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Buildings with boarded--up windows were everywhere in Detroit, part of the ruined industrial landscape Peter Cheney encountered as he drove through America's rust belt. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Buildings with boarded--up windows were everywhere in Detroit, part of the ruined industrial landscape Peter Cheney encountered as he drove through America's rust belt. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

A road trip through America's wasteland Add to ...

There are places you go to, and places you get through.

Lima, Ohio, is in the second category. I'm not the first person to say so. Comedian Lenny Bruce quit his record label after they booked him into Lima, and according to the Internet (which is always right), the city inspired a famous joke: "First prize - one week in Lima! Second prize - two weeks in Lima."

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My wife and I ended up in Lima during a recent trip to Georgia on I-75. We'd been driving all day, and the GPS said the next hotel was in Lima, which happened to be just ahead. How could we know that we were about to get an economics lesson, plus a tour of one of the most depressing towns in America?

This is why I love road trips - you learn things. And I-75 has provided an ongoing education. My wife and I have noticed a lot of changes since we started driving it back in the 1980s: There seems to be a big box mall at every exit now, and the mom-and-pop restaurants have mostly vanished, pushed aside by generic chains.

But on this trip a new point was driven home - the collapse of American manufacturing.

We got our first taste as we headed through Detroit, with its miles of abandoned homes and the gutted factories that have become tour destinations for morbid fans of architectural decay. But we expected this: Detroit's downfall is a well-known economic narrative.

It was in Lima that we realized that we were riding through post-industrial America. Although we'd passed the Lima exit dozens of times over the years, we'd never stopped. Now we were seeing the city for the first time, and it wasn't a pretty picture.

We drove through a grim-looking trailer park, then a deserted industrial area ringed with sagging chain link fences. The factories had plywood over the windows. Half the buildings seemed to be for sale or lease, including the Lima City Schools Academy of Learning with its sun-bleached "Go Spartans" sign that conjured past glory. The billboards in Lima leaned heavily toward downfall-related businesses: cheque-cashing outfits, bankruptcy counsellors, brace and limb clinics and lawyers promising quick cash settlements. This was a place where people used to make things. Not any more.

We ate dinner in a faux-Mexican place where my wife and I seemed to be the only two people who weren't wearing a baseball cap, stretch pants or camouflage. The next morning, we filled up at a gas station and spent 10 minutes waiting to pay, even though ours was the only car at the pumps - there was a line of people in front of us checking their lottery tickets and buying new ones. I was starting to understand why.

The clerk was a friendly woman who told us that business was way down due to high gas prices. "The drug dealers used to come in all the time with their big cars," she told us. "Not now. They ain't rolling around so much now. Ain't nobody else, neither."

Her thesis seemed to hold water. As we cruised through Lima, there was hardly any traffic, and the sidewalks were empty. We drove past a tattoo and piercing establishment, a sports bar with a dirt parking lot and a neighbourhood of boarded-over houses and trashed cars.

So what was it with Lima? As I learned, Lima once epitomized industrial America, with an economy based on the manufacture of sophisticated machinery: locomotives, army tanks, cranes, airplane components and parts for Detroit's Big Three. But over the past decades, Lima has been hollowed-out by distant and inexorable forces that shifted manufacturing to other states, and then to other countries.

In 1999, Lima was featured in a PBS documentary called Lost In Middle America, which used the town to illustrate the effect of economic decisions made far away. Driving through the streets of Lima, globalization is not simply an economic theory - it's a no-job, no-hope reality.

According to the 2006 U.S. census, Lima's per capita income was $13,882 and 22.7 per cent of its 38,219 residents lived below the poverty line. People are also deserting the city - its population was 40,081 in 2000. Lima had the highest crime rate in Ohio for a city its size - and the ninth-highest in the U.S. for the year 2006, according to the FBI.

We headed south again on I-75, depressed by our brief civic encounter with Lima. A few hours later we were in Kentucky. Things were looking up! The hills were green, there were hawks in the sky, and the beef jerky and chewing tobacco selections increased at every gas stop. (I don't use either product, but their presence is an oddly reassuring reminder that regional differences still exist.)

Lima had left me reeling, and I longed for signs of economic resurrection. As we hit Chattanooga, I finally saw one: the new Volkswagen plant was almost ready to start production. Some of my hang gliding buddies were hoping to land jobs. It was definitely a bright spot for Chattanooga, which had been kicked in the head by the remapping of world industry - the giant foundries and railroad shops that once defined Chattanooga now stand as empty monuments to a bygone age.

But now Volkswagen is here. Maybe there is still hope for U.S. manufacturing, but I could see that things would be different than they'd been in Detroit's heyday: At Volkswagen, there would be no unions, no cradle-to-grave employment and no gold-plated pensions.

Maybe that was that was the way it had to be. Lima had shown us one economic future: being crushed by the tectonic forces of global economics. It reminded me of what Susan Faludi (one of my favourite writers) had concluded after studying the way technological change and capital movement had altered California's San Fernando Valley:

"... You can meditate, like Ebenezer Scrooge, on the hollow murmurings and frenzied forebodings that are the ghosts of American commerce, past and future," she wrote, "… and you can see the flattened state of things to come."

Susan was writing about a different place and a different industry (California and adult entertainment, respectively). But the forces and the outcome were no different. Lima was losing. And until this trip and our chance encounter, I had no idea how bad it actually was.

As I read up about Lima and its economic woes, I learned that it had two claims to fame. In 1933, bank robber John Dillinger broke out of the Lima jail using a fake gun carved from a bar of soap, and the town is the birthplace of comedienne Phyllis Diller. In 2005, Phyllis released Lampshade in a Whorehouse, her autobiography. She included a chapter on her hometown. It was titled: "John Dillinger escaped Lima, and so did I."

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

*****

Correction: The photo above was taken in Detroit, not Lima, Ohio. The caption has been changed.

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