Ghost Towns of the 21st Century

After factories close, will one-time manufacturing hubs ever recover?

Alana Semuels / The Atlantic

BRUCETON, Tenn.—When textile companies started sending jobs overseas in the 1990s, this town wasn’t spared. Here, the Henry I. Siegel company made jeans and suits in three giant plants, employing 1,700. It started laying people off in 1995. Over time, Siegel, known locally as H.I.S., closed its wash plant, its distribution center, and its cutting center. It laid off its last 55 workers in 2000.

In the 15 years since then, this town has struggled to figure out how to survive. The three giant H.I.S. plants in town are empty, their windows broken, their paint peeling. A few new manufacturing operations have come, but they’ve also left. One by one, the businesses on the main streets of Bruceton and neighboring town Hollow Rock have closed, leaving modern-day ghost towns. In downtown Bruceton, the bank is gone, the supermarket and the fashion store have closed, and there’s a parking lot where there used to be another supermarket. All that’s left is a pharmacy where seniors come to get their prescriptions filled.

“What we say here about NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] is, I cannot tell you if it’s good for the country, but I can tell you that it’s not good for Carroll County,” said Brad Hurley, who grew up in Bruceton and is now the president of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, as he drove me down the mostly abandoned main street of Bruceton. He’s lived in town all his life and worked at the H.I.S. plant some summers; his mother and brother worked there for decades. But the town he sees now is a shadow of what it once was, and other towns in Carroll County, and indeed much of rural Tennessee, are struggling too.

An abandoned H.I.S. building in Bruceton, Tennessee (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Of course, NAFTA isn’t the only reason manufacturing left Carroll County and the South. Companies moved to Asia to take advantage of lower costs, afraid that they wouldn’t be able to compete if they kept operations in the United States. Automation made it easier for companies to make just as many products with fewer employees.

Nationwide, manufacturing employment has fallen by a third since 1998, to 12.3 million, from a high of 17.6 million.

While one-time manufacturing strongholds such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh have been able to reinvent themselves as centers of biotechnology or robotics, small, rural towns such as Bruceton have had more trouble. The unemployment rate in Carroll County is currently 8.5 percent, which is much higher than the state average of 5.7 percent, but is still the lowest rate the county has seen since 2008. Unemployment here reached startling heights as the factories closed—18 percent in 1996, 11.2 percent in 1999, and 10 percent in 2003, the same year that the U.S. unemployment rate was 5.8 percent.

All trade deals have winners and losers, but towns such as Bruceton, which haven’t rebounded after more than a decade raise an important question: If trade is good for the nation, why have the benefits still not reached these towns?

“We’ve got an awful lot of people who have been displaced, including low-skill workers who have just not had good options,” said Wally Hopp, a professor at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. As low-skilled manufacturing jobs have left, he said, “the knowledge-worker class is doing better and better, and the labor-worker class is doing worse.”

Pansy Lawton knows it. She started working at the H.I.S. factory when she was 15. She set pockets on coats and made decent money, she told me, and she took night classes at H.I.S. to get a GED. She worked there for 22 years, until it became evident that H.I.S. was not going to be around in the U.S. for much longer. The company would say it wasn’t going to send jobs to Mexico, and then Lawton would be assigned to fix flaws workers had made in Mexico.

Worried that she wouldn’t be able to find another job once H.I.S. closed, she took a position at a frozen-food manufacturer, working 12 hours, 7 days a week, for less money than she’d been making at H.I.S. It was miserable, and 18 months later, she left. Since then, Lawton, now 55, has worked as a part-time mail carrier. After a decade of part-time work, she was recently made a full-time mail carrier, but she has little savings for retirement, so she says she’ll be working until the day she dies. She considers herself lucky, though: She has a husband with a good job, and at least she was able to find work. Many of her former colleagues at H.I.S. were never able to find anything else, and either moved away or are eking out a living from part-time work.

“This town is just dead since Siegel’s went out,” she said. “Whenever they gave them all those tax breaks to move, that’s when it all went to pot—that’s when America went to pot.”

An empty security station at a former H.I.S. plant (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

It’s not that local towns like Bruceton haven’t tried to lure new factories or businesses. In 2005, for example, Purity Foods, an Ohio-based dry-foods production plant, announced it was moving to Bruceton after a nasty winter back home. Purity came, but it has since gone out of business, its crumbling marquee near the H.I.S. plant a reminder of the activity that has come and left.

