Downtowns and ghost towns: Helen Epstein on 'Steel Town' by Stephen Shore

By its end, much of the optimism of the twentieth century had faded. Towns and cities in the heartland that used to produce steel, glass, furniture, or shoes, and that are fondly remembered by people in their seventies as having been great places to grow up, have been gutted, their factories closed and shops boarded up. In the wreckage, the temptations of alcohol and drugs lured many to their deaths. Most of these stories are never told.1

Americans born in the two decades following World War II grew up in an atmosphere of prosperity and hope. Between 1945 and 1970, US production of goods and services quadrupled, and much of the country began to take its modern form, with highways, motels and office buildings. By 1971, virtually every American household had a refrigerator, a washing machine, a TV and a vacuum cleaner and one in three had more than one car.2 Sure, there were problems, but wages, especially for manual workers, were rising, some of the worst legal barriers to racial equality were gradually being dismantled and, at least at first, the futile horrors of Vietnam were not widely known.

But as children born in those years went to work, doors were beginning to close. The trouble started in the factory towns of Ohio, Pennsylvania and upstate New York and then spread nationwide. In 1976 and 1977 Bethlehem Steel laid off 3,500 workers in Lackawanna, New York and 3,500 more in Johnstown, Ohio, tripling the unemployment rate there in just one summer. In tiny Conshohoken, Pennsylvania (population 10,000) Alan Wood Steel laid off 3,000 people. Millions more good manufacturing jobs would be lost in the coming decades, as factories downsized, moved abroad or shut down completely. Even if some laid off workers received severance, they now spent less money at local bars, department stores and other business, which soon closed too, rendering downtowns into ghost towns.

Stephen Shore captured this profound moment in a series of photographs made during the fateful summer of 1977 to illustrate a Fortune Magazine article entitled, “Hard Times Come to Steeltown”.3 Shore’s story alludes to the fact that the problems people faced weren’t just material; they were spiritual too. All calamities cause practical hard-ship, but some also change how we see ourselves. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, an epidemic of self-destructive behavior took root in these formerly optimistic towns. In the late 1970s, so-called “deaths of despair”—suicides, drug overdoses and alcohol-related deaths—began rising in US working class whites, even as their rates were falling in almost all other populations, including college-educated US whites, Europeans of all social classes, and, after the ravages of the 1980s crack epidemic, among US Blacks as well.4 By 2015, deaths of despair among working class whites had risen so high that overall US life expectancy was falling for the first time since the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

At first, the people of Steeltown tried to fight back. Many had grown up with the New Deal notion that the purpose of government was to help people with their problems. They staged demonstrations against the factory closings and called on Jimmy Carter’s Administration to pro- vide financing and loan guarantees so that at least some of the factories could be saved.5

Carter did virtually nothing.6 What the people of Steeltown didn’t know was that the Democratic Party which had long defended labor and counted on its support, had undergone a strategic shift.7 In 1974, a new cohort of Democratic lawmakers arrived in Washington who’d grown up in affluence, long after the Great Depression. They were keen to get the economy, staggering under the OPEC oil embargo, moving again, so they jettisoned many of the Democratic Party’s foundational principles, including a commitment to the use of banking and industry regulations to ensure relative economic equality. Unlike their New Deal predecessors who were vigilant anti-monopolists, suspicious of capital, these new Democrats tended to agree with their Republican peers that over-regulation was stifling growth. As a result, Carter began a massive deregulation program that continues to this day and did little or nothing to help labor cope with the changes.8

1. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton University Press, 2019, p. 28.

2. Howard Zinn, Postwar America: 1945-1971. Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.
3. Lee Smith, ‘Hard Times Come to Steeltown’, Fortune Magazine, December 1977, pp. 86–93.
4. Case and Deaton, Deaths of Despair, quoted in Helen Epstein, “Left Behind”, The New York Review of Books, March 26, 2020.
5. Roger Wilkins, “Carter Rejects a Plan to Reopen Steel Plant in Ohio, The New York Times, March 31 1979, agreement-with.html.
6. Ibid.
7. Matt Stoller, Goliath: The Hundred-Year War between Monopoly Power and Democracy. Simon and Schuster, 2019.
8. Matt Stoller, “How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul”, The Atlantic, October 24 2016,

Excerpt from Helen Epstein's text in Steel Town by Stephen Shore, published April 2021.

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