Tom Vanderbilt | Essays

Pleasures and Pathos of Industrial Ruins

A few months ago, I met with a contractor to discuss building a small bridge at my Catskills property in upstate New York. When I blanched at the price, he noted that steel, at the moment, was quite expensive. "It's all going to China," he said.

I did not take the time to follow up on this theory, but what occurred to me was how distant my daily life was from the realm of industrial raw materials like steel — literally the backbone of the modern city, if not the advanced capitalist world. I inhabit a world of flash memory, compressed audio files, bit rates and security certificates, a world in which I'm surrounded by gleaming consumer goods already neatly packaged in coated composite materials or shiny plastics. When confronted by the thought of steel — gasp, a commodity! — my mind lit upon frames of images that ranged from Dickensian coketowns to the Allegheny steelworkers portrayed in films like The Deer Hunter or the brilliant short works of Tony Buba.

I suppose this is all well and good. The U.S., the theory goes, has economically progressed past the stages of raw materials production and even manufacturing, and is increasingly even outsourcing the lesser-skilled, geographically non-dependent segments of the service economy (e.g., call centers), and is moving toward an economy driven by the most advanced and dynamic sectors of technology. As Business Week recently noted, the outsourcing of design itself has pushed designers to innovative, away from designing mere things to more abstruse things like concepts, identities, lifestyles (and yet how long will that comparative advantage last?) In places like Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood, this effect can be seen in the vast warehouse spaces that once held industrial enterprises like printers, but now hold graphic designers, who work on relatively tiny digital machines in echoing spaces that once held looming letterpress machines. Someday, one imagines, graphic designers too will be considered obsolete relics of a more primitive economy, and these offices will be inhabited by nanotechnologists who will have further subdivided the rooms to conduct their microscopic affairs.

My ruminations on the place of steel in the digital age came full circle when I accompanied a film crew (making a documentary called American Ruins) last week to the vast abandoned works of Bethlehem Steel. The site is typically closed to the public (in part to avoid liability lawsuits, as it's a very easy place to hurt one's self), and the rigor of the security is evidenced by the relatively good condition of a plant that has sat derelict, and exposed to the howling elements, since 1985. Walking into old control rooms, where desk chairs still sat and checklists still fluttered on the wall, it often seemed as if the whole works had suddenly been quit the day before. The occasionally visible graffiti, like "R.I.P. 1985," proved otherwise.

There were two things that struck me most forcefully about "Beth Steel." One was the sheer, monumental beauty of the complex. The structures soar cathedral-like into the sky, a complex array of interlocking tubes and catwalks connecting it like dendritic nerves and veins; the blast furnace itself, obscured in darkness within its gigantic holding building and beset by decay, is like some gigantic engine of a Jules Verne fantasy. As I clambered up ladders that stretched for hundreds of feet and bounded down catwalks that wound through canyons of metal, the whole thing seemed an organic kind of architecture, which had sprouted from the ground and thrust itself upwards, wrapping around itself, sending out tendrils here and there; viewing Beth Steel is viewing the pure aesthetic grace of engineering. This was not architecture for humans, but architecture for machines, everything ordered to assist the movement of molten steel, and winnow out the slag, all intake and outtake, converting one form of matter to another. In one huge vacant warehouse structure, I gazed with wonder upon a massive trapezoidal form of steel, an enigmatic piece of sculpture whose reason for being was now lost; it occurred to me then that we will make pilgrimages to industrial sites that have been converted into art museums to look at works of steel by Richard Serra, but we condemn as blight real industrial spaces housing real industrial products, which themselves have monumental power and aesthetic grace, without any high-powered belabored mediations necessary for their appreciation.

