SPARROWS POINT: Making Steel--the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might by Mark Reutter
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SPARROWS POINT: Making Steel--the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might

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An elegaic analysis of the American steel industry's melancholic fate as exemplified by the lusty life and lingering death of a single mill town. A former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Reutter provides a start-to-present history of Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant. Located on Chesapeake Bay, the works was launched in 1887. Its tidewater location afforded significant savings on ore-shipping costs, and, by 1957, the site had become the world's largest steel complex. Since then, though, Sparrows Point has endured increasingly hard times. With the nail, pipe, and wire mills long since shuttered, output is less than half the peak reached three decades ago, while the employment census has dropped from a high of 28,600 to fewer than 10,000. When running at full blast during its heyday, Sparrows Point produced record tonnages of trunk-line rails, ocean-liner hulls, tinplate for cans, bridge spans, war material, and a wealth of other goods that made the facility a monument to US manufacturing might. The works also encompassed a sociologically intriguing company town whose alphabetized streets signaled residents' place in the rigidly structured corporate hierarchy. Like John Hoerr in And the Wolf Finally Came (p. 953), Reutter probes the reasons for steel's latter-day collapse. Contentious labor relations, the emergence of cost-effective alternatives (aluminum, plastics, et al.), environmental woes, transnational economic forces, and political developments have all played major roles in the industry's eclipse, the author concedes. He argues convincingly, however, that managerial myopia has been the most important factor in the disastrous decline. Beginning with the Wood brothers (the builders of Sparrows Point) and Charles Schwab (who acquired it for Bethlehem in 1916), Reutter contends, handsomely compensated corporate executives have operated on the commercial equivalent of a divine-right basis. Even in today's deteriorating milieu, he points out, they prefer protectionism to sustained investment in technological advances, and price hikes continue to be the normative response to slumps in demand. In light of domestic steel's still flagging fortunes, it's difficult to gainsay the validity of his conclusion. While Reutter's audit is less personalized than that of Hoerr (who grew up in McKeesport, Pa., during the 1940's), it achieves equal impact from the focus on a single installation. There's little to choose between the two, each of which in its own way documents in telling detail just how basic American industry came to lose out in global competition.

Pub Date: Nov. 23rd, 1988
Publisher: Summit/Simon & Schuster