My city was gone.

Superstar political scientist Robert Putnam (who was a wonderful employer and informal mentor to me, too many years ago) is now writing a book about the economic and social decline of his northern Ohio hometown. He provides a web preview in today’s New York Times. It begins:

My hometown — Port Clinton, Ohio, population 6,050 — was in the 1950s a passable embodiment of the American dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for the children of bankers and factory workers alike.

But a half-century later, wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the Port Clinton High School lot next to decrepit “junkers” in which homeless classmates live. The American dream has morphed into a split-screen American nightmare. And the story of this small town, and the divergent destinies of its children, turns out to be sadly representative of America….

A previous semi-popular work raised similar themes.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

14 thoughts on “My city was gone.”

  1. It’s a shame that song has come to be associated with a certain radio host, because it really is the best Pretenders song.

    1. Hmm. It is a good song, yes. The best? “Show me the meaning … of the word…” I might have to differ.

    2. I’m not a huge fan of The Pretenders, so don’t get me wrong but I disagree that it’s the best.

  2. Putnam’s article sounded a chord with me too.

    I grew up in Chicago which has more-or-less escaped the depopulation of much of the mid=West’s industrial towns. Although Chicago still has plenty of empty lots that were once thriving neighborhoods supported by heavy industry now shipped off to China where there are no real unions or real pollution controls.

    But, more typical is Fort Wayne, Indiana where I recently visited. I was surprised to find that Fort Wayne had had a huge air force base and air industry during the second world war (apparently was thought to be far enough from the Coasts to deter enemy attacks and invasion) which was built on the heavy industrial base developed earlier, such as the giant G.E. light bulb plant which still stretches for blocks.

    Now the town appears to survive on fundamentalist churches and a couple of shopping malls in the suburbs, such as they are. The City of Fort Wayne has a medical center and a misguided downtown redevelopment project meant to bring in conventions and tourists. The only special attraction in the area which is not to be found in hundred of similar towns is the very nearby Amish country. But, it appears that the Amish don’t think of themselves as tourist attractions and the non-Amish locals are a little ashamed of their “backward” neighbors.
    Downtown redevelopment plans and all, it is hard to see a future for Fort Wayne in conventions and tourism (Forget North Michigan Avenue and Union Square and the cable cars–let’s have our meeting in rural Indiana!) or any real future so long as the U.S.’s sorta covert industrial policy is to export all industrial jobs to non-unionized countries.

    1. The data says industrial production has risen, or is at least stable. However productivity has risen, so industrial employment has not. And there will be at least some ‘on shoring’ as Chinese costs catch up and currencies adjust.

      Note that jobs have been lost to *Canada* which is trade union welfare state land (but no employer healthcare costs). And to the Southern states (which are union buster/ right to work states).

      If the problem is lack of unionization then trade barriers would have to be erected against Alabama as well as China.

      The reality is US manufacturing is continuing its long march south, and in some cases, offshore. There’s not much that can be done about that. Where there are industrial ‘clusters’ it’s about specialized skills and expertise, and an irrelevance of transport costs– there’s a medical device (artificial hips etc.) cluster in south Michigan for example. A bit like the Swiss watch industry.

      For places like Fort Wayne Indiana downsizing is the likely result– what’s at issue is doing that in a way which helps individuals left behind. As you say, the Amish could be a tourist attraction. There are a multiplicity of approaches– New Brunswick, Canada, became a centre for call centres (the local population is often French-English bilingual, an advantage in that country).

      And, who knows, with global warming there may be migrations back northwards, and away from hurricane prone coasts.

      1. If the problem is lack of unionization then trade barriers would have to be erected against Alabama as well as China.

        Don’t tempt me.

  3. Any comments on domestic use of NSA intercepts for DEA domestic “drug” (read: pot) busts, then lying in Court about it? Seems to tie together well the previous posts here re NSA scandal and abuses, with the drug (pot) issue. A nexus of governmental abuses. Here we find the Department of “Justice” fast and furiously gaming the system for all it is worth and then some – standard operating procedure. The “Justice” Department, commits perjury – not every once in a while, but routinely – standard operating procedure… For the majority of drug cases in which they testify – one can only assume. I guess that’s another reason our uncorrupted and angelic government (just a few bad apples, you see) like to avoid and circumvent our right to jury (see: FIJA) trials, preferring plea bargains, instead. Government can avoid more perjury that way – though perjury seems not to bother those in the U.S. Government – at least when they are the ones committing it. But, just a few bad eggs – not the whole government DEA/NSA carton, oh no!

    Ah, still it is breaking news. So what’s the best (strike that) least bad way we can present the news to not tarnish faith in government and government shill- “experts” too much? That’s the dilemma here I think.

  4. And Chrissie Hynde herself is from Ohio, although she lived in London for over 2 decades. I believe she has moved back to Akron, after her divorce?

    The forces of centralization, that say if I live in the Midwest I am going to live in greater Chicago, close to my employer and my employers’ competitors, seem to be unstoppable. You get regional centres of excellence (Boston, San Francisco, Seattle) but generally things seem to move to the greater exurbs of the largest city in that geographic region (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto etc.).

      1. H,
        Both views could be correct: while total Canadian industrial employment may well have declined, in the 60s & 70s the Big 3 moved a lot of US _auto industry_ jobs from Ohio and Indiana to Canada in search of a more docile (& just coincidentally, whiter) workforce. Ohioans may well feel that their jobs were stolen by Canada even as Canadians believe their jobs were stolen by others.


  5. The high water mark in terms of population and jobs for my Upstate NY hometown, birthlace of IBM, was 1956is, the year my mother was in 8th grade. They never saw the decline coming. By the time I was her age, the shoe factory jobs had moved to places like Brazil and IBM was relocating manufacturing to North Carolina.

    Believe me, losing a job to a non-union North Carolinian feels no better than losing one to Brazilian. It is worse in fact. Northern federal tax surpluses in excess of what they receive paid for rural electrification and the interstate highway system. These are the very things that made the South viable for manufacturing. Who knew we were being played for suckers by southern right-to-work states?

    Wake up Yankees.

  6. I grew up in Rochester, NY, whose economy was anchored in the success of Kodak and Xerox. Yeah I know this story…

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