Gioielli on Neumann, 'Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America'

Tracy Neumann
Robert Gioielli

Tracy Neumann. Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 280 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4827-2.

Reviewed by Robert Gioielli (University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College)
Published on H-Pennsylvania (June, 2017)
Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, certain narratives have taken hold to explain how Donald Trump, a wealthy New York plutocrat running as a Republican, could so successfully court white working-class voters over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Race and gender obviously played an important role, as Trump consciously played into resentment over the loss of privilege felt by white males. But Trump was also successful because of his ability to upend the neoliberal orthodoxies of contemporary American politics. Specifically, he combined his racist and misogynistic appeals with a populist economic language that spoke to white working- and lower-middle-class voters who believed that they were being left behind in the twenty-first century American economy.

There is obviously much to plum out of Trump’s toxic brew of racist and misogynistic populism, and the complex dynamics of the 2016 election will be keeping scholars busy for decades. Nevertheless, we do have some immediate tools at our disposal to explain why many working-class Americans who were traditionally Democratic voters, and who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, so enthusiastically donned Make America Great Again hats in 2016. One of these is Tracy Neumann’s excellent new book, Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial of North America. Situated at the intersection of the scholarly literature on postwar North American urban policy and the emergence of neoliberal governing ideology, Neumann ably shows how the transformation of America’s cities from industrial meccas of steel mills and other forms of heavy manufacturing to cultural playgrounds for the knowledge economy creative class was not a foregone conclusion, the natural result of market forces or inevitability of modern capitalism. In reality, North American cities were consciously transformed as “growth coalitions composed of local political and business elites set out to actively create postindustrial places” (p. 3). Neumann explores this process through intertwined case studies of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Hamilton, Ontario, from the 1950s until the end of the twentieth century.

As Neumann explains in a detailed, scholarly introduction, the idea that America’s economy, and thus its culture and social structure, would soon move away from a focus on heavy industry and blue-collar jobs was coined and popularized in the 1970s by sociologist Daniel Bell with the publication of his 1973 book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. But in Pittsburgh the seeds of the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy had been planted almost thirty years earlier with the 1944 creation of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. As the first and arguably the most important of the scores of redevelopment partnerships that emerged in postwar America, the Allegheny Conference is well known to scholars of postwar urbanism. But Neumann shows how although the group played a key role in local urban renewal projects, conference leaders also saw themselves as laying out the path for the city’s eventual transition from a manufacturing to a service economy. The creation of Point State Park and the expansion of the University of Pittsburgh, among other projects, were the first steps in creating a city that was attractive to middle-class, white-collar professionals and the high-tech, “knowledge economy” industries that employed them. Moreover, the Allegheny Conference also pioneered a thoroughly undemocratic model of urban development funding that privileged the prerogatives of metropolitan political, corporate, and philanthropic elites over working- and middle-class residents. Known as the “public-private partnership,” the goal was the for government officials to use public funds at their disposal to “leverage” private investment (p. 16). But what usually resulted was the public coffers being used to subsidize the pocketbooks and bottom lines of private corporations and local real estate developers, often with marginal public benefit.

In addition to discussing the origins of these practices and policies in postwar Pittsburgh, Neumann ably explores how they were contested by different groups of Steel City residents. Strong opposition first emerged in 1970, with the election of Pete Flaherty to the mayor’s office. Running as an independent Democrat on the slogan that he was “nobody’s boy,” Flaherty distanced himself from both the union-sponsored Democratic political machine and the corporate elites in the Allegheny Conference. His low-tax, austerity-driven policies foreshadowed the centrist Democrats of the 1980s, most famously Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and helped keep Pittsburgh in the black during a time when places like New York City were filing for bankruptcy. But Flaherty also drew support because of his dismissal of, if not outright contempt for, the Allegheny Conference and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (the city agency that represented the “public” in the public-private partnership) and their elite, downtown-oriented approach to planning and redevelopment. He devolved power to a series of community planning boards and in general looked to strengthen and empower neighborhoods.

Flaherty’s policies became symbolic of what urban historian Suleiman Osman has called “the decade of the neighborhood” as city residents across the United States, disillusioned or disgusted with the destructive urban renewal and redevelopment policies of the previous quarter century, retreated to small-scale neighborhood rehabilitation and community organizing as ways to revitalize older urban areas in the industrial Midwest and Northeast.[1] In Pittsburgh this formal policy shift did not last long, as Flaherty looked to reestablish ties with the Allegheny Conference in his second term, and his successor, Richard Caliguiri, launched a formal “Renaissance II” redevelopment scheme in 1977, which would ultimately be the full flowering of the postindustrial policy vision for Pittsburgh.

Interspersed with these discussions of Pittsburgh’s postwar redevelopment policies is a comparative study of Hamilton, Ontario. A center for steel production and other heavy manufacturing, Hamilton was in many ways the capital of Canada’s southern Ontario industrial heartland, and, like Pittsburgh, had a predominantly blue-collar, provincial character. Nevertheless, beginning in the 1960s, local leaders attempted to make over not only the city’s image, but also its landscape, to prepare it for what they saw as the coming postindustrial future. Compared to Pittsburgh, these efforts were often halting, and not nearly as comprehensive. Canada’s more centralized economic planning structure did not provide interested elites the access to urban renewal and redevelopment funding that cities like Pittsburgh were able to receive in the United Sates. Openly emulating Pittsburgh, Hamiltonians were able to make some progress in forging public-private redevelopment partnerships in the 1970s, but nowhere near the scale of the City of Champions.

