Cornell University Press

Deindustrialization and Industrial Redevelopment in Chicago

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A defining element of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the presidency was his claim that his administration would provide support for the Rust Belt victims of deindustrialization. His appeal to the white, blue-collar workers of small and big cities in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio was predicated on two ideas: that industrial decline was a relatively new phenomenon and that it could be solved by changes to trade policy. 

The Rust Belt and deindustrialization

In both cases, he was wrong. As I show in my book on industrial redevelopment in postwar Chicago, extensive and systematic industrial decline had been a defining feature of most central cities in the Rust Belt since the 1930s. Tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs were lost in Detroit, Chicago, Akron, Philadelphia, and elsewhere before the late 1960s. The reasons for this nonreversible decline had little to do with recent trade policy with China or any other country as Trump asserted. Rather, it was rooted in the decisions of manufacturing and financial executives operating within the structural dynamics of industrial capitalism. In the case of the city of Chicago, company managers from the 1920s, slowly but inexorably, closed factory doors and invested capital in new industrial facilities in the expanding suburbs, the American South, and overseas. The result was the opening of factories in the suburbs of Chicago, Toronto, London, and Paris and the simultaneous economic devastation of Rust Belt cities. 

In the case of the city of Chicago, company managers from the 1920s, slowly but inexorably, closed factory doors and invested capital in new industrial facilities in the expanding suburbs, the American South and overseas.

Chicago and industrial redevelopment

The fact of ongoing industrial decline forced a response from the city’s industrial and political elites in the 1950s and 1960s. A redevelopment coalition of place-dependent manufacturing executives, planners, and city politicians worked on devising ways to reinvigorate the city’s industrial base. A succession of agencies, including the Chicago Plan Commission, the Chicago Land Clearance Commission, and the Mayor’s Committee for Economic and Cultural Development, created a range of programs and plans intended to kickstart the city’s manufacturing economy. The proposed strategies involved enticing new industrial capital investment and razing and then redeveloping blighted industrial areas. The aim was to build a competitive industrial economy centered on science and defense-based industries housed in modern factory districts.

The failure of industrial redevelopment

These strategies of industrial redevelopment failed to stop the bleeding of industrial capital and manufacturing jobs. One reason was that the institutional fix devised by the coalition of place-dependent industrial interests ran up against a more powerful growth machine looking to build a postindustrial city. This postindustrial alliance of real estate, financial and political interests created an economy based on corporate control and command functions. Linked to this, the alliance razed many of the old, ethnic working-class, African American and factory districts in order to build middle-class housing, commercial centers, and modernist office towers in the business district and the surrounding residential area. 

A second reason was that the forces of capitalist change were too powerful to be stopped by the industrial coalition. The strategies it put in place to entice local investment were unable to stop corporate leaders from searching for new and profitable locations outside of the city. By the middle of the twentieth century, large corporations with national and international markets increasingly looked to open new industrial facilities in greenfield sites outside of the of the industrial cities of the Rust Belt. Driven by the dictates of profits and market share and with little regard for local affairs, company executives invested in new sites in the Sunbelt and elsewhere and planned the gradual obsolescence of the production facilities of the older industrial cities. 

Driven by the dictates of profits and market share and with little regard for local affairs, company executives invested in new sites in the Sunbelt and elsewhere and planned the gradual obsolescence of the production facilities of the older industrial cities. 

In Chicago, the result was the hollowing out of the city’s manufacturing base, the expansion of the industry in the suburbs, and the building of a postindustrial city on the ruins of the industrial city.

*Featured photo: Chicago Plan Commission, Industrial Planning and Zoning, Policy Statement and Recommendations (Chicago; Chicago Plan Commission, September 1952).


Robert Lewis is Professor of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Chicago MadeCalculating Property Relations, and Manufacturing Montreal.

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