Who we are is where we are: Making home in the American Rustbelt (forthcoming, Columbia University Press)

My current book project offers a sociological conception of place in a world on the move.  Based on dissertation research, this project re-envisions a process typically understood as economic loss—boom and bust in industrial communities in the Midwestern region of the United States—in terms of how ‘left behind’ cultures and structures are maintained, negotiated, and altered by the people who still call these places home.

In this comparative study of two formerly entangled nodes of the midwestern iron and steel commodity chain–rural Iron County, Wisconsin and the urban neighborhood of Southeast Chicago in Illinois–I chase a series of puzzles: why do people stay? how do they stay? what are their hopes for the future? And how do the places they call home shape who they are today? Detailed life stories, close reads of archival documents, and time spent on the ground with residents reveals how foundational industrial companies were in constructing home for their workers and residents. As a result, even decades after these powerful institutions disappeared, the residues of industrial structures still organize the menus of options available to long-term residents. Within these constraints, people still make choices. Across the arc of the book, I show how, whether propelled by internalized values, declared in rebellion to institutional failures, or pursued as the only viable option, individual and collective decisions to stay and work within historical residues transform crisis into possibilities for a better future. People who ‘stick it out’ are far from stuck or peripheral to the onward march of progress.

This book shows how long-term residents represent an important story paralleling the dominant narrative of the emptying of the American Rust Belt. Theirs is a story not only of boom and bust, but of building community and doing politics on a landscape permanently organized around a long-lost industry. It’s a tale not of one great out-migration, but of a multitude of departures, returns, long commutes, and reunions, all born out of the constraints of place-based, economic crisis. This is a story of the complicated relationship between barely scraping by and fiercely defending places categorized by others as ruined, marginalized, or desecrated.