Theses Doctoral

Rust Belt Industrial Ruination in the Working-Class Imagination: The Descendants

Davis, Natasha

This dissertation asks: what has happened to the children and grandchildren of former industrial workers, those who came of age in the shadow of industrial ruination in the Rust Belt? It draws on 105 interviews with working-class descendants who grew up in or near the Mon Valley in Pennsylvania, to explore how those descendants engage with industrial ruins.

For most, the ruins recalled the breakdown of the employer-employee social contract, a sense of betrayed tradition, and the current (abysmal) state of affairs for the working class. Most advocate for the destruction of the ruins, as the loss and failure embodied by industrial ruination acts as a trap, imprisoning them in the past. Their attempts to build a new working-class identity require letting go of industrial work and the memories of the lost past.

For a wider range of perspectives, two other groups of descendants were interviewed—fifteen arsonists and four cultural producers (novelists). The arsonists, who set fire to abandoned buildings, draw on regional fire symbolism and maintain their inherited association between work and identity as they struggle to resurrect industry. The novelists, who have all published in the vein of American Gothic literature, are seeking to reinterpret the past to serve the needs of the present, using supernatural figures alongside ruins in their novels in order to allow the main characters to identify, recover, and reinterpret a hidden past, which allows for mourning and the formulation of a new class identity.

Each of these groups of descendants is cobbling together different versions of working-class identity, but all show that navigation of economic restructuring is a process of continual transformation. Descendants’ imaginative constructions are emblems not of solidity or permanence, but rather revision and reinvention.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ivy, Marilyn J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 15, 2023