Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America by Tracy Neumann (review)
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Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America. Tracy Neumann. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. 270, us $49.95 cloth

In many ways, the burgeoning historiography surrounding deindustrialization in North America is the heir apparent to an earlier social history’s restless quest to uncover, “rescue,” and centre how workers experienced the vagaries of capitalism. Tracy Neumann’s Remaking the Rust Belt, conversely, is an important reminder that any serious claim to historical understanding must also pay close attention to the culture and contexts of political and economic elites. Focusing on place-based patterns of response to deindustrialization in Pittsburgh and Hamilton, she argues that locally produced “growth coalitions” of businesspeople and decision makers operated within a shared North Atlantic world of concepts and strategies for dealing with economic shifts. Neumann thus historicizes the neo-liberal urbanism of the post-industrial cities we know today, de-naturalizing the shift to consumption and knowledge-based economies by rooting it in intentional local efforts to remake urban space in the grips of tectonic material change.

Neumann is at her most convincing when outlining the cross-border networks of ideas, bureaucratic boosters, marketing firms, and economic development structures linking Pittsburgh and Hamilton. Tracing the origins of these growth coalitions to their immediate post-Second World War roots in urban renewal projects, she is able to effectively undermine the received narrative of “industrial Golden Age followed by collapse” to get at the long-term development of the post-industrial vision. The centrality of place in her analysis further permits the delineation of difference rooted in national context, as local political structures either facilitated (Pittsburgh) or constrained (Hamilton) the ease with which business and political elites collaborated to remake their cities.

However, the book is also a good example of the dangers underlying the comparative approach. While Remaking the Rust Belt relies on a rich variety of sources and viewpoints in developing arguments about Pittsburgh, the growth-coalition framework has less analytical purchase in the Hamilton context (perhaps reflecting what seems to be a slightly less well-rounded source base of mostly newspaper articles and government archives). The concomitant stress placed on “Canada’s regulatory environment” as the source of Hamilton’s ambiguous track record in rallying its residents to a post-industrial vision of the city thus slides too easily over important differences in national histories of resistance [End Page 172] to deindustrialization and Canadian workers’ success in imposing what Steven High, in Industrial Sunset (University of Toronto Press, 2003), has described as a nationalism-based “moral economy on companies” that prevented the complete disintegration of industrial modes of production.

The elision of histories of resistance also has important repercussions for our understanding of Pittsburgh. In Neumann’s chapter on “Spaces of Production and Spaces of Consumption,” for example, she outlines the absorption of progressive community groups on the city’s south side into the kind of heritage-based boosterism typical of post-industrialism’s “privatist” ideology. Without addressing the tensions and conflicts behind the transformation of these groups, however (were there opposing camps within the local development framework; what happened to Black Power; left intellectuals; blue-collar ethnic groups?), the book’s project of uncovering intentionality in the construction of the post-industrial city is left unfinished. While Neumann elaborates on the political and economic elite’s active scuttling of the community-led Steel Valley Authority’s attempt to advance worker-controlled “re-industrialization,” Remaking the Rust Belt is generally undermined by its failure to map the contestations from below of the consensus being fashioned from above.

This analytical weakness may in fact be rooted in what seems like a larger overall refusal to look too critically at the mutually constitutive roles of state and capital in constructing unequal neo-liberal polities. The main characters in Neumann’s narrative are by and large well-meaning local officials whose “complicity was the unintentional outcome of limited resources” (13), the product more of operational blinders than a pre-designed exclusionary vision. Perhaps. And yet, for all her clearly felt sympathies with the victims of the post-industrial era, one is left with the impression that the author...


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