44 Photos That Show How The Rust Belt Became A Ghost Of Its Former Glory

Published November 14, 2023
Updated November 15, 2023

Once a thriving industrial region in the United States, the Rust Belt is now blighted by economic decline, population loss, and urban decay.

Detroit In The 1920s
Monroe Avenue Building
Monroe Avenue Building In The Rust Belt
Collapsed House In The Rust Belt
44 Photos That Show How The Rust Belt Became A Ghost Of Its Former Glory
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"Smoke, smoke, smoke — everywhere smoke," a writer for The Atlantic Monthly commented after visiting Pittsburgh in 1866. "Like looking over into hell with the lid taken off."

At that time, the Pennsylvania city was becoming one of the booming industrial capitals of the United States. But about 100 years later, it would become one of many cities in the country's "Rust Belt" to fall victim to deindustrialization.

These cities, which include Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and many others, are not necessarily grouped together by geography but by industry. For decades, they thrived as the nation's powerhouses, producing materials like steel, rubber, and coal, and reaping the economic benefits.

But the boon times would come to an end. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, as the country drifted away from industrialization, many of these urban centers were left in the dust. Grand houses and main streets were left empty as populations plummeted and local economies declined, and cities like Flint, Youngstown, and Akron have struggled to regain their former glory.

In the gallery above, see how deindustrialization changed Rust Belt cities and towns across the nation and, below, see how depopulation, urban decay, and rising crime rates came to grip large swaths of the United States.

How American Industrialization Powered Cities

Rust Belt

Public DomainFlint, Michigan was once known as "Vehicle City" thanks to its booming buggy industry, followed by its auto industry.

In the beginning, there was nothing rusty about the Rust Belt at all. At the turn of the 20th century, cities like St. Louis and Cleveland thrived, seemingly blessed by their proximity to important waterways. In the early 1900s, St. Louis was America's fourth largest city and would host the World's Fair in 1904. Cleveland would become the fifth largest by the 1920s.

Meanwhile, the nascent automobile industry brought riches to cities like Detroit, Flint, and Akron. Detroit, where Henry Ford built his first car in 1896, was dubbed "Motor City." Flint, where General Motors was founded in 1908, was known as "Vehicle City." And Akron, with its tire companies, including Goodyear (founded in 1898), earned the moniker "Rubber City."

Other cities were powered by steel or coal. Pittsburgh, for example, had both coal and iron ore at its fingertips, and became the center of the U.S. steel industry. In 1901, the nation's leading steel companies merged to create U.S. Steel, an industrial behemoth. CNN reports that that company was initially worth more than $1 billion, or double the entire U.S. budget for 1901.

Terminal Tower In Cleveland

Library of CongressTerminal Tower in Cleveland was briefly the second tallest building in the world.

Flush and ambitious, many of these cities tackled grand projects. Cleveland built its Terminal Tower in the 1920s, which briefly stood as the second tallest building in the world. In Buffalo, the D.S. Morgan building — built in the 1890s — included an observation tower that wowed visitors.

According to Western New York History, visitors enjoyed:

"the highest point in the city from which to view the grandest panorama the eye ever dwelt upon — the entire city at a glance, Lake Erie, the harbor, the beautiful Niagara majestically wending its way... the entire Niagara region, Grand and Navy islands and a goodly portion of Canada, distinctly visible to naked eye on clear days... Fifteen minutes on the Tower will do more to geographically locate any objective point than weeks of walk or ride around the city."

But the good times would not last. Though World War II bolstered economies across the future Rust Belt, the need for materials was fleeting. Industrial cities across the country started to falter in the second half of the 20th century as deindustrialization, depopulation, and urban decay crept in.

The Downfall Of The Rust Belt

Campbell Ohio In The Rust Belt

Stephen Shore, image from Steel Town (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.A smokestack in Campbell, Ohio, near Youngstown.

In 1984, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale made a campaign stop in Cleveland to speak with steelworkers. While in the city, he critiqued then-President Ronald Reagan's position on trade, especially as it pertained to the steel industry. The president's policies, Mondale declared, were "turning our industrial Midwest into a rust bowl."

This was the first time that anyone had uttered such a phrase. But it described a phenomenon that had been creeping across the country since the 1950s.

Foreign competition, high labor costs, new technology that replaced jobs once performed by people, corporate greed, and trade policies had brought former industrial hubs like Youngstown and Flint to their knees. As the decades passed, these places lost both jobs and people.

East Cleveland In The Rust Belt

Mark Kanning/Alamy Stock PhotoAn abandoned building in East Cleveland, a suburb that has lost tens of thousands of people since the 1950s.

Though these cities saw much success during World War II, many of these places suffered greatly in the aftermath of the conflict. And sometimes the decline was shockingly stark. In Cleveland, for example, the city's former "Millionaires' Row" in East Cleveland emptied out. In the 1950s, the suburb had 40,000 people; today, there are less than 14,000 living there. The city was also wracked by ecological disasters, like the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969, which showed the high price the city paid for being a manufacturing hub.

Overall, the city of Cleveland shrank from 914,808 people in 1950 to roughly 360,000 in 2022. And every decade, the city seems to lose more people.

Men In Campbell Ohio

Stephen Shore, image from Steel Town (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.Raphael Rentas, Louis Olivera, and Herminio Cadona. Campbell, Ohio. October 28, 1977.

Across the country, other Rust Belt cities became ghosts of their former selves as once-reliable jobs and industries began to disappear. And as workers emptied out of the cities to find money elsewhere, abandoned bowling alleys, aquariums, malls, factories, businesses, homes, and other buildings spread across the urban landscapes like a disease.

That said, some remaining residents of these cities are pushing back against the negativity surrounding their hometowns. Instead of the Rust Belt, they prefer terms like the "Trust Belt" and the "New American Heartland," according to TIME. And in some places, there are glimmers of hope.

Lackwana New York In The Rust Belt

Stephen Shore, image from Steel Town (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.Caldwell Street in Lackawanna, New York. October 25, 1977.

Take Detroit. Motor City hasn't had an easy run in the last several decades.

In the 1950s, it had a thriving population of 1.8 million. Today, it has less than half of that, and it also has the reputation of being a place where you can buy an abandoned house for less than $100. But things are slowly changing.

Indeed, 10 years after filing for bankruptcy, the city now has a budget surplus. Detroit is seeing a rise in exciting new construction projects, and it's made an effort to demolish dilapidated buildings. The change has even impressed rock star and Detroit native Alice Cooper, who told NPR: "You were terrified to go to downtown Detroit before. Now it's the coolest place around."

Men Sitting In Campbell

Stephen Shore, image from Steel Town (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.James Murphy and Solomon Felder in front of the Senior Citizens Club in Campbell, Ohio. October 27, 1977.

Detroit's change in fortune has come with some complications, however. The city still has many blighted neighborhoods, and some residents are wary of changes, which seem intended only to draw in wealthy newcomers.

"It's like a curse," longtime resident Duane Johnson told NPR. "Rent goes up. They are developing those new apartments or rehabbing that new house for people who make the higher income. And it's pushing people out."

As such, the path ahead for Rust Belt cities like Detroit is still unclear. But there are certainly reasons to be optimistic about these cities' futures.

After looking through these photos of Rust Belt cities across the United States, enjoy these photos from the peak of American mall culture. Or, check out these photos of hippies during the Flower Power era of the '60s and '70s.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "44 Photos That Show How The Rust Belt Became A Ghost Of Its Former Glory." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 14, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/rust-belt. Accessed May 22, 2024.