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When Deborah Rudacille was a child growing up in the working-class town of Dundalk, Maryland, a worker at the local Sparrows Point steel mill made more than enough to comfortably support a family. But in the decades since, the decline of American manufacturing has put tens of thousands out of work and left the people of Dundalk pondering the broken promise of the American dream.
In Roots of Steel, Rudacille combines personal narrative, interviews with workers, and extensive research to capture the character and history of this once-prosperous community. She takes us from Sparrows Point’s nineteenth-century origins to its height in the twentieth century as one of the largest producers of steel in the world, providing the material that built America’s bridges, skyscrapers, and battleships. Throughout, Rudacille dissects the complicated racial, class, and gender politics that played out in the mill and its neighboring towns, and details both the arduous and dangerous work at the plant and the environmental cost of industrial progress to the air and waterways of the Maryland shore.
Powerful, candid, and eye-opening, Roots of Steel is a timely reminder, as the American economy seeks to restructure itself, of the people who inevitably have been left behind.
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Deborah Rudacille is a science writer and the author of The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activisim, and Transgender Rights and The Scalpel and the Butterfly: The War Between Animal Research and Animal Protection. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In Dundalk, Independence Day is a sacred celebration—its holy feast beer and hard-shell crabs, and its central ritual the biggest parade in the state. Stars-and-stripes bunting or a flag drapes from every house, and families set out their lawn chairs the night before to secure a spot along the parade route. At nine in the morning, earsplitting sirens from the fire trucks open the parade, followed by the thrumming of drums from marching bands and the steady shuffling of veterans’ groups. Hand-painted banners proclaiming let freedom ring flap above local residents in colonial costumes riding on the floats of civic and church groups.
“Whenever the governor or members of Congress come to Dundalk for the parade, they always talk about the American pride,” said John Olszewski Jr., a twenty-six-year-old state delegate, who, like me, grew up in this blue-collar community just outside Baltimore. I once marched in the Independence Day parade myself as a clumsy eleven-year-old majorette prone to dropping her baton, but I still remember my pride and excitement as I high-stepped up and down the leafy streets in my green-and-white uniform, for once a participant rather than an observer.
After the parade, everyone follows the charred aroma of pit beef and the sweet scent of fried dough to nearby Heritage Park, where a three-day festival provides an opportunity to run into old friends, classmates, and neighbors. People who grew up in Dundalk tend to come home for the holiday in the same way that others return for Thanksgiving, Passover, or Christmas. It is, as Olszewski pointed out, “the first day of the year.”
Dundalk’s flamboyant celebration of the Fourth is rooted in its history. A few miles east of the parade route, a band of citizen soldiers fought off British troops headed for Baltimore during the War of 1812. The invaders were repulsed by land and by sea in the battle memorialized in our national anthem. In the twentieth century, tens of thousands of Americans poured into the community from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, the Carolinas, the Midwest, and Appalachia to work in industries critical to national defense—shipbuilding, steelmaking, and aviation—during World War II.
Many of those war workers remained, joining the European immigrants and Southern migrants drawn to town by the manufacturing jobs that gave Baltimore its iconic image as the hardworking, hard-drinking working-class oasis lovingly parodied by its native son filmmaker John Waters. “You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style,” Waters once said. “It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move North, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.”
Waters’s description of the city goes double for the working-class district below its southeastern border, whose residents have long been the butt of local jokes for their extreme accents, hard dirty jobs, and retro tastes in music, fashion, and home décor. Growing up there gave me an enduring appreciation for Lynyrd Skynyrd that is hard to explain to those with more sophisticated musical tastes, and I loved Pabst Blue Ribbon beer long before urban hipsters wearing trucker hats adopted it as their brew of choice a few years ago. My father always had a six-pack of Pabst in our avocado-green refrigerator in the seventies.
The mullet, stonewashed jeans, and dark wood paneling never went out of style in Dundalk. But it was there that I learned the virtues of hard work, community, and family. My paternal forebears arrived in the 1920s, and my maternal grandparents—first-generation Italian Americans—during World War II. Most of them worked at one time or another at the colossal Sparrows Point steelworks or its shipyards rimming Baltimore harbor, just a few nautical miles from the broad waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Grover Cleveland was president when the Pennsylvania Steel Company broke ground at Sparrows Point in 1887. The works and company town grew slowly, surviving recessions and market downturns until shortly before the United States entered World War I. Flush with money from arms sales to the warring nations of Europe, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Pennsylvania Steel’s rival, bought the Point in 1916, inheriting its Chesapeake works and company town. From its earliest days Sparrows Point was the most racially diverse steel mill in the country—but in those days diversity meant native-born whites on top, immigrants and blacks on the bottom.
