Tracy Neumann-Wayne State & Harvard

“…in the US and elsewhere, historically and today, a term like “Rust Belt” does a lot of ideological work to naturalise the idea of decline and reinforce a binary of declining and ascendant regions.”

For the latest in my series profiling urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Tracy Neumann. Tracy, (who’s fascinating sounding book came out yesterday) is an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University and a Postdoctoral Researcher at Harvard University. Her work explores the political and cultural ramifications of economic change, in the late 20th Century, upon North America’s “rustbelt” cities.

What is your background?

I grew up in Traverse City, a small town in Northern Michigan—when I was a kid, it was a farm town, and now it’s a popular resort area. I was a history and Russian Studies major at the University of Michigan, which is where I realized that my dream of becoming a historian of late-imperial Russia was unlikely to come true, since I only passed third-year Russian due to an extraordinary kindness on my instructor’s part. Growing up, I had wanted to be an architect, and I ended up at Cornell, combining my interests in history and architecture by pursuing a Master’s degree in historic preservation planning. While I was there, I took several urban planning courses, which sparked my interest in studying cities and planning history. After a few years working as a consultant for a cultural resource management firm, I decided I was sick of doing historical research on topics that I didn’t get to choose, and I ended up at NYU for my doctorate in history.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…I spent a lot of time driving around upstate and central New York, rural New England, and central Pennsylvania surveying old mills, waterworks, and grain elevators.”

Broadly speaking, I’m interested in the politics of urban development, and how global and local processes interact to shape urban space, public policy, and daily life. My first book, which comes out this month, explores the postindustrial redevelopment of manufacturing centers between the 1960s and the 1990s, with a focus on U.S. and Canadian steel towns Pittsburgh, PA, and Hamilton, ON. I came to the topic via my experiences growing up in Michigan and my job as a preservation consultant. Michigan, of course, was the center of the American auto industry, which was in the throes of restructuring when I was a kid in the 1980s. As a student at Cornell and later as a consultant, I spent a lot of time driving around upstate and central New York, rural New England, and central Pennsylvania surveying old mills, waterworks, and grain elevators. Many of my projects were in deindustrialised cities like Manchester, NH, and Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, NY. I wondered how and why they had been allowed to decline, why urban planners and public policymakers had not done something to save manufacturing jobs. Together, these things led me to want to explain what had happened to Rust Belt cities.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

“If I had understood what geography actually was when I was looking at graduate programmes, I probably would have applied for a PhD in geography instead of in history!”

My work is transnational in scope (though the empirical research focuses on the two North American cases studies), and my desire to craft a project that looked beyond national borders was very much shaped by the work of my advisor, Tom Bender, and by reading Daniel Rodgers’ Atlantic Crossings. When I began the project, I was probably most influenced by Tom Sugrue and Robert Self, who had written big books on deindustrialisation that also offered models for how to write history that takes space seriously. Bob Beauregard’s work on urban decline and urban politics was also incredibly helpful to me. As I got further into my research, I found myself reading a lot of geographers: David Harvey, Jamie Peck, Neil Smith, and Jason Hackworth have had the greatest influence on how I think about space, scale, urbanisation, and neoliberalism. If I had understood what geography actually was when I was looking at graduate programmes, I probably would have applied for a PhD in geography instead of in history!

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“…economic restructuring, urban decline, and postindustrial redevelopment were neither natural nor inevitable.”

In North America as well as western Europe, popular narratives tend to portray the decline of basic industry and the regions in which that decline took place as a historical inevitability—an unfortunate by-product of natural business cycles and neutral market forces. I hope that the book convinces readers that, to the contrary, economic restructuring, urban decline, and postindustrial redevelopment were neither natural nor inevitable. Instead, they were the products of decisions made over several decades by political and business elites, who worked through public-private partnerships to allocate resources in a way that exacerbated inequality and sacrificed the well-being of certain groups of residents in order to “save” cities. In doing so, they abandoned social democratic goals in favor of corporate welfare programs, fostering an increasing economic inequality among their residents in the process.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

When I started the project, my questions were really about deindustrialisation: why had industries and the cities that housed them declined; why hadn’t government officials better protected these places and their blue-collar workers. I ended up doing a lot of research on what happened to the steel industry, and not much of that ended up in the book. Partway through writing the dissertation on which the book is based, it became pretty clear from my research that deindustrialisation served a particular set of business interests, and that local and national governments were also focused on serving those interests. And I realized, too, that planning for postindustrial cities actually began before large-scale deindustrialisation. So, I became much more interested in explaining how public officials at all levels and local civic leaders and business elites facilitated the postindustrial transformations of manufacturing centers and in figuring out to what degree that was or wasn’t bound up with neo-liberal urbanism.

On the broadest possible scale what ideological purpose has the “creation of the Rustbelt” served?

