Will the Last One Out of ***** Please Shut Out the Lights?!

A pithy saying often heard in the Rust Belt, reflective of…..the loss of community, dearth of culture, malaise/apathy, physical atrophy/blight, urban decay, exodus, and general collapse that accompanies job loss and its attendant economic withering. The recent economic downturn is hardly new to most of us in Flyover Country™. That doesn’t mean there still weren’t jobs worth losing:

  • Herrin, Illinois (pop. 11,835): 1,000 jobs lost with the closing of the Maytag plant in 2006.
  • Decatur, Illinois (pop. 81,860): 1,000 jobs lost to Caterpillar layoffs announced in 2009.
  • Galesburg, Illinois (pop. 34,000): 1,600 jobs lost to the Maytag closing in 2004.
  • Rockford, Illinois (pop. 157,000): over 15% unemployment; layoffs at Gates Corp., Pac-Sci Motion Control, Amerock, Hamilton/Sunstrand, Clarcor, etc.
  • Belvidere, Illinois (pop. 20,820): initial layoffs at the Chrysler plant 1,000; could potentially impact 3,800.
  • Rantoul, Illinois (pop. 12,400): 770 jobs lost to Collins & Aikman closing

Where to begin? Danville, Illinois (pop. 34,000) is enduring the layoff of 195 at Freight Car America, but that’s a small number in comparison with the losses of the 1980s and 90s at General Electric, General Motors, Hyster, Bohn Aluminum, Teepak, Anchor Hocking, etc. Streator, Illinois (pop. 14,190) once billed itself as “The Glass Container Capital of the World!” when Owens-Illinois had 3,500 workers; now Owens is down to 250. Kankakee (pop. 25,561) is losing 119 jobs this year at American Spring Wire. Jacksonville, Illinois (pop. 18,940) is weathering the shuttering of ACH Foods and EMI. Pontiac, Illinois (pop. 11,864) is losing 262 jobs at the Interlake facility. Mattoon, Charleston, Bloomington, Peoria, Quincy, Rock Island, Springfield, Havana, Clinton, Pinckneyville, West Frankfort, Sterling, East St. Louis, Granite City, Moline, Ottawa, Carlinville, Hillsboro, Salem, Paris, Olney, Mt. Carmel, Joliet, Aurora, Chicago and its satellite cities—you’d be hard pressed to find an Illinois city that hasn’t been negatively impacted by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Here’s a list of TAA petitions to the Illinois Department of Employment Security; for a longer list that includes petitions still under consideration, you can visit the U. S. Department of Labor TAA site here and type in “Illinois”.

NAFTA hasn’t been kind to my state. Jobs with Justice produced a paper that outlines the job erosion. Jobs lost in Illinois since September 2008 now number 268,000. But again…..we’ve been hemorrhaging jobs for three decades. Prisons are seen as one solution. The state legislature seems to think that casinos and legalized video gambling in bars will make up the difference. Welcome to Illinois.

Or Michigan. Indiana. Wisconsin. Ohio. Missouri. “Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores…Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more….They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks…Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back….”* That album came out in 1984. It’s worse now. The damage is cumulative. When those jobs left, they took entire communities with them. The lost wages (and benefits) from manufacturing jobs were just the immediate loss. Other jobs that depended on those plants (like say….electricians) left too. Other jobs that depended on the disposable income from those jobs (grocers, hardware stores, credit unions, etc.) left. Economically abandoned cities became commuter villages as folks hardscrabbled a living by increasing their drive time. The recent economic ‘downturn’ isn’t recent. It needs to be understood in the context of what has been happening across the world over decades. This is what it looks like in my slice of the world.

This is what my whole state looks like. Death by one thousand cuts.

*Bruce Springsteen, “My Hometown”

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27 comments for “Will the Last One Out of ***** Please Shut Out the Lights?!

  1. September 15, 2009 at 8:01 am

    Man, this post about ripped my heart out, like hearing from a stranger bad news about a mutual friend. I can remember, even during the Clinton years (I didn’t leave Illinois until ’97), talking to my dad and us just laughing at how everyone else in the country seemed to be having good times that we were missing out on.

    I mean, how many people did we know who lost their farms and went to work for Cat or Deere? And now, like you say, those jobs are going.

