As a tribute to working men and women this Labor Day weekend, I offer this tableau featuring a lunch pail and a U.S. Steel cap. The cap was a gift from my daughter, an engineer with the big Pittsburgh-based steelmaker.
This post is also a salute to the Rust Belt, that swath of mostly Midwestern cities that through much of the 20th Century belched toxic fumes into the air and dumped foul sludge into the the region’s rivers and the Great Lakes.
To me, Rust Belt roots are a badge of honor. These are not the “little soft cities” that Carl Sandburg mocked in his famous poem about Chicago, city of broad shoulders. These are hard-working urban cores: Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Erie, Akron, Toledo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Flint, Gary, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Joliet.
The Rust Belt’s capital city? My hometown, Cleveland, Ohio, the Mistake on the Lake, the place favorably compared with the Titanic only by virtue of its orchestra.
As tough and proud as all those other cities are, none had a river (the Cuyahoga) so polluted that it burst into flames. None had a mayor (Ralph J. Perk) who turned down dinner at the White House because it was his wife’s bowling night. None, as far as I know, defaulted on its loans.
Most Rust Belt cities declined precipitously in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Some — Cleveland, Indy and Pittsburgh — have clawed their way back to respectability. That didn’t happen without the hard work we recognize and honor on Labor Day weekend.