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Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America

Author(s):Neumann, Tracy
Reviewer(s):Meyer, David R.

Published by EH.Net (September 2016)

Tracy Neumann, Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. v + 270 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8122-4827-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David R. Meyer, Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis.

Western Europe, especially Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom, and the Great Lakes region of the United States comprised the North Atlantic rust belt based on heavy industry and its signature sector of iron and steel production. This belt rose to world dominance in the late-nineteenth century. The iron and steel sector reached its peak output, at least in the case of the U.S., in the mid-1960s and commenced a precipitous decline in the late 1970s under competition from developing countries in Asia. Tracy Neumann’s Remaking the Rust Belt (a contribution to the series, American Business, Politics, and Society) focuses on the Great Lakes portion and specifically on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Hamilton, Ontario.

Both metropolitan areas struggled with rapid loss of their signature industry and related heavy industrial sectors of metal fabricating and machinery beginning in the 1970s. At the same time, their central cities had been dealing with the impact of suburbanization and consequent loss of population, especially the middle class, for over two decades previously. The subtitle’s evocation of “postindustrial transformation” signifies the decline of manufacturing and the shift to a service economy or phrased alternatively as the shift from blue collar to white collar jobs or from production to an information/knowledge economy.

The book is organized into an introduction, six analytical chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction sets out the intellectual debate about the meaning of postindustrial. Neumann takes the stance that this debate ultimately rests on ideology and values. While intellectuals framed the debate, the most important consequence for Pittsburgh and Hamilton was that the business elite/civic leaders, politicians, and policy makers executed strategies to transform their cities into what they viewed as postindustrial societies. Chapter 1 traces the roots of postindustrialism to the public/private partnerships of the 1950s and 1960s and the development by the 1970s of a national policy mindset of decentralization of decision making and privatization as means to address the problems of the cities. The emergence of growth partnerships in the 1970s is covered in chapter 2. In Pittsburgh the corporate elite forged new relations with city government compared to prior efforts, whereas in Hamilton, the city officials faced difficulty getting business people to engage with public efforts at revitalization. Chapter 3 argues that the growth coalitions’ execution of their strategy of postindustrial transformation to a service economy was not effectively blocked by critics during the 1980s.

The next chapter covers the emergent geography of downtowns during the 1980s and early 1990s based on corporate headquarters, convention centers, hotels, cultural and entertainment districts, and sports stadiums. These activities received subsidies such as tax breaks and infrastructure, thus redistributing resources from the majority of the population to a favored business elite. Chapter 5 discusses the restructuring of old industrial spaces after the 1970s into sites for new economic activity. While neighborhood groups had some say in the revitalization efforts, ultimately city officials and civic leaders controlled most of the decisions. Marketing the postindustrial transformation of Pittsburgh and Hamilton is covered in chapter 6. The epilogue, asks the question, “cities for whom”? The answer is that blue collar workers and the lower class were left behind as most efforts, including direct subsidies, were devoted to the new service economy workers and their firms.

This well-written book moves in an organized, logical progression through the topics, covering the 1970-1990 period each time from a different angle. Neumann makes extensive use of original sources, including agency archives, government documents, newspapers, and interviews, to create a richly textured interpretation of the postindustrial transformation of Pittsburgh and Hamilton. By choosing these two cities, Neumann is able to contrast divergent political economies. Pittsburgh had access to somewhat more state and federal governmental programs than Hamilton did from the provincial and federal levels, although ultimately both countries devolved much of the postindustrial transformation to the local level which had to fund them through subsidies. Growth coalitions were more structured and effective in implementing programs in Pittsburgh than in Hamilton, but, again, the results were broadly similar. Both cities transformed to the new service economy and left their blue collar and lower income populations to fend for themselves.

The choice of Pittsburgh allows Neumann to draw on a substantial body of prior research which documents and interprets its restructuring and revitalization efforts from the late-1940s to the 1960s, as well as other studies covering subsequent changes. Hamilton, in contrast, does not have the rich base of research background. Pittsburgh has become famous in the academic and popular literature as the epitome of the transformation of an old, heavy industrial city into the new service economy. From that standpoint, therefore, Neumann’s core point of the transformation is not new. Instead, she provides the key details about the underlying political and business dealings which helped drive that process of change. She misses an opportunity to provide trend evidence in several tables and graphs covering the social, economic, and demographic characteristics of both cities’ populations during the 1950-1990 period. This would have precisely documented the long-term transformation to the new service economy and the stress on the blue collar and lower income populations.

Neumann’s study raises intriguing questions for further research. A comparative study of how other old U.S. industrial cities have fared in the postindustrial transformation to the new service economy would provide insight into why some cities successfully made the transformation whereas others either lagged or failed. Thus, Buffalo’s and Cleveland’s, perhaps, laggard efforts, and Detroit’s seemingly failed attempts, would supply ideas about the conditions for transformation. St. Louis has made strides since 2000 in shifting to the new service economy; why did it lag and what galvanized these recent changes? If Neumann had extended her study to the 1990-2010 period, this would have provided evidence on how Pittsburgh and Hamilton currently fare in the postindustrial economy. Still, this study contributes to the ongoing debate about the transformation to a postindustrial society.

David R. Meyer is the author of The Roots of American Industrialization (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), and Networked Machinists: High-Technology Industries in Antebellum America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). Recent publications focus on financial centers and financiers’ networks in Asia, including “The World Cities of Hong Kong and Singapore: Network Hubs of Global Finance,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology (2015) and (with George Guernsey) “Hong Kong and Singapore Exchanges Confront High Frequency Trading,” Asia Pacific Business Review (2016).

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII