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“At once a history of one of the nation’s mightiest manufacturing plants and an homage to the people whose efforts made it thrive.”
—Style Magazine (Baltimore)
“[An] affecting portrait of a decaying loop on the Rust Belt . . . Rudacille has delivered a book that would do Studs Terkel proud, partaking of his oral-historical approach to the past at turns, imbued with his pro-labor spirit throughout. Required reading for activists and for those wondering where things went wrong for America’s working people.”
“Deborah Rudacille’s dirty and beautiful history of Baltimore steel is also a history of America. The steel manufactured in these Baltimore plants helped to build American icons like the Golden Gate Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and the U.S. Supreme Court Building. Roots of Steel is full of stories of hard work and pollution, war and unions, the American dream and bankruptcy.”
—Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody
Barack Obama was criticized when he pointed out during his presidential campaign that many people in blue-collar communities are bitter and angry about their losses. But he was only saying what anyone who comes from a place like Dundalk knows full well is true. Over the past thirty years, its residents have watched a hard-won prosperity and security slip away. Though they don’t know for sure who is to blame, they do know what they want: a return to the old days, when the jobs that could support a family were plentiful, streets were safe, and workers could take pride in their contributions to the nation’s wealth and power.
Still, few who make a living catering to populist rage are willing to point out that the economic pain of many formerly prosperous working-class neighborhoods has been worsened by a lack of family and community emphasis on education. “For young kids today, it’s really stacked against them,” Bill Knoerlein, a Dundalk resident and retired steelworker, told me. “The better-paying jobs are based on technological knowledge, but you need basic skills, and a lot of kids coming out of high school aren’t prepared.” In fact, according to the 2000 census, a little more than 30 percent of Dundalk residents 25 and older did not complete high school. Another 20 percent had earned a high school diploma, but only 4.8 percent of Dundalk residents had graduated from community college, and 4.4 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree. A tiny 1.8 percent of Dundalk residents had earned a graduate or professional degree in 2000, the year before the Bethlehem bankruptcy.
“Decades ago you could leave high school and make more money than people who went to college” at local factories and mills, Olszewski pointed out. That is no longer true, but many still view higher education as a luxury, not a necessity. His parents, who were high school graduates, “instilled in me at a very early age the importance of an education,” he said. “I imagine that part of that was seeing those other options fade away.” Aris Melissaratos, former secretary for the Maryland Department of Economic and Business Development, said that “the Point provided great jobs to a lot of people that never ﬁnished high school. But that’s over. Today all of our population needs to focus on ﬁnishing high school and getting skills.”
Even blue-collar distribution jobs at the port are automated, Melissaratos said. “So distribution workers will need to be knowledge workers as well—and the knowledge economy will demand much better education.” He told me that the largest private employer in the state is now Johns Hopkins. With 46,000 employees, the university and its health system and afﬁliates now provide more jobs in Maryland than Bethlehem did at its peak.
Health care comprises a big chunk of the state’s economy, and at CCBC Bill Barry sees a number of people heading for hospital jobs. “There are a lot of workers here, not necessarily from Sparrows Point, who are coming out of manufacturing and being retrained at age forty-ﬁve to be nurses, physical therapists, stuff like that,” he said. “It’s interesting because nursing has traditionally been a woman’s job. But [displaced industrial workers] look at what is the high-paying industry in the Baltimore area and it’s nursing.” Younger students enrolling just after high school are looking for job security, he said. “They are thinking nursing or dental hygiene or police ofﬁcer because these are the growth industries. And so instead of going to Sparrows Point they’ll come here to get into a certain line of work.”
Putting on a uniform seems the best alternative to some young high school graduates. “For my class , the military was the new Bethlehem Steel,” Andrew Layman, a thirty-year-old Iraqi war veteran, told me. “Easily ten percent of my graduating class went into the various services. It offers the same thing Beth Steel once offered—a steady paycheck.” Given the community’s strong roots in defense work and proud history of service, this is not surprising. But military service alone will not arrest the community’s downward economic slide. Layman, an air force ofﬁcer who served as an analyst for the U.S. Army in Baghdad, took a job with a government contractor in Saudi Arabia after leaving the service and worked there for two years. “For other vets I imagine that things are tough right now,” he said. “Enlisted guys returning without degrees are probably forced to reenlist with outside ﬁrms not hiring.” Ofﬁcers and enlisted men and women with college degrees are likely faring better, he pointed out. He has taken advantage of the GI Bill to return to school.
Olszewski succinctly summed up the challenges facing Dundalk and communities like it around the country today: “How do we retool and equip people who are still in those working areas as industrial jobs are failing—and what do we do when industry abandons people who gave their entire lives to it?”
There are no easy answers to these questions. But as President Obama noted in his inaugural address, “It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor—who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.” The struggles and sacriﬁces of such men and women inspired me to write this book. The community where I was raised has responded to times of enormous challenge in the past with courage, fortitude, and resolve. I believe that if they are given the help they need to retool, retrain, and rebuild the community, those qualities will once again carry them through to a new day and provide a ﬁtting tribute to their (and my) roots of steel.
From the Hardcover edition.