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Occupying the Rust Belt: In Three Deindustrialized Cities, Protesters Find Friendly Cops, Determination and Despair

Americans here are beaten down. But in occupations around the country they have found a space where they can speak of their struggles, burdens and aspirations.

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At the same time, local conditions have limited the growth of the occupation. DeLor says many supporters have to juggle multiple part-time jobs, which limits the time they can spend protesting. During the week the number of campers and occupiers dwindles. This also may be why the day we were there, Oct. 18, the occupiers were mostly unemployed or retired.

Despite a Latino community that comprises 41 percent of Allentown residents, few appear to be involved in the occupation. Santo speculates that newer Latino communities aren’t as active possibly due to fears of immigration status and cultural divides, while younger Latinos are not involved simply because “it’s just not the cool thing to do.”

Occupation with an expiration date

Youngstown, Ohio, is an elegiac city a few hundred miles to the west of Allentown. What was once the manufacturing district  is a mausoleum of industry. A brick smokestack stands sentinel over acres of cavernous shells that once poured out streams of goods. Crumbling brick buildings sprout trees two stories up, while inside pancakes of concrete drip toward the ground, suspended precariously by a bramble of rusted rebar.

Demolition is one of the few signs of economic life. Starting in 2006, the city  tripled its budget for razing abandoned buildings. In an open-air yard in the industrial quarter, heavy machines whine and billow exhaust as they pound large concrete slabs, surrounded by small mountains of rubble sorted according to size.

With more than  43 percent of the land vacant, Youngstown is slowly being erased. In some neighborhoods boarded-up houses and empty lots island the remaining inhabited homes, which shrink behind spreading foliage lest they be next.

Since 1950, the population has declined from  a high of 218,000 to less than 67,000 today. The poverty rate is a stratospheric  32 percent, and the median value of owner-occupied homes is a paltry  $52,900. Manufacturing dropped from 50 percent of the workforce in 1950 to  16 percent in 2007. This includes a  staggering loss of 31 percent of manufacturing jobs in the region from 2000 to 2007 – and that was  before the economy fell off the cliff.

At the downtown crossroads, Occupy Youngstown has taken up position in the shadow of three different banks, including a Chase branch. The occupation is a latecomer, having started on Oct. 15, with a rally more than 400 strong at its peak, according to Chuck Kettering Jr., an aspiring actor who has been unemployed for a year from his previous position as an HVAC technician.

“We were once a huge steel city for America,” says the cherubic, 27-year-old Kettering. “In the 1970s they started closing up all our steel mills, taking all the jobs and shipping them down south and overseas where labor is cheaper. Youngstown’s been a city that has been going through this economic struggle for almost 40 years now, and I think we have a valid voice of addressing these issues on a national scale.”

His family is living proof of the toll of deindustrialization. In a phone interview, Chuck Kettering Sr. calls himself “the poster boy for the Rust Belt.” A Youngstown native, he went to work in 1973 at age 19 and worked at two local U.S. Steel plants that shuttered, one in 1979, the other in 1982. Next, he landed a position with Packard Electronics in 1985 making electrical components for GM cars. After GM spun off Delphi in 1999, Packard was subsumed by the auto-parts maker. The company started moving jobs overseas.

“Local operations were pressured by wages, and most operations moved south of the border” because of NAFTA, he says. Following Delphi’s bankruptcy in 2008, Kettering and some co-workers were given a one-time chance to work for GM itself and keep their wages, benefits and pensions.

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