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Life Among the Ruins: Deindustrialization in Historiographical Perspective
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I live in a depleted city (Sydney), in a deindustrialized region (Cape Breton Regional Municipality), on a marginal island (Cape Breton), in a have-not province (Nova Scotia). As recently as the mid-1960s, the city, region, and island were supported economically by coal mining, steel making, and fish processing; thousands were employed directly in these areas, while thousands upon thousands more provided supportive goods and services. Things have changed dramatically since then. No one on the island goes underground for coal anymore, nor does anyone here smelt iron ore. Fish plant workers remain, but they are few in number and endangered. Within the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, which used to be called “industrial Cape Breton” because the island’s steel industry and nearly all of its coal mines fell within its boundaries, the impact of this protracted economic decline has been dramatic and seemingly irreversible. Between 1961 and 2011, the municipality’s population has contracted from 131,507 to 97,398, a drop of nearly 26 per cent; immigration to the region is non-existent. The average family income is 40 per cent less than in the rest of Canada; 24 per cent of children under the age of six live in low-income houses, a rate above the provincial and national average; most of those households are led by single women. Levels of arthritis, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, substance abuse, and cancer are either among the highest or (in the case of cancer) are the highest in the country. Derelict houses and buildings line many streets, and arson is all too common. The municipal government is practically bankrupt, while property taxes are the highest in the province. The (official) unemployment rate for the island as a whole hovers around 15 per cent. It isn’t pretty. Yet people, like me and 97,397 others still live here, on the leeward side of a clearly defined and still influential economic moment. And we are not alone in this endeavour. As Alice Mah reveals in her recent study, people live with industrial ruination all over the world.

To understand these lives, she begins, it is critical to distinguish between two concepts: “industrial ruins” and “industrial ruination.” The former term refers to the physical remains of industrial production: abandoned infrastructure, boarded-up buildings, derelict machinery, fenced-off fields. Emptied of economic purpose, yet often still an imposing physical presence, their degradation evokes a lost civilization, she writes, albeit one created and abandoned within a relatively compressed period of time. Amidst the ruins, a longing for the time when these things functioned properly is commonplace; so too is a sense of awe, induced by the size and scale of the physical remains themselves, a feeling some have called the “deindustrial sublime.” In contrast, the latter phrase, industrial ruination, is meant to redirect our view away from seeing abandoned structures as static things, mere targets of aesthetic experiences, and toward a perspective that emphasizes their connections to the communities and memories within which they rest. “At any given moment, an industrial ruin appears as a snapshot of time and space within a longer process of ruination,” Mah writes. “Later, the ruin will inevitably undergo processes of demolition, reuse, or rebirth. Snapshots of industrial ruination can reveal a great deal about the socioeconomic processes, but cannot be separated from either … the spaces in which they are located or the people who make these surroundings.” (11) Mah has three snapshots of industrial ruination in mind: Niagara Falls (Canada/US), Newcastle upon Tyne (England), and Ivanovo (Russia). Sociological in outlook, her analysis of each locale engages with a series of critical questions that have come to define the interdisciplinary study of deindustrialization over the past three decades. Why does deindustrialization occur? What are its consequences? What are the strengths and limitations of a comparative analysis?

Causes

The term “deindustrialization” is often used to describe the sudden collapse of employment in resource extraction, heavy manufacturing, and value-added production – economic sectors that are sometimes referred to as “basic” industries – within a short time frame and in a defined location or region. For North American historians, the term also has a slightly narrower definition: it is...



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