They Will Be Nameless: Rust Belt remnants, from brass thru Bethlehem  [Photos]

 

This is a story of what remains: a look at a defining slice of the U.S. Rust Belt and what it’s become in the wake of the area’s industrial demise.  For most of the twentieth century, this region (from southern New England through the Mid-Atlantic states to the Midwest and parts of the Southeast) was where people, irrespective of their formal education, had been virtually assured of livable wages if they were willing to put in a hard day’s work in the factories and mills.

 

It’s no secret that in the two decades beginning roughly in the late 1950s, American industry declined precipitously.  Corporations decentralized, moved to the South, relocated abroad or outsourced jobs, replaced workers with technology or diversified into non-manufacturing sectors where the return on investment was higher, ingratiating themselves with stockholders at the expense of everyone else.

 

In the post-industrial, service-oriented U.S., large areas of the Rust Belt are yet to recover.  Income imbalances have skyrocketed, and nothing suggests that trend will be reigned in anytime soon.

 

I traveled around, and tried to see what’s become of these often-perilous communities, asking myself:  What remains?  What opportunities exist?  What are the disadvantaged doing to try to survive financially and psychologically?  I roamed main streets and back streets.  I talked with retired mill workers still living in the neighborhoods that had decayed around them, as well as to immigrants who had drifted to these economic fringes.

 

Factories that employed thousands or tens of thousands have largely been replaced by small high-tech shops, engineering companies and I.T. firms, where people need specialized training.  For the unemployed and underemployed, the mainly service jobs that remain pay poorly and, all too often, disappear quickly.  Steelmaking skills do not translate easily into other kinds of jobs.  “It’s kinda hard to work at Wal-Mart after all that” I’d hear former steelworkers say.

 

Whole cities and towns have struggled to economically reinvent themselves, with spotty success.

 

Today the power structure is so entrenched, its means of dominance so fine-tuned by decades of pay-scale manipulation and the enshrinement of subservience over skill, that decision-making elites operate with so much impunity and cover as to themselves be all but invisible.

 

I tried to catch stories in people’s faces -- those nameless many -- and in how they pieced together their lives.  I tried as well to put myself in their shoes.  It was, after all, in one of these towns that I grew up, but also from which I did my best to escape, as if escape were really possible.