Posts Tagged ‘Rust Belt’


“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote as America struggled to birth itself. Now, we face the coronavirus pandemic. To strengthen our souls, looking back may offer a clearer picture of the future.

Is the sky falling? Gray clouds have gathered and they’re darkening. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “It is going to get worse.” At my age, Covid-19 poses a risk, although my health is excellent. Still, the world won’t come to an end.

Am I a Pollyanna? No, a realist. Major events of my 75-year lifetime provide some perspective.

When I was six, Americans were fighting in Korea—wherever that was. At P.S. 174 in Queens, I joined classmates in duck-and-cover drills to protect from a Soviet nuclear attack on New York. Polio still took a heavy toll on children. A friend survived it but emerged with a limp.

Jim Crow was alive and well in the south and practiced unofficially elsewhere. This, too, was a health scare since African Americans’ health was imperiled by being hung from a tree or shot or burned while at home.

The Cold War produced Vietnam. The American toll in Southeast Asia totaled 58,000, including my friend 1LT Howie Schnabolk, an Army medevac pilot shot down on 3 August 1967. Killed and wounded GIs were just part of the story.

The nation was coming apart at the seams. Nightsticks and dogs attacked civil rights marchers. Martin Luther King was assassinated, which led to riots producing death and destruction in urban ghettos. Political unrest forced Lyndon Johnson to forego running for another term as president in 1968. Which gave us Richard Nixon.

American industry took a header. Japanese cars battered Detroit. Then all sorts of industrial jobs fled the Midwest—soon to be known as the Rust Belt—for the American south and then Asia. AIDS emerged in the 1980s. It took the lives of as many as 700,000 Americans, including three of my fraternity brothers.

In the ’90s, the Boom lifted a lot of people’s spirits—until the Bust sent them plummeting. On 9/11, the Twin Towers fell and turmoil reigned. The nation rose up yet launched a foolish and costly war with Iraq. The stock market soared again until, in 2008, the financial industry collapsed with the market hitting its low point in March 2009.

Yet even recovery from the Great Recession wasn’t enough to calm a deeply divided America. Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.

I’ve seen a lot, but so did my parents: The First World War, the Spanish flu (1918-20) which killed over 50 million worldwide and more than half a million Americans, the Depression, World War Two.

In time of crisis, I turn to the English writer Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . you’ll be a Man my son!”

Keep washing your hands. Keep maintaining your social distance. Keep your head on your shoulders and your chin up. Male, female or nonbinary, you’ll be a mensch. And as a nation, we’ll get to sing along with another Briton, Elton John: “I’m Still Standing.”

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When a black man named Freddie Gray died while in custody of the Baltimore police last month, anguish led to protest. Protest led both to legitimate grievance and illegitimate violence. Black fingers pointed at racism. White fingers pointed at irresponsible black communities. Both were wrong. Both were right.

I wish I had a simple formula for overcoming the problems that beset inner-city African-American neighborhoods. But I end up with that evergreen question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Let’s start with poverty. African-Americans aren’t the only ethnic group in the United States to face that challenge. Yet only African-Americans were legally enslaved in this country—and for centuries. Freedom brought Jim Crow in the southern states and de facto segregation in the rest of the country, including here in San Francisco. Yes, changes have been made. But if you’re black, you still face discrimination on many fronts no matter how successful you’ve become.

Back to the core challenge: I’ve been in East Baltimore with its neglected streets and boarded-up buildings. And I can’t help asking myself: How would I fare growing up there? Could I break out of the cycle? Many black Americans have. But it’s an uphill battle. And many young people have to climb a virtual cliff. It’s harder than middle-class people imagine because a lack of prospects can warp the way you see the world. As Paul Krugman commented in The New York Times (5-4-15), “…middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs.”

The first half of the twentieth century produced a huge middle class thanks to industrialization and union wages. When I was a kid, America still offered plentiful jobs to high school graduates in mines, mills, factories and ports, as well as in offices and retail stores. Non-grads with strong backs could find lesser paying jobs. In the ‘seventies, Japan’s lower labor costs and use of automation undercut America’s industrial base. We coined a new term for the Midwest, where manufacturing took a precipitous plunge—the Rust Belt. Ultimately, American industry climbed back. But sophisticated automation results in far fewer jobs for those lacking basic to advanced technology skills.

