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How to Save the Post-Industrial Town?

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 [1] 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 [2], the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, came here to declare [3] 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 [4]. 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 [5] 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 [6] 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 [7]. “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 [8],  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” [9]—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 [10], 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 [11]). 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 [11] 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 [12] 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.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "How to Save the Post-Industrial Town?"

#1 Comment By Brooklyn Blue Dog On July 6, 2016 @ 9:34 am

Where is it written that any town has a right to survive forever?

It seems to me that a lot of this misunderstands how towns in general — and these towns in particular — came into being. If they were rural towns, they grew up because that was where people gathered to market their crops and trade them for other things they needed. Later, perhaps a factory developed there to take advantage of the supply of labor. Or some industrial towns grew up around a factory that was built there because of the access to water power.

But once the economic function of the town ceased to exist, because either market or factory was no longer necessary, who says the town needs to exist?

The world is littered with towns — and even great cities — that lie in ruins and have been forgotten by the world because they were no longer able to support themselves.

The history of the world has been the free movement of people following economic activity. It was only in the late 19th century that the free movement of people was halted, starting in the US with the Chinese Exclusion Act. Prior to that, if you wanted to go somewhere else to follow the economic activity, you just went. Or perhaps your whole village went. Or perhaps your whole people went en masse.

The solution to these towns’ problems is for them to die off. That’s what will happen. No amount of riverside restaurants will save them if they have no other source of high-paying jobs to support the restaurants.

It’s not just happening here. Look at Japan to see the future of the US. Entire towns in the countryside consist of old people, because these the only economic activity in these towns is local stores, which don’t really provide much of a living. Children go to the cities to work, because that is where the jobs are — and the potential mates are. Their parents die and their parents’ houses are abandoned. The children don’t want to live there — and could not support themselves even if they wanted to live there — and the houses cannot be sold, because no one wants to live there. So, they are just left to rot.

#2 Comment By SteveM On July 6, 2016 @ 10:12 am

Re: Brooklyn Blue Dog, “No amount of riverside restaurants will save them if they have no other source of high-paying jobs to support the restaurants.”


Re: “[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.”

A town cannot exist in an economic vacuum. Unless a town produces goods and services tradable with the larger economy it will collapse. In Gracy’s ideal vision of those towns, what would those goods and services be?

In Youngstown Ohio and hundreds of other small cities in the U.S., the price of a legacy house is cheaper than a new car. Same thing in Northeast PA, the old steel towns around Pittsburgh, Upstate New York, Western Massachusetts, to say nothing of the rotting carcass that is Appalachia. All of those towns formerly produced something. Now they produce nothing. They essentially subsist on government handouts.

The U.S. is a Ponzi scheme post-industrial economy. What cannot go on forever – won’t. At this stage so late in the game, Trump’s promises are probably illusions. No other candidate even has those.

Parenthetically, the United States, the largest economy in the world with thousands of miles of coastline, scores of major ports and a thriving cruise industry has essentially no commercial ship building apart from what is required to comply with the Jones Act. All of the cargo ships that off-load Chinese goods in Long Beach and all of the high tech cruise liners leaving Miami were built someplace else. Imagine that.

Yet what is a priority for Barack Obama is granting men in dresses access to women’s facilities, not enabling the reconstitution American commercial ship building. The Republicans too just sat back and watched it happen.

The Cronies have sold out the American worker over decades and the condition is terminal. No amount of idealized Urbanism is going to fix that.

#3 Comment By trapper On July 6, 2016 @ 10:24 am

Ms. Olmstead is still chasing the post-industrial unicorn. I suppose she is in good company, as I expect most college courses probably still teach the “post-industrial service economy” myth. Unfortunately the real world does not wait for academic theorists to wake up and smell the decaying wreckage of the American economy.

Just to make it clear: the “post-industrial” economy does not exist. It will never exist without a strong manufacturing base to support it. Sold as a successor to manufacturing, it was never anything more than a fairy tale used to justify the decisions already made by stateless corporations to abandon America for greater manufacturing profits elsewhere. The following NY Times article from 1987 is now particularly prescient:


Keep reading, Ms. Olmstead. Much of what we were taught and told is nonsense.