Neumann’s use of Hamilton as the second, comparative case study is in many ways an intuitive choice. It was a steel town that struggled to find its footing as the postindustrial future rapidly emerged, and many of its redevelopment policies were openly copied from those pioneered by Pittsburgh. Neumann also shows an expert command of Canadian political economy and policy history, placing Hamilton’s story squarely within a broader national framework. While doing the same work of putting Pittsburgh within the context of American urban policy, she is able to show that national-level politics, practices, and incentives mattered in shaping urban futures. Nevertheless, at many points in the narrative these discussions about Hamilton feel like discursive tangents. Although the comparisons with a Canadian example are helpful because of the similar economic context, Hamilton is not quite up to carrying the analytical water that Neumann wants it to carry. Even though they are similarly sized cities with a similar economic base, it had nowhere near the degree of capital, or political and philanthropic power of Pittsburgh, nor was it a international leader in redevelopment policy in the way that Pittsburgh was. Through much of the story, Hamilton feels like a wannabe little brother emulating its more successful postindustrial sibling to the south.

There is one significant strength of the Hamilton comparison, and it emerges when the book explores how both cities faced the crisis of deindustrialization in the 1980s. Consciously starved of reinvestment and modernization capital by US Steel, the plants upriver from Pittsburgh in the Monongahela Valley were considered unprofitable dinosaurs by the early part of that decade, and were shut down in a raft of closings that devastated the regional economy. Corporate elites from the Allegheny Conference (many of whom oversaw the corporate disinvestment and diversification policies that led to the shutdown) believed it was best for the city to continue to work towards attracting high-tech investment and white-collar jobs. Through Caliguiri’s Renaissance II, they subsidized new, mixed-use commercial developments like Station Square as well as an arts and cultural district downtown.

Many Pittsburghers, however, resisted this focus. Working with groups such as the Tri-State Conference on Steel and the Denominational Ministry Strategy, these residents worked to reopen shuttered steel plants in the early 1980s, as well as oppose city planning and redevelopment efforts that focused on white-collar, “postindustrial” jobs, rather than helping the steelworkers who were being laid off by the thousands. Their efforts gained a short-term victory in 1990 when the state agreed to the creation of the Steel Valley Authority (SVA) to fund industrial redevelopment, but the SVA was relatively powerless, and ultimately a failure. This activism represented the peak of citizen opposition to postindustrial policies, even though resentment toward the projects that would turn former mill sites into shopping malls and office parks continued well into the 2000s. Hamilton, in contrast, was able to stave off the worst of deindustrialization, at least until the 2008 financial crisis. This was through a combination of factors, including provincial policies that privileged the city as an industrial center (and Toronto as a commercial one) as well as strong divides among local elites as to the legitimacy of a postindustrial future. Most important, as Neumann shows, local workers and community members were able to contest what they saw as postindustrial policies aimed at making the city less welcoming to heavy industry and blue-collar workers.

Most of this book is fine-grained policy history, but in the last chapter, “Marketing Postindustrialism,” Neumann ably dissects one of the most interesting aspects of postindustrialism, the attempts to sell formerly smoke-filled meccas of industry as centers of culture and refined living that were welcoming to white-collar professionals. These efforts went beyond the urban boosterism of previous generations as city governments, corporations, and chambers of commerce hired marketing and advertising firms to design elaborate campaigns like Duquesne Light’s Seven Pittsburghs: Discoveries by Some Younger Settlers, which profiled members of what Richard Florida would dub the “creative class”: young, white-collar professionals who were moving into older urban neighborhoods. Hamilton’s “Pardon My Lunch Bucket Campaign” promotion sought to play off of the city’s blue-collar image to argue that the city had natural beauty, leisure activities, and amenities that appealed to white-collar professionals. With access to organizational and governmental records, Neumann is able to go beyond a surface treatment of these materials to show how they were the result of conscious, multiyear discussion and debates among local civic and business leaders about how best to market their “lunch-bucket” towns to the country club set.

What is most interesting about these discussions is how Neumann shows urban leaders consciously pushing their city’s working-class residents to the rhetorical margins, which was connected to their larger postindustrial policy efforts. And this, ultimately, is where the real strength of Remaking the Rust Belt lies. Despite the bloviations of the cable television punditocracy, contemporary working-class resentment of the “creative class” and New Economy elites did not spring forth, sui generis, from Donald Trump’s onion loaf coiffure. It has been building over time, because millions of blue-collar Americans, of all races and ethnic backgrounds, have been on the wrong end of postindustrial policies. This book shows how the urban aspects of that postindustrial transformation have been conscious and intentional, and also contested. While it does not go into great detail about the people and the groups that were opposing these postindustrial policies, that is not its general goal. What Neumann has done is to lay out a comprehensive and compelling historical taxonomy of postindustrial urban policies in the North America’s industrial heartland. There are good books on some of these efforts, and it will be up to future scholars to continue to explore how various groups of poor and working-class urban residents, in Pittsburgh and around North America, responded to the postindustrial policies. This book should be standard reading for anyone interested in the history of postwar Pittsburgh and North America’s industrial heartland. It also deserves a place within the larger literature on American cities, redevelopment policy, and urban political economy.


[1]. Suleiman Osman, "The Decade of the Neighborhood,” in Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, edJulian Zelizer and Bruce Schulman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

Printable Version:

Citation: Robert Gioielli. Review of Neumann, Tracy, Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America. H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews. June, 2017.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.