The second feeling that overwhelmed was how alien and mysterious the forms seemed to me. Without "interpretive text" on the walls, how was I to know what had gone on here? Which brought me again to my whole reverie about steel: As much as we prize things in this culture, we do not much fetishize the process by which they were made. We gasp over the OnStar Navigation systems in cars, but don't think much about how the axels were made, or from where the steel might have come to create them (nor, admittedly, do we dwell upon the African-produced tantalum that goes into laptops and cellphones). Designers too might argue that they are slighted in the whole equation as well, for the person who closes the door on their BMW and relishes in the resounding thunk scarcely pays homage to the sound designers who labored to create just the right effect.

Beth Steel now sits in a strange netherworld; there are those who want to preserve it, to show future generations how this time and place was central to the industrial might of America, as the steel made here went into everything from our most massive bridges, the armaments that helped win World War II, or the humblest treads on a bulldozer. There are others who want to demolish the site, and build big box retail, thus transforming this cathedral of production into another bland prefab warehouse of consumption, with low-wage clerks toiling on ground where unionized steelworkers once proudly stood. I do not want to over-romanticize this place — the work in the "hot end," as it was called, was incredibly dangerous, with deaths every year not uncommon. That kind of work is now done, largely, elsewhere; and our economy fires not on the sparks of blast furnaces but the electronic pulses of microprocessors. Beth Steel is a relic, but a heroic one, and a paean to materialism — not in the sense of frenetically acquiring goods, but in appreciating the things that have helped us reshape our world.

Posted in: History, Social Good

Comments [22]

Tom, I want to publicly welcome you aboard as a design observer. What a marvelous first post.

Your topic strikes so many cords. On our desks these days are books by Edward Burtynsky (Manufactured Landscapes); Susan Neville (Fabrication: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning); and John R. Stilgoe (Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places.) All of these books deal with your issue of, "where did that steel come from."

Having seen works by photographers and architects regarding sites of the type you describe, I'm struck by the tension between the desire to romanticize the beauty of industrialization (and its decline) and the desire to either "use" it or "destroy" it. What do we do with these artifacts of our culture, of the "progress" we have created?

I'm especially interested in recent projects that strive to let these sites exist as artifacts, but reintegrate them into contemporary use and culture. There is the wonderful restoration of an industrial complex in Domsdorf, Germany that won the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage & Architectural Heritage. And, there is the recent architectural project (I have read about) that has captured my imagination: the restoration of the Duisburg Nord Landscape Park in Emscher, Germany by Latz & Partners. Here, a steel factory has been converted into a park. "It respects the complex's important historical value and treats it as an archaeological window into the coal and the steel industries... waste becomes park, product becomes process, nature becomes art." This project is a most persuasive case for sustainable architecture. [In America, there is, of course, both Mass MoCA and Dia Beacon as industrial sites turned into museums and cultural centers.]

I hope to visit Emscher, Germany someday. You have made me want to visit Beth Steel. The question becomes what is its future?
William Drenttel

My family drove through Bethlehem, three or four years ago, during a detourish return from Philadelphia to Cambridge.
The town's historical museum was most noteworthy for its complete silence, visually speaking, about the steel years.
I sensed a lot of pain there, still very raw for those whose lives were closest to the plant.
john mcvey

The setting Tom describes here reminded me of a favorite short story from my high school days, "By the Waters of Babylon" by Stephen Vincent Benet. Deep in the future, long after a devastating nuclear war, the story's young hero dares to venture into the mysterious and forbidden "Place of the Gods." By the end of the story, in a Twilight Zone-style twist, the place is revealed to the reader -- but not to the hero -- to be the long abandoned ruins of New York City.

The story is corny science fiction, but when I reread it last year (it was assigned in my son's eighth grade English class) I was surprised how powerful and affecting it still is.

There is something about the idea of today's familiar world being rendered incomprehensible to future generations that conjures up a strong sense of loss, even dread, for me. I am struck by how Tom's descriptions of something from our very recent history gave me the same feeling.
Michael Bierut

There are some pretty amazing tales and photos over at infiltration.org. I think there's more to this than just the industrial history aspect - I've had the same feelings looking around empty office buildings and bars. It seems to be more the way places like these have been untouched, it's like being immersed in a way that people used to live; it's a human, personal history, and in a slightly spooky way.