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 6, 2016 @ 11:01 am

“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.”

That certainly is some mystifying mumbo-jumbo.

None of the above deals with or offers any way for the economic support that is missing – a viable economy of employment that is both meaningful and is paid in accordance.

All it does is dismiss the idea of putting people back to work as “nostalgic.”

Not helpful in the least, to say that we don’t know what to do, but that Trump’s concern to genuinely create real paying work for all of us disenfranchised is clearly not going to work.

My immediate viscreal reaction is that this is along the lines of Bill Clinton’s telling us we have to accept being doomed, and not try to reclaim what we once had, or what our children could have. It would be more believable if he weren’t successfully doing just that himself, trying to reclaim the White House.

Why does this article make me want to say to the intellectual prevaricators who tell us Trump isn’t the answer, because there really isn’t any answer, “Go to Hell”?

#5 Comment By John Ainsworth On July 6, 2016 @ 11:21 am

One thing I’ve consistently seen missing in all discussion of small town survival is the role that ESOPs could play.

ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Program) allows the employees of the company to hold shares of the company in their retirement accounts. ESOPs are the closest approximation in US law of distributism – they allow the workers to (fractionally) own the means by which their wealth is produced.

Additionally, ESOPs have some interesting tax benefits. A 100% employee-owned ESOP pays no federal income tax!

Here’s an example of a small town that is thriving because its owner chose to invest in the employees and the community rather than seeking a price-maximizing exit strategy


#6 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 6, 2016 @ 11:40 am

You quote Benjamin Applebaum (New York Times): “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.”

That’s partially true — that “smaller, more efficient factories” in other parts of the US led to some of the earlier Pittsburgh area closures. But as Neil Irwin wrote in the New York Times on June 28 following the Trump speech, “The culprit in that era was both international competition [international competition that Mr. Applebaum fails to mention] and the introduction of mini-mills, which allowed the production of steel with far fewer man-hours.”

The right kind of tariff protection could have helped the Pittsburgh-area plants to retool, stay open, and fight off international competition.

But “[Donald Trump] is right,” continues Neil Irwin, “that the number of steel industry jobs — more precisely ‘iron and steel mills and ferroalloy manufacturing,’ in government data-speak — is down by 44 percent in the Pittsburgh area since 1990, a span in which the United States entered the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] and engaged in much more extensive trade with China.”

Trump said in his speech: “It was Bill Clinton who signed NAFTA in 1993, and Hillary Clinton who supported it. It was Bill Clinton who lobbied for China’s disastrous entry into the World Trade Organization, and Hillary who backed that terrible agreement. Then, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton stood by while China cheated on its currency, added another trillion dollars to our trade deficit, and stole hundreds of billions of dollars in our intellectual property. The city of Pittsburgh, and the State of Pennsylvania, have lost one-third of their manufacturing jobs since the Clintons put China in the WTO.”

In May, 2014 research paper entitled “Surging Steel Imports Put Up To Half a Million U.S. Jobs at Risk,” the Economic Policy Institute reported:

“The U.S. steel industry is facing its worst import crisis in more than a decade. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, steelmakers in other countries, backed by aggressive government support, continued to add production capacity as demand stagnated. The open and large U.S. market became the prime target for the massive excess supply stemming from this excess capacity, and, since 2011, U.S. steel imports have surged…”


The US steel industry can be revived by putting in place tariffs that protect American steel and American jobs from unfair trade, currency manipulation, and foreign dumping of steel on American markets.

#7 Comment By Will Harrington On July 6, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

In response to Brooklyn Blue Dog

Who says a town has a right to exist? Those of us who live here and want it to exist! You quote history as if to say it is the fate of a town to prosper and die. I will quote history back into prehistory and tell you there is no such thing as fate. Jericho, the oldest town in the world, despite having been destroyed several times, is still there. Frankly, our wishes count for a lot more than your indifference. It’s up to us to find ways to save our towns, and the best way I can think of is to have the best schools and invest in connectivity. Let them telecommute and they will come home to raise their kids.

