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A bustling street in Detroit. Circa 1920s. Public Domain
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A building on Monroe Avenue in Detroit with plenty of tenants in 1915. At the time, the city was in the midst of rapid population growth, thanks to the nascent automobile industry.Public Domain
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The same building on Monroe Avenue in 1989, by then largely shuttered. At that point, the city's population had started plummeting.Public Domain
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This once grand Detroit home, built in 1893, was nearing collapse by 2007. Wikimedia Commons
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The ruins of Detroit's once-bustling Packard plant. The plant opened in 1903 and employed about 40,000 people at its peak. Today, the abandoned plant is partially demolished.Csmcm/Wikimedia Commons
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An illustration of Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio in the early 1900s. Then, Cleveland was considered to be a city on the cusp of greatness, and it was the sixth-largest city in the U.S.Public Domain
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The bustling downtown storefronts of Cleveland in 1920. Cleveland's population had boomed in the previous decade, making it the fifth-largest city in the United States at one point.
It stood out in other ways as well. By the end of the 1920s, the city had constructed the Terminal Tower skyscraper. Until the 1960s, it was the second-tallest building in the entire country.Public Domain
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Cleveland in 1983. By then, the city's population had dropped significantly from a high of approximately 900,000 in 1950 to less than 600,000 in the 1980s. Deindustrialization, suburbanization, and other trends took their toll on the city. By the 1980s, Cleveland was no longer among the largest cities in the United States.Jack D. Teemer/Joseph Bellows Gallery
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The Cleveland Aquarium opened in 1954 but closed just 30 years later. The building remains abandoned to this day, though another aquarium has opened up elsewhere in the city.ugly113/Reddit
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A desolate street in East Cleveland. Once the location of "Millionaires' Row," this Cleveland suburb suffered devastating population loss in the 20th century, dropping from a peak of 40,000 residents in the 1950s to just 14,000 today.Reddit
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St. Louis, Missouri
A crowd of commuters in St. Louis' Union Station. When it opened in 1894, it was one of the largest and busiest train stations in the world. Public Domain
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St. Louis, Missouri
About 20 million people flocked to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. By that point, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the country.St. Louis Public Library Digital Collections
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St. Louis, Missouri
By 2022, just 292,047 people remained in St. Louis, down from a peak of 856,796 in 1950.Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images
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St. Louis, Missouri
Between 1940 and 1980, the population of St. Louis shrank by nearly 50 percent, and much of the city became consumed by "urban decay." Here's an intersection known as "Hayden's rectangle," which is notable for its especially high rates of crime and poverty. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images
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St. Louis, Missouri
An empty street in East St. Louis in 2003. Many buildings in this region of the city's metropolitan area are abandoned and decaying.David Wilson/Wikimedia Commons
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Smoke fills the air of Gary, Indiana, thanks to U.S. Steel plants like this one. Gary heavily depended on the steel industry, and it suffered greatly as steel production declined. Circa 1951.Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
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The shuttered site of the former Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium, which was first opened in 1927 and closed in the 1970s, as Gary's economic fortunes suffered due to foreign competition and the rise of automation.Public Domain
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An abandoned restaurant in Gary, which has been closed for about 40 years.
Though the once-booming city had almost 180,000 residents in the 1960s, the population of Gary today numbers just 67,000.Library of Congress
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Smoke billows from steel mills in Pittsburgh in 1906. Several decades earlier, a writer from The Atlantic Monthly declared upon visiting the city: "Smoke, smoke, smoke — everywhere smoke. Like looking over into hell with the lid taken off." Public Domain
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A bustling day in downtown Pittsburgh in the early 20th century. Between 1870 and 1910, the city enjoyed massive economic growth due to its wealth of industries, though many working-class people bore the brunt with long, difficult days.University of Pittsburgh
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Empty storefronts in Clairton, just south of Pittsburgh. In the 1970s and 1980s, the city's steel industry crumbled, dooming many of the mill towns that had popped up in the region.Devon Christopher Adams/Flickr
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Pittsburgh in 1984.Jack D. Teemer/Joseph Bellows Gallery
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Buffalo, New York
Main Street in Buffalo, New York. 1900.
Buffalo grew rapidly at the dawn of the 20th century, its expansion powered by various industries and its location near the Erie Canal. Library of Congress
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Buffalo, New York
The D.S. Morgan Building in Buffalo in 1901. The building included an observation tower that people could access for just 10 cents, which offered "the grandest panorama the eye ever dwelt upon."
The building went into foreclosure in 1963 and was ultimately demolished two years later.Library of Congress
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Buffalo, New York
Houses marked for demolition in Buffalo. The city began to decline after World War II, as Buffalo lost industry jobs and investment.Public Domain
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Buffalo, New York
The former Amherst Bowling Center in Buffalo in 2020. It opened in 1946 but closed in 2004.Andre Carrotflower/Wikimedia Commons
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Buffalo, New York
For 50 years, the Buffalo Central Terminal was a bustling train station. Though it closed in 1979, it's currently undergoing a restoration effort. Bruce Fingerhood/Wikimedia Commons
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Downtown Youngstown in 1909. The city initially thrived as a center of coal and steel production, though its distance from bodies of water put it at a disadvantage, especially compared to other industrial cities like Cleveland.Cleveland State University/Michael Schwartz Library/Special Collections
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Aerial view of Youngstown in 1928. By the 1920s, the city was second only to Pittsburgh in steel production. This drove population growth in Youngstown — until the Great Depression hit. But the city really went downhill in the 1970s.Cleveland State University/Michael Schwartz Library/Special Collections
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The abandoned Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Youngstown. The abrupt closing of Sheet and Tube put 5,000 people out of work in one day in 1977, a mass furlough now known as "Black Monday."
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The abandoned Liberty/Paramount Theatre in 2012. The theater opened in 1918 and did well until the 1960s, when it — and the city — started to decline. The theater ultimately closed in the 1970s and was demolished in 2013. Ohio Office of Redevelopment
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An abandoned shop in Youngstown, Ohio. 2009.Greg Habermann/Wikimedia Commons
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People line up outside of the Garden Theater in Flint, Michigan, in 1919. General Motors was founded in the city in 1908, and countless job opportunities soon abounded.Public Domain
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Workers outside of the Buick factory complex in 1912. In the first decade of the 20th century, Flint's population doubled to about 38,000 people.Burton Historical Collection/Detroit Public Library/Wayne State University
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An abandoned house in Flint, Michigan. Though the city's population peaked in 1960 with 196,940 people, Flint soon suffered from urban decay and depopulation, driven by both white flight and the weakening of the auto industry.crypticfilth810/Reddit
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An abandoned bowling alley in Flint. Though General Motors had employed about 80,000 people in the city in 1978, it employed less than 8,000 workers by 2010. crypticfilth810/Reddit
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Flint residents infamously suffered from high levels of lead in their water in the 2010s. Though their tap water has since been deemed safe, many residents are still distrustful of drinking it.Public Domain
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Trolley cars on a busy street in Erie. 1885.
The city was an important industrial hub in the 19th century, with railroad, shipbuilding, and fishing industries powering its economy.Erie's History and Memorabilia/Facebook
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An abandoned factory in Erie. Like many other Rust Belt cities, Erie started losing its population in the second half of the 20th century. It reached a peak population of almost 140,000 in 1960, but today has a population of less than 93,000.Reddit
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The old Griswold Factory in Erie. Though it was shut down in the mid-20th century, the factory building has since been converted into a seasonal haunted house attraction. snake0329/Reddit
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An airship under construction in the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation hangar in Akron. 1932.
The city's history of rubber manufacturing earned it the nickname "Rubber Capital of the World."
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This historic "castle" at Perkins and Union in Akron was razed in 2020. When it opened in 1897, it was described as “the most complete and perfect office building in this city” by the Beacon Journal.um3k/Reddit
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The Rolling Acres Mall in Akron shuttered in the early 2000s, and it was later demolished to make room for an Amazon fulfillment center.
As the tire and rubber industries began to decline, so did Akron. By the 1960s, a census found that 40 percent of homes in neighborhoods that surrounded the city were dilapidated. Spectrum___/Reddit
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Akron's Rubber Bowl stadium opened in 1940 but has since been demolished.JonRidinger/Wikimedia Commons
44 Photos That Show How The Rust Belt Became A Ghost Of Its Former Glory
"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
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.
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.
"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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.