    There is literally nothing left in the state for people to do–well, except make meth and grow pot. And the advantage to that is that the people who do that and get caught will be keeping their friends and relatives who work in the prison system employed.

    Shoot, Illinois, at this point it’s almost your civic duty to manufacture drugs.

    Ha, sorry. A little gallows humor there.

  2. chocolatepie
    September 15, 2009 at 8:57 am

    Not to mention the systematic destruction of labor groups and laws since Reagan. We’ve been warned about the effects of increasing inequality over and over, but no one who can make a difference ever seems to listen!

  3. Irene M.
    September 15, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Well, my childhood hunting grounds has finally made feministe. *sob*

    Also, don’t forget about the Motorola plant that closed in Harvard, IL (pop. around 9,000) just outside of Rockford. It employed over 5,000 people many of whom had been with the company for decades. My Dad, who only has a 2 year degree, worked his way up from the bottom over the past 30 years. He’s now in his 50s and is busy providing for my baby brother and step-mother when he should be planning his retirement. Thankfully, he has wisely invested a lot of money and found a nice temporary job, so his still very well-off. However, a lot of our friends and neighbors have not been as lucky.

  4. Linnaeus
    September 15, 2009 at 10:35 am

    I visit my family in Michigan (where I grew up) twice a year, and the last couple of visits have been depressing in terms of what’s happening there economically. I went driving with a friend when I was there this past August, and all along our route, he kept pointing out places that were no longer in business, some of which had been operating for years.

    This has been going on far too long.

  5. September 15, 2009 at 10:42 am

    I could make a list like that for Indiana, too. The kinds of solid, middle-class jobs that kept large swathes of people above water — mostly based in manufacturing, the auto industry, steel, parts — are gone. Just gone. Seniority means nothing. The local chapters are trying to stay open to keep people at least partially employed, whether that means opening only three days a week, or only opening two weeks of the month. Wabash, CAT, Frito-Lay, Subaru, Chrysler, all of them.

    You head into the farming communities and people have these amazing, frugal side jobs cobbled out of nothing to keep afloat, like auctioneering, crafting, small-scale seasonal farming. Until they start selling their primary farms by tens of acres until the whole thing is gone or run by some massive corporate arm.

    It breaks my heart.

    And Aunt B, a little gallows humor, yes, but in some areas it really does make more sense to make drugs out of your fertilizer than till it in the ground.

  6. La Lubu
    September 15, 2009 at 10:51 am

    I could make a list like that for Indiana, too.

    Lauren, please do.

  7. September 15, 2009 at 10:52 am

    I grew up in St. Joseph, MI and now live in Detroit — and I’m SO grateful to you for speaking up at Feministe about what’s happening in this gorgeous Midwestern landscape. It’s an underwritten story (or a poorly written “parachute in/parachute out” story) that rarely has the voices of the people who’ve grown up here centered in it, those of us who love people here and feel the burn of these painful losses.

    In St. Joseph, the southwest corner of Michigan, nearly everybody is working at Whirlpool, the appliance manufacturer. Whirlpool’s laying off people like crazy, as the recession has people putting off purchases of washing machines and coffee makers.

    My dad hasn’t been laid off yet, but he’s cut it close–he’s 50, didn’t get a college degree until the early 1990s, and he watches people decades younger than him and new to the company promoted above him, carrying expensive MBAs with them. And he keeps being threatened with being “walked to the door.” My parents are frightened for their future.

    To see him go through this–my hardworking, honest dad–is one of my greatest heartbreaks. And to see this experience echoed all over Michigan and the Midwest–it hurts so much.

    I’m an environmentalist, and I want to see our economy be much more sustainable, but I have to say: I get fucking sick of people who live elsewhere speaking callously about the car companies and other manufacturers for being short-sighted, greedy polluters who deserve every bit of suffering they get. “Let Detroit Die” is a headline I saw.

    There sure have been sins in our past. But my god–There are PEOPLE here. And I, for one, still believe in them. In us.

  8. September 15, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Thank you for posting this. When I returned to Ponca City, Okla., for my tenth high school reunion last year, I was astonished by how much the town had shrunk. It turned out that the Conoco Phillips refinery had been restructuring. The final blow came last year when they laid off all but operations personnel. Hundreds of well-paying jobs – both white collar and blue collar, scientists, accounts payable, janitorial – all gone like that.

