A lethal nostalgia

Deborah Rudacille in Aeon:

PAR46470-306x192Thousands of working-class communities around the country lament the shuttering of blast furnaces, coke ovens, mines and factories. This yearning for a vanishing industrial United States, a place in long, slow decline thanks to globalisation and technological change, has a name – smokestack nostalgia. It is a paradoxical phenomenon, considering the environmental damage and devastating health effects of many of the declining industries. Our forebears worked gruelling shifts in dangerous jobs, inhaling toxic fumes and particulates at work and at home. Many lived in neighbourhoods hemmed in by industries that pumped effluent into rivers, streams and creeks.

During the 1960s and ’70s, a fine red dust coated my home town near Sparrows Point. The local rivers and creeks, which fed into the Chesapeake Bay, became so contaminated with run-off that dead fish often littered the beaches. As the Sparrows Point monument testifies, many workers died gruesome deaths: burned, crushed, gassed, dismembered. Others experienced a slower, though no less painful, demise from diseases caused by exposure to asbestos, benzene and other toxins.

Few of the steelworkers I’ve known deny the negative aspects of living and working on the Point, including long-standing racial, class and gender discrimination. Still, they grieve the shuttering of the Sparrows Point works, which provided not just union jobs with generous benefits, but a sense of family and community, identity and self-worth. At a ceremony on 24 November 2014 honouring the legacy and history of Sparrows Point, in advance of the demolition of what was once the largest blast furnace in the western hemisphere, steelworkers described what the Point meant to them. ‘My heart will always be in this place. This is hallowed ground,’ said Michael Lewis, a third-generation steelworker and union officer. Troy Pritt, another steel worker, read a poem calling the steelworks ‘home’.

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