I grew up in South Essex in England in the 1950s, on the north bank of the Thames estuary. The first homes I lived in were built right after World War II to accommodate refugees from the bombed-out communities in east London.
After the war, the region went back to refining oil, manufacturing petrochemicals, building cars, making paper, importing goods from Britain’s shrinking Empire, processing liquid natural gas imported from North Africa and making cement. The area was an industrial and logistical Nirvana. Our neighbors worked for Ford, Shell Oil, Thames Board Mills and Blue Circle Cement.
It was a solidly blue-collar community where everyone earned their living from heavy industry. When we saw Ford workers painting their houses, we knew, even without reading the paper, that their two-year contract was being renegotiated and the unions were using the leverage of a strike to get the best deal.
Then and now
Today the docks are gone, replaced by a massive development of offices, shops, apartments and townhouses. Canary Wharf is London’s newest financial center. Freight is now handled primarily in containers through Felixstowe, a port on the North Sea that in the 1950s sheltered fishing trawlers.
The Ford works no longer smelts iron ore in a turnkey manufacturing operation. It assembles cars using parts that arrive from Liverpool, Wales, Belgium and Germany. It employs only about 10 percent of the people it did in 1950. Now the limestone quarries being used to feed the cement works in 1950 are a massive shopping center, drawing shoppers from all over South East England. The oil refineries, chemical plants and petro-product terminals all employ a fraction of the people that they did in 1950.
You could write a similar history of industrial decline in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana. But in South Essex you do not find the community devastation seen in East Chicago, Gary, Hammond and Whiting. Instead the entire region has retooled itself to meet the needs of the service industry.
A labor monoculture
The very factors that made America so successful in the 19th and 20th centuries now make it difficult to reestablish economic expansion. Industrial growth centered on the creation of very specialized communities, often dominated by single families and companies. This concentrated the skills needed by the community. Successive generations followed one another into the same plants. Immigrants moved to growing towns and cities to meet the labor needs of expanding manufacturers. Many towns today suffer from skills sclerosis caused by that same specialization. The flexibility offered by the multiplicity of small communities has become a cat’s cradle of intersecting and duplicative municipal entities. Berrien County, Michigan with a population of only 162,000 has 49 distinct taxing jurisdictions.
In the 20th century, an array of federal housing regulations and subsidies fed the growth of the construction industry and the creation of suburbs. Compared to other developed countries, the US has a larger proportion of its population locked into owned property, property that is declining in value. Its vaunted labor mobility suffers as a result.
Companies slowed or stopped providing components of the welfare safety net after 1933 and many were acquired by larger businesses from out of state. As companies were closed, acquired or the founders moved on, that element in the “population” of a community (i.e. the closed or merged company) was denuded.
The way forward
In combination these two issues have diminished the commitment of many companies to the communities with which they originally grew. By identifying these challenges the path to economic growth becomes clear:
- Create new businesses that depend on the region’s natural strengths.
- Concentrate educational resources on developing excellence in the skills needed to support the region’s business.
- Develop collaborative regimes involving the government, the private sector and the local community to care for community issues.
- Encourage a more regional concentration on available strengths
- Unify elements of government to address 21st century needs.
- Innovate constantly to ensure that communities continue to leverage their strengths and develop appropriate skills.
The Midwest is not South Essex. When we see how communities in different countries and cultures have handled change, we should always ask ourselves “how?” and “why?” The answers can help us develop solutions to our own challenges.