Steel City No More

What happens when a city defines itself by one industry, and that industry closes shop?

The Port Kembla steel works, south of Wollongong, in 1965. Via Flickr/lindsaybridge

Like Newcastle, Pittsburgh and Sheffield before it, Wollongong may be about to lose the steel industry to which its identity has long been tied. Unlike Newcastle, at least, this death has been slow.

After many years of cuts here and efficiencies there, last week BHP Billiton parted ways with the Illawarra region, leaving behind only a debt-laden de-merged subsidiary called South32. BHP’s other offspring, BlueScope Steel, now appears set to embark on a fresh round of job reductions with the aim of reducing the cost of steel production by $50 a tonne. BlueScope denies this means they plan to close shop, but the Illawarra Mercury, among others, sees the writing on the wall. Journalist Ben Langford wrote:

reaction to the company’s threat that steelmaking may cease was partly one of shock, but also suspicion, and wry realism. For many who vented their spleens on social media and the Mercury’s website, news of a closure had been coming for long time. Except that wasn’t the news — just a threat the company may stop making steel here

The making of a place comes about in the interactions between the people, environment and objects that reside there. Where many individual daily routines come together, these might be understood as a “place-ballet” in the words of geographer David Seamon:

The place-ballet is a fusion of many time-space routines and body-ballets in terms of place… It generates a strong sense of place because of its continual and regular human activity.

Taken together, all of these interacting routines — the performance of the ‘place-ballet’ — help to create the identity or sense of place. These include attachments built up through knowing what will happen and has happened in the world around us. These routines seep into the way we experience and live in place. Langford picked up on this point in the Mercury:

Motorists avoided the steelworks at shift change time because of the flood of cars. The football team was named after the steelworks.

Tweets with the hashtag #steelcitynomore show what can happen when cities move on.

When the regular place-ballet gets radically disrupted, it can take some getting used to and some decades to recover, even for those not directly impacted.

This goes to the heart of city identity that people experience and create as they move around and inhabit the place. In Wollongong, as Langford points out, the change has been going on for decades:

Wollongong has been trying to come out from under the steelworks’ wing and move on to a future as more than a company town. Much of this has been driven by necessity, as the number of people employed by the steelworks decreased. But at the same time the number of people employed in retail, by the growing University of Wollongong, and in the health, IT and education sectors, has been increasing.

Moving on to a new identity isn’t something that can be forced by any one group or organisation. It takes co-operation and interaction, planning and work. It takes building new routines of living and new opportunities for those the steel works leaves behind.

It takes a city to remake a city.

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