Bessemer: A Cautionary Tale

Ghost town of a single-industry economy

(Editor’s note: Mike Patton is an engineer, by trade. He builds and repairs radio stations, everything from the transmission tower to the switch that opens the mic for the DJ or on-air host. We’ve been connected through that business for several decades, and our families have become multi-layered friends. He was profoundly disturbed by the miasma of despair in and around Bessemer, and the warning it contains for similar extractive economies here in Louisiana. –Sue Lincoln)

by Mike Patton

My crew and I just completed a month-long project rebuilding an AM transmitter site between Birmingham and Bessemer, Alabama. For those of you unfamiliar with Birmingham, Bessemer, to the southwest of the city, was – emphasis on was – the epicenter of the steelmaking industry in the area. Steelmaking was the initial impetus for the creation of the city of Birmingham, named for the manufacturing center in England.

Bessemer’s name, on the other hand, comes from the Bessemer process, developed in the mid 19th century, which made it economical for the first time to make steel in industrial-scale quantity. It was the Pittsburgh of the south, and for the same reasons: both parts of the world have rich iron ore deposits, plus readily mined high-quality coal for coke and the confluence of those things makes it cheap and easy to forge steel.

Phto courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Work in the steel mills was hot, hard, dangerous work – but it paid a fair wage, enough for a man with little education but strong muscles and a willingness to work hard to provide a good living for his family, the classic ticket into the middle class. Unfortunately, the steel industry has largely left the Birmingham area, as the Bessemer process has now been replaced by the superior open-hearth furnace, and steel is now cheaper to make in China and other parts of the developing world and shipped here. This has left the southwest side of Birmingham, once blessed with a thriving middle class economy fueled by the honest labor of the steel mill workers, barren and desolate.

Bessemer neighborhood, February 2020. Photo by Mike Patton

We saw house after burned out house after falling down house. I have never seen so many torched houses in my life – it’s as though torching one’s house became some sort of competitive sport. Even municipal buildings and churches were not spared, but left to rot and decay. The downtowns of these erstwhile bedroom communities are full of boarded-up storefronts and rotten facades. And churches? There are churches everywhere, on every corner, in every strip mall. I presume that that’s one of the few sources of comfort for the denizens of these hard-hit communities.

Remnants of downtown Bessemer, February 2020. Photo by Mike Patton.

And of course, in the midst of this desolation, there are two top rated restaurants in Bessemer, catering mostly to white people – this is my shocked face. Other than that, there is nothing but cardboard fast food, soul food that might as well be a heart attack on a plate, and poorly stocked dollar store groceries. Almost a food desert by the conventional definition.

Abandoned steel mill. Photo by Mike Patton.

The hulking infrastructure of abandoned steel mills goes on for miles and miles, slowly rusting into oblivion. The few industrial sites that appear to still be operating have maybe a dozen cars in the parking lot, instead of the hundreds that the lot was built for. It’s just unremittingly grim. These people are living like something out of a Mad Max movie, grappling and fighting over the remnants of a vast prior civilization, now gone.

House burned inside; barrel for burning more, outside. Photo by Mike Patton.

I have done work in several Rust Belt cities, including Detroit and Scranton, Pennsylvania. But I have never seen anything like this. The hollowed-out neighborhoods go on, and on, and on, seemingly forever. Young men and old men both on the streets huddled around barrel fires, or panhandling, with no job, no prospects, no future. As three clearly employed lily-white engineers, with our clipboards and our signal strength meters, we felt like mice at a cat show. Buying gas, we’d get hit on for money. In a restaurant, we were often the only white people there. We never felt threatened, but it was clear we were out of place.

Birmingham, AL. Photo courtesy

Politicians often talk about the divide between rural and urban America, and how the middle class has been hollowed out in the heartland. And yes, there is much truth in that – people in the countryside are struggling, including some of my friends and family. But I can definitely tell you that the middle class has been hollowed out – more like scraped clean – in southwest Jefferson County Alabama, which is far from rural. And yet, on the other side of Red Mountain, where all the white people live, modern Birmingham is thriving! It’s full of high-rise office buildings occupied by high-tech consulting firms, golf resorts, and cookie-cutter upscale suburbia. The difference could not be more stark: between Heaven and Hell, as it were, according to their conventional definitions. I don’t know how to fix this, but as my ex-wife once noted, she didn’t have to be an expert on the internal combustion engine to know this car is broke!

Despair. Photo by Mike Patton.

In the transition from an extractive and manufacturing economy to a service economy everyone south and west of downtown Birmingham has been manifestly left out. If we are to have a country and an economy that works instead of something out of a dystopian science-fiction novel, it has to work for all of us, or at least for almost all of us. The despair I saw burned into the smoldering timbers and the caved-in roofs of Bessemer, Fairfield, Midfield, Ensley, and Hueytown, Alabama made my soul cry. We have got to find a way to address this, or we will have a feudal society ruled by the technological and financial feudal lords where the neo-serfs don’t have *any* way to provide for themselves or their families. Urbanites can’t go back to subsistence farming.