The old industrial heartland, that aching arc between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, is a landscape of desolation unmatched in American history outside the Dust Bowl and the post-Civil War South. But if the Dust Bowl produced John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, and if the Southern catastrophe inspired a vast literature of loss, the industrial Midwest has had too few writers and bards to chronicle its decline and sing its blues.
Which is reason enough to celebrate the publication of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, written by Chicago author Edward McClelland and published by Bloomsbury Press. A bonus is that it’s a first-rate book, equal to its subject, which is a wrenching portrayal of the decades-long collapse of the Industrial Midwest into the Rust Belt, and the up-close stories of the people left in its wreckage.
An upfront disclosure: I know Ted McClelland and talked to him when he was reporting the book. He quotes respectfully from things I’ve written. Bloomsbury is my publisher and I’ve done a blurb for the book. So I may not be neutral. But McClelland’s subject – the Midwest – is my own turf. I want its pain and drama told right. If it wasn’t, I’d say so.
McClelland’s title is ironic. Back when the factories boomed and the mills roared, the sky over Midwestern cities was a carcinogenic soup of grit and smoke. But to the people who lived there, it smelled like bread on the table. Today, the same people look up and see “nothin’ but blue skies,” which smell like empty pockets and look like loss.
McClelland comes naturally by his story. He grew up in Lansing, Michigan, and his high school lay across the street from a giant Fisher Body plant, owned (like almost everything in Lansing) by General Motors. As McClelland writes, his boyhood smelled of paint. A band director at the high school developed a heart condition from years of breathing Oldsmobile paint through his open window.
For years, students at that high school, grads or not, just walked across the street, signed on at Fisher Body, and had good jobs for life. By the ‘80s, when McClelland got there, the American auto industry had entered its long, slow decline. Fisher wasn’t hiring. The plant lasted until 2005, then closed. There’s nothing there now but a demolition site overgrown with weeds and wildflowers: as McClelland writes, “deindustrialization has its own flora that grow on the grave of factories.” Nothing much is left except Gus’s, one of the bars that stood at every exit to the plant. Gus Caliacatsos, the owner, laid off 14 bartenders when the plant closed and now he himself is going back to Greece.
McClelland wonders how it happened so fast. He tells the story of Everett Ketchum, who took part in the epochal sit-down strike at GM in Flint in 1936-37, went on to earn $27 an hour as a tool-and-die maker in the ‘70s, spent 39 years at the plant and now, in his old age, lives comfortably on the good pension and health care benefits that GM no longer gives its younger workers.
“Everett went from northern Michigan farm boy to autoworker to prosperous pensioner. America went from agrarian society to foundry of the world to postindustrial nation. And Flint went from…….the city with the highest per capita income in the United States to a depopulated slum with the highest murder rate in the nation.
“How did all this happen, in the span of one man’s years?”
McClelland has other questions, too. He notes that America’s great invention “was not the airplane, or the atomic bomb, or the lunar lander. It was the middle class.” His book is filled with people who used to be middle class, but are no longer. So, he says, “we have to ask, was the American middle class just a moment?”
He seeks the answer in Detroit, which burned itself in 1967 and never recovered; in Cleveland, which “is as unromantic as a worn-out strip mall;” in poor Flint, which took both unionism and integration seriously but is left with nothing to show for it (he doesn’t have much good to say about Flint’s most famous recent citizen, filmmaker Michael Moore, whom he clearly considers a phony); in the old steel-making towns of western Pennsylvania: in Decatur, Illinois, filled with workers who never really recovered from the triple strike of 1994 against Firestone, Caterpillar and A.E. Staley, the British-owned sweetener maker.
In Syracuse, McClelland talks to workers left behind when Carrier Air-Conditioning left town – first for North Carolina and Georgia and, finally, to Singapore. He notes the irony that Syracuse invented the air-conditioning that made the South habitable: “it popularized the product that caused its own demise.” The two biggest industries in Syracuse now are education and medicine – teaching the young and preserving the old.
“When nothing is left for the middle-aged or the middle class,” McClelland writes, “it is difficult to be both.”
McClelland follows the legendary United Steelworkers leader Ed Sadlowski around the southeast side of Chicago, where nothing has replaced U.S. Steel’s South Works and the old Wisconsin Steel plant, both long closed.
Then he heads home to the north side of Chicago, the Lakeview neighborhood which is so full of young Midwesterners that each Big Ten university seems represented by a bar where its grads can watch their teams on Saturday afternoons. In an industrial Midwest filled with losers, this is where the winners gather.
Cleveland or Detroit will never imitate Chicago’s success, he writes. “There can be only one Midwestern metropolis. Chicago’s success is not only inimitable, it comes at the expense of every other city in the region,” inhaling not only the region’s energy and industry but its best young people.
“It’s another consequence of globalization, the same force destroying the middle class in Decatur,” he says. “Just as money and education have become concentrated among fewer people, they’ve become concentrated among fewer cities, too.”
Back in Detroit, McClelland rides around with a drug dealer with no chance of a job there and inadequate smarts to move to Chicago. “When you write about factories closing,” he says, “you can’t just write about the forty-year-old guys who lost their jobs: you also have to write about the twenty-year-olds who never got jobs.”
Finally, he ends up in Detroit’s old Packard plant, a surrealistic hulk, “a gallery of destruction,” improbably inhabited by scavengers and trolls as strange and isolated any lost tribe of the Amazon.
In the first chapter, McClelland asks, “What happened to the factory?” The rest of the book answers that question. For any Midwesterner who has asked the same question, Blue Skies is an essential read.