In 1982, Tim Blake writes a song. He is not yet a full decade into his work at U.S. Steel, that titan of the local economy and the foothold for thousands of families in Lorain. It is in that Northeast Ohio city that he confronts the wildfire of local and national steel layoffs in the early 1980s with a weary optimism. The song is called "Take Another Route."
Blake is a third-generation steelworker. "My grandfathers, the two of them, at 16 years old got on a boat and came across the ocean for a life of prosperity," he says on the origins of his song. "It was hard work. I didn't want to forget about them."
The lyrics tackle the problem of imported steel flooding the U.S. market at the time. This story is not an economic aberration. You work in steel long enough, you find yourself riding the highs and lows of undulating global trade forces. You and the union bear down when things get bad.
Then, and now, things got bad.
Blake was laid off from Republic Steel, also in Lorain, right next door to U.S. Steel, in spring of this year. Soon after, his kids showed him how to navigate YouTube. ("I'm not a real social-media guy, and I don't think at my age I'm ever going to be," he says. "But you have to be, sometimes.") With Blake's world looking eerily similar to the downturn in 1982, he posted the song online. It resonated with the families and friends of steelworkers in Lorain and beyond — Blake even appeared on an MSNBC segment during the RNC — because of its message and its timing, and because Blake was far from alone in receiving his walking papers.
Earlier this year, Republic Steel, which spun off from U.S. Steel in the 1990s, announced that its Lorain mill would be "temporarily idled," leaving hundreds of employees without jobs. No one knows if it will ever reopen. At the same time, U.S. Steel laid off 261 employees in Lorain. The twin headlines ran simultaneously in January.
All told, recent years have seen some 1,200 steel jobs slashed from the city of Lorain.
- Photo by Eric Sandy
Silhouetted against history, the numbers are stark. The mills once employed around 12,000 men and women, nearly a city of their own contained within Lorain. Locals call this place the "International City" because, like the lighthouse that squats just north of the port, the steel mills along the Black River have called out to workers around the world for more than a century. Lorain is a city built by immigrants, and it's all traced back to steel. "Everybody has a connection somewhere," Blake says, describing the spiderwebbed culture that's spawned from the mills.
That connection is nowhere more direct than to the city's coffers. Lorain's budget remains intricately tied to steel (the mills accounted for 10 percent of general fund revenues, mayor Chase Ritenaur ballparked in an interview with Scene), and thus the city ebbs and flows with the industry's successes and failures.
In real terms, with this year's downturn, that has meant a $3.6-million deficit in 2016's arduously balanced budget and a projected $2.1-million deficit for 2017. In the hole: hundreds of jobs lost at the mills and countless other jobs lost through ripple effects across the city.
Lorain is a microcosm for some of the toughest issues facing the country, and its residents and leaders are looking forward to a future without steel and struggling to find answers.
Driving north along State Route 57 in Lorain, it's impossible to miss the heraldry of U.S. Steel looming ahead. The monolithic mill appears to the casual observer as a literal wall of deep blue paint and patriotic signage. On cerulean summer days, it blends seamlessly with the sky.
As though it were a track running through the bowels of It's a Small World, Route 57 then spins drivers westward along 28th Street, right outside the main gate to U.S. Steel. In a past life, this was the throbbing main nerve of the city's economic biome. On the south side of the street, bars ran round-the-clock service for first-, second- and third-shifters, proffering cold Buds and a few rounds of ball-busting in a setting that bridged work and home. On the north side? The mills.
To hear the older guys tell it, 28th was a bustling hive. Like the machines inside U.S. Steel, everything and everyone fit precisely into their time and place. The blast furnace guys had their own bar, the pipe mill guys had another; you get the picture.
"It's not even a tenth of what it used to be," Blake says when asked about the climate along 28th these days.
"There was nothing but bars, nothing but people moving," Dennis Hamilton, president of the United Steel Workers Local 1104, says. "It gives me chills thinking about it. It was alive. And, you know, now it's just completely dead. There's nothing going on there at all. The newest thing there is the dollar store."
Today, 28th seems almost totally boarded up (save for, yes, the new Dollar General and a handful of auto-repair joints). It's a road traveled solely by those getting into or out of the city. A bartender on the south side of town throws the term "sketchy" on the table when asked about the bars on 28th.
Change is a constant.
"The steel industry has always been very cyclical," Pat Gallagher, a sub-director at USW Local 1104, says, meeting with Scene in Cleveland, in the shadows of the ArcelorMittal plant on the Cuyahoga River. "But it seems now that the cycles are much longer. It was more like six months or a year. Now they're two years, where they go up and down."
As recently as 2014, in fact, Republic Steel's income taxes exceeded expectations by some $800,000. Both mills were buzzing along at an incredible rate, at least by the industry's relative standards. "Things were going very well," Gallagher says. In 2013, Republic announced plans for a $100-million electric arc furnace. That investment never really panned out, and the headlines from around that time read like a cruel joke today.
