Page last updated at 12:29 GMT, Saturday, 22 January 2011

US steel town blames China for bad times

By Justin Rowlatt
BBC News

Workers reinforce the metal girders of a skyscraper in the 1920s
Steel from Youngstown built the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago

As heavy industry declines across the US, many American workers lay the blame at China's door.

It is a mixed blessing when Bruce Springsteen decides to immortalise your town in a song.

Of course you would be chuffed that someone had taken notice but, let's be honest, optimism and hope are not really the strong suit of America's poet of blue-collar life.

We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam, now we're wondering what they were dying for, here in Youngstown, here in Youngstown
Bruce Springsteen

So I was surprised when everyone I spoke to in Youngstown loved his song about the city.

Youngstown was the crucible of the American industrial revolution. The great Mahoning river valley that runs through the city used to be lined with steel mills.

Youngstown steel made the railways that opened up the West and built the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago, and the fortunes of America's first great tycoons.

"Now the yards are just scrap and rubble," sings Springsteen, telling of the terrible decline the city has suffered.

"These mills that built the tanks and bombs that won this country's wars," he continues, "We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam, now we're wondering what they were dying for, here in Youngstown, here in Youngstown."


The steel industry in the Youngstown area used to employ 50,000 men. Just a few thousand jobs are left.

George Calko is lucky enough to have one of them. He is the fourth generation of his family to work in the industry.

Disused mill in Youngstown
The steel industry was the lifeblood of the local community

George and his wife Sheila took me on a tour of their community.

We drove along roads where entire blocks have been bulldozed - just grass and telephone poles remain.

Youngstown, Sheila told me ruefully, is now famous not for steel but as one of the drug and murder capitals of America.

We stopped at a mill that closed a couple of years ago. The vast works buildings are shuttered now and weeds grow in the yard.

George explained how Chinese businessmen buy up the machines in factories like this and ship them back to China.

"Now they are making what we used to make and selling it right back to us," he told me bitterly.

Lots of people in America blame China for the decline of great American industries like steel but George discerns a deeper malaise abroad.

"This is going on all over America's industrial heartland," he said as we sat in his car outside the silent factory.

"Places like this are going out of business left and right.

What's most unsettling about China to Americans is not their communism, it's the capitalism
Thomas L Friedman

"What we're losing is much more than just a product that can be found in a store. We're losing a culture and a way of life, a culture of hard work. We're losing a culture of people that knew how to get things done."

I looked over at Sheila who was sitting beside George. Tears were streaming down her face.

I asked her why she was so moved.

"I teach in schools and I think about all the problems that come from losing a job," she told me, choking back a sob.

"I just think about all the people that can't provide for their families any more."

'Dead' town

Three hundred miles (480km) away in Bethesda, a rich suburb of Washington DC, there is no unemployment problem. This is where the powerbrokers live in this, the most powerful city on earth.

I had come here to interview one of the most respected journalists in America.

Thomas L Friedman is a three times Pulitzer Prize winner who writes for the New York Times.

Boarded-up house in Youngstown
Youngstown now has little to offer the young

He is worried - just like George and Bruce Springsteen - about the decline of something Americans used to champion, the nation's working class.

"What's most unsettling about China to Americans is not their communism, it's the capitalism," he said as we chatted in his kitchen.

"We see in China things we used to see in ourselves: can-do, get it done, hard work, sacrifice, 'own the future'.

"That used to be us, and now we see it in them."

It would be hard for America to cope with the remarkable rise of China at any time but, at a time when America is stagnating, it is particularly difficult.

On my last evening in town, I went for a drink in a bar in the centre of town that has become a focus for local activists like George and Sheila. I got talking to two lads outside.

Justin Rowlatt has been on a global journey to explore the effects of China's policy of "going out" into the world to secure the energy and raw materials its rapidly growing economy needs
A two-part documentary series goes out on BBC Two in early 2011
He is reporting regularly for the BBC News website

"This town is dead," they told me. "We're getting out of here."

One of America's great strengths is its optimism but it is hard to believe that your best days are still ahead in a town like Youngstown.

"So where do you want to go?" I asked the young men outside the Youngstown bar.

"Stick a pin in a map, man," one of them said with a shake of his head. "I'd go anywhere rather than here - anywhere."

He took a long hard drag on his cigarette and exhaled with a deep sigh. The raw winter wind whipped the smoke away and up into the Ohio night.

The problem for men like these is that there is no great hope of a shining future over the hill.

These are difficult times for blue-collar America.

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The US-China power balance
20 Jan 11 |  US & Canada

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