Chicago journalist McClelland (Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President, 2010, etc.) examines the decline of urban industrial centers in the Midwestern United States and portions of the Great Lakes region.
A native of Lansing, Mich., one of those declining centers, the author presents impressively reported case studies and anecdotes from such cities as Detroit, Flint, Buffalo, Cleveland and Chicago, among others. The closing of factories—those that manufacture automobiles have been the most common—is no secret. Nor is the decline of labor unions, the desperation of the unemployed, the accompanying crime, racial tensions, environmental degradation and the moving of jobs to Mexico and overseas. But McClelland helps to make the old feel new by drawing on a combination of personal contacts, extensive interviewing and acute observation based on showing up and hanging out. Little-known details emerge throughout. How many readers already knew, for example, that Buffalo is the locale of perhaps the first Muslim settlement in the United States? Those Muslims, mostly from the nation of Yemen at first, arrived to take advantage of the attractive jobs in the since-shuttered steel mills. Everywhere throughout the industrialized cities, immigrant tribes gathered to forge steel in the mills and accept other demanding positions in factories, positions numerous American citizens were unwilling to take. But the Rust Belt grew rustier and rustier, as an appellation that formerly denoted pride came to signify poverty and unemployment. Rebirth in some sections of a few of the down-and-out cities seems possible, but mostly, hopelessness is ascendant and elected politicians and their financial supporters show little initiative in assisting the unemployed or underemployed.
Though McClelland offers few solutions for industrialized urban centers, his book is admirably long on explanation and empathy.