Still, there’s more to it, I believe. A social pathology long ago infiltrated many once-thriving black neighborhoods. In part, it was aided and abetted by black leaders for whom victimization trumped self-reliance and self-control. The ‘sixties saw the federal government invest huge amounts of money in inner cities. Corrupt leaders ripped off much of it. Frustration spawned riots. It also produced negative attitudes towards education and social order. Those who valued them were denounced for “acting white.” Accomplished African Americans fled the old neighborhoods just as successful members of other ethnic communities have done. Single-mother families with fathers shuttling back and forth to prison became the new normal. Drugs and gangs claimed lives. Despair increased.

Sadly, understanding causation doesn’t provide a solution. So I ask again: Which comes first? Do we need more and better government assistance to create jobs for the chronically unemployed along with better schools and enhanced childcare? Or do black communities need to leave behind old baggage, including dependence on the government, and buckle down in defiance of the odds? The best answer I can offer is, it’s the chicken and the egg.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at

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I’ve been away for several weeks. My first of two trips took me with several friends on a tour of Midwest baseball parks. The stadiums are eye openers. So are their urban settings.

We flew to Detroit, but we stayed overnight in Dearborn. In spite of the comeback of the Big Three automakers and valiant efforts on the part of small-business developers (see “Chavez, Detroit and Me”), Detroit remains a foreboding city. Comerica Park where the Tigers play? A fantasy world! A huge plaza fronts Woodward Avenue, the Motor City’s main drag. Two huge lions grace the entry. Inside, the park gleams. It even contains a carousel.  Baseball games long ceased being just games. They’re spectacle-filled events.

Back to downtown Detroit. Yes, there’s Ford Field, home of the NFL Lions, and Joe Louis Arena (the NHL Red Wings) as well as the Detroit Opera, the Fox Theatre, Greektown and a pleasant walkway on the Detroit River. But the vast majority of Tiger fans come from the suburbs. A city that once housed over two million people is bankrupt and down to 700,000 residents plus 50,000 feral cats. That cats may someday outnumber people constitutes a real possibility.

After the game, we drove to Pittsburgh. Here we found another wonderful baseball cathedral, PNC Park. We also discovered a city that has reinvented itself. Pittsburgh faced the daunting challenge of a shrinking steel industry. But the city—now graced by clear blue skies—remains home to other major employers, including Heinz, PPG Industries and the PNC Financial Services Group. Westinghouse is headquartered in the suburbs. Then there’s the University of Pittsburgh and its massive medical center (over 50,000 employees) plus Carnegie-Mellon University. The city’s wealthy leaders, it seems, provided serious seed money for urban redevelopment, including repurposing old buildings as well as constructing new ones.

We took a bus tour. Obviously, the route didn’t include slums. It did include a healthy downtown, thriving nearby neighborhoods like the Strip, with its shops and restaurants, and the Southside with its new apartment complexes and bustling commercial streets. To a man, we were impressed. The question everyone has to ask: can Detroit find a model in Pittsburgh?

Some of us accidentally discovered a third city of note—this in addition to visiting Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis. I turned onto the wrong highway to Chicago and had to detour on Broadway in Gary, Indiana. In 1960, Gary, a steel town, had 178,000 residents. Today, only 80,000 live in this Rust Belt “icon.” Two-and-a-half miles on Broadway revealed no more than half-a-dozen vehicles ahead. I also recall seeing only one open business—a gas station—though there could have been others. Broadway could have past for a post-apocalyptic movie setting. It made Detroit’s Woodward Avenue look like Times Square.

Three cities. Three stories. The heart of America’s heartland still beats, but its pulse is uneven at best. We who live in prosperous coastal cities may find “flyover country” easy to disregard. But these communities also are part of America. When we ignore their plight, we shame ourselves.

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Read the first three chapters of David’s novels SAN CAFÉ and SLICK! at You’ll also find online ordering links for, and