[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Pennsylvania]: Neumann on Taft, 'From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Wed Sep 7 15:31:14 MDT 2016


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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Wed, Sep 7, 2016 at 5:20 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Pennsylvania]: Neumann on Taft, 'From Steel to
Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City'
To: H-REVIEW at h-net.msu.edu


Chloe Taft.  From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the
Postindustrial City.  Cambridge  Harvard University Press, 2016.  336
pp.  $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-66049-6.

Reviewed by Tracy Neumann (Wayne State University)
Published on H-Pennsylvania (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward

Most places are riven by social, cultural, and economic divides, but
they rarely map as neatly onto local geography as they do in
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a city of approximately 75,000 split in two
by the Lehigh River. In the eighteenth century, Moravians established
a communitarian religious settlement on what is now the quaint,
middle-class North Side. When iron and steel production came to town,
the Moravians relegated it, and its blue-collar workforce, to the
other side of the river. Now home to Lehigh University and the Las
Vegas Sands Casino, which was built on part of the former Bethlehem
Steel site, the South Side remains a working-class neighborhood and a
first stop for many new immigrant families. In _From Steel to Slots:
Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City_, Chloe Taft deftly
explores the cultural and historical rifts embedded in Bethlehem's
landscape, as well as the economic development agendas that have
ordered and disordered the city since the Moravians' arrival. She
uses the demise of "the Steel" and the opening of "the Sands" to
explore "how locals have variously embraced and grappled with the
remaking of their steel town as a postindustrial city" (p. 3). Along
the way, Taft upends conventional narratives of deindustrialization
and postindustrial rebirth. When "lived from day to day," she argues,
"postindustrialism reflects an ongoing process marked by complicated,
and at times paradoxical, continuities" that challenge a neat
distinction between "before and after" (p. 247).

_From Steel to Slots_ marks a welcome turn in the deindustrialization
literature. In the early 1980s Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison
supplied a foundational definition of deindustrialization as the
"widespread, systematic disinvestment in the nation's basic
productive capacity," which explained high unemployment rates, a
"sluggish" domestic economy, and the United States' failure to
successfully compete in international markets.[1] Following Bluestone
and Harrison's postulation that deindustrialization pitted "capital"
against "community," early research typically took the form of
community studies focused on how particular industries or workforces
deindustrialized. ⁠After the turn of the twenty-first century,
scholars expanded their use of the term to encompass social, spatial,
and political processes as well as economic change. In an
introduction to an edited collection that has become a standard work
in the field, Jefferson Cowie and Joseph Heathcott called
deindustrialization "a historical transformation that marks not just
a quantitative and qualitative change in employment, but a
fundamental change in the social fabric on a par with
industrialization itself," a definition that explicitly rejected the
idea of deindustrialization as a primarily economic process. They
argued that "what we call deindustrialization may best be understood
with hindsight as one episode in a long series of transformations
within capitalism" and that "broader meanings emerge from the
de-linking of investment and place, the deinstitutionalization of
labor relations machinery, de-urbanization (and new forms of
urbanization), and perhaps even the loosening of the connection
between identity and work."[2] A more recent wave of scholarship
posits deindustrialization and postindustrial redevelopment as part
of "metropolitan capitalism," as a regional or transnational rather
than purely local phenomenon, and as constitutive of
neoliberalism.[3]

Taft's clear-eyed analysis combines the best aspects of these various
historiographical strains, all while avoiding the nostalgia trap that
so many scholars have fallen into when writing about the industrial
past. In Bethlehem, she finds, the "rupture between community and
capital is not so complete" (p. 41). Taft's challenge to Bluestone
and Harrison emerges from a persuasive blending of archival and
ethnographic approaches. It is also surely influenced by the
emotional distance between the mass plant closures of the late 1970s
and early 1980s and the later, more gradual, and better-managed
shutdown at the Steel. The company closed its Bethlehem mill in 1995,
declared bankruptcy in 2001, and ceased to exist in 2003. Many of
Taft's seventy-six informants are former Bethlehem Steel employees
who remember it as neither good nor evil. The Steel was first major
US corporation to set up a comprehensive program to help former
employees deal with permanent layoffs, and workers did not see it "as
a callous villain," even when layoffs took them by surprise. Taft
casts her informants as ideal types, and deploys them to "represent
worldviews with pseudonyms" (p. 261). She skillfully uses residents'
and former residents' voices to narrate her argument about
displacement, uneven development outcomes, and incomplete
transitions. In an unusual move for a book on
deindustrialization--most are preoccupied with the fates of the
blue-collar workforce--Taft includes the stories of white-collar
workers who had "built lives around the corporation's perceived
stability and structures" and suffered, too, from the "disordering
effects" of its closure and the loss of the broad social protections
they once enjoyed (p. 25).

