A Metaphor for America: Scranton, Pennsylvania, was a manufacturing centre. Now its factories are abandoned, its coffers empty, and its citizens in despair. This is how the dream ends
November 13, 2012
I WALK WITH the photographer Alan Chin through an open gate that leads down a service road into the gutted remains of an abandoned lace factory in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The road is filled with potholes and littered with debris. The derelict complex, 288,000 square feet in all, consists of two huge brick buildings connected by overhead walkways. The towering walls, separated by the service road, are covered with ivy, lined with weeds, and surrounded by mud puddles, discarded boxes, rusty machinery, old filing cabinets, and saplings. The windowpanes are empty or jagged with broken glass. The thick wooden doors to the old loading docks stand agape. We pass through a set of open double doors into a cavernous hall. The wreckage of industrial America lies before us, home to flocks of pigeons that, startled by our footsteps over the shards of glass and rotting floorboards, swiftly leave their perches high over our heads in the rafters and air ducts. They fly over the old looms, bleating and clucking softly.
The Scranton Lace Company was America. It employed more than 1,200 people who worked on its imported looms, some of the largest ever built, from Nottingham, UK. Chin and I stand in front of one. Local history has it that the loom is two and a half storeys tall and weighs nearly twenty metric tons. It is fifteen metres long. The word “Nottingham” is embossed on the black arm of the machine. Another age. Another time. Another country. This factory, started in 1891, was once among the biggest producers of Nottingham lace in the world. When it closed in 2002—the company’s vice-president appeared at mid-shift and announced that it was shutting down immediately—it had become a ghost ship with fewer than fifty workers. On the loom before us, the white lace roll still sits there, unfinished. Punch cards with meticulous, tiny holes for the needles to pass through lie scattered nearby. The loom was shut off in the middle of production, arrested in time like a small shop uncovered at Pompeii or Herculaneum.
For more than a century, the factory stood as a world unto itself. It had its own bowling alley, a large cafeteria with heavy cast iron stoves, a barbershop, a gymnasium, an auditorium with a compact stage, an infirmary, an elegant clock tower with a cast iron bell (the whistle that once signalled shift changes perched on top), and its own coal mine and cotton fields. It made products the workers, including Hillary Clinton’s father and grandfather, could view with pride. They could hold them in their hands. Curtains. Napkins. Tablecloths. Valances. Shower curtains. Textile laminates for umbrellas. During World War II, the facility manufactured bomb parachutes and mosquito and camouflage netting. The employees had unions that made sure they were paid overtime and had medical care, pensions, and safe working conditions. But what this world gave to the thousands of men and women who worked here, as well as to the city of Scranton, what was as vital as a decent income, was dignity. Purpose. A sense of place. An identity. And all of that is gone. It has been replaced by poverty, drift, and despair.
As we walk through one shop floor after another, among the rusted hulks of old machines, we grow quiet. This is not a requiem for a factory or a city. It is a requiem for a country. Our country (Chin and I are American). And none of it is coming back. Some cities go down faster, like Detroit; or Camden, New Jersey; or nearby Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Some, like Scranton, do enough triage to make the fall a little more orderly. But no one can prevent the inevitable. America has been hollowed out by corporations that were indifferent to the working men and women who turned the nation into an empire of unrivalled power and unequalled prosperity. But “management” wanted more. Why pay $20 an hour when you can go to Bangladesh and pay twenty-five cents? Why settle for a few million in personal net worth when you can double or triple that? The empire was all ripped down. The work was shipped overseas. The factories were closed. The unions were broken. The social programs that permitted unskilled labourers to buy a house, send their children to college, and retire with an income—all of this was shredded. America, as doctors say of terminal patients, is circling the drain. If you doubt me, come to Scranton, or any other post-industrial American city, and see for yourself.
WE ARE SITTING one morning in the office of Mayor Christopher Doherty. He is fifty-four, trim, articulate, the father of six children. He has been mayor for eleven years. He speaks to us in his shirt sleeves. The room is stuffy in the summer heat, and the air conditioning is off. The mayor has just negotiated a deal with his antagonistic five-member city council to pull Scranton back from bankruptcy. By the summer of 2012, banks would no longer lend the city money. With only $300,000 left in its bank account and facing a $1-million payroll in July, it was forced to reduce every city employee’s income, including the mayor’s, to the minimum wage: $7.25 an hour. His deal to save the city from default includes a 33 percent increase in real estate taxes over the next three years, less than half of the 78 percent he proposed, along with a new commuter tax, a sales tax, an amusement tax, and higher real estate transfer fees, licence and permit fees, and business and mercantile taxes. City departments will see their budgets cut by $1.6 million, which means further job losses. Doherty has already reduced the city employment rolls from 500 to 400. Scranton’s universities, including the University of Scranton and the Commonwealth Medical College, will be asked to contribute $2.4 million—instead of the current $300,000—to the city’s $70-million operating costs. Borrowing and refinancing will raise nearly $17 million to bridge the budget gap this year, but unless the city creates reliable new revenue streams disaster is merely postponed. There is not much to work with. Scranton is a city where 70 percent of the residents pay less than $500 a year in property taxes; where the average per capita annual income is about $19,000, and around $35,000 for a family. In the end, Scranton, like Stockton and San Bernardino in California, and other medium-sized cities, is probably doomed.
“We are government, education, and medicine,” Doherty says of the city’s principal institutions, “and if you look at all cities that is what they are. There is really no manufacturing anywhere.”
This is not quite true. Scranton still makes munitions. The Scranton Army Ammunition Plant, surrounded by high fencing with barbed wire, manufactures a series of projectiles, including 105-millimetre and 155-millimetre shells. It is housed in a brick complex that once repaired locomotive steam engines. Most of the shells end up in Iraq or Afghanistan. SCAAP is part of America’s permanent war economy, which plows vast sums into useless military projects. But with upwards of half of all federal dollars spent on the war industry (the Pentagon consumes $687 billion a year), weapons are about the last thing still manufactured in America. It is a bizarre species of state capitalism. James Madison warned us about the dangers of a standing army, writing that while the Roman Legions created the Empire, “the liberties of Rome proved the final victim to her military triumphs.” It is advice we should have heeded. We live in an age that resembles that of Augustus Caesar, who permitted the veneer of the Republic to mask a brutal, militarized autocracy.
The heaviest strains on Scranton’s budget, the mayor says, are municipal employees’ pensions and health care costs. After the 2008 economic crisis, they wiped out as much as 40 percent of the city’s investments. The federal government bailed out Wall Street. But it left Wall Street’s victims, including cities such as Scranton, who were sold toxic garbage—most of it ratedAAA—to pay the price.
I ask Mayor Doherty what worries him most about the future. “The ability to generate revenues so cities can make their payments,” he answers immediately. “If they can’t, you will see a breakdown of the city. You will see it in education. You will see it in crime. What happens is a domino effect, as you have in Baltimore, where even though you have these great educational institutions the city still has a problem with crime.”…