Aug. 7 2013 12:00 AM

'industrial heartland' decayed into the Rust Belt


Edward McClelland purposely chose “Nothin’ But Blue Skies” as the title for his new book on the rise and fall of America’s once great manufacturing cities because it was ambiguous.

“I wanted it to have double meaning,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in the northern Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park. McClelland said the inspiration for the title came from a story relayed to him by a former steel worker from south Chicago who looked up one day at the site of a former steel plant and said, “Nothin’ but blue sky.” He was referring to the wide open horizon where massive smoke stacks once blocked the sky in more ways than one.

“But I also wanted the title to represent a blank slate and the chance for cities to reinvent themselves,” he said.

McClelland, 46 (real last name Kleine),  grew up in Lansing, attending Sexton High School in the shadow of the General Motors Fisher Body Plant on Verlinden Street. McClelland said he feels like he’s been writing this book for 20 years. His book opens with his nostalgic recollections of running on the Sexton track while inhaling paint fumes from the Fisher Body plant. Recalling the many bars facing the plant, “Fisher Body’s shoprats could speed from punch out to bar stool in five minutes or less,” he said. 

McClelland, who has authored two other nonfiction books, is a graduate of both Michigan State University and Lansing Community College. While in Lansing, he wrote for the Lansing State Journal, LCC’s The Lookout, The State News and the Capital Times. 

While researching “Blue Skies,” McClelland visited six states — Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, New York and Pennsylvania — that have seen their industrial backbone broken in recent decades. In each of those states he examined the causes of the decline and takes a look at what is being done to rebuild cities such as Detroit, which during World War II, was called the “arsenal of democracy.”

He said Chicago and Pittsburgh were probably the best at weathering the apocalyptic storm while Detroit and Flint are at the other end of the spectrum. Reflecting on the outcomes of deindustrialization, he is sometimes brutally honest about why some cities (mostly in the South) grew, while others faltered.

 “It wasn’t just about what government could do, but the differences in the work environment,” he said. “Flint never let go of the spirit of the sit-down strike.” 

McClelland highlights Lansing for its ability to land two new GM plants through regionalism and management-labor cooperation. He also points to certain positive high-tech manufacturing start ups and their success, particularly Niowave.

“There are few places besides Lansing where this could be started,” he said, citing the marriage of former Oldsmobile craftsmen and university researchers. When McClelland made a return visit to his old high school he observed the educational focus had turned to health care education and training for what he called “taking care of retired Olds workers.”

“We can’t forget shop class,” he said.

McClelland said allowing Detroit to go bankrupt is “not going to solve the underlying problems.” He believes that Detroit’s loss of population, loss of the middle class and loss of the tax base will only be exacerbated by bankruptcy.

“No state needs an urban policy more than Michigan,” he said. And although he is not shy about faulting government officials, he said, “Governor Snyder had to do something.” Even when he was writing the book, McClelland said he thought Detroit was not a functional city.

“It’s basically a lower class neighborhood of a metro area without enough tax base to support the infrastructure,” he said. Part of that is due to the loss of the middle class. He recalls talking recently with a retired Detroit police officer who is worried about his pension due to the bankruptcy.

“That’s part of the problem," McClelland said. “He moved out (of the city). Chicago has a residency requirement (for municipal  employees) that helped maintain the middle class.” 

He also said Detroit’s fall has contributed to the out migration of college graduates from Michigan. 

“There are as many MSU bars in Chicago as there are in East Lansing,” McClelland said.

He said he strongly believes that what happens in Detroit matters to the whole state, where it’s likely that the negative ramifications will reverberate through the entire state. As if on cue on Friday, a Wall Street Journal article reported on a $53 million Genesee County bond sale that was delayed because of what the paper called “Detroit Fallout.” The Journal also reported that the next scheduled bond sale is for the city of Saginaw. Good luck there.

“Detroit has got the whole nation’s attention,” he said. No doubt about that; in just this past week national columnists Clarence Page, Paul Krugman, Frank Bruni and George Will have weighed in on the Detroit bankruptcy, and every national news organization has had in-depth coverage on the bankruptcy. The architectural porn articles that were all the rage a few years ago now have turned to economic decline porn diatribes with Detroit as the focus.

He also looked carefully at the urban pioneer movement that some point to as our cities’ saving grace. He learned Youngstown, Ohio, residents call this back-to-city movement “Rust Belt Chic.” 

“Only suburbanites romanticize the city,” he wrote about Detroit. 

Edward McClelland book signing

1 p.m. Saturday

Lansing Mall Barnes & Noble

5132 W. Saginaw Hwy., Lansing

(517) 327-0437