“…if decline is natural, well, then it’s nobody’s fault: not the corporations and banks who divested and certainly not the government, and these entities therefore don’t bear any particular responsibility to the communities and people affected.”

I think in the US and elsewhere, historically and today, a term like “Rust Belt” does a lot of ideological work to naturalise the idea of decline and reinforce a binary of declining and ascendant regions. Implicit in that is the idea that, again, decline is a product of neutral market forces—it is natural and inevitable, if perhaps unfortunate for people without the means to relocate to a place with a better economic climate. And if decline is natural, well, then it’s nobody’s fault: not the corporations and banks who divested and certainly not the government, and these entities therefore don’t bear any particular responsibility to the communities and people affected.

What does your research lead you to believe caused American cities to become politically divided in ways that led them to become test cases for pro-market and pro-developer policies?

“…U.S. urban history is in many ways history of raced, classed, and gendered conflicts over public space and public resources.”

Cities have always been politically divided in a host of ways, and privatist, pro-market/pro-developer policies aren’t particularly new. Sam Bass Warner, writing in 1968, dated privatism to America’s colonial period. Warner argued that cities were historically dependent on individual enterprise rather than community action; that US urban development was the outcome of profit-seeking developers, speculators, and investors; and that local politics were shaped foremost by private economic activities. But what happened in U.S. cities after 1945 was certainly an intensification or new iteration of Warner’s “private city.” At the risk of a historiographical oversimplification, U.S. urban history is in many ways history of raced, classed, and gendered conflicts over public space and public resources. So while I don’t think political divisions or the focus on the market were particularly new, I do think that in the late 20th century race and class divisions sharpened and, as federal urban renewal programs failed and the New Deal liberal project faltered, there was a growing dissatisfaction with “big government” and “big business” across the political spectrum. This created strange bedfellows, as historian Suleiman Osman has shown so well: liberals and libertarians and Black Power activists and blue-collar workers all advocated for community control in ways that laid the groundwork for federal retrenchment from urban development and opened the way for more market-driven solutions to urban problems.

Was there much resistance in the upper echelons of the political parties in US cities to the embrace of “pro-market”, pro-austerity” policies, or was the new direction broadly accepted?

“…like other recent political histories, the book points to a more complicated story about how political actors and social movements on the left and right… came to share the same sense of political possibilities.”

Well, that probably depends on the city. In Pittsburgh, they didn’t merely accept it, Democratic mayors actively pursued market-based policies and implemented austerity programs. One thing we see in the 1970s and 1980s is that Democratic mayors stopped thinking of the white working class as their base, and started thinking of entrepreneurs and corporate leaders as their most important citizens. But I want to be clear, too, that my research does not feed into a declension narrative of American political history, where liberalism collapses and conservatism becomes ascendant in the 1970s. Instead, like other recent political histories, the book points to a more complicated story about how political actors and social movements on the left and right—at both the local and national level, and across national borders—came to share the same sense of political possibilities.

Why did grassroots opposition to the increased finance and marketisation of American cities fail? Or alternatively why has its effects been “harsher” in some places rather than others?

“…residents did not organize against postindustrialism as a redevelopment strategy as they did against urban renewal, because postindustrialism was much harder to pin down.”

In the case of Pittsburgh, the kinds of groups that were likely to launch grassroots opposition to postindustrial redevelopment plans—historic preservation groups, civil rights organizations, neighborhood associations—had been co-opted by the city’s public-private partnership by the 1970s. Still, the lack of resistance to postindustrialism was surprising, because there had been so much resistance to urban renewal in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s; in fact, African American organizing against a renewal project in the city’s Hill District is one of the best-known examples of a successful protest against urban renewal. But even though federally sponsored urban renewal programs produced highly illiberal results, urban renewal was essentially a package of liberal social programs introduced to manage growth in an economic boom. Postindustrialism was instead a more varied and flexible set of tactics employed to manage decline during an economic crisis. This, I think, highlights an important difference between why we see more successful organizing against urban renewal than we do against postindustrial redevelopment models: because urban renewal was a clearly delineated set of government-funded programs that built housing and highways, opposition that initially formed around individual projects pretty quickly coalesced into a broader social movement against urban renewal as a redevelopment model. Postindustrialism, on the other hand, was more diffuse. It involved a broader range activities paid for by a more complex set of public and private funding sources. So, while there was certainly resistance to individual projects—say, a particular loft conversion, or a university hospital expansion—residents did not organize against postindustrialism as a redevelopment strategy as they did against urban renewal, because postindustrialism was much harder to pin down.

640px-abandoned_railroad_tracks_in_gantry_plaza_state_park_new_york_city

MusikAnimal, “Abandoned railroad tracks in Gantry Plaza State Park New York City”, accessed via WikiCommons http://bit.ly/1UdHBbV

In addition to being contactable via the institutions with which she is affiliated, Tracy is on Twitter. For more urban historian profiles please see here. 

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