Home, work, and nature in the Rustbelt

In my dissertation, I probe how former workers in two post-industrial communities navigate and narrate the structural and symbolic changes wrought upon their home in the 20th century.  I engage historical records and in-depth interviews to expand our understanding of the ways identity, class, and landscape construct working-class narratives of home.

I draw literatures from community studies, economic sociology, narrative analysis, and environmental history into conversation with each other to ask three questions: 1) What is required, materially and ideologically, for one to remain “at home” in the face of structural change?  2) How do former workers and residents negotiate material and subjective changes in class boundaries?  3) And, how do rural and urban landscapes shape past and future expectations of home?

I consider two nodes on the former Midwestern iron commodity chain: Iron County, Wisconsin and southeast Chicago, Illinois.  19th century, European immigrants labored beneath Iron County in search of its pseudonymous ore; the marshland southeast of Chicago was the first destination for many ore ships.  Iron and steel served as the structural and ideological raison d’etre for these two communities.

When the mines and mills in Iron County, Wisconsin and the southeast side of Chicago closed, between 1960 and 1990, workers faced not only the loss of jobs but the evaporation of industrial identities, economic structures, and spatial linkages that had once defined home. These decades of closure bracket broader, structural transformations of the American working class.  Gone were the days of the post-war, mass of industrial workers rising together towards middle class wealth and security.  Instead, we see more precarious form of work emerging in these decades, characterized by labor ‘flexibility,’ weakening unions, and a “disembedding,” as Polanyi put it, of economic processes from the social worlds that once animated them.

As the 20th century, post-industrial global north experienced the ‘rusting’ of its industrial corridors, scholars turned their analytical attention to the mechanisms and consequences of these processes glossed as globalization.  Economic sociologists studied up, analyzing the global, structural, and institutional shifts responsible for upscaling and off-shoring markets (e.g. Krippner et al. 2004).  Demographers traced upticks in outmigration, population “churning,” and increased deaths following plant closures (Pierce and Schott 2016), while ethnographies, memoirs, and journalistic reports provided snapshots of personal devastation wrought by persistent unemployment, working-class poverty, and neighborhood decline.

Yet, these narratives of globalization do not speak to why and how people call these deindustrialized places home.  In pursuit of conceptualizing post-modernity’s “space of flows” as Castells 1989 put it, scholars of economic change often gloss those former laborers still living in these deindustrialized communities as stuck, left-behind, or otherwise helplessly experiencing the inevitability of capitalism.

It is on these long-term residents that I focus my analytical attention.

If the life of the iron and steel industry constructed the identity, class, and landscape of home, how did its death alter the experience of home within these company communities?

To answer these questions, I draw on nearly 100 interviews, ethnographic observation, and archival research.  I trace commonalities and differences among the lived experiences of former workers and long-term residents impacted by this transformation from an era of social protectionism to one characterized by spatial disconnection, class un-formation, and a reckoning of taken-for-granted, industrial identities.  Yet from a story commonly glossed as declension, I observe creativity and commitment.  I argue that considering the experiences of 20th century rural and urban deindustrialization in context of macro-scale economic history grants us insight into the interwoven processes of economic creativity, cultural resilience, and community identity negotiated by former industrial workers who experienced both boom and bust in their respective communities.

I incorporate public sociology into my research practice.  Listen to my 2017 podcast, broadcast on WJMS Hurley, Wisconsin, here.