Two Must-Reads on the Death of the Middle Class in the Heartland

5.23.13 | Edward McClelland’s new book, “Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland,” may well be the story of regional resilience writ large, tracing the Midwest’s industrial rise and fall and, perhaps, its future. Coupled with “Detroit: An American Autopsy,” the sobering, riveting tale of Detroit’s fall by reporter Charlie LeDuff, the two are not an easy read if you grew up in this part of the world and remember when.

McClelland’s story is wide-reaching, ranging from Cleveland to western Pennsylvania, to Syracuse (where Carrier Air-Conditioning decamped for southern climes and eventually Singapore) to Decatur, Illinois (which in 1994 faced a labor strike against Firestone, Caterpillar and  A.E. Staley) to Detroit and Flint, and finally Chicago, which managed to diversify and dodge the decline.

McClelland’s story starts, writes Richard C. Longworth in a review, with a question: how did the fall happen so fast, and why did the middle class disappear? He seeks an answer through the lives of people who lived it. Longworth writes:

He tells the story of Everett Ketchum, who took part in the epochal sit-down strike at GM in Flint in 1936-37, went on to earn $27 an hour as a tool-and-die maker in the ‘70s, spent 39 years at the plant and now, in his old age, lives comfortably on the good pension and health care benefits that GM no longer gives its younger workers.

McClelland writes:

 “Everett went from northern Michigan farm boy to autoworker to prosperous pensioner. America went from agrarian society to foundry of the world to postindustrial nation. And Flint went from…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?”

McClelland has other questions, too. He notes that America’s great invention “was not the airplane, or the atomic bomb, or the lunar lander. It was the middle class.” His book is filled with people who used to be middle class, but are no longer. So, he says, “we have to ask, was the American middle class just a moment?”

Given the growing poverty in the suburbs, as Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube recently write about, and the increasingly barbell-shaped economy that David Autor has documented, one does wonder if the middle class was just a moment.

LeDuff chronicles this disappearance as well, but with a colder eye. While there have been many boosters for Detroit (artists moving back and reclaiming neighborhoods, communal gardens taking root, and so on), LeDuff is not one of them. His book is film noir.

LeDuff, who grew up in Detroit during its heyday, returns to chronicle its decay as a reporter for the Detroit News. And decay it has. From the dead body frozen in a block of ice in an elevator shaft of an abandoned building with only his feet sticking out, whose demise didn’t even rate a police report, to the constant arson which eventually takes a firefighter’s life, to the decay of corruption and vice culminating in the lewd offer by City Council President Monica Conyers in a dive bar midafternoon—LeDuff gets it all.

The dead man in the block of ice, it would turn out, was Otis Redding’s second cousin, Johnnie Redding. And his unceremonious end, and the utter indifference of a city to the story, LeDuff writes, is the story itself. “The way the members of a society die is a reflection of the way society lives,” he quotes the Wayne County medical examiner. And fittingly in a city with at least 19,000 homeless people, “To begin at the end, Johnnie Redding’s body had not even been put in its grave before another man moved into his house.”

Also fitting for a city on the slide, Monica Conyers, who offered sex for LeDuff’s silence, would later be convicted of conspiracy to commit bribery. “The citizens were stuck paying the tab for her court-appointed lawyer,” writes LeDuff.

Such is life in what was once the capital of the good life.

Detroit is of course the ultimate symbol of all that has been lost in the industrial heartland, but while extreme, its fallout is nonetheless a reality for a generation of workers and their families.

Today a drive through the region is a far cry today from the scene that Chicago writer Nelson Algren describes in 1951 on his way around the bend of Lake Michigan north: “Above the half-muffled beat of the monstrous forges between Gary and East Chicago, the ceaseless signal fires of the great refineries wave an all-night alarm.”

Today those refineries are shuttered, and the land where U.S. Steele once stood is vacant.

But it is in Chicago, whose economy is diversified and whose population increasingly more educated, where the resilience lies—and, McCelland writes, with it the future of the Midwest. But it comes with a cost. As Longworth quotes him:

“There can be only one Midwestern metropolis. Chicago’s success is not only inimitable, it comes at the expense of every other city in the region,” inhaling not only the region’s energy and industry but its best young people.

“It’s another consequence of globalization, the same force destroying the middle class in Decatur,” he says. “Just as money and education have become concentrated among fewer people, they’ve become concentrated among fewer cities, too.”

In an apt postscript, today, on the site of U.S. Steele just north of Gary and 10 miles south of Chicago’s Loop, are the outlines of a soon-to-be built modern city, Chicago Lakeside. When finished, the site will be home to 13,000 new single-family homes, 17 million square feet of retail on 500 acres.

And the beat goes on.

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