“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.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.