Tag Archives: deindustrialization

Lessons from Germany’s Ruhr District, Part 1

Rust Wire correspondent Ivy Hughes recently visited Germany’s Ruhr District, a northwestern part of the country recovering from the loss of jobs in of the steel and coal industry. The district includes 53 cites and more than 5.3 million residents. The region is a 2010 European Capital of Culture, an annul EU designation awarded to a city or region for the purpose of showcasing its cultural development. As such, the municipalities within the Ruhr District worked within a €62.5 million budget to create 300 projects and 2,500 events highlighting its cultural assets and efforts to reconstruct an economy devastated by the demise a prominent industrial sector. This three-part series highlights some of the structural, economic and cultural changes a region similar to the Rust Belt in terms of industrial and economic collapse is making to facilitate economic diversification. Her trip was made possible through the Ecologic Institute and sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office through the Transatlantic Climate Bridge.

Part One: Transforming Industry

Exchanging vows, eating dinner and ice-skating on one of the thousand abandon manufacturing sites in Michigan is an imaginative stretch at best, but it’s an idea and if the Rust Belt needs anything, it’s vision and money.

Michigan has 20,000 abandoned commercial buildings that will remain empty, meet a wrecking ball, or be repurposed for alternative energy, healthcare, film or biotech businesses. Even though some will be repurposed, it’s impractical to suggest emerging industries have the capacity to reinvigorate even one-third of these sites, some of which include millions of acres of contaminated space.

So if industry can’t take it, the wrecking balls are worn out and vacancies red flag potential investors, what else can the state do with the 60,000 square feet to more than 5 million square foot sites?

The state can examine how other regions facing similar challenges have innovated and progressed.

Germany’s Ruhr District is similar to Michigan in that it relied on blue-collar industry for economic stability. In 1960, 670,000 people worked in Ruhr District coalmines. Today, that number sits at about 35,000 but additional job loss is eminent. Three of the remaining six mines are set to close in the next six months, with a final shutdown expected by 2018.

Though Michigan hasn’t been dealing with large-scale job loss for quite as long, the last 10 years have been extremely difficult. According to the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, from 2000 to 2008, the state lost 315,000 manufacturing jobs.

Both regions are reeling from industry specific job loss, but differ greatly in terms of strategic planning, funding sources, government involvement and political cooperation. However, that doesn’t mean Michigan can’t borrow a few things from Germany, specifically as it relates to rehabilitation of abandoned manufacturing sites.

The City of Essen, Germany, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the European Union committed to marrying historical preservation and innovation by turning the Zollverein Coal Mine, a 247-acre site with more than 80-structures, into an extraordinary culture center.

The Zollverein Coal Mine was founded in 1847. When it closed in 1986, the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) governmental entity, bought the property and memorialized one of the shafts, setting the site up for preservation. In 1993, the cooking plant closed and was slated for sale to China. The deal fell through and rather than demolishing the cooking plant, the NRW pegged it as a future exhibition site.

By 2008, the European Union (36 percent), the City of Essen (2 percent), Germany (6 percent) and the NRW (56 percent) invested approximately €165 million to rehabilitate the site.*

Today, the grisly, iconic structures include a restaurant, museum, outdoor ice rink, café, lecture space, lavish art museum, office space, indoor and outdoor space used for performance art, weddings and other cultural events and outdoor recreational areas, many of which were developed on mine-refuse heaps.

The site is a cultural destination attracting more than one million visitors a year and is listed as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Grangerization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

The sheer amount of collaboration involved in preserving such a site is mind boggling, but the way in which developers created cultural cohesion without duplication is striking. Though municipal collaboration in Michigan is improving, it is, at this point, fantastical to believe enough units of government would sideline hubris long enough to plan a project of this magnitude.

The closest thing Michigan has to a manufacturing-site-turned-cultural-center is the old General Motors Centerpoint business campus in Pontiac. Raleigh Michigan Studios purchased the property in 2009 after the state passed ambitious film tax credit legislation. Raleigh Michigan Studios plans to create a 200,000 square foot sound stage for TV and movie production on the site, which is good news for Michigan, but far from a cultural center.

Unlike Germany, Michigan isn’t being tapped to carry the economic weight of failing governments and as such, the financial mechanisms needed for a project like the Zollverein Coal Mine are depressed. The feds are throwing some money at Michigan, but environmental contamination, municipal collaboration and vision quickly derail well-intentioned rehabilitation projects.

