“Nothin’ but Blue Skies” is structured as a series of reports from the field, detailing how Detroit fell into urban decay, drugs and bankruptcy; how Cleveland became “the Mistake on the Lake”; how Buffalo has struggled since the St. Lawrence Seaway took away much of its water traffic; and how Chicago’s old-boy network both corrupted and partly saved the Second City. Along the way, McClelland tracks the early careers of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore and Cleveland politician Dennis Kucinich; hangs out with bar owners, union leaders, drug dealers and black rappers (“White folks focus on dogs and yoga”); and reminds us that Willis Carrier’s invention of air-conditioning was the prerequisite for the boom in Southern industry at the expense of the North. Even the iconic Carrier plant in Syracuse, N.Y., eventually shifted most of its operations to North Carolina and Georgia.
McClelland is a terrific reporter, smoothly blending facts from the historical record with the bitter, often profane, conversation of the displaced and desperate men and women he meets and his own reflections. These last are often as witty as they are shrewd: “Drive-ins and classic-car shows are to the Midwest what Civil War reenactments are to the South: remembrances of the region’s last glorious era.” “Steel executives always announced mill closings the week after Christmas, when the holiday moratorium on acting like an SOB was over.” “Only a genius could write an entertaining book about assembly-line labor. But not even a genius could make an entertaining movie about it.”
Again and again, McClelland demonstrates how outsourcing and the closing of mills and plants have ruined thousands of lives; how predatory lenders wrecked old established neighborhoods, as well as our economy, even as our government looked the other way; and how American-as-apple-pie companies were sold off to overseas investors who sucked them dry and left the husk to become an abandoned junkyard.
To drive these days through Great Lakes cities — Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, among others — is to drive through the nation’s industrial past. The iconic images have become Rust Belt cliché: weed-choked parking lots, windowless houses, cold factories stripped of their metals and open to the elements.
But there are human stories behind those static images, and author and journalist Edward McClelland digs deeply into them for his empathetic new book, “Nothin’ but Blues Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.”
Engagingly written, the book covers some of the emblematic stories of the past few decades, from the 1994 A.E. Staley labor lockout in Decatur, Ill., an underappreciated example of the uneven playing field on which organized labor fights these days, to the creation of a shoppers’ paradise out of old steel property in Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh, a “microcosm of what America had become: a nation of shopkeepers who sold each other things, instead of making things.”
Through interviews, the historical record and personal memories, McClelland re-creates the glory years of American manufacturing. More poignantly, he details how it collapsed into a humbling heap.
We meet steelworkers washed up at 50, never to work again; former autoworkers making half their past wages at fast-food jobs; mayors of cities forced to lay off police as desperation and crime soars.
McClelland, a former newspaper reporter, is an engaging writer with an ear for local voices. He has a knack for the memorable phrase and often lends a poetic touch to urban affairs.
It is difficult to describe how truly outstanding the book entitled Nothing But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland is to read. As a nearly lifelong Rust Belt resident, I can attest to the fact that Edward McClelland’s newly released book simply nails our industrial heritage, decline, and hopeful potential squarely on the head. From nationally known politicians like Dennis Kucinich or Coleman Young to the everyday blue-collar laborer toiling in our mills and factories, Mr. McClelland personifies the Rust Belt like no other book I have ever read on the subject. As a Lansing native, he has personally witnessed the dramatic (and sometimes catastrophic) changes just in his lifetime. In Nothing But Blue Skies, Mr. McClelland takes the reader on a quasi-chronological step-by-step sequence of events that shook the Rust Belt down it its very core.