- Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of Deindustrialization
In Corporate Wasteland, Steven High and photographer David W. Lewis capture in oral histories and photos the material and psychic landscapes of [End Page 228] working-class Americans and Canadians who watched the shutting down of factories that had sustained their families and their communities. In selfconscious dialogue with other studies of deindustrialization, High and Lewis explore how memories of plant-closings have themselves been historically constructed and what those memories reveal and obscure about the conflicts of economic dispossession.
By moving back and forth between American and Canadian cities, the book offers a persuasive model for placing industrial history in a “North American” frame. Deindustrialization in Canada was initially less severe than in the United States; when it occurred, it was often at the hands of American corporations and elicited a nationalist opposition, and yet, in the end, the same experiences of shock and anger crossed national borders.
A chapter on Youngstown, Ohio, examines how the memory of closing the steel mills was produced locally and also became a national symbol, best represented in Bruce Springsteen’s lament. At both levels, selective “memory” has elided events, especially the organized resistance of the Ecumenical Coalition to Save the Mahoning Valley, in favor of narratives of victimization. Three decades later, even some who remember resistance have come to resent its failure, and no one in Steel Valley knows what to do with the ongoing burden of the memory of loss. The museum celebrating the rise and fall of the valley’s industry attracts outsiders, not local visitors.
Throughout the book, High and Lewis repeatedly reject “nostalgia” as a stance through which to view the past and also question the saliency or sufficiency of “localism.” Nostalgia is an easy target, since the culture at large has effectively emptied the word of any complexity and turned it into a dismissive epithet. It takes a while for a reader to figure out what is wrong with localism. High worries that localism slips into the mystique of communitarianism without recognizing how divided communities actually are. And one very effective chapter demonstrates those divisions by juxtaposing the fury of displaced mill families in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, who denounced the actions of the American lumber conglomerate Weyerhaeuser, to the icy detachment of other local residents who rebuked mill workers for “whining.” But to say that communities are divided, or that sentimental stories of deindustrialization are composed and circulate nationally or transnationally as well as locally, or that the forces of capital flight must be understood within an international framework, does not counter the value that this book as a whole imparts to the local specificity of factories that governed the lives of thousands of people.
What the oral histories show is that people do mourn deeply the loss of places and institutions that have shaped their lives for good or ill. They may also resist; they may remember selectively or compress a decade of downsizing into a single story of a plant’s closing. They may also “move on” (to deploy that peculiarly spatialized metaphor for recovery from trauma), but the testimonies and photographs of Corporate Wasteland are eloquent [End Page 229] expressions of nostalgia, and they are intensely local—as is especially revealed in one “gypsy” autoworker’s personal tour of the Detroit automobile factories along I-75 that were sequentially shut down as he moved from plant to plant.
For years, it was possible to teach the industrial era with reference to its artifacts, which surrounded us. Corporate Wasteland shows how the urban adventure movement of the 1990s turned abandoned factories into playgrounds, sending out expeditions to explore the hulks and then posting photographs online as trophies. Since 9/11, a layer of “no trespassing” signs and surveillance cameras wrap our cities and neighborhoods, and a younger generation seems less curious about the buildings of the industrial past. High and Lewis are themselves not interested in industrial archaeology or historic preservation. They document and interrogate memory, inextricably linked...