Monday, April 7, 2008


PHOTO: Homestead, Pennsylvania, US Steel Plant. Library of Congress. HABS.

I don't usually finding myself in full agreement with libertarian urban analyst Joel Kotkin. But in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, he offered a solid analysis of the differences between two Rustbelt states, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Keystone State is larger and far more economically diverse than Ohio. And, as a result, it has not witnessed the economic devastation that has turned the Buckeye state into the black eye state.

Kotkin's best quote:

I'm insulted when people compare Pennsylvania to Ohio," says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, himself a native of Allentown. "It's not a Rust Belt state, but a lot of it is like New Jersey."

OK, we are Exit 4 on the Jersey Turnpike. Tony Soprano phone home. Frey is an excellent demographer, but a quick trip to North Philadelphia or Johnstown or Altoona or Pittsburgh is full of remnants of Pennsylvania's rusting industrial past. A ride along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor trains--if you can afford one--takes you past the now vacant, overgrown brownfields once home to the mighty engines of industry.

And New Jersey is a garden of post-industrial decline. Look out the train windows at Trenton (Trenton Makes, the World Takes--no more), Newark, and Camden. Or for the deskbound instead of the Penn Station bound, check out Camilo Jose Vergara's eyeopening photo essay on Camden, Invicible Cities)

Of the three states, New Jersey's geography is probably the most fascinatingly diverse. From Philly or New York, drive fifty miles and you'll find country horse farms, wealthy and blue-collar suburbs, rusted milltowns, Virginia or Carolina style Pine Barrens, outrageously expensive shore towns, cranberry bogs, truck farms, and quaint, New England wannabe artists colonies. You could say it's a little Pennsylvania, a little Ohio, a little Connecticut, a little New York, and a little North Carolina, all rolled up into one.

The lesson: rust and its alternatives come in many forms. And Pennsylvania is no New Jersey is no Ohio. But they are all landscapes shaped by industry and metamorphosing in countless, unpredictable postindustrial ways.