Here's another interesting site for those of us who are intrigued with urban archeology and the passage of time... Link

Edward Burtynsky and I are from the same southern Ontario city of St. Catharines. It's a blue collar manufacturing town, nestled between the steel mills of Hamilton and the power generating plants (and tourist traps) of Niagara Falls. The area is also known for an abundance of tender fruit farms and wineries, the site of the War of 1812, and we have the Welland Canal running through our back yard.

We all grew up picking fruit alongside migrant labourers from Trinidad and Mexico, working at General Motors or Ontario Paper or a winery, and we would hang out at the canal and throw coins back and forth with the boat crews from all over the world. Class trips were invariably to Fort George or the Sir Adam Beck generating station or a maple syrup "sugar bush".

We didn't appreciate it at the time, and I doubt many people stop to think about it in any depth, but we all grew up with an intrinsic knowledge of where stuff comes from.
Andrew Montgomery

Excellent article. Very well written. Articles like this inspire me to go in search of urban industrial relics myself. Then again, I've always been drawn to metal. Although my welding skills are lacking, there are a few pieces I've done in metal and enjoy very much. I am drawn to metal by it's coldness and reluctance to become anything other than what it already is. It is not easily shaped, cut, sanded, burned, or broken. Therefore, to do something as magnificent as building structures out of metal is fascinating. I am also drawn to that which exists for function only, yet has emotion attached to it. Beth Steel wasn't built to be an icon, symbol, place of hope, place of sadness, or a sentimental reminder of a different time. It was simply built to do. Every aspect of it was built around doing a job, and yet there is a lot of emotion attached to that place. There something very compelling in that.

Well done, Tom.

the way places like these have been untouched, it's like being immersed in a way that people used to live

Indeed, despite my love of junk yards, massive machinery and the sometimes surprising beauty of industrial sites, what this post reminded me of more than anything is abandoned farms on the prairies. There are fewer and fewer, but I've always loved walking in the door and up the stairs of an old farmhouse. Rusted beds, peeling wallpaper, sometimes even photos or scraps of ephemera are left behind. Figuring out where the garden used to be, or standing in a field with the wind whistling through old farm machinery, it's easy to imagine a life that once was.

Romanticizing the skeleton is, I think, better than burying it, although it's true that in mills, mines and farms hard lives were led and lost.
marian bantjes

There is a Providence (RI) based site dealing with some similar issues called Art in Ruins.

ArtInRuins is here to track the happenings of mill buildings and industrial remnants in the state, as well as the plight of artists who inhabit these spaces.

I love the shot of what looks like a bridge across the top of two huge smokestacks and this writing here eloquently tells how, given the price of raw steel, the desire for a bridge in a Catskills landscaping project began to look like a pipe dream! It brings recycling to mind apart from all other observations made in comments to this post. Are old scraps of steel from such sites available for re-use?

There was an entire esthetic of industrialization that reached a peak in the mid-1930s with photographers like Bourke-White and Eisenstadt. Check out some old issues of Fortune. They were quite conscious of the beauty, as well as the elemental nature of what they were doing in the business world. If you can tear your eyes away from the photographs, the drawings, the paintings, and the other visual elements, read some of the text. You'll learn where things come from.

This school of industrial art lived on into the 60s, but by then it was being replaced by a consumer oriented aesthetic. Steel plants and coking furnaces were no longer our temples to Vulcan, they were sources of pollution and occupational disease.

Besides, as the factories grew more efficient there was less to see. Why roll steel plate in the open. Enclose it so you can better control the temperature and recyle the heat. A blast furnace could be visually dramatic, but a basic oxygen furnace, or an electric furnace barely seem to be doing anything.

There is still magic.

