade journals and advertisements of the 1950s, which emphasized the more efficient, one-story factory that usually was built on newly developed land away from the cities and unions (in the United States). This was the general trend of postwar manufacturing expansion. What starts out as architectural overview quickly turns into a geographic explanation of how the Rust Belt developed. In terms of the lasting mark on the social image of a region and an era, the turn of the century multi-story factory is the iconic image of the dirty, old Rust Belt city, the main ingredient in ruin porn and the basis of many loft apartment redevelopment plans.
With its narrow academic focus, I wouldn’t consider Industrial Sunset the definitive book on the Rust Belt, but it is a book I would recommend for those interested in understanding the region, and that current hard times are a direct result of the exodus of industrial jobs. I would place Industrial Sunset as a much broader Steeltown, USA, which focused on Youngstown during and after the steel industry decline of the late 1970s and early 1980s. As with the Youngstown narrative, there is an emphasis on oral histories and media studies of the time that blend cultural history with economics. High’s biggest achievement is having a large net, which captures and synthesizes the experience of a steel worker in Hamilton, Ontario, with the tire manufacturer in Akron. In doing so, he tells the Rust Belt creation story and allows others to tell the aftermath.
A version of this review originally appeared in the Ohio Book Review.