How do we save America’s dying towns? This is a question of increasing importance in today’s society: though some U.S. cities (such as Detroit) have experienced upheaval over the past several years, it’s post-industrial and rural towns that seem to be suffering most. Binyamin Applebaum illuminates many of these struggles in a July 4 New York Times story about a former factory town that’s fallen into decay:
Thirty years have passed, almost to the day, since the last blasts of the steel furnaces that were the reason for this city’s existence. The steel mill is gone — used to film “RoboCop,” then demolished. Most of the people are gone, too, and those who remain are struggling to find a new purpose for this place.
Last week, Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, came here to declare that as president, he would revive the fortunes of the American steel industry — and, by implication, Monessen.
“We are going to put American-produced steel back into the backbone of our country,” Mr. Trump told 200 invited guests at an aluminum recycling facility that occupies part of the old mill complex. “This alone will create massive numbers of jobs.”
In fact, about 71 percent of the steel used last year in the United States was made in the United States, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. The mills in Monessen and other cities along the Monongahela River were not replaced by Chinese factories but by smaller, more efficient factories in other parts of the country.
Having lived through that transition, the people here surrendered hope of a Trump-like revival long ago.
But that hasn’t stopped other similar towns from rallying behind Trump, in hopes that the nostalgic dream he presents of revivified commerce may, in fact, come true. J.D. Vance notes for The Atlantic that many of these places have been trampled, broken, and disenchanted: “A common thread among Trump’s faithful, even among those whose individual circumstances remain unspoiled, is that they hail from broken communities.” He continues,
These are places where good jobs are impossible to come by. Where people have lost their faith and abandoned the churches of their parents and grandparents. Where the death rates of poor white people go up even as the death rates of all other groups go down. Where too many young people spend their days stoned instead of working and learning. … There is no group of people hurtling more quickly to social decay. No group of people fears the future more, dies with such frequency from heroin, and exposes its children to such significant domestic chaos.
This is something Kevin D. Williamson has written about for National Review in the past. He’s noted the “welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy” pulling these communities apart. “The culture of the white underclass in America is horrifying,” he says. “It’s brutal. And its products are obvious.”
Is this just the way America is going to progress (or more accurately, fall apart) in the next decade—or is there some way to breathe a vision and telos back into crumbling buildings and deserted downtowns?
Trump’s popularity stems from nostalgia for the strong blue-collar community of yesteryear. But in his excellent new book The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin points out that putting one’s hopes in reviving the past is romantic at best—disastrous at worst. “Whatever the argument being advanced about America’s challenges in our politics in recent years, it is a pretty good bet that it has been rooted in an understanding of [a] lost era of American greatness,” he writes. For Democrats, it’s the Great Society years in 1960s America. For Republicans, it’s the golden years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. But regardless, Levin argues, people “are focused less on how we can build economic, cultural, and social capital in the twenty-first century than on how we can recover the capital we have used up.” And that presents some very considerable problems for towns like Monessen or Middletown.
Levin suggests that we need “a modernized ethic of subsidiarity,” which would bring “incremental revival” to America’s broken communities. In a Tocquevillian appeal to the importance of local, mediating institutions, he suggests that deconsolidation and federalism would add substance and telos to the hollowed-out towns filling our country. “A decentralized approach to social and economic policy would not only recognize the limits of our knowledge but also speak to the particular problems we now confront,” he writes. “It embodies not just an epistemic humility but also a commitment to subsidiarity—to empowering institutions at different levels of our society to address those problems for which they are best suited.”
But what sorts of institutions could possibly breathe life back into these communities? Here are a few Levin lists: families, schools, churches, local civic groups, nonprofits, charities, fraternal groups, and unions. Local libraries and community colleges can also play significant roles, and many local businesses have an institutional impact on their communities.
Levin’s overarching point, one that can’t be emphasized enough, is that nostalgia for midcentury America’s admitted strengths will not save the towns now suffering from a collapse of economic and cultural capital. Rather, an honest and clear-eyed understanding of the post-industrial trends rocking our nation—along with a healthy appreciation of the diversity and localism sprouting in their wake—will help us move forward in a healthy way.
We must also note the toll “brain drain”—especially brain drain of the young—has had on these communities. Something must be done to draw them back, if we want rural towns to survive. In a recent story for The Atlantic, author Alana Semuels writes, “Kids and grandkids move to the cities, coming back on holidays, inheriting their parents’ homes and leaving them empty, wondering what will happen to the towns their parents say used to thrive.”
Part of the problem seems to be a generational disconnect, re: what makes a place livable and appealing. As Applebaum notes in his New York Times piece, “[Monessen’s] younger residents are frustrated that the older generation still dreams of factories. They want to replace some of the old mills with waterfront homes and restaurants. They would like to see the city and the river meet, instead of being almost entirely separated by the old industrial strip.”
The suggestions made above are not radical—they actually seem to echo the work of New Urbanists (chronicled and considered at length here at TAC on our New Urbs blog). This vision attunes itself to pre-World War II urban development, eschewing some of the excesses of midcentury America (the time that most baby boomers in these communities are pining away for). It calls for greater walkability, mixed-use neighborhoods, and vibrant parks and city squares where people can congregate, as well as a renovation and preservation of (as opposed to demolishing and replacing) the old buildings and blocks that make up historic districts and downtowns. These are just some of the puzzle pieces that fit into a larger New Urbanist blueprint for revitalizing America’s cities.
But in Monessen, these young people haven’t made much leeway, says Applebaum: “Mr. Mavrakis, the mayor, has little patience for these dreams. A blunt and forceful man who spent much of his life as a union organizer, he would like to demolish much of the remaining downtown and offer the land for new development.”
Emphasizing the historic and human-scale neighborhood may take some time to catch on. But trying to spread this vision will help knit together some of the fraying threads that are damaging U.S. towns and communities. Good urban planning will not, by itself, redeem a dying factory town. But it may help stimulate and foster the other important strands of community growth necessary for a flourishing place.
There are other ways we can consider saving America’s towns. One I have been mulling over lately is the role wealthy individuals can play by boosting local commerce via their patronage (providing microloans, sponsoring vocational programs, providing grants and endowments, et cetera). I also wonder what recent trends and changes in agriculture might do to boost commerce and congregation in small towns and cities.
One thing’s for certain: there’s no cure-all, no single way to transform and resurrect towns like Monessen. And the belief that a presidential candidate (be he orange-haired or socialist) can solve all our societal ills will only serve to exacerbate the problems we face. As Vance puts it,
The great tragedy is that many of the problems Trump identifies are real, and so many of the hurts he exploits demand serious thought and measured action—from governments, yes, but also from community leaders and individuals. Yet so long as people rely on that quick high, so long as wolves point their fingers at everyone but themselves, the nation delays a necessary reckoning. There is no self-reflection in the midst of a false euphoria. Trump is cultural heroin. He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it.