We still win metal from the earth and forge it with unimaginable heat. We write on crystalline stone and imbue it with the power of thought. We still have ships that challenge the implacable forces of the sea and sky. We are turning equations into forms of matter beyond any dream of nature.

The scientists and engineers are holding up their end of the deal. Where the hell are the artists?

This article does really strike a cord. Nearby where I am currently residing exist a colossal steelworks complex that has been recently closed down in 2000. This complex is the BHP Newcastle Steelworks, Australia. I think it symbolised the Australian prosperity through industrialisation. Newcastle is sometimes known as the 'Steel City'. Recurrently, I drive past it to and from the airport. I have always been spellbound by, dare I say, the Martian structure of this Steelworks.

As I mentioned, it is now closed down. But it seems to me, to this day the buildings have stayed apparently intact that one would not know it was closed down until night, as it is hardly illuminated by lighting. This article provoked me to probe further into this matter. Is it left intact because of its historical value to Newcastle? From my search on google, I still have been unable to discover why it has seemingly been left intact.

I am unsure if this significant piece of history should be preserved or replaced with the new. I think I'd probably smash it down to shambles and replace it with something new! But I think, maybe some kind of momument should be erected to perserve its place in history.
Geoff Riding

Firstly, I love the name Bethlehem Steel.

Secondly, I thought it was a great article and reminded me that I often marvel at the engineering skill that makes an internal combustion engine complete it's cycle so many times and with so little fuss.

That sense of wonder about the things that we make as humans is a frequent pleasure. One I hope that never leaves me

Here in Seattle there is an industrial site that has been reclaimed and turned into a park, with some of the equipment / buildings remaining. It does not, for me, call up the emptiness, untouched, left-in-a-hurry feeling I had when I came upon an abandoned house while herding cattle in Wyoming. Gasworks Park is too lively, too "used" to feel desolate. It's comfortable, populated, stamped upon by many feet. Only sometimes while gazing at the fenced-off bits do I get a tingle of "what was".

Official Seattle City site Link

Brownfields to Parks page Link

A page of pictures of the site / equipment Link

My grandfather used to work for the Bethlehem Steel. He worked there his entire life (up until his retirement) in the "hot end" -- in the blast furnace. I never really understood what he did, in no small part because I was too young at the time. Now that he has passed away, I find that I am learning more and more about him and about the Bethlehem Steel mostly through all of the attention the place has received in the past decade since its collapse.

It is interesting, and more then a little sad, to see how the loss of the Bethlehem Steel has affected the city. My grandmother still lives there, and I drive by the steel at least once a year, so I have seen how the area has declined.

I personally am in favor of keeping what remains around, and not replacing it with shopping malls. I think there is a great deal of history there to be found, and I think it deserves some respect.

Great article, I appreciate the chance to reminisce.

Great article. I design at Lehigh University, where Bethlehem Steel is just a few blocks away. One of the photographers whom we work with currently has some great photos of Bethlehem Steel on his website. Here is the address:

Eric deRuiter

Ford's Highland Park plant, designed by Albert Kahn and on the National Historic Register since 1973, sits abandoned and derelict in Detroit. So abandoned, in fact, that David Raizman's recently published History of Modern Design had it listed in Highland Park, Illinois.
Do Americans as a people take for granted the things that got them "here"? Shopping mall indeed. How about a Church?
Enjoyed Survival City Tom. Keep up the good work.
david stairs

First time poster here. Looks like a wonderful site! The Bethlehem ruins remind me of the old McLouth Steel site in downriver Detroit, also in the processs of demolition. And of riding an Amtrak train past the Ispat/Inland works at the foot of Lake Michigan-- some buildings still in use, some with trees growing out of them.

I grew up in Flint, MI during the wrenching years that led up to the infamous movie "Roger & Me." (I was born in 1979). So much of the gigantic auto plant infrastructure has disappeared. Buick City Assembly, where nearly 16 million Buicks were built over a 95-year period, is now nothing but a vast empty lot, graded with the pulverized concrete and brick of the buildings. Some 25,000 people worked at the whole Buick complex in peak years. There are now less than 3,000 left.

