So what’s with all the abandoned buildings?

Urban Dragon takes place in what’s known as the Rust Belt, where abandoned buildings, derelict factories, and unused railroad tracks are part of the everyday scenery.

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An electrical room from a now-demolished factory that was less than an hour’s walk from downtown Indianapois. Photo taken 2015.

The Rust Belt covers most of what used to be the Steel Belt, where iron ore from Wisconsin and Michigan was combined with coal from the Appalachians, and processed in factories all along the way. These were booming industries. Coal refineries, steel mills, and manufacturing plants became the lifeblood of their communities. Those people who didn’t work for the factories themselves worked in secondary industries that fed and clothed and generally profited off the factory workers.

But somewhere in the 1950s, all of that changed.

Automation meant that fewer workers were needed for the same level of productivity. Reduced labor costs moved manufacturing jobs to the South, and after that, trade agreements and lack of protections for workers abroad made it more profitable to move those same jobs to other countries. These factories had been the lifeblood of the Steel Belt, and when they left, the region hemorrhaged.

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Change in total manufacturing jobs between 1954 and 2002. Image by  Veillantif, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Loyal, committed workers suddenly found themselves unemployed. Local businesses found themselves with a surplus of desperate job applicants, and an ever-shrinking supply of customers. A lot of people tried to pick up the pieces and move elsewhere, but the collapsed economy meant that their treasured homes were now worthless– or worse, actively draining resources from already floundering families– and so they were abandoned or sold for pennies on the dollar.

If that dark red spot in Michigan looks familiar, it might be because that’s the city of Flint. Detroit, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana, and  both held the title of “Murder Capital of the USA” in the last decades. And if you’ve heard of Gary, it might be because of the recent arrest of a serial killer in the area, after which an understaffed and underfunded police department found themselves having to search the city’s 10,000 abandoned homes for the victims.

Some of the cities were built on a diverse enough foundation that they were able to survive, or they’ve been since seeking ways to diversify. You might recognize among them Chicago, New York City, and Indianapolis, but even these are still home to the hulking ruins of a manufacturing empire.

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This was once a doctor’s office, then an auto body shop. Now it’s being excavated and repaired. so it can bring new life into its community.

 

This isn’t meant to put a damper on your day. What I’m hoping to do, with blog posts like this and with Urban Dragon as a series, is raise awareness, both for the creativity and ingenuity of people who live in this region, and for the problems that continue to fester here. Because now that people know about the atrocious conditions of Flint, Michigan, politicians are being forced to pay attention to the problem and plumbers are volunteering their time to provide the locals with clean drinking water. That would never have happened without public awareness and public outrage.

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