The New Industrial Belt: The Deep South

Does America still "make things?" Come take a look ... in Mississippi.
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Inside the Russian-owned Severstal steel mill near Columbus, Mississippi. ( Severstal company video )

It's been a long, and fascinating, but long—but also fascinating!—series of days in and around the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi. Fascinating enough that we'll be back for another visit and more interviews in a little while, with our friends from Marketplace. And I'm tired enough from flying back late today that for now I just want to get out one note before beginning more systematic chronicles shortly.

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The note concerns factories and manufacturing. As I mentioned throughout the years in China, I found factories unfailingly valuable guides to life there. And whether you're in China or anyplace else, you can never go wrong seeing another factory. 

When we got to the Columbus/Lowndes County airport in Mississippi this past weekend and found it surrounded by old, abandoned, derelict former low-wage factory sites, I hadn't realized how many enormous new higher-tech, higher-wage factories had opened up near the newer Golden Triangle airport on the other side of town.  

At the Lowndes County airport, away from the region's new industrial action and surrounded by the shuttered factories of yesteryear.

I spent much of yesterday inside those new factories—including the one represented in the shot at the top of this item. That is the Russian-owned Severstal steel mill, where scrap metal is heated to 3000 degrees F and rendered into new sheets, coils, and bars for use in car factories and elsewhere. Inside the mill it is hot, deafening, dramatic, and similar to many Chinese factories in reminding you of the gargantuan-scale feats of engineering on which the conveniences and lightweight, elegantly engineered details of modern life depend.

Here's how the plant looks from above—I took a similar picture from the plane today, but this one from the company's website is less jiggly. It's worth remembering that this vast industrial expanse is surrounded by fields, woods, the meanderings of the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterways, and other touches of the underdeveloped rural South.

There will be more to say about that factory, and the strategy and incentives that led Russian industrialists to invest some $1.4 billion in a plant in one of the poorest areas of the United States—and the effect it and its neighbors have had, for better and worse, in the environs. It's too late at night to get into it now.

Downtown yesterday evening, in the nearest city to these huge plants.

The main point is the vivid reminder of the shifting locus of America-based manufacturing plants—now to the American South. The endless cycles of industrial rise and fall have kept pushing industry to sites with lower costs and less regulated (and less unionized) operations. Two hundred years ago, that meant part of New England; one hundred years ago, the fast-developing industrial Midwest. Through the early and mid 20th century, it meant parts of the West Coast, the general Sunbelt, and the coastal South. It is dramatic to see what this has meant recently for a place like Mississippi,  

John Tierney prepared an Esri map today showing some of the major industrial installations, not little craft works, that have gone into Mississippi. If you click on the dots you can learn more about each one. The cluster in the Golden Triangle are the dots to the left of Birmingham, Alabama.

And here is a company video that gives you an idea of what it is like inside the Severstal mill. Seriously, if you have any interest in regional development, or industrial growth, or how the underpinnings of modern technology actually look, you will find this worth watching. The part starting at around time 1:50 captures an experience that in real life is on the edge between fascinating and terrifying. 

I'm not trying to cover all pluses and minuses of this trend right now. I'm mainly saying: for anyone who cares about worldwide shifts in manufacturing, and even for those already familiar with the saga of car plants opening in Tennessee and Kentucky, what is happening in this part of Mississippi is eye-opening.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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