A Metaphor for America: Scranton, Pennsylvania, Was a Manufacturing Centre. This Is How the Dream Ends
A Metaphor for America: Scranton, Pennsylvania, Was a Manufacturing Centre. Now Its Factories Are Abandoned, Its Coffers Empty, and Its Citizens in Despair. This Is How the Dream Ends « Sigmund, Carl and Alfred
I WALK WITH the photographer Alan Chin through an open gate that leads down a service road into the gutted remains of an abandoned lace factory in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The road is filled with potholes and littered with debris. The derelict complex, 288,000 square feet in all, consists of two huge brick buildings connected by overhead walkways. The towering walls, separated by the service road, are covered with ivy, lined with weeds, and surrounded by mud puddles, discarded boxes, rusty machinery, old filing cabinets, and saplings. The windowpanes are empty or jagged with broken glass. The thick wooden doors to the old loading docks stand agape. We pass through a set of open double doors into a cavernous hall. The wreckage of industrial America lies before us, home to flocks of pigeons that, startled by our footsteps over the shards of glass and rotting floorboards, swiftly leave their perches high over our heads in the rafters and air ducts. They fly over the old looms, bleating and clucking softly.
The Scranton Lace Company was America. It employed more than 1,200 people who worked on its imported looms, some of the largest ever built, from Nottingham, UK. Chin and I stand in front of one. Local history has it that the loom is two and a half storeys tall and weighs nearly twenty metric tons. It is fifteen metres long. The word “Nottingham” is embossed on the black arm of the machine. Another age. Another time. Another country. This factory, started in 1891, was once among the biggest producers of Nottingham lace in the world. When it closed in 2002—the company’s vice-president appeared at mid-shift and announced that it was shutting down immediately—it had become a ghost ship with fewer than fifty workers. On the loom before us, the white lace roll still sits there, unfinished. Punch cards with meticulous, tiny holes for the needles to pass through lie scattered nearby. The loom was shut off in the middle of production, arrested in time like a small shop uncovered at Pompeii or Herculaneum.
For more than a century, the factory stood as a world unto itself. It had its own bowling alley, a large cafeteria with heavy cast iron stoves, a barbershop, a gymnasium, an auditorium with a compact stage, an infirmary, an elegant clock tower with a cast iron bell (the whistle that once signalled shift changes perched on top), and its own coal mine and cotton fields. It made products the workers, including Hillary Clinton’s father and grandfather, could view with pride. They could hold them in their hands. Curtains. Napkins. Tablecloths. Valances. Shower curtains. Textile laminates for umbrellas. During World War II, the facility manufactured bomb parachutes and mosquito and camouflage netting. The employees had unions that made sure they were paid overtime and had medical care, pensions, and safe working conditions. But what this world gave to the thousands of men and women who worked here, as well as to the city of Scranton, what was as vital as a decent income, was dignity. Purpose. A sense of place. An identity. And all of that is gone. It has been replaced by poverty, drift, and despair.