The company long recruited African American men from Virginia, the Carolinas, and farther south. “It provided a great foundation for folks who were making that transition from farmland to big-city life,” said Deidra Bishop, the director of community affairs for East Baltimore for the Johns Hopkins Institutions. Bishop’s grandfather, born in 1905, and various uncles worked at the Point. “For my family it provided a very good life—one that was not fraught with economic uncertainty. And it provided a circle of friendship for the men as well.”
That was true for white men like my Virginia-born grandfather too. Born in the shadows of the Shenandoah Mountains, he came to Sparrows Point looking for work in 1927, roomed with my great-grandparents, and married their daughter. They had five sons together, and the first three, including my father, were born in “the bungalows”—tiny workers’ cottages on the edge of the company town.
Southern roots were shared by many in the town, yet barely a generation after the Civil War, the sons of rebels and the sons of slaves were toiling together on Sparrows Point, a workingman’s utopia conjured by a former Union major. “Blacks and whites got along good,” in the mills and town, eighty-year-old Lee Douglas Jr., who followed his father and uncles from South Carolina to the Point, told me in 2006. “Only thing was, whites didn’t want anybody promoting to their jobs.”
Work, family, and community were tightly braided together on Sparrows Point, where an employee needed a letter from his foreman to rent a house and where three generations of some families lived surrounded by coke ovens, open hearth furnaces, rolling mills, and enormous piles of limestone and coal. During the Great Depression, Bethlehem let laid-off workers and their families stay in their company houses and charge groceries at the company store. The United Steelworkers of America—voted into the plant in 1941—also “really helped carry people” during the steel strikes of the fifties and sixties, Ed Gorman, a retired steelworker and union vice president, told me, by giving rent money to those in danger of losing their homes in nearby Dundalk and Baltimore and groceries to those who couldn’t afford to feed their families. That commitment bred a fierce loyalty to the company and the union.
Year after year, the ovens, furnaces, and finishing mills of the great works on the Chesapeake belched fire and smoke, crafting the ships and armaments that helped win World Wars I and II and churning out the raw steel and finished products that were the backbone of postwar America. In 1959 Sparrows Point claimed the title of the largest steelworks in the world. By then, Bethlehem (known locally as “Bethlem”) employed over forty thousand Maryland residents at its steelworks and shipyards, and the fortunes of thousands of small businesses throughout the state were tied to Sparrows Point.
Steelworkers were among the best paid of all Baltimore’s industrial workers in the postwar boom, and their union wages sent many children of steel like me to college. But by 1985 the American steel industry was on the ropes, and on the Point, as elsewhere, jobs were cut, layoffs were made permanent, and mills were closed. There is still a steelworks on Sparrows Point today, but it employs fewer than three thousand people, compared with the thirty-six thousand who worked on-site at its peak. Employees endured four changes of ownership from 2003 to 2008, as globalization and consolidation reshaped the industry.
Still, those who survived the upheaval were luckier than most. Until the recent recession, the wages of some hourly workers were topping $100,000 a year. “They are making more money than we ever made,” LeRoy McLelland Sr., a Bethlehem retiree, told me in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. “But there are less people making it.”
McLelland labored for forty-two years in the tin mill at Sparrows Point. Like a lot of Bethlehem retirees, he is “bitter, very bitter” about the company’s 2001 bankruptcy and subsequent sale of assets to the private-equity-funded International Steel Group. That deal stripped retirees of health and life insurance, liquidated their company stock, and cut deeply into many pensions, which were taken over by the federally backed Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Shorn of fiscal responsibility for Bethlehem’s retirees, ISG became hugely profitable, netting its investors billions when ISG was folded into the global steel goliath ArcelorMittal two years later. The retirees have neither forgiven nor forgotten the Bethlehem and ISG executives and bankruptcy judge who sealed the deal.
“We looked forward to retirement as something we would enjoy,” McLelland said, “not worry from month to month about whether the PBGC could afford our pensions, whether Social Security is still gonna be there kicking in a dollar or two, whether Medicare is still going to be available. It’s a daily fear t...
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