Who Is Responsible? An Interview with Tracy Neumann on “Remaking the Rustbelt” and the Transnational Fortunes of Post-Industrial America and Canada
Pittsburgh, in case you haven’t heard, is on the rise.
But don’t take it from us. The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the United States. Zagat calls it the #1 food city in the United States. Money magazine names it one of the best places to live in the Northeast United States. Travel and Leisure magazine calls it one of the places to visit in the United States. The former steel city located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in western Pennsylvania appeals, it seems, to a wide variety of audiences. The Huffington Post calls it one of several cities that aspiring techies should consider moving to. And startup founders who leave Silicon Valley or New York’s “Silicon Alley” for the more affordable setting of Pittsburgh, and its top research universities, might find themselves moving in next to retirees, as well, as Kiplinger magazine has selected it as a top location to retire. (These, and more of the myriad accolades Pittsburgh has garnered, are exhaustively catalogued by VisitPITTSBURGH, the tourism agency of Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located).
Pittsburgh, in short, seems like an island of prosperity and success in North America’s Rust Belt, a region more commonly associated with economic involution, plant shutdowns, and “ruin porn” than food trucks and hipsters. How did it avert the fate of post-industrial economic decline that blighted many a Youngstown, Ohio, Gary, Indiana, or Elkhart, Indiana? Yet perhaps the better question to ask might be why Pittsburgh embraced a post-industrial future as avidly as it did. After all, many other cities in the Rust Belt, particularly those in neighboring Canada, retained their steel factories far longer than did Pittsburgh, all the while managing a transition to white-collar employment far more successfully than did their southern cousins of Youngstown, Gary, or Elkhart. When one casts their field of vision across the horizons of Lake Erie or Lake Huron to the smokestacks and chimneys of Canada, the trajectory and choices involved in the transition of the Rust Belt from the 1940s to today looks quite different. Such a narrative frame casts into question the narrative of inevitable de-industrialization, and makes clear how post-industrialism was as much as policy choice as it was a historical inevitability.
Such is the intervention of Tracy Neumann, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Wayne State University in Detroit, in her recent book Remaking the Rustbelt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). In the book, Neumann compares and contrasts the trajectory of two North American steel towns, Pittsburgh and Hamilton, Ontario, showing how de-industrialization was as much the result of a set of policy choices embraced by civic elites as it was a historical inevitability. Even before the decade of the 1970s most commonly associated with de-industrialization, policy elites in both Pittsburgh and Hamilton drew on a limited set of post-industrial urban visions as they sought to plot out what a city built more on services, rather than manufacturing—on briefcases than lunch pails—would look like.
Drawing on a number of city, provincial and state, and national archives in the United States and Canada, Neumann shows how in spite of a shared vision of post-industrial flourishing, the very different institutional settings in which Hamilton’s and Pittsburgh’s civic elites operated created a very different set of policy outcomes. Unfettered by federal or state restrictions, Pittsburgh’s corporate leaders and Democratic mayors were able to rapidly transform their city into what they envisioned would be a Mecca for white-collar workers—causing, in the process, immense pain and dislocation for the city’s actual, rather than desired, residents. In Canada, meanwhile, civic leaders in Hamilton aspired to a similarly service industry-oriented future for their city, but remained captive to provincial policies that channeled post-industrial growth toward Toronto. In Neumann’s telling, the global structure of economic change matters—but so, too, do institutions and the menu of policy choices with which elected officials and corporate elites imagine themselves presented.
At a moment when many Americans and Canadians, and other denizens of a North Atlantic Rust Belt are posing the question of whether the move from pig iron to management consulting—or, for many, from stable lifetime employment to a McJob—Neumann’s book comes as a welcome entry into the conversation. More broadly, however, Remaking the Rustbelt provides an example of how Americanists are writing urban history in a transnational and global key. Readers interested in what, exactly, the relationship of post-industrialism to “neoliberalism” in the United States will find much of value in Neumann’s work, but so, too, will scholars studying how processes of global change find their way to the ground across regions through the grinders and gears of policymaking. That makes it a valuable contribution whether the pair of cities one is interested is Pittsburgh and Hamilton, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, or Mumbai and Dubai. The Executive Director of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, Timothy Nunan (TPF), recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tracy Neumann (TN) to discuss Remaking the Rust Belt, some of the arguments of the book, and what she has in store following the June release of her first monograph.…