"They've called this a 'temporary idling,'" Gallagher continues, referring to Republic Steel's framing of the state of affairs. (Neither U.S. Steel nor Republic Steel corporate offices responded to a request for comment.) "So we're hoping that when business conditions improve ... There's a lot of product lines that were just ran through Lorain alone, [and] they've decided they're going to step away from that market until conditions improve."
There are only four employees working at Republic in Lorain now, according to a security guard working the skeletal remains of the mill on a recent afternoon. They wander the grounds, uniformed vestiges of another era, making sure everything remains up to code and in good standing while the place is closed.
Without prompt, the security guard launches into a brief tirade about Clinton and Trump, their names spoken in a cadence that combines them into a single entity. Clintonandtrump. ("You've got a crook, and then, well, there's the other side ... .") The presidential campaign colors most steel conversations here, and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur have been keen supporters of Lorain leaders' work toward financial security amid the steel crisis. As he spits tobacco onto the concrete, the guard laments what's happened in Lorain.
Across the street from Republic Steel, an old brick building houses El Centro. Victor Leandry, the director of this social services agency, says that he's watched the city shift and bend in response to the mills' idling.
For decades, Lorain hummed along in prosperity. Immigrants showed up — and, in many cases, were actively recruited from places like Puerto Rico — and turned a small Lake Erie outpost into a boomtown. There were the mills, sure, but also the Ford plant and the shipyards. ("You could leave a job at breakfast time and have a new one by lunch time," the mayor says.) Those families who came here for work are still here, but the one-time guaranteed paycheck isn't.
Leandry says that the clients he works with are struggling to replace their steel income and still maintain their same lifestyle. For the city itself — substituting "police officers" and "firefighters" and "street improvements" for "lifestyle" — the problem is the same.
"I remember that Monday, when I came into work, how I noticed the difference right away," Leandry says. "It was like a ghost town, seeing those parking lots completely empty.
"I was like, 'Oh my god. This is weird.'"
In late August of this year, city auditor Karen Shawver alerted council members that Lorain is staring down a $2.1-million budget deficit for 2017. This comes hot on the heels of eight months of difficult negotiations and a nearly $3.6-million deficit heading into 2016.
Budgets take time to catch up with economic realities. The slide of layoffs that began in 2015 took about a year to play out in city dollars. Already, Columbus had slashed funding for local municipalities and eliminated the estate tax (80 percent of which typically went to local municipalities' budgets). By late 2015, when Mayor Ritenauer found himself on the phone with representatives from Republic and U.S., taking in the companies' plans to change the course of his city, the perfect storm was moving onto shore.
"It was a tough budget cycle, there's no doubt about it," Ritenauer tells Scene. "Every day was a challenge. Every day going into work was tough. There was none of the stuff, I guess, that gets people to run for office. None of the planning, none of the improvements, being an agent of change — the things that people usually take to gravitate toward politics or running for office. None of that. It was a hunker-down mentality."
In the weeks leading up the April 1 budget deadline, council chambers and committee meetings turned into battlegrounds. Ritenauer laid out his case for departments to trim their own budgets and for employees to take pay cuts; department heads, for the most part, dug in their heels. For a city skating by each year on a break-even existence, the imperative of budget cuts — gutting fire and police services, street improvements, etc. — was not an easy pill to swallow. And with an already diminishing police force, for instance, serving a city of some 60,000 people confronting a fresh crime wave, it was never supposed to be.
The fire department, for its part, ended up with $1.4 million in cuts. That marquee narrative explains precisely how the fallout from the steel mills' employment affects everyone in the city.
On July 1, with cuts falling into place, the city laid off 22 firefighters. Days later, a house fire on West Erie Street turned into a distillation of how dire things were becoming. "I had to call for outside help," fire captain Greg Neal told Fox 8 at the time. "That outside help is other cities. Problem is, our response time is extremely exaggerated because they are from other cities. That makes me not able to do my job. The longer you wait, the [more] severe exposure you have to that building and the people inside."
Later that month, the city secured a $3.18-million, two-year federal grant, shepherded by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, that brought the firefighters back and reopened stations. It was a temporary stopgap, met with wary sighs of relief. Lorain can't subsist on manna from heaven, though, so in November a 1.7-mill fire levy stares down voters. (If it fails, the fire department's staffing levels will emerge again as an open-ended question in 2018. If the levy passes, those new tax dollars will fund fire station improvements until the grant dries up.)
The police department isn't immune, either; chief Cel Rivera has pointed out that he's working with 98 officers when he — and most everyone else in Lorain — would prefer the authorized 113 on staff. With the city confronting more homicides this year than in any other recent year (nine total as of early September), as well as a rise in property crime and the worsening heroin epidemic, he's playing what amounts to a bad numbers game. "We've done our part, we're not part of this problem," Rivera said during budget negotiations this spring. "We've lived within our budget."