Steel and Modern America

DSCF3007Let’s cut to the chase. If you have a relative on your gift list who loves the nooks and crannies of history, particularly those less well-known details behind the reality of the modern world, may I offer a suggestion? This suggestion emanates in part from the simple fact that I am a lover of history, an avid scholar of the factors that have influenced the shape and size of modern American cities—I am, after all, an urban planner—and the fact that I simply love good writing. I am, after all, also a trained professional journalist. Steel, a wonderful book by Brooke C. Stoddard, a veteran writer and former editor at Time/Life and National Geographic Books, has the kind of grand scope and vision that can fascinate the reader in your family who has an endless curiosity about the world.

Or maybe that person is you. In that case I am either helping you figure out what to ask someone else to give you, or you can just go get it. And while I think e-books are wonderful, this is one case where I highly recommend getting the hardcover, in part so that you can sit back with that tactile feel of a real book in your hands and admire the copious color illustrations that accompany some splendid writing. Stoddard is a marvelous story-teller, but the photographs do the text more than ample justice.

Steel production was part of my own background growing up in suburban Cleveland. My father was a truck mechanic in a chemical factory, and I spent three summers there working my way through college. Chemical production fed other industries, including steel, in numerous ways. Antimony, for instance, is used in electroplating, which bonds paint to the steel frames of cars, and Cleveland grew on both steel and auto manufacturing, and there was a powerful symbiosis between all of them in an industrial ecosystem that employed tens of thousands. Steel was at the core of the growth of many Midwestern and eastern cities from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Chicago. My story is at most tangential, but I learned what rough work it could all be. I even broke an ankle that first summer before starting college when the dome of an antimony kiln tipped over and trapped my leg. Such places were not necessarily for the faint of heart. I recovered, of course, and learned.

But learning from such immediacy to industry and taking in the grand sweep of its growth over time are two very different things. Writing industrial history can also be a labor of love, the financial rewards from book sales not always seeming to equal the toil involved in assembling detailed stories spanning centuries. I have read a few of these books in the past: for example, Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, about the coffee industry, also a fine book. These are really stories to some extent about the evolution of human society in modern times, and how particular products changed our cities and whole nations. But few are as central to who we are today, and what our cities have become, than the steel industry. In more ways than almost any other industry, steel has been the game changer of human history.

And like most, it started from small things that turned into larger things that eventually turned into huge things. Stoddard takes us all the way back to the Stone Age and the descent from space of iron meteorites to explain the origins of the human relationship with the element that is the basis of steel before engagingly slow-walking us through human discoveries of the various alloys and their relative strengths and advantages for both peaceful and military uses over the first few millennia of human civilization. Empires like that of the Hittites grew, for example, on the advantage of iron over bronze, and of better ways of making steel instead of cast or wrought iron. The Romans gained iron works in Iberia from the Carthaginians and then added the refinement of tempering to improve the quality of the metals they used. Just as in modern times, military success was often fed by industrial success, which also meant that a nation of inventors gained huge advantages over its neighbors and competitors. And that’s all in the first chapter.

Stoddard’s second chapter pulls us into the industrial age, starting with British refinements in the use of coal to improve steel alloys, which depend on the right proportion of carbon to harden the iron in steel to produce the metals we rely upon today. German industrialists added their own refinements, but American steel makers like Andrew Carnegie burst onto the scene in the late 1800s to create enormous gains in the scale of production, coupled with the ready access of iron ore discovered in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. In a matter of decades, the United States moved into a steelmaking category that dwarfed all others. It is, as most know, a history of ruthless men, but also of the uniquely philanthropic aspirations of a few like Carnegie. Labor and industry were often locked in mortal combat. For all his hard-bitten ambition, Stoddard notes, the U.S. could have done far worse than to have its industry transformed by a man who ultimately gave away more than 90 percent of his wealth to support charities like community libraries and concert halls rather than creating one massive family dynasty.

Here I must veer off on a small tangent. Carnegie helped nurture the career of a protégé named Charles Schwab, who first helped engineer the sale of Carnegie’s business to form the dominant U.S. Steel Corp., and later became the president of the competing Bethlehem Steel, which built the huge Sparrow Works in Baltimore. More than a quarter-century younger than Carnegie, Schwab, who functioned into the 1920s, was far more prone to flaunt his wealth, building a huge mansion in Manhattan that he later found nearly impossible to sell during hard times. Stoddard reveals that Schwab, despite his German ancestry, made a fortune providing steel for submarines and other military purposes to the United Kingdom in World War I well before American entry into the war, even at times when the official American position was neutrality. One favorite tactic was to ship the parts to Canada, where they could easily be assembled into submarines before being transferred to the British Navy.