    Then the Albertson’s warehouse closed, and the meatpacking plant closed as well.

    The loss of those jobs has a ripple effect that impacts just about every other business in town, not to mention the cluster of smaller towns that surround Ponca. I saw more empty businesses and homes for sale than I’m comfortable with seeing.

    It was very hard to see Ponca, which had been the backdrop for some of my most cherished teenage memories, shriveling up and dying like that. I can only imagine how difficult it is for the people who still live there, and the people who lost their jobs.

  9. September 15, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    Anna, I have made the exact same point, repeatedly. There’s not a person involved with the automotive industry who doesn’t know and hasn’t known for a long time how fucked up it is. But the Midwest is dependent on that industry and just letting it fail means letting the whole region die.

    I don’t know. It just scares the shit out of me to try to imagine how this is going to work. My brother’s friends–most of whom didn’t attend college, because even ten years ago you could still get jobs that didn’t require them–now have small kids.

    Even if there were jobs somewhere else, I literally do not know how they would move to those jobs. They have possessions now, and own homes, and weren’t ever expecting to be rich, but thought that it wasn’t unreasonable to do that stuff and now the bottom has fallen out.

    And he’s got a couple of friends who were going to get married last year and didn’t, because they figured out that it was easier to get state aid if they weren’t. I don’t believe in the sanctity of marriage, but there’s something really wrong when two people who love each other and have a family decide that it makes more economic sense to stay unmarried and living apart.

  10. Bitter Scribe
    September 15, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    I live in Elgin, Ill., and it seems like every other industrial building has a For Sale sign. Heartbreaking and chilling.

  11. Linnaeus
    September 15, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I come from an autoworker family going back a couple of generations at least. My dad retired from Chrysler about 7 years ago. Last time I saw him, he made the offhand comment, “I think I can make it until February”, when he’s eligible to start collecting Social Security. He isn’t by any means destitute, but I have to say that I never thought I would hear him say that.

  12. Taishyr (Lee)
    September 15, 2009 at 2:00 pm


    Definitely know what you’ve been seeing. Born/raised in Kalamazoo, family in St. Joseph – I’ve seen how bad St. Joseph is getting lately; you possibly have, too.

    It’s a modern ghost town.

    The roads are empty, the buildings are closed or tattered by constant use because they’re the only things still open, still able to do anything, and even then the owners can’t dream of affording repairs to anything.

    Kalamazoo’s getting lean as well – Pfizer’s stripping down jobs constantly, which means a lot of the good minds created by the colleges here no longer have any reason to stick around. We’re lucky, comparatively, in that we’ve had multiple different bases to work from – but losing the car companies and Pfizer has been slowly cementing the loss of all the old paper mills around here that occured ~20-25 yrs ago.

    In some small form, I have to agree with one of those mottos – let Detroit die, so that it can be reborn. As it stands, it’s dying, and there’s nothing that’s being done to effectively stop it – I’m not convinced that the current process can be stopped, honestly. But the framework and the potential is there for Michigan – and the rest of the Rust Belt – to be able to build something. That needs to be utilized, badly. And it’ll take a lot of bravery and foresight to pull off.

    It’s still the only chance that the Rust Belt has, I think. We have the foundation – we just need something built that can stay, even if that means closing the door on much of what’s here now.

    I don’t know. This might just be two parts delusion, one part desperation, to suggest shifting focuses entirely – but in many regards all our current businesses here have already shifted focuses away from us. The paper mills, Pfizer, the car companies, Whirlpool… all have pretty much maintained only a skeletal frame here in an attempt to make themselves feel better.

    What industry, what businesses, need to move in? I don’t know – my gut says we could make a killing off solar/wind energy mass production in the years to come, as well as using the colleges/universities here to create a massive research network to fuel such enterprises. You’d need to make the hooks that keep them here, though, and from there I confess to being clueless.

  13. Linnaeus
    September 15, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    I get fucking sick of people who live elsewhere speaking callously about the car companies and other manufacturers for being short-sighted, greedy polluters who deserve every bit of suffering they get. “Let Detroit Die” is a headline I saw.

    I decided to Google “let detroit die”, and though most of what I read didn’t surprise me, I came across this column by Mark Morford of SFGate.com titled not, “Let Detroit Die” but “Detroit Must Die”. I wanted to punch my computer screen after I read that.

