Corporate Wasteland

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Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of Deindustrialization. By Steven High and David W. Lewis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. viii + 193 pp. ISBN 978-0-8014-7401-9, $18.95 (paper).

Summary

In Corporate Wasteland, historian Steven High and photographer David W. Lewis present a unique investigation of the deindustrialized landscape that dots the Rust Belt across the United States. High and Lewis combine narratives from former industrial workers, with photographs of abandoned factories and interpretive essays to present a cohesive historical analysis of deindustrialization in North America. As they note in a new era of mobile capital, "In effect, people and places have become disposable."(8) High and Lewis hope through oral history and photography to inject people back into the center of the field, and reassess their agency in light of common attitudes toward former factory workers and their moldering workplaces.

Ultimately, the authors hope to challenge the prevailing "paralyzing sense of inevitability surrounding deindustrialization."(86) In taking a close look at case studies such as the use of public space in Youngstown, OH to generate public memory of the city's once industrial past, or the vast differences between American and Canadian industrial successes and failures, High works to challenge this notion that no other outcome was possible. Rather than allow the rusting and decaying buildings stand as monuments to change, obsolescence, and especially progress, High hopes to revisit the process by which these buildings came to be abandoned and identify how workers who actively resisted their closings came to be seen as passive victims of a process outside their control. For High and Lewis, the workers need to be recentered in the story of deindustrialization, and the legacy of destruction exposed as something far more sinister than progress.

Commentary

KA Fall 2009

Corporate Wasteland is a particularly unique and creative historical analysis that challenges the traditional construction of historical narrative. The book is divided into two parts, with part one explicating much of the authors' theoretical models, and several case studies in support, and part two tying oral history, photography, and interpretation into an inventive account of deindustrialization in different places across the United States and Canada. While High never simply allows the oral histories and photographs to simply stand alone, he grants them generous leeway which truly drives home the power of the primary materials. In particularly, it is clear how they support his thesis earlier from part one that deindustrialization has consistently been presented as a natural, inevitable phase, with workers and their workplaces being marginalized and robbed of anything more than a passive agency. In all, it is a compelling and exciting approach to history and a worthy addition to the study of the decline of industry in North America.

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