My father, born in 1917 during that war and coming of age in the 1930s, tried after Pearl Harbor to join the U.S. armed forces, but was rejected for medical reasons. It turned out he suffered from appendicitis, which was remedied through surgery by a civilian doctor, and he spent the war years in New York City working in the steel mills.

His name was Charles Schwab. He used to joke that some people who did not know him thought that perhaps he was a close relative of the big guy and was learning the business from the bottom up. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. He was simply another blue-collar working stiff. He did have a rich uncle who sold uniforms to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but that is another story, one that never benefited him directly. Curiously, that was not his only brush with fame, for later in life he had to contend with Charles Schwab the broker. Well into retirement, tired of taking phone calls from misguided investors, he and my mother put the household phone in her name, and the errant calls ceased to find him. He was not related to that Charles Schwab, either. But when asked, I can at least say with a straight face that Charles Schwab was my father.

But back to the book. Without drilling down into all the magnificent details that Stoddard provides, the second part paints a portrait of what makes the steel industry function as a whole, starting with vivid descriptions of the iron ore barges that sail the Great Lakes, some of which are larger than the Titanic and the Queen Mary, yet get far less attention because they do not cross the oceans. After visiting the Iron Range, he boards one of those freighters in Superior, Wisconsin, and stays aboard across Lake Superior, the volatile lake whose nasty storm in 1975 swallowed the Edmund Fitzgerald, the subject of a doleful hit folk song a year later by Gordon Lightfoot. He stays with the crew as they transit Lake Huron and Lake Erie to Cleveland, where they finally unload their cargo of thousands of tons of iron ore pellets. Along the way, we learn about the modern amenities aboard such ships, and the challenges both they and their crews face, including fitting such huge vessels through narrow locks between the lakes or braving lake effect storms. It is a world few of us imagine or even try to think about. But it is a world that makes our world possible. Without steel, we have no modern skyscrapers creating the skyline of cities like New York and Chicago. Without steel, many of our modern appliances and conveniences simply are not possible. Without steel, our cities look like very different places. Just take a look at photos and drawings of American and European cities in the mid-19th century. Just imagine building railroads and mass transit without steel.

And so the book presses on—I won’t ruin the anticipation, except to say that eventually, as he must, Stoddard leads us to the decline of the monsters of steel on the American industrial scene, due more to lack of innovation than lack of resources. Former giants of urban steel making disappeared from older industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Other, more nimble, firms like Arcelor Mittal have moved to the forefront in recent decades, and Stoddard tells us why in a closing chapter titled, “Exeunt the American Gods.” The changes that have been wrought in our major cities are not for the faint of heart. Once again, in the cycle of history, steel manufacturing has changed, and the old days will not return. But steel will continue to change our lives.

Steel: From Mine to Mill, the Metal that Made America. Brooke C. Stoddard. Zenith Press. 304 pp.


Jim Schwab

Kitchen Regained

DSCF3003Anyone who, like me, relishes playing the role of amateur gourmet chef, whether solely for the domestic crowd or to entertain visitors or both, will understand that a good kitchen is one’s paradise, a playground in which culinary imagination can soar and new delectation triumphs can enrich one’s life. After weeks of watching our kitchen torn apart because of a small pipe leak behind our stove that created some moldy drywall before we were aware of the problem, and then watching and waiting as the floors were refinished, new cabinets were installed, and finally, new granite countertops were delivered and DSCF3004 installed, followed yesterday by the reconnection of plumbing for our dishwasher, sink, and garbage dispose-all, the moment has arrived when we can fully enjoy a newly renovated kitchen. Yes, John Milton, kitchens too can be redeemed.

Because many hands are involved in making a project like this happen, credit must be distributed liberally. For one thing, this is not a project with regrets. Everyone involved did a conscientious and quality job, and my wife and I are very happy with the results. I can start by crediting those who had to do the dirty work: Larry Schwarz of Safestart Environmental, who developed the protocol for the mold remediation and performed the inspection to certify that it was done properly, and Marcus Smith at ServPro of Gold Coast/Lincoln Park/Lakeview, whose crew actually removed the moldy drywall and brought in the air filters to remove impurities from the indoor air. They do not get to do the beautiful work, but they did set the process in motion.