  14. September 15, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    It’s still the only chance that the Rust Belt has, I think. We have the foundation – we just need something built that can stay, even if that means closing the door on much of what’s here now.

    I’d like to think Indiana has something going on — in my area at least they are trying to experiment with green energy to see if they can a) create jobs and b) take advantage of some of the waste from large farm operations. We’ve got an eco-city experiment not too far from here and they’ve really started building up some wind farm operations.

    So far, from what I can tell (because the windmills aren’t in operation yet — soon!) the majority of these green jobs are filled by professionals from out of state to build the initial crop. Don’t know how it will play out long-term, but they’re really quite beautiful against the flat landscape. They’re pretty amazing.

    The green city, though. It’s a little bitty town called Reynolds, less than 600 people, and was picked because they are “able to subsist almost entirely on locally produced alternative energy. Called “BioTown, USA“, the pilot project involved converting local vehicles to run on ethanol and biodiesel fuels and converting animal waste into electricity and natural gas. Reynolds was selected to become BioTown, USA because of its size, its easy accessibility by road and by rail, and its proximity to both large-scale livestock farms and to Purdue University” (wikipedia). It’s been slow-going. The primary issue is that the state codes for energy use and gasoline-based car infrastructure make it difficult from the get-go, and the applicable science isn’t quite there yet that will maintain the standard of living for the town’s residents (like, the odor, for example).

    Regardless, I’m very intolerant of people who suggest the real issue is that we’re too stupid to move away from our homes to pursue other jobs that may not exist elsewhere.

    I also have to say, having grown up in a manufacturing state, that I find the idea of converting to a service-based nation a really odd one.

  15. Taishyr (Lee)
    September 15, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    Huh, that is reassuring news of steps in that direction, though as you said it’s slow going. Expanding that in a large regard to much of the rest of the Rust Belt would be another step, though one likely to come much later after that’s been “observed” long enough.

    But yeah, I don’t get the service-based nation concept so much either, and am definitely sympathetic to your issue re: “just move somewhere else”. Especially since, for a lot of families, that is -not- an option. You need money in order to actually “move” in a format that isn’t just “clothes on your back and maybe a backpack/suitcase”; not an option for families, period.

  16. Cleveland Lass
    September 15, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Ohio is the same way. Cincinnati, Dayton, Middletown, Hamilton, Warren, Akron, Cleveland. Sometimes, while out cycling, I pass through districts of abanonded factories and I feel as though the rest of the nation has left us for dead. Empty buldings and broken windows. And no jobs. AK Steel has had a chokehold on Middletown for years– strikes and workers movements doing little to really route the power monopoly that controls so many jobs.

    Recently 9500 jobs were lost in Wilmington, Ohio.
    (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/11/business/11dhl.html )
    There are under 15,000 people in this town.

    People who suggest we all move to different places lack the clarity to realize the entraping nature of unemployment and poverty.

    Also interesting: http://dcjobsource.com/richest.html

    Look where the richest and poorest cities are. (And this info is from 2004)

  17. dasha
    September 15, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Taishr(Lee)–I never got the service-based economy thing either. It was like the mantras: “globalization is the tide that raises all boats,” “the invisible hand will save us all,” or the “speculative real estate/share holder returns/etc. can always and will only increase in value (ignore that man behind the curtain).”

    If we run with the service-based economy model, the lower and middle classes will gradually become less able to participate in that economy in any other capacity than that of servants to the mobile, educated elite. We need an injection of capital into the economy, which is not limited to those in the elite class profiting off of hedge funds and portfolios (because the 90s and the 00s showed us just how much value those dollars had…when they disappeared). Otherwise, the American middle class will have as much power as any other third world citizen hoping the “winners of globalization” will throw them a pittance.

  18. September 15, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    “globalization is the tide that raises all boats,” “the invisible hand will save us all,” or the “speculative real estate/share holder returns/etc. can always and will only increase in value (ignore that man behind the curtain).”

    I LOLed because it’s true. And then I cried.

  19. Linnaeus
    September 15, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    In re: “just move somewhere else”, aside from the fact that a lot of people can’t move, there’s also the principle that it’s good to have healthy communities everywhere. People have connections to places that go beyond their jobs: friends, family, the land/water, etc.

