You Load Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get? Guest Post

This story came to me from Lee Ballinger, a former steelworker in Ohio’s Warren-Youngstown area. In the early twentieth century, the Youngstown area boasted the largest concentration of steel-making facilities per capita, and per square mile, in the world. In time, the city’s fate turned. Between 1977 and 1982 alone, five major steel mills closed—thereafter, 50,000 jobs vanished.[1] Lee’s was one of them.

I know what it’s like to depend upon coal to feed a family. Many years ago I worked at a steel mill in Ohio. My job was at the coke plant where West Virginia coal was turned into coking coal for the blast furnace. The top of the coke ovens was an area the size of a football field where monstrous machines funneled coal into the ovens. It was my job to put the heavy oven lids back on nice and tight.  It was literally as hot as hell up there. It felt like walking barefoot on hot coals. The air we breathed was truly foul but to us it was the sweet smell of something like success. We called it the smell of money because it paid the bills.

Yet as soon as I got a chance to escape the coke ovens, I took it. I got a job bid on a crew at the blast furnace. But I couldn’t escape the coal. Like the devil or a bad check, coal will find you. It followed me to the blast furnace.

Big railroad cars full of coking coal arrived at the blast furnace every two or three hours. In the winter it would get as cold as twenty below zero and the coal would freeze solid into one huge mass. The company said under no circumstances were we to climb into the open-top railroad cars to break up the coal. But the company also made it clear we better hurry up and get that coal offloaded. So in we went, carrying big torches to heat the coal and pry bars to break it up. We prayed that it wouldn’t loosen all at once with the possibility that we might go down the chute with it. Many times on a cold winter night I had to look in on my sleeping babies to motivate myself to leave for work on midnight shift.

There was a small group of environmentalists in town who kept raising hell about the pollution from the steel mills. I understood their point. After all, I was more directly affected by pollution than they were. But they didn’t even give lip service to our need to feed our families. So I dismissed them out of hand. In fact, I hated them and feared the changes they might be able to bring about. Jobs or the environment? An easy choice to make. Jobs are more important.

Eventually I was permanently downsized from the mill. The loss of my job caused severe dislocation for my family. It also caused dislocation in my mind, creating an opening, a new space. Facts and events that had once gone in one ear and out the other began to find a place in my thinking. Global warming. Poisoned rivers and oceans. Black lung disease. Hurricane Katrina. Oil spills. Coal-fired power plants spewing acid and deadly metals into our air.

Slowly and not always surely, I began to realize that the environmentalists I had once rejected as extremists were correct when they said that fossil fuels are destroying the earth. Coal and oil aren’t just causing some problems we can learn to live with in pursuit of economic survival. They are going to make it impossible for humans to live on this planet.

Jobs or the environment? Posing the question that way eliminates any chance of coming up with answers and it ignores the people who live at ground zero of the debate. I know first-hand what goes through the minds of coal miners as they sit at the kitchen table facing a pile of bills. “Yes, I know what some people say about what we do. They may even be right. But just give me one more month on this job so I can pay the rent and the electric and the credit card bill. Then maybe one more month after that and another after that until the youngest finishes school.”

Jobs or the environment? Soon it will be too late and we will have neither. Unless we come together under the banner of both.

Excerpted from the upcoming book Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing by Lee Ballinger. If you would like to make a comment or to be notified when the book is published, please emailrockrap@aol.com or go to http://www.facebook.com/leeballingerwrites.  This excerpt has been published by the Sierra Club and by Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture.


[1] John Russo and Sherry Lee Linkon, “The Social Costs of Deindustrialization,” in Manufacturing a Better Future for America ed. Richard McCormack (Alliance for American Manufacturing: 2009), 183.

To Stop Dreaming Would Be Folly: Inequality in America 50 Years Since MLK Jr.

My two cents – through two stories of young black people in Cleveland – on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, now up on HuffPost.

This week we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that true equality included civil rights but also economic justice. In fact, his later writings and speeches on economic inequality and the free market are conveniently ignored by our media and education systems. He dreamt about America, after all, and criticisms of capitalism do not coincide well with the American Dream. But poverty and inequality remain the greatest demarcations of race in America today. In that vain, I am offering a snapshot of two black youths in Cleveland who embody the challenges facing blacks and lower income Americans off all colors. Read the rest at The Huffington Post!

No Other Land, No Other Life

Gallery

This gallery contains 8 photos.

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this, … Continue reading

Books and Bankruptcy: Detroit City Is the Place to Be

detroitMark Binelli, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Metropolitan Books: 2012.

Ten days ago, I finished reading Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be. Five days ago, Detroit declared bankruptcy. I would hardly call the series of events auspicious, but I have to admit to a sense of relief. Because of Binelli’s book, I understood.  Continue reading

On Ruin Porn

I recently discovered the photography of Camilo Jose Vergara, who has been documenting the transformation of American cities – especially those in decline – for decades. His work is not voyeuristic like “ruin porn.” It is contemplative and sincere. In the rust belt, he has focused on Gary, Chicago, and Detroit. His other work spans the country, and I especially enjoyed his photographs from Old New York. His website has a great interface and I highly recommend browsing through it.

Vergara’s work came to my attention while reading Mark Binelli’s 2012 book Detroit City is the Place to Be, which I plan to review here soon (in short: it’s excellent). Binelli treats the topic of ruin pornography while discussing the migration of artists, journalists, and everyday bohemians to depression-struck Detroit, where they derive inspiration and material from the ruins of the city. Hanging around Cleveland, I’m already familiar with the ruin porn trend. And during my travels around the state, I have found myself taking my own pictures of decline, like this series of photographs, three from a half-demolished acme plant in Toledo and another two from downtown Youngstown. When facing sights such as these, embodying an utterly oxymoronic grand destitution, it is hard to resist the compulsion to capture that contradiction. One crumbling building can speak simultaneously to past, present, and future.  Continue reading

Book Review: The Unwinding

George Packer. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2013.

It evades definition, this unwindingThrough the course of 430 pages, Packer never attempts to describe it. He doesn’t use data, or even introductions and conclusions. Instead, he offers you stories meant to take you to it, guide you around its contours, nudge you down its path (because yes, it is on a decline), and drop you at its ending, where you are left with the discomfiting sense that it isn’t over yet.  Continue reading

One Hard Hat, Four Men

Some of the folks I spoke to around Ohio were natural story tellers. One of them was George, an autoworker in Toledo. For almost two hours he reveled in walking me through his three and a half decades as an employee of Chrysler. More than once, he made me laugh to tears. As I work on his story, I have to share one of his anecdotes, told to me with passion and pride.

George would not stand for being put in danger at work. That adamancy lost him his job during his first year with Chrysler, 1977. Back then he was working on Jeep Cherokee tailgates, which hung by hooks overhead the workers. Each tailgate weighed about seventy pounds, and a jerk in the line could cause the hooks to break, sending those bulks of metal tumbling down onto the men below. George, with the innocent audacity of a novice, demanded that a safety cage be put in place. Management handed over a hard hat. There were four men.  Continue reading