#8 Comment By Thrice A Viking On July 6, 2016 @ 3:11 pm

Good article, Gracy, I enjoyed it, but I’m afraid that Brooklyn Blue Dog is right: you typically have to have jobs to survive. More specifically, unless you plan to give autarky a try, you need vocations that bring in money from outside the locale. These can be manufacturing, agricultural, mining, fishing, tourist, medical (as with Rochester, MN’s Mayo Clinic), or governmental, DC being the best example. There may be others of which I haven’t thought, and I said “typically” above, as a retirement community within a somewhat larger town might well work, pensions and SS payments serving the same purpose as the various jobs. Your and Levin’s ideas sound charming, but by themselves only seem to ensure that a dying town will have a relatively painless death. Sorry.

#9 Comment By Gregory On July 6, 2016 @ 3:41 pm

I often wonder about the effect of concentrated economic power on these towns.

Our economy has become more and more dominated by a relatively small number of companies that dominate the national economic landscape. The majority of profits from these enterprises are funneled back to cities into the pockets of their owners (who hold stock) and their white-collar employees in centralized offices (who hold college degrees in business and the like).

Smaller towns don’t see that money recirculate through the community as it travels back to the cities in exchange for cheap imported goods and payments on interest-bearing debt. In this sense, many of the urban / suburban areas extract resources from rural ones almost as if they were colonizers.

Even the backbone of rural economies—agriculture—increasingly involves extracting profits and sending them to owners and white-collar employees as factory farms continue to replace small farmers. The lack of money circulating in the local economy decreases the amount of decent-paying jobs, which increases the amount of money people spend at big-box stores on their credit cards, which decreases … etc., etc. in a nasty cycle.

Ms. Olmstead, you propose the following:

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).

This sort of solution might be helpful in the short run (if you could find some truly beneficent billionaires), but it’s not self-sustaining. Decentralizing the economy to promote competition by smaller companies would be better for local communities in the long run (not that I know how to begin that process—perhaps it will start when gasoline supplies drop and transporting goods long distances becomes more expensive).

Or, hell, there’s always the conventional solution: just tell the laid-off factory workers and bankrupt small farmers to learn computer programming!

#10 Comment By Gregory On July 6, 2016 @ 5:54 pm

@John Ainsworth

I was going to include something about that, but my post was already long enough.

You are exactly right about the possible effects of ESOPs. They can spread the benefits of capital widely. If you’ve not read “The End of Illth” by Eric Reece, I suggest you have a look. He discusses those.

One hitch: convincing a company owner to use an ESOP instead of selling to venture capitalists or a larger firm isn’t going to be easy.

#11 Comment By FL Transplant On July 6, 2016 @ 6:27 pm

Am I the only one who remembers the Reagan “golden years” as the time when the then-existing existing steel industry collapsed–that’s when the mills in western PA/eastern OH closed?The auto industry went through a huge contraction, closing many of the assembly lines and factories of the suppliers who fed them–so many people from MI migrated to TX they became known as “black tag folks” (after the MI back license plates)? The domestic consumer electronics disappeared–no more TVs, radios, stereos, were made domestically? The textile industry which had moved South from New England migrated overseas? Billy Joel’s “Allentown” was a style on the radio?

These developments weren’t strictly a function of Reagan’s policies–but his “Golden Age” was far, far from that for the white working class everyone is so suddenly concerned about.

#12 Comment By TR On July 7, 2016 @ 9:45 am

Even the most thoughtful comments here don’t cover the complexity or span of steel’s decline. For steel to really come back, we would have to find foreign markets, for example. Not something a tariff can accomplish.

In the South you can see a lot of empty manufacturing plants in small towns. Those plants were the only things keeping many small towns alive. But the real killer of small towns was the agricultural revolution which made it possible for one man to farm six hundred acres by himself. The land is still rich, but there are far fewer stewards to share the wealth.

I can’t help adding, since no one else is connecting small towns to agriculture, that we have had probably eighty years at least of politicians of both parties singing the praise of the small farmer and the “family farm” and voting for farm bills more or less dictated by corporate agriculture.

