“The Rust Belt is the north of England on a continental scale”: on industrial decline & left behind places

Ohio loves Trump. Image: Getty.

It took an hour to find somewhere to eat in Youngstown. It was a week before election day in the United States and there had been no breakfast on offer at the motel I’d stayed at the previous night in Pennsylvania. I was due in Cleveland by lunchtime, so crossed the border into Ohio before stopping. Youngstown, the first place you reach heading west on Interstate 80, is the heart of a conurbation of nearly half a million people: it seemed as likely a spot as any for a meal.

When I arrived in downtown Youngstown, there was nothing there. Or rather: there was a state university, a few high-rise office blocks left over from the gilded age and a neat grid of huge and beautiful old houses of the sort James Thurber was writing stories about eighty years ago. But shops and restaurants and cafés, the sort of bustling street life that suggests a thriving community? Nothing. Some of these businesses had moved out to suburban strip malls. Others are just gone.

Youngstown is an extreme example of a phenomenon that can be seen all over the American Midwest. Over the past 80 years, the population of the city has fallen by two-thirds. In 2007, a CNN report ranked it as the poorest substantial city in the US. The Rust Belt is full of places like this: mining or manufacturing towns that were once industrial powerhouses but now feel too big and too grand for the shrunken populations that remain. The pictures of Detroit never show the glories of its half-empty central business district.

The Rust Belt is like the north of England on a continental scale. Its cities are Sheffield and Bradford, over and over again. When I visited, Ohio was about to commit what most metropolitan observers believed would be an act of enormous self-harm, just as much of the north had in June with the EU referendum.

As I finished my breakfast at an Italian café on the highway back to the interstate, a man at the next table waved me over. He had heard my accent, he said, and wanted to know about Brexit. It didn’t seem like a good sign that the UK’s political news had become a talking point in a place like Youngstown.

The man – who asked to be identified only as John – was an Italian-American and a lifelong Democrat, until now. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and he would have voted for Jim Webb, a Democratic Virginian senator who flirted with running for president in 2016, but dropped out before the primaries. John said he didn’t like the Clintons, even though he had voted for Bill twice. He wouldn’t be voting for Hillary: she was too establishment.

Donald Trump, though, John liked – the tycoon’s comments about changing the rules of trade in order to bring back American jobs resonated. And Trump’s comments about women? Well, Bill Clinton has his issues in that area, too, John said, and he was a great president. (The more we talked, it became clear that when John said he didn’t like the Clintons, he meant one Clinton in particular.)


I had heard similar comments about the relative merits of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in Pennsylvania the day before. In the former mining city of Scranton, a trucking magnate told me that he admired Trump’s stance on avoiding taxes, on the grounds that it was what any sensible businessman would do.

This kind of sentiment was usual among the Republicans I met. The difference with John was that he was a Democrat and a blue-collar non-graduate – the kind of unionised worker who has traditionally made up the Democratic Party’s base.

Although I didn’t know it then, it was voters such as John who would win the election for Trump. In 2008, Obama carried Mahoning, the county that contains Youngstown, by 63 per cent to 35. This November, Hillary Clinton scraped it by 50 to 47, and Trump won Ohio by more than 8 points.

Ohio has long been a bellwether state. This pattern was repeated across the Rust Belt, with states that had not voted for a Republican in a generation – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan – narrowly opting for Trump. He didn’t win the popular vote, but thanks to the US electoral college system, he didn’t need to. If Hillary Clinton had won just over 100,000 more votes in those three states combined, she would be president-elect.

So why didn’t she win here? Part of the explanation can be found in the economic anxiety that has been described in any number of reports about Trump voters from cities such as Youngstown. (Oddly, there have been very few similar reports about why people voted for Clinton in places such as Detroit.) The Trump campaign’s shameless mobilisation of racial resentment had a lot to do with why she lost, too. However, these explanations are merely two sides of the same coin: out-and-out racism has always been a more successful electoral strategy when voters feel insecure about their place in the world.

There is something else at work here, too, and I wonder whether it is the same force that caused much of the north of England to vote for Brexit, and may yet propel Marine Le Pen to the French presidency. In the Republican primary, one of the biggest predictors of how likely someone was to vote Trump was not having a college degree. There are millions of those voters in Rust Belt towns like Youngstown, because there are so few graduate jobs to do there. If you have skills or ambitions, you will leave.

The result, in the US as in the UK, is a divide that is as much geographical as it is cultural. Some thriving cities are liberal and global; others are left wondering where it all went wrong. Those big rambling houses by Youngstown’s manicured park can be bought for as little as $70,000 – because why would someone who can afford more choose to live there?

When John asked me about Brexit, I thought he wanted to know how it had happened, and what it would mean for the UK. But the more I think about it, the more I suspect that what he was really asking was this: for once, can we actually win?

His candidate, Donald Trump, will now be president. Winning, though, may mean something else entirely. 

This article was previously published in our sister publication, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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