In Michigan as in the rest of the states, private sector funding is critical to substantial economic change. While some developers have looked into creating theme parks and/or wetlands on some of Michigan’s abandoned sites, a collision between ideas and the market haven’t occurred.

Though the Zollverein project has brought international attention to Essen, it’s unrealistic to assume a replication of the Zollverein rehabilitation would be economically viable on a similar site in the Ruhr region. The Zollverein has vacant offices spaces and it’s hard to imagine that the massive rooms set aside for cultural events — art, dance, performance — will ever fill, but it’s an idea.

*These are approximations compiled from multiple sources.

-Ivy Hughes

Top photo: Courtesy Zollverein coal mine, other photos by Ivy Hughes.

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Filed under Economic Development, Good Ideas, Green Jobs, Headline, U.S. Auto Industry

Monongahela Dusk: Author Interview


Rust Wire is excited to share our recent interview with author John Hoerr.

Hoerr spent decades working as a labor journalist, covering labor in the era when unions were much larger and organized labor often made big news. His most well-known work is And the Wolf Finally Came, which is an in-depth, yet easy to read chronicle of the decline of the American steel industry in the 1980s, focusing on the Monongahela Valley. (For all you non-Pittsburgh readers, the Mon Valley is where the Monongahela River flows, through Pittsburgh, and a number of smaller towns, such as Rankin, Braddock, Duquesne, Hoerr’s hometown of McKeesport, West Mifflin, Clairton, Donora, and Monessen. Each of these towns had a steel mill, most of them have long since closed.)

And the Wolf Finally Came is a must-read for anyone interested in deindustrialization and the decline of our country’s manufacturing sector, particularly steel. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called Hoerr “a leading chronicler of the demise of industrial America.” A mighty tough job, if I do say so myself.

Here’s a brief synopsis of his upcoming book, Monongahela Dusk, courtesy of the publisher. Unlike his first three books, it will be a work of fiction.

Monongahela Dusk is a historical novel of the1930s and 1940s set in McKeesport, one of the largest of the legendary steel-producing towns of the Monongahela Valley. In 1937, as labor turmoil sweeps across western Pennsylvania, traveling beer salesman Pete Bonner picks up hitchhiker Joe Miravich, a blacklisted coal miner running from the law. The two overhear a plot to kill a national union leader in Pittsburgh and warn the intended victim only to become targets of the man who ordered the assassination, a mysterious industrialist who conspires with racketeers to control mill-town politics.

Over the next dozen years Bonner becomes a prosperous businessman. Miravich rises to union president in the local steel mill, where management and labor struggle over divisive issues. The two men form an unlikely alliance to defend themselves against sporadic attacks by political enemies. As the town moves from Depression to postwar prosperity, their lives are depicted in work and family scenes of middle-and-working-class life, exposing deep racial and class divisions. A violent showdown in McKeesport reveals the exploitative nature of the economic and political powers that would, forty years later, turn the mill towns of the Monongahela Valley into blighted relics of the industrial era.”

I can’t wait to read it.

Rust Wire: Why did you decide to write a novel about the Mon Valley in the 1930s and 1940s?

John Hoerr: “I really didn’t start out to be a journalist, I wanted to be a fiction writer from the beginning. For most of my career I wrote stories, almost none of which were published after my college years…

The second thing is that after I finished Wolf [And The Wolf Finally Came] I felt a sense of incompleteness. I had set down technically all the facts I knew – and it is 626 pages of facts, I just went back and looked at the pages – and I still felt I really hadn’t explained what had happened to the mills and the towns in the Mon Valley or anywhere.

I couldn’t point to one person or one organization, or one corporation, or one union, one union leader, one corporate figure like Henry Frick or Andrew Carnegie, I couldn’t point to one villain who was responsible for the social, economic, and political catastrophe.

So when I finished Wolf, I had this sense of incompleteness. I also had a sense of wanting desperately to write a description about my upbringing, not my life as such, but things I saw as a kid and as a young man, throughout the Mon Valley.  When I was a kid, I traveled up and down the Valley, worked briefly in a U.S. Steel mill, -the National Tube plant in McKeesport – had other kinds of jobs in McKeesport, and knew the town pretty well. I never had a chance to write published descriptions [of that.] …

So, I put those two things together, that is, creating a story about people in the Mon Valley that in the end would, metaphorically anyway, try to give my explanation of what happened in the Valley. Not in its actual terms, but I think, metaphorically. The novel is not a coming of age novel. It is not about me. It is about the generation previous to mine, my father’s generation.