#13 Comment By DrTorch On July 7, 2016 @ 10:45 am

Much truth here. These towns are equilibrating back to the Gibbs Free Energy level defined by the law of supply and demand.

What’s sad is the loss of construction, history and community. All of those cost society.

So there is some worth to saving those towns, and the author is absolutely right to point out that it requires “an honest and clear-eyed understanding of the post-industrial trends rocking our nation.” And those trends are far deeper and insidious than simply technical evolution.

#14 Comment By JonF On July 7, 2016 @ 1:14 pm


Your comment (@ 10:12) starts out right, but then it falls apart when you call the US “a big Ponzi scheme.” No, that’s not the problem. The US still produces plenty of stuff, but it’s being done in different places, by different people (as the article points out) and crucially, by fewer people, than 60 years ago. The big gorilla in the corner is the “fewer people” part. We love to kvetch about offshoring– and I’ve done some of that myself– but the real job killer has been automation. We simply do not need the legions of workers to produce all the stuff we want. And no one has really grappled with that reality.

#15 Comment By oldlib On July 7, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

FL Transplant–As a former steelworker from Pittsburgh who lost his steel job in 1982, you’re hit the proverbial nail on the head.
Forget about NYT articles and analyses. By 1990, steel was gone from the Monongahela Valley and Pittsburgh had moved on.
Tariffs would have been meaningless. Our steel mills were ancient, built in the 19th Century, and company management just wasn’t interested in investing or “retooling.” The steel companies got millions of dollars in tax incentives from local governments but spent the money elsewhere. They would only have invested in the old mills if the government forced them but that’s socialism, right? Can’t have that!
And I can’t ever forget that the WWC voted for free trade, voted for the financialization of the economy, voted against organized labor, etc. They let themselves get so diverted by cultural issues and racial resentments, they never noticed that their pockets were getting picked.

#16 Comment By Tony D. On July 7, 2016 @ 4:07 pm

“Trump isn’t the answer, because there really isn’t an answer.” Beautiful, Fran. I want that on a bumper sticker, even though I don’t drive.

#17 Comment By DirtyJobsGuy On July 7, 2016 @ 4:42 pm

New England is full of mill towns that are fading. They were company towns built around water power (it’s amazing how much 20-100 horsepower driving belts was worth then). This resulted in many industrial towns scattered on rivers and streams in hilly or mountainous valleys. Today no industrial or commercial business would consider such a site with a cramped multi-floor building. Today however a good highway is essential as is access to electric power and gas service.

One thing these towns had was that the mill owner did live in town, perhaps up on the hill. He supported the local schools, churches and showed up at the town festivities. Today this may still be the case but often the management is a bit farther away. If you want to keep these towns as a place to work you have to keep the planners, urbanists and others far away. Roads, utilities and a tolerance for industry is necessary. Too often urbanites really have tin ear to what makes smaller cities work. A town with busy shops, mines and mills is a healthy town socially even if it is not cute or quaint. Often these are one-business areas supporting lumber, ranching or mining and can be crushed by a single change in policy from Washington.

#18 Comment By Jess1 On July 7, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

I’d say yes, FL – you’re the only one recalling that, as you’re off by a decade (including the song, which was released at the start of the 80s, penned in the 70s).
Carter ring a bell?

#19 Comment By Winston On July 9, 2016 @ 2:18 am

Please see:
“I have spent the last 20 years seeking to understand how the cities of Europe’s industrial heartlands backed away from the brink of ruin and recaptured their former glory. I discovered a strong common thread of industrial collapse, reinvestment and pulling through in spite of austerity.”

How Europe’s industrial cities bounced back from the brink of ruin

#20 Comment By Bobby On July 9, 2016 @ 10:01 pm


Exactly. Most manufacturing jobs were lost to automation, not to the Chinese. I grew up in an auto manufacturing town. Many of the factory buildings dated back to the 1920s. The newest ones were from the 1950s. Further, there were constant uproars every time the manufacturer tried to install a robot to do anything. So, they just built automated factories elsewhere, and shifted the work there.