Marva Hemphill

Marva Hemphill

The one individual at the center of the action once the remediation was complete was Marva Hemphill, a kitchen designer for Home Depot on Elston Avenue in Chicago. Such people often go unsung, but Marva is a dedicated professional who is only happy if the customer is achieving his or her goals and has access to the best design options. Marva spent hours with us on repeated visits to the store, reviewing design options on her computer, helping us find new ceiling lights, choose the granite, the sink, and the cabinets, and numerous other choices. More important, she was our pilot through the shoals of a process that can seem challenging, clarifying who needed to do what jobs in what order so that we understood what to expect. Marva can fairly be described as both personable and patient. She served as our interlocutor with vendors when we were not sure what questions to ask. She was indispensable.

At one point, someone questioned whether we should go through Home Depot, noting that some people have had less than satisfactory experiences. In such a big company, I am sure that is always a possibility. But I also believe that individual people often matter more than the institutions they serve, and Marva was a case in point. Companies succeed because of such people.

Marva worked closely with Steve Sochacki, the project manager for Absolute Construction, the company that performed all the carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work once the remediation was done. My wife, Jean, who was at home with these workers far more than I because I spent most of my days at work, states very clearly that Absolute’s employees were uniformly respectful and did their best throughout the process. They justified our faith in Marva’s recommendation to use them.

Finally, the people at International Marble, which supplied the granite, had to return for a second visit to ensure they got their measurements right, but when they finally delivered the countertops last Friday, everything seemed to fit like a charm. They got it right, and the job is now complete, as the photos attest.

So now, the only question remaining is what to try first—that Black Sea recipe I have used before for stewed turkey with apricots, a savory cacophony of flavors that include cinnamon and onions and cayenne pepper? Or that Sri Lankan recipe I learned after the Indian Ocean tsunami that produces a spicy curried Spanish mackerel stew with Bombay onions and an array of eastern spices, served with rice? Or wait—that Cuban recipe for grilled tuna marinated in lemon juice and garlic?

The options remind me of that famous quote from Sir Winston Churchill as he viewed an ample wine cellar: “So much to do, so little time in which to do it.”

But first, there is the issue of Christmas cookies for the office cookie share tomorrow afternoon.


Jim Schwab

Resilience Defined and Practiced

DSCF1077As I write this today, representatives of 190 nations are in Paris apparently have reached a historic consensus on a new climate agreement. Because I am not there and you will read about it in the news soon enough, this article is not about that agreement, but about the very practical concept of community resilience. No matter what the nations of the world decide, communities must face the very real impacts of climate change and of all natural disasters facing them. I am going to rely heavily on a lecture I delivered on October 22 at Iowa State University as a guest of its lecture series.

Before discussing resilience, however, I want to underscore the urgent reasons why the world has been gathered in Paris for the past two weeks, even in the face of security scares arising from terrorist activities there over the past year. The theory that greenhouse gases affect global temperatures by trapping the sun’s heat that would otherwise radiate back into space has been around since the late 19th century. In 1958, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography began measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. At the time, it was already at 316 parts per million, above the historic level of 280 preceding the modern industrial age, in which we have pumped huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the air through the burning of fossil fuels. The level has climbed steadily ever since and has just recently passed 400. Scientists have already determined that 350 is the highest safe level for maintaining global temperatures within the evolutionary range of human history. Thus, we scramble to find ways to slow the rise and eventually return to that level, which prevailed around 1988. As we cope with the impacts of these higher levels with increased weather volatility and sea level rise, the need for communities to adapt to the new circumstances has become increasingly compelling and urgent. Some are clearly more ready than others for a variety of reasons, including governmental capacity and political will.

The concept of resilience is at the center of much current practice and discussion in the field of disaster recovery, but it is actually much broader. The Rockefeller Foundation has been arguing that it really relates not only to shocks—events that present immediate threats such as natural disasters—but also to chronic stressors, which can be forces that strain the resources of a community over an extended period of time, such as high crime, pollution, or poverty. Certainly, the inability to cope with those chronic stresses can set up a community for much more calamitous response in the face of sudden shocks. Rockefeller, however, is using the concept of resilience in reference to cities in its 100 Resilient Cities program, and some other uses may demand different frameworks for the issue.

In the lecture at Iowa State University, “Holistic Approaches to a Resilient Future,” I undertook a quick overview of some of the definitions of resilience that span the different perspectives within which it has been used. I’d like here to focus on those definitions and some closing comments that followed them.

While stating that my overview did not necessarily contain the best or the most definitive definitions, I suggested it was at least a representative sample. I started by noting that the concept largely originated in the field of ecology, the study of natural systems, and offered this definition from the Stockholm Resilience Centre:

Ecosystem resilience is a measure of how much disturbance (like storms, fire or pollutants) an ecosystem can handle without shifting into a qualitatively different state. It is like the capacity of a system to both withstand shocks and surprises and to rebuild itself if damaged.

