Monday, March 24, 2008

Great Lakes Globalization

Rust Belt Blogger Ed Morrison catches the only (that I've seen thus far) coverage of the latest Great Lakes initiative from our friends at Brookings. For whatever reason, ideas for a better future of the Postindustrial Heartland seems to get more play in Canada. The article appears in the Windsor Star. The Canadian newspaper cites one particular passage from the Brookings report that drew my attention:

States, provinces, and localities all have parochial and unconnected economic development plans to capitalize on their waterfronts. Existing bi-national organizations charged with Great Lakes stewardship are either focused solely on water preservation or too hamstrung by their particular organizational history and politics to focus on regionwide water-based economic development.

The Great Lakes regional identity, which is intended to overcome the silo-mentality that Richard Longworth describes in Caught in the Middle, struggles to find relevance in Rust Belt river cities such as Pittsburgh. Abby Wilson of GLUE tackles this vexing geographic problem in a recent blog post:

I have had several recent conversations with some of Pittsburgh’s self-identified regional taxonomists who disagree with GLUE’s categorization of the burgh as a Great Lakes city. I will be the first to admit we are not dealing with a cut and dry categorization here.

Longworth wouldn't extend his Midwest region to any part of Pennsylvania and as Abby notes, most of Pittsburgh would agree with him. Pittsburgh is a Great Lakes city thanks to one degree of separation, the urban link with Cleveland. Cleveburgh is an easy and obvious connection to draw. The problem is invoking the Great Lakes as the regional touchstone.

With all due respect to the GLUE region, I've been promoting this map of the Post-Industrial Heartland. I think the associated narrative is instructive:

When studying the coalfields of Appalachia, it is also beneficial to take a look at the area that was one of the biggest destinations for Appalachian coal during the golden age of coal mining: The Industrial Heartland (called by some the Rust Belt). This is a region that centers around the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, both of which supplied the river transporation that gave the area's industries an advantage. The Rust Belt was also once endowed with ample rail transporation. While that may still be true, the steel rails on many lines have been removed. Appalachian coal was transported by these means to the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Chicago, automobile factories in Detroit, electrical power plants, and various manufacturing plants such as the International Harvester or Firestone.

The Industrial Heartland attracted a huge number of immigrants from 1890-1930. The Polish came in droves, especially to Pittsburgh and the Chicago-Milwaukee area. Italians immigrated also, explaining why eight of the 24 Mafia families in America were located in the region. Some other immigrants were Irish, Greek, Slovak, Slovenian, Lituanian, and Hungarian, among others. African-Americans came from the Southern U.S. looking for opportunity as well. All of these people were added to the German and Scots-Irish population that was already present in the area. Echoes of this diversity in the Industrial Heartland today are heard in radio shows and various festivals.

The Postindustrial Heartland shares economic, political and social geographies. There is no need to remake the wheel and construct a new regional identity. The former comparative advantage of proximity to water transport is well documented and Tech Futures Chris Varley re-emphasized this perspective in moving Northeast Ohio forward. If you think of the Great Lakes as the other Ohio River, then the mega-regional connection is quite obvious.


macengr said...

It's worth remembering that Carnegie Steel was shipped out through the port of Erie on the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad. We've had an association with the Lakes for over a century.


John Morris said...

Bingo, a lot of the rail connections that atatched the regions economy to the midwest have been removed and the result is that Pittsburgh is now not really well connected to anywhere.

The defining factor that seperates Pittsburgh from the east and attatches it more closely to the midwest are MOUNTAINS!!! The region is the gateway to the west.

Water, seems to know this better than us since it flows west out of the mountains.