The Rust Belt: On the Falling of Empires

[Except from The Edge of Extinction (2014, Cornell University Press)]P1080968

At the top of the state of Ohio, it seems no one saw the economic tsunami coming. It rolled across the financial landscape, ripped the heart out of communities and eventually brought down a few of those who had played loose with the rules. As rough waters retreated, governments plundered from the future to save some of their banks, and now we’re all going to pay for years. In this way do empires eventually fall.

Too many of us in industrialised countries, and increasingly in developing ones too, aspire to consume goods and services that are stretching this planet’s capacity to supply them. It would have been fine if those dominant aspirations were for ways of living that trod lightly on the planet. But they are largely not. The financial storm was only a warning. The environment, which is the economy after all, was sending a signal.P1080980

In the rust belt, Cleveland was one of the worst affected by the credit crunch, and is now trying to think differently and map a route to some kind of new future. The town was established in 1796 where the Cuyahoga River flows into Lake Erie. It grew rapidly through the nineteenth century on trade from the Great Lakes through the Ohio-Erie canal. It rose further on steel manufacture from iron ore shipped from Minnesota by boat and coal by rail from the south, and became the country’s fifth largest city by 1920. Its population peaked at 915,000 in 1950, but then it stuttered. Heavy industries closed, the urban raced to suburbia, unrest grew, industrial waste caught fire on the river. The city defaulted on loans, and the population plummeted to 480,000 by the turn of the millennium.P1080876

It was, though, to get worse.

Slavic Village is a neighbourhood of detached houses on their own plots. The shingles are pastel blue and green, the windows and doors bright in the hard winter sunshine. But as we walk, it is through deserted streets. In the city, we do not wear paths into concrete and pavement, though nature is coming back anyway.

Almost all the homes are abandoned. Long shadows from bare trees stretch across the tarmac. The children’s play area is strewn with shards of glass. Fixed chess tables glint in the sunlight. A sheriff’s car drifts by, driver staring at us; just the sunglasses mirroring this cold outside world. One house has cars parked on the drive, and is well-maintained. Another has a yard sign: house for sale $20,000; or put down $500 cash and move in now. No one will. We walk around the back of one home with powdery blue sky showing through broken upper windows. A pale raccoon pokes its nose out of a basement hole and snarls.

People moved to neighbourhoods like Slavic Village because of sub-prime and predatory loans. Scandalous is a good description. Many were offered to people with irregular incomes or even no job. All were sold the idea of an American dream: you can own your own home. But no one said you could lose it too, and fast. Only a month after the mortgage company or bank decides you have a problem with repayments, they foreclose on the loan, assuming there is someone else in line to buy the house. The predatory loans are worse: knock on doors and sell the idea of a loan to someone who doesn’t need one. Steve met an elderly woman who had paid off her mortgage, but on her doorstep took out a loan for $57,000 for home repairs, pays the money to a builder working for the mortgage company, who then disappeared. She lost her home.

It was the wild west of lending. And there was no sheriff in town.P1080898

Cleveland was battered. There are 35,000 vacant properties in the city, 15,000 of which have been condemned. They will have to be demolished. All those destroyed families and livelihoods. Once a few houses go, the community unravels, the school comes under threat through falling rolls, bus routes move, local shops struggle. There are too few eyes to keep foreclosed properties safe. Boarded windows have curtains painted on them, a strange effort to make the place look alive. But as soon as the signs go on a house, thieves circle: they break in to rip out the sinks, metal pipes, copper wires, aluminium shingles. The speed of the descent is breathtaking, as is the shift from private responsibility to public sphere. Twenty-eight days after the issue of a warning for a late payment, the bank or mortgage company hands papers to a court. The following Monday morning at ten o’clock auctions are held, where the price begins at 75% of the value of the property. There is usually only one bidder: it’s the bank buying it back. The residents have to move, often thinking the process is over. But unless the ownership has passed to another loan-holder or householder, they are still liable to pay at least $10,000 for its eventual demolition. Those bankers probably deserve another bonus for their good work.

A determined man pushes a shopping trolley overflowing with the metal intestines of a house. He is close to the gates of a scrap yard, and twitches as we pass. We drive past closed factories, and then swing up to Cleveland Heights. Only a few minutes away are mansions on wide tree-lined streets, land donated by Rockefeller to the city. Here are cars, people, and no sign whatsoever of the abandoned neighbourhood just down the road. We pull over at a coffee shop, inside are piles of books on tables by padded sofas.

Marianne James has been in Hyacinth since the late 1970s. She grew up in Berlin, was bombed in the war, P1080934survived but always hungry, had no shoes for years, then migrated to America, and has seen her community fall apart again. She’s about five feet nothing tall, with grey hair and half-moon glasses, a sliver cross outside her dark blouse, working jeans and a cell phone clipped to one side of her belt, a bunch of keys to the other. Ten years ago, after fire damage to the shop and home, the whole neighbourhood helped her rebuild. But then came robbers, five times, the last man putting a gun put to her chest. Now she’s the one jailed in, behind bullet-proof glass with rotating unit to deliver goods and take money. Mostly she sells lottery tickets and cigarettes, but there are soft drinks and bread loaves too. But it’s still her community. She’s seen children grow up and have their own children. A little girl was born up the road two days ago, she says proudly. The kids in the neighbourhood call her Mrs Mary, unofficial grandmother to all. But next door, more thieves broke in and stole the sink and pipes. They bashed a hole in the wall to snatch the boiler too.

“I’ll never leave,” she says defiantly, “it can’t get worse.” The dark shop window blinks with red lights: lottery, it invites.

There are raw streets of cold skeletal houses. In yards are collapsed sofas, rolls of old curtain, other P1080852discards. Two men stand by a plain white van outside a boarded house, and stare unspoken challenges as we walk by. There’s an air of menace. No gardens are cultivated, there will be no flowers this spring, nor vegetables. There are broken windows, scattered glass fragments, paint peeling, piles of tyres on the corner. Technically, these properties are OVV: open, vacant and vandalised. Past the distinguished Brost Foundary building, established 1920, closed too. What is clear, though, is that most of the houses are structurally sound. These fleeting achievements shouldn’t have been abandoned. These ruins in the making challenge assumptions about the inevitability of human progress.

Christopher Woodward observed in his In Ruins, “when we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future.” He was talking of Rome, a city of 800,000 people in AD400, and only 30,000 by the mid-sixth century. At its height, there is no evidence that any writer, painter or politician imagined such an outcome. Oddly, in these modern ruins, there can be a sense of absolute peace. The people have gone. Home improvements, says a sign. For sale, again $500 down. At a shopping centre there are no banks, only checking centres for cashing welfare cheques, and fast food outlets. A dream has destroyed these places and their people, breaking hopes and aspirations, causing the collapse of city and security. In the past ten years, Cleveland has lost another 50,000 people from within its borders.

Is there any surprise that some people are still angry in 2016?The Edge of Extinction book cover

How much are these dying cities a sign of something more problematic with the global economy? Two things are kept secret from children: birth and death. “I am afraid of death,” said Gilgamesh, “so I wander the world.” Oddly, though, dead bodies are treated with a respect that the alive often do not receive. This is a little like ruins: once fully dead, the ended-civilisation is treated with restored respect, visited by tourists. But unlike human deaths, which have many and diverse rituals and ceremonies, there are none associated with the dying of cities and their civilisations. These cities of the former rust belt may evolve into new ones with green economies. But maybe they will not.

Nature invades empty plots, descends on semi-demolished buildings as they crumble into grass and scrub.