Nature left to itself tends to repair the damage from storms and natural events, but we have often compromised the ecosystems that support us, such that they do not recover as well or at all in the face of major shocks. But the concept of resilience has also been applied to engineered, or physical, systems, and I then offered this definition from a professional reference work, Resilience Engineering in Practice:

The intrinsic ability of a system to adjust its functioning prior to, during, or following changes and disturbances, so that it can sustain required operations under both expected and unexpected conditions.

Here, the focus is not on the resilience of nature itself, but on our ability to create or design systems that are capable of continuing to function in the face of adverse circumstances.

But can people themselves be resilient? Obviously, the answer is yes, and we frequently talk about individuals in that way, but what about whole communities or groups? The Stockholm Resilience Centre offers a different definition in a social context:

Social resilience is the ability of human communities to withstand and recover from stresses, such as environmental change or social, economic, or political upheaval. Resilience in societies and their life-supporting ecosystems is crucial in maintaining options for future human development.

The point is that, while communities tend to have their own ethos and unique human resources, they are not naturally self-governing. Governance in fact is a well-learned art that involves leadership by some, passive acceptance by others, and many shades of involvement in between. Can governance itself be resilient? I offered the following definition offered by some urban planning scholars in a 2009 article in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management (52 (6): 739-56:

Instead of repeated damage and continual demands for federal disaster assistance, resilient communities proactively protect themselves against hazards, build self-sufficiency, and become more sustainable. Resilience is the capacity to absorb severe shock and return to a desired state following a disaster. It involves technical, organizational, social, and economic dimensions. It is fostered not only by government, but also by individual, organization, and business actions.

By then, I felt the audience might be struggling to keep track of the many nuances embedded in those more specific definitions, so I ended the overview with the much simpler statement that the National Academy of Sciences used in its landmark 2012 report, Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative. It defined resilience as simply

the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.

I then noted that resilience bears an important relationship to the concept of sustainability, which gained prominence following a 1988 United Nations report, Our Common Future. Borrowing from what I wrote in our own APA Planning Advisory Service Report from a year ago, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, I stated that fundamentally, resilience allows a community to respond to and recover effectively from specific events; sustainability is a frame of reference that aims to preserve for future generations the resources and opportunities that exist for current generations. Resilience can help to ensure that those resources and opportunities are not squandered through poor preparation for adverse events. It is not in and of itself, however, a broad enough framework for the more long-term goals of truly visionary planning. The two concepts need to work hand in hand.

It is important to understand some of what stands in the way of building resilient communities, so I spent a few minutes summarizing some key points in this regard:

  • Lack of trust in government. I noted that the source of distrust can be very different, ranging from historic racial and social inequities to a deliberate view of government as the enemy. The former, I noted, was a huge factor in recovery from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where a host of such inequities poisoned the atmosphere and sometimes undermined planning. The latter is typified by the Tea Party and similar conservative movements, where the aim often seems to be to undermine faith in government by making it incapable of effective response. Exactly how that leads us to any sort of positive future has never been clear to me.
  • Procrastination. Human beings are capable of a good deal of denial, and the willingness to postpone actions to address vulnerabilities that may not be exposed in a mayor’s term of office is rampant in local government. Yet there are statesmen among us who care about their legacy and perceive the need for action to reduce a community’s level of risk. I closed by borrowing a slide from Abby Finis, of the Great Plains Institute, who had concluded a presentation earlier in October at the Sustainable Communities Network annual conference in Dubuque, Iowa, by quoting me from the PAS Report cited above: “It is impossible to know when a community’s moment of truth will come, but procrastination clearly isn’t a viable option.”

All of this points to a need for visionary champions, whether they be citizen activists or political leaders, who will advocate for better planning for resilience on a sustained basis. These people tend to foster inclusive dialogue to help bring the public aboard with a heightened understanding of the problems their communities face and who then help create the very success stories we need to inspire others. Rebecca Solnit talks about such people in her inspiring book, A Paradise Built in Hell.

But there is nothing terribly new about this. Communities faced with disaster have been rising to the occasion for a long time. Chicago drastically upgraded its building codes after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, which remains a primary reason you will find so much masonry construction in the city. If we were able to learn from a disaster nearly 150 years ago, before the modern concept of resilience was even in active use, why can we not learn far more today? The object lessons are plentiful. Even before Hurricane Katrina launched a boatload of new books addressing disaster recovery, Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella compiled examples from around the world in The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster. What’s new is that at last we are consciously thinking about resilience before disaster, instead of waiting until it strikes. That’s important in view of the climate adaptation challenges that lie ahead.

Jim Schwab