Especially sad this year is the closure and demolition of the last factory involved in the 1936-37 Flint Sitdown Strike. In late summer Delphi Automotive closed old Chevy Plant 4. I have taken photos of the plant before and during its now-in progress demolition. The rest of the plants were torn down from 1995 to 2003, and I missed out on nearly all of it. Old Chevy 4 was the next-to-last building in the old "Chevy in the Hole" site, where 13,000 people once worked.

Well, I could ramble on a long time on this topic. Suffice to say all of the comments on this thread have touched a chord with me. Eric deRuiter, I'm also gravely concerned about the remains of the Ford Highland Park plant. I fear that sooner or later, the Farmer Jack and strip mall (the parking lot for which is where most of the original Model T assembly line plant was located), will expand and obliterate the rest of the complex.

What's left of Highland Park complex and the site of former buildings has my vote as the most historic site in Michigan, perhaps tied with the GM/UAW Sitdown Strike sites in Flint.

I once worked in an alloy wheel foundry and manufacturing plant.

Matt aluminium ingots went in one end, and beautiful alloy wheels came out the other. In between, a casting deck (the 'hot end') and a hell of a lot of roboticised machining. About three wheels (there were various designs of course) came out of the plant every minute.

There's no doubt that many engineers have a supreme level of satisfaction in designing plants like that and seeing them work well. There's certainly what some would call beauty in creating something close to the perfect minimsed process, eliminating fiddly inefficiencies and delays. There's a great deal of joy in understanding how all the machines and people in an entire enormous building work together - not only in the broad sense but down to the small details.

Then of course the actual wheel design process (where aesthetics meets physics and mathematics) was extremely enjoyable.

Walking through the plant, the noise and heat was incredible. A visit to a closed foundry, quiet, without a clockwork flow of wheels on conveyors, loading robots, forklifts moving around, sparks flying from grinders and searing heat from open furnaces would be eerie indeed.

Thank you very, very much for this beautiful piece of work involving Bethlehem Steel's plant here. I am the founder of the South Bethlehem Historical Society, an organization which was more or less dragged down by the effort to save the Steel site. I still hope we are able to save recognizable parts of the place.
The poster who noted that the "official" historical societies of Bethlehem ignore the steel industry and its thousands of immigrant workers is right--right, too, that this back-turning involves a great deal of pain on the part of those who are being ignored.
As to the poster who recognized the relevance of Stephen Vincent Benet's story "By The Waters of Babylon", he's right on. But the story is not corny; it is considered a classic of its kind--the post apocalyptic horror story. To me, the steel site today resembles a stage on which "Die Goetterdaemmerung" has just been enacted.Benet would understand.
That great writer was born a few blocks from here, but his family moved too quickly for him to see the mills at Bethlehem. Nevertheless, he wrote something telling about a steel mill in action:
"Enormous power, ugly to a fool,
But beautiful as a well-crafted tool."
Well, much of the plant still stands, just down the street. The power is all gone; but there are still fools. And they want to make money, which means that whatever power there is right now is theirs.
I remember retired steel workers standing on the Fahey Bridge, weeping as part of "their" mill was torn down before their eyes. It was as if they had received notice that their lives had been meaningless. It is for them that I hope we win the preservation fight. Yet I confess I don't know how to do it.
Joan Campion

Princeton Architectural Press has a book about Bethlehem Steel available at:

Russell Fernandez

Cathedrals without pretense. Part of my model railroad is devoted to a gas plant, a blast furnace, an electric furnace and a casting house. The rail traffic was so great in these places that I had to slow it down with a strike.
John Hanks

Save as much as possible (steel will always go up) Meanwhile conduct guided tours though it. It is the American medieval castle
John Hanks

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