Home, work, and nature in the Rustbelt

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. This book answers a question posed to many people living in hard landscapes: why do you still live here? As is the case with many accounts of crisis and disaster, stories of deindustrialization tend to focus on loss, reaction, and departure. For decades, much scholarly work and public discourse has cited the outmigration of, on average, nearly forty percent of residents of collapsing, industrial communities as exemplars of the American spirit. In a 1985 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, journalist James Fallows suggested, “If there is one widely accepted symbol of today’s changing economy, the 1980s version of the allegorical Joad family hitting the road during the Depression is the proud steelworker who gets laid off in Youngstown.”[1] What better visual of the resilient, blue-collar worker than striking out on the open road in pursuit of new and better economic options anywhere but here? After decades of such localized loss, why do some people ‘make the choice to stick it out’ in post-industrial landscapes?

Like most post-industrial regions in the United States, today, my cases in rural Wisconsin and southeast Chicago–two sites at opposite ends of a long-defunct iron and steel commodity chain–still contain at least one-third of the residents who were present during company closures decades earlier. A generation of residents made themselves a home in regions still characterized by higher-than-average rates of poverty, joblessness, and economic depression than state averages.

In this book, under contract with Columbia University Press, I offer an analysis of how, why, and with what consequences certain people stay in hard places. Drawing on archival records, nearly one hundred interviews, and ethnography in two communities in the American Rustbelt, I show how 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.

See these publications based on this research:

Forthcoming  We Still Live Here: Infrastructures, Identities, and the Power of Place in the American Rust Belt, under contract with Columbia University Press.

2021 “The everyday sociological imagination: Co-creating new knowledge through story and radio,” In Routledge International Handbook on Public Sociology. L. Hossfeld, B. Kelly, and C. Hossfeld (Editors). Routledge: NY.

2020     “Performing transparency, embracing regulations: Corporate framing to mitigate environmental conflicts.” Environmental Sociology, 6:4, 364-374. (with Erik Kojola)

2017    ““We made the choice to stick it out”: Negotiating a stable home in the rural, American Rust Belt.” Journal of Rural Studies, 53.

[1] (Fallows 1985, 57); Certainly, the movement of people in response to economic crisis is an almost-quintessential representation of the ever-expanding “space of flows” characterizing globalization in the long 20th century, as Manuel Castells (1989).