Monday, May 22, 2017

 

Place


I just finished reading Glass House, by Brian Alexander, and I’m not quite over it yet.  It’s one of the more disturbing books I’ve read in a while, without necessarily intending to be.  Working in a sector defined largely by geography -- the “community” of community colleges -- the questions it raises are well worth tackling, even if the answers are partial or elusive.

It’s a story about Lancaster, Ohio, and the Anchor Hocking glass factory there.  In broad outlines, the story is familiar: a company builds a plant and hires people without college degrees at good pay; the market turns; jobs and wages get cut; the town and its residents wonder what happened.  Those are all in there, in considerable detail.  The sense of drift among many of the younger characters in the book makes room for a heroin epidemic that’s rendered in harrowing specificity.

Alexander’s larger argument, though, has to do with the emergence of a predatory form of distant ownership and the ways in which it moves wealth away from the many and to the few.  In his telling -- and I admit I’ve never been to Lancaster -- the impact of waves of successive buyouts on the town has been felt in different ways across the class structure.  The plant still runs, but with fewer workers than it used to, and with considerably lower pay.  That means many people lost jobs, and those that didn’t, lost income.  Among the blue-collar ranks, it’s no longer possible to support a family in a middle-class style while working at the plant.  Adding insult to injury, years of neglect by short-term absentee owners have made the plant much more dangerous, too.

But the civic backbone of Lancaster suffered, too, when the plant lost its middle and upper managers.  They (and their wives, given the time period) were the custodians of the non-profits in town.  They were the folks who could, and would, donate to worthy local causes.  They served on boards, formed ad hoc committees to raise money for schools, and generally did the background work that kept civil society afloat.  Early in the waves of purchases, local managers were replaced with folks from the outside who didn’t stay long, and the non-profits started to suffer.  Alexander concedes that some professionals from Columbus are starting to treat the outskirts of Lancaster as a bedroom suburb for Columbus, but between their jobs and the commute, they mostly keep to themselves.  The town wilts.

To his credit, Alexander notes the racist history of Lancaster; even at its peak, it offered entry to the middle class only for whites.  In its decline, some of its residents hold on to that.

What struck me, though -- aside from the really disturbing reportage on the many heroin addicts -- was the persistence and importance of place.  

Alexander concludes the book arguing with Kevin Williamson’s famous piece about rural America, in which Williamson derisively suggests that what rural white Americans really need is U-Hauls.  Alexander suggests that the villain in the narrative isn’t rural culture, whatever that is, but absentee, short-term ownership abetted by some unwise political choices.  But he also notes the real loyalty that many Lancaster residents feel towards the place, even as they acknowledge its increasingly obvious problems.  If you’re a low-wage worker with no particular skills that make you stand out in the labor market, and you’ve grown up in Lancaster, you have a choice.  You can struggle in a place you know, where you have family and you know lots of people.  Or you can move to, say, Kentucky or Columbus, where you’ll also struggle, but you won’t know anybody and won’t have a support network.  In those circumstances, there’s a perfectly rational argument for staying.  

Over time, as wealth and opportunity cluster in a few areas, people making individually rational choices to stay where they are face fewer options.  

Alexander refers in passing to OSU-Lancaster, a branch of Ohio State.  But it’s peripheral to the story, and doesn’t seem to play a major role in the town.  (I don’t know to what extent that’s accurate, but that’s what comes across in the book.)  In a town like that, a college can quickly find itself in the politically awkward position of equipping the brightest young people to leave.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can be a difficult sell to local leaders.  Public higher education can be a lifeline for a town, but it has to decide to be.  And it has to work with other local leaders to do it.

There’s much more to the book than I’m conveying here.  It’s the book Hillbilly Elegy should have been.  It’s unsettling and unforgiving, but so is its subject.  Well done.




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