The book opens with an overview of Bethlehem's historical
development, conflict between working- and middle-class residents,
and tensions among old European immigrant stock and more recent
Latino and Chinese arrivals, all grounded in sometimes-internecine
battles over memory, historic preservation, and the interpretation of
Bethlehem's past. She concisely narrates familiar stories of
labor-management conflict, industrial restructuring, and urban
renewal without belaboring well-trod ground. In subsequent chapters,
Taft explores what she calls "a network of market-_places_ on the
former Bethlehem Steel site and the surrounding neighborhoods through
which people give abstract economic actions historical, material, and
cultural significance" (p. 15). The Sands' steel-themed casino, newly
constructed to evoke a sanitized version of the industrial past and
appease the local community by paying homage to its history, is one
such site. On it the Las Vegas-based corporation negotiated competing
local visions of Bethlehem's past. When "casino capitalism" came to
town, the Sands promised to create a new era of prosperity for the
city through gaming. Even as some former employees of the Steel
embraced the casino, many others fought what they understood to be a
"postindustrial factory," and hoped to retain the social protections
of the industrial order (p. 83).

Elsewhere, Taft chronicles the city's efforts to create heritage
attractions on the massive Steel site, the social dislocations caused
by church closures, and the anxieties of diverse groups of residents
faced with changing economic circumstances and shifting demographics.
The benefits of urban development, she shows over and over again, do
not accrue to all residents equally. Interethnic tensions and
discrimination make demanding social accountability from corporations
and city governments difficult, but as Taft points out, "the
postindustrial landscape is in many ways one of marginalization," a
material expression of social and economic insecurity, for old (white
ethnic) and new (primarily Latino) residents alike (p. 202). History,
Taft tells us, can be "a tool for articulating more inclusive and
equitable futures," and for overcoming, rather than merely
reinforcing, cultural and geographical divisions (p. 116). The
Bethlehem story, she suggests, provides a counternarrative to the
notion that in today's marketplace, we must all learn to accept
individual risk instead of fight for collective security.
"Historically sensitive redevelopment, supported by institutions that
continue to recall a time when security, stability, and
accountability were part of an agreement between corporations and the
communities in which they are located," Taft contends, "can be part
of a global economy" (p. 242).

_From Steel to Slots_ is very much a local story, rooted in a
particular geography and in residents' experiences. At the same time,
Taft masterfully reconstructs Bethlehem's international ties and role
in the global economy from its origin as a center of the Moravian
church in colonial North America, through the Steel's foreign
investments and offshore accounts, to the "casino capitalism" that
links Bethlehem to places like Macau. Readers may wish that Taft had
stepped back from Bethlehem and surveyed the terrain of other small
and mid-sized former industrial centers more thoroughly. As she
notes, Bethlehem was unique in many ways: it lost only a small
portion of its population; disinvestment and downsizing happened much
more slowly there than in places like Flint or Youngstown; economic
diversification into the service sector meant that Bethlehem's median
incomes and homes values remained relatively high; and the adaptive
reuse of the Steel site allowed the city to recover its tax base. It
is also not clear from the book how Bethlehem learned, or did not
learn, from cities like Pittsburgh, which lost its industry earlier
and struggled in similar ways to find new uses for industrial sites.
Surely Bethlehem benefited in some ways from state-level public
policies forged during the first wave of plant closures in the 1980s;
executives at the Steel must have also watched the protracted battles
with laid-off workers that played out elsewhere in the state. Taft's
occasional references leave one wanting a bit more context for
Bethlehem's place in Pennsylvania's political economy and
postindustrial ecosystem. And finally, Taft's central concept of
networks of "market-_places_" is never as fully fleshed out as one
might like, nor does she waste much time parsing the meaning of
neoliberalism, an overused and underdefined term. But these quibbles
do little to detract from a fantastic book that should appeal to a
wide audience. One of the great strengths of _From Steel to Slots_ is
Taft's ability to write about complex topics in an accessible
way--nonspecialists, undergraduates, and casual readers should find
her stories engaging and her arguments legible. They may even find a
degree of hope for a more equitable postindustrial future.

Notes

[1]. Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, _The Deindustrialization
of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the
Dismantling of Basic Industries_ (New York: Basic Books, 1982).

[2]. Jefferson R. Cowie and Joseph Heathcott, eds., _Beyond the
Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization_ (Ithaca: ILR Press,
2003), 5-6, 15.

[3]. See, for example, Allen Dieterich-Ward, _Beyond Rust:
Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America_
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Andrew R.
Highsmith, _Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate
of the American Metropolis_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2015); and Tracy Neumann, _Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial
Transformation of North America_ (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Citation: Tracy Neumann. Review of Taft, Chloe, _From Steel to Slots:
Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City_. H-Pennsylvania, H-Net
Reviews. September, 2016.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46859

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.

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-- 
Best regards,

Andrew Stewart



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