The town of McKenzie, 20 miles west of Bruceton, lost a big pajama factory and a shoe company in the 1990s. In the last decade, the town has lost seven manufacturers and gained back two, Mayor Jill Holland told me.

McKenzie is aggressively trying to recruit new companies. When the town hears a company may want to move, perhaps to a right-to-work state like Tennessee, McKenzie employees call the company and try to reach a decision-maker to pitch them on what McKenzie has to offer.  Holland says the town has gotten lot of interest through this unorthodox approach, but no bites yet.

One reason they may not be getting bites, Holland says, is because of the town’s depressing Main Street. One company was going to locate in McKenzie, but when executives showed up to town and saw empty businesses on Main Street, they decided it wasn’t a place they wanted their families to live.

“They said it looked like an atomic bomb went off, so they just kept walking,” she told me. “They didn’t even give it a second chance.”

Empty storefronts on Bruceton's once-thriving main thoroughfare (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

McKenzie has since focused on revitalizing its downtown, fixing up the facades of buildings, and holding concerts and seasonal events downtown.

New facades on the buildings may not do much for Bruceton. The town isn’t on a major highway, and to get to town, vehicles travel on a two-lane road—a barrier for many companies thinking about locating there, Hurley told me. Bruceton is two hours from Memphis and two hours from Nashville, which may be a bit far for some companies. Towns closer to urban centers have had more success luring new companies.

The feeling of the town has changed since H.I.S. left, Hurley told me, especially because in the 1990s, when H.I.S. was the major employer, everyone knew each other, and participated in local events, especially ones sponsored by the town’s biggest employer. Employees had time to socialize because they worked normal business hours, and got to take off holidays to spend time with their families. Now, the town empties out during the day because people leave for work in other counties, and that social fabric seems less tightly knit.

John Belew, who lives across from one of the empty H.I.S. buildings, remembers coming over to Bruceton to play football when he was a kid growing up in a nearby town. It was booming then, and out-of-towners would linger by the Blue Dip dairy bar just to bask in the bustling activity. He moved back to Bruceton five years ago to retire, but says he barely recognizes the town, and doesn’t know anyone in Bruceton but his next door neighbor.

That may be because people like Jason Montes have to leave Bruceton every few weeks to make a living. Montes, now 34, moved to Bruceton in the last days of H.I.S. He now works as a pipe layer, but there isn’t much work in west Tennessee, so he’s going up to New York next month because he can make $50 an hour there. He doesn’t want to raise his kids in Bruceton, and is thinking about trying to move out West, where there are better jobs and higher pay. In rural Tennessee, the only jobs for people like him are temporary, he told me, and many employers fire anyone who doesn’t agree to work for cheap and not complain.

“There’s such a demand for jobs around here they can treat you any way they want to,” he told me.

Some economists say that less-affluent Americans have paid the highest price for outsourcing, while upper-income Americans have gained the most. And while it’s true that all consumers benefit from the cheaper prices of goods made overseas, it’s not clear that that makes up for the loss in wages that less-educated families have seen as manufacturing jobs have disappeared.

One of three empty H.I.S. plants in Bruceton (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Montes’s father-in-law, who had just a high-school education, worked for years at the H.I.S. plant, making $15 an hour. Now, there’s nowhere in town where an unskilled worker could make that kind of wage, Montes told me.

“They want you go buy new cars, how can you buy anything at $10, $12 an hour?” Montes asked, as he grilled burgers outside the trailer where he lives in Bruceton.

Hurley, with the Chamber of Commerce, is trying to focus on the town’s small wins. A bank is moving into town, building a brand new branch on the two-lane highway. A Dollar General moved in nearby a few years ago, and there are two convenience stores along the main highway that serve food. The downtowns of Bruceton and Hollow Rock may still be empty, but new construction is reason to be optimistic, he said.

And if optimism doesn’t sit right, then perhaps there’s some consolation in that Hollow Rock, and indeed, Carroll County, are not alone in being left behind.

“When you looked around, it wasn’t just H.I.S. leaving, it was Levi’s, it was everybody leaving the United States,” he told me. “You’re sitting there, thinking, it’s not something that we did wrong, it’s just a trend that we can’t overcome.”

Empty storefronts in Hollow Rock (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)