    I’d like to think that these areas in the industrial Midwest (and other states feeling the pain) could take on another industry, but then I wonder 1) what will these jobs pay? and 2) how long will they stay until someone else does them for lower wages?

  20. J
    September 15, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    It should also be pointed out that outside of Chicago (and even in Chicago) there is a huge racial segregation between white collar and blue collar jobs, and the cuts in blue collar at the expense of white collar employment is worsening this. The fact that de facto racial segregation exists in many of these towns both in social class and in housing areas means that the loss of manufacturing jobs and the replacement of these jobs with “service” jobs is worsening the economic divide between black and white communities in most of these cities. Combined with the gentrification trend, the jobless recovery is set to change the urban landscape and race in the Rust Belt in a very major way. And not a good major way.

  21. JessSnark
    September 15, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Just wanted to say thanks for this post and for everyone’s interesting comments. I don’t have a whole lot to add right now but it’s really important that these issues get brought up here, so thanks. I feel like a deserter right now, leaving Pittsburgh for a new job in Seattle, as I am and always will be a midwesterner at heart. Hope to come back soon.

  22. Alexandra Lynch
    September 15, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    My hometown has a hundred acre field in the middle of it.

    In the forties, they made tanks there for the war.
    In the fifties, sixties, and seventies, they made cars. All the electrical systems in GM cars had parts from these plants.
    In the eighties the first layoffs and closings hit.
    Last year, they tore them down.

    It is like seeing a lover with an amputated limb. It hurts. It hurts in ways that people who didn’t grow up with something like that don’t understand. Everyone had relatives who worked for GM. Everyone knew, just knew, that even if college didn’t work out, you could come home, get a job on the line, and make a decent life in a different direction.

    They cut the heart out of this town. They’re trying to make it into something new; there’s a casino and a horsetrack here now, and it’s only (ha) an hour’s commute to Indianapolis. But there’s a whole lot of people who are quietly desperate, and not quite getting by.

  23. September 15, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Alexandra, where are you from?

    Also, Lubu, if you don’t mind, I have to plug my old post for “Dirty Driving” just to reiterate what is at stake.

  24. September 15, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Oh, shit, Alexandra. I just realized you commented on the post I just linked saying you were from Anderson.

    Hi! *waves from Lafayette*

  25. September 15, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    A few other thoughts to through into this conversation about the Midwest’s (painful) evolution: here are some sources of hope, even as we’re seeing all the hurt:

    –Urban agriculture and alternative energy is moving well–BioTown in Indiana, an enormous urban farming community in Detroit, windmills that use the amazing power near the Great Lakes. So much of this movement is grassroots (literally): people transforming vacant lots into community gardens, and feeding their neighborhoods.

    –Michigan hosts a rapidly quickly growing film industry. It started last year with the state offering the best tax benefits in the nation to filmmakers. Many, many movies are now being filmed in the state (my favorite is the upcoming “Whip It” from Drew Barrymore) and many businesses and studios are emerging. Workers have a chance to transfer their electrical, construction, etc. skill sets here.

    I fear that Michigan is about to replace one dominant industry with another, but this is something that’s exciting people. And frankly, it brings people here, and it creates a new visibility for the state. I want more people to know what’s haunting and beautiful and interesting about this place.

    –Entrepreneurs. This is why love being in Detroit right now–people who come here and stay here are uncommonly creative. There are low barriers to doing things and making things. People just start doing stuff.

    Like the Russell Industrial Center, which had been an empty warehouse and is now a very vibrant artist community.

    Like The Lot, which had been a vacant lot (natch) and is now a community space for performance art and theater.

    Like the music scene that is constantly innovative.

    Like the Detroit Evolution Lab, which is bringing progressive films, yoga, discussions, and more all over the city.

    Like The Heidelberg Project–where an artist and his neighborhood turned a whole city street into a vibrant space where vacant houses are living sculptures and the pavement is polka-dotted.

    Like the Allied Media Conference, and the badass people there who are changing how media’s made and who’s making it.

  26. September 16, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Everything you list sounds eerily similar to Maine. I’m young so I’m not sure how long this shit has been going on, but first we lost our factories. All of my child was spend dreading when the paper mill would close, because it always has closed and reopened, although we haven’t completely lost it yet, not like some towns.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I know by the time I’m 30, this town will be a ghost town.

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