I put people together in situations that for me, tells a story about what might have happened, leading up to what, in fact, did happen 40 years later. Now, the story is confined to the 1930s and 1940s and it ends about 1950. It comes nowhere near in time to the 1980s shut down of the mills, but it sort of indicates what might happen in the future because of what has happened in the 30s and 40s.”

RW: How much of this book was influenced by your work as a reporter and by what you learned and saw as a reporter?

JH: “I would say it is greatly influenced by that. As I said, I knew the valley before I ever became a reporter, but nowhere near on such intimate terms as after I became a reporter, because for many years, I covered the Mon Valley as a reporter. Even when I was working out of New York, I returned to the Mon Valley and talked to people, especially, local union people I knew up and down the valley in the all of the mills. Without being a reporter, I never would have had that experience….

That’s what my life experience is and I used that as much as I could, because I talked to real people.”

RW: How does your new book relate generally to the decline of manufacturing in this country?

JH: “The book doesn’t attempt to be in any way, a text book, it is a novel, a fictional story. But most fictional stories, if they have anything to do with real people, and real situations – especially economic situations, political situations – most stories have something to say about the time in which they were written, the culture, the politics…

I show what happens in a fictional situation in a particular fictional steel mill in a community in the 30s and 40s. Those who wish, could project that forward to other towns and other industries, other plants, and get a sense of what might have happened.

By the way, my novel is in a town named McKeepsport, my hometown, but there are many fictional organizations of people in it, which I describe in a forward statement. I don’t use the name National Tube to refer to the mill, I have a fictional name because the stories that are set inside the mill are all fictional, and I wouldn’t  want it thought that I was trying to describe any factual current that I knew about. The same with the town…to the degree that I used political figures I used fictional political figures, and so forth.”

RW: Does your book address at all what could have been done in the 1930s and 40s, or even in the 1980s both by steel companies and unions in the US to have a better outcome and avoided the widespread mill shutdowns?

JH: “Only in an indirect way, and probably not for a lot of fiction readers. To some in industry and the labor movement, it might indicate what corporations and unions might have done, although I don’t set out to say so specifically. But the nature of the story I tell might indicate how they could have reacted. …“

RW: I had been planning on asking you if any parts of this story were autobiographical, that is, based on your own life and experiences, but you already said that isn’t the case.

JH: “In 1937, when it starts, I was a little kid. I appear in two scenes, one as an 8 –year-old, one as a 14-year-old, and I’m hardly shown as someone who made things happen. I’m hardly in this book at all, except to make fun of myself.”

RW: Let’s talk a little bit more about the differences between writing non-fiction and fiction.

JH: “…Journalism might have [impacted] the fiction writing too much, in that I put too many facts in. In journalism of course, that’s all you want to do is put the facts in…But friends commented on that, that my manuscript was saturated with facts. …I had to work assiduously to rid the fiction of facts. It sounds like a crazy comment, but it’s true, I did.”

RW: Do you have any other future projects or fiction you are working on now that you can share with us?

JH: “I wish I did, but not at the moment, my wife and I are contemplating getting ready to move. We recently sold our home here in New Jersey and we are going to move to Massachusetts where we have two sons, to be with family. We want to be up in that area.”

Monongahela Dusk will be published Aug. 15, but before that people can get a 25 percent discount by writing to the publisher, Autumn House Press, 87 1/2 Westwood Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15211. You must  apply before Aug. 1 for the discount.
Hoerr is scheduled to read selections from the book Aug. 29 at the Pump House, 880 East Waterfront Drive, Munhall, PA, which is run by the Battle of Homestead Foundation.


And for all you other McKeesport natives out there, Hoerr recomends the blog/ news site Tube City Almanac. Check it out!



Filed under Book review

Dismantling Factories

Check out this video and story by one of my favorite Detroit News writers, Charlie LeDuff.

He visited what was left of the Automotive Components Holdings plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., which made parts for Visteon and Ford.

LeDuff writes, “You can now watch the liquidation of the American Dream in real time.”

He continues, “Any given week, the guts of a whole factory are auctioned off. Its contents are sold piece by piece and taken away for scrap or antiques or resale to foreign companies. Men with blowtorches and trucks haul off tool-and-die machines, aluminum siding, hoists, drinking fountains, salt and pepper shakers, anything that might be of some value. It is the removal of the country’s mechanical heart right before your eyes. It is breathtaking.”

Listen to what one of the people dismantling the place says in the accompanying video, “This was a place for good or bad, it just pumped paychecks out. There was 80 years of paychecks here. There was 80 years of people driving in, and driving home and paying the mortgage and it’s done.”

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