In November 1947, almost an entire issue of Forbes magazine was devoted to praising a city most Americans had never heard of: Lancaster, Ohio.
The city embodied an America that now seems to have existed only in Frank Capra’s films. Much of the cityscape was made up of Victorian buildings and antebellum homes, with American flags waving from lampposts. His most famous sons were Civil War generals. Friendships crossed social class lines. Prosperity was so evenly shared that a factory worker could live in the same neighborhood as a bank manager.
And the heart of this model community was not its schools, churches or civic clubs, but its glass factories, in particular the Fortune 500 company Anchor Hocking. The teenagers were graduating from high school on a Saturday and going to work at Anchor Hocking on Monday. The work was hot and dangerous, but they knew they would have jobs for the next 40 years. They would never get rich. But they would earn enough money to never worry about how to pay their bills, how to afford a house, or how to send their children to college. And they were proud of their work.
Forty years later, Anchor Hocking has been the victim of layoffs. It was through bankruptcy. Workers’ pensions were gone. The deterioration of equipment has caused industrial accidents, filling the rooms with molten glass. The once bustling streets of Lancaster were now lined with empty buildings. The city’s new growth industry was drug trafficking. And many high school students didn’t wait to graduate to get into this business.
Tight is Lancaster native Brian Alexander’s story of his hometown and its transformation from a thriving and vibrant community to a bedroom community with lots of minimum wage jobs and very little hope. Lancaster’s decline is the result of many complicated factors. Globalization has both weakened the power of American industry and strengthened the international drug trade. Falling real wages after the 1960s led people to work longer hours: no one has so much time for school fundraisers and civic improvement clubs.
But the real villains in this story are the corporate looters, or in contemporary parlance, the private equity firms, which in themselves embody a profound shift in America’s post-industrial economy. The world of Anchor Hocking was one of people who made things, who understood a company as an institution committed to making a product of a certain quality, who saw the importance of investing in training and infrastructure. The private equity firm is the creation of the post-1970s wizards of high finance, who understand companies and stock prices as pieces of a complex game whose purpose is to artificially raise the perceived value of a company (no matter how many employees they have to lay off or production wedges they have to cut), so they can sell it to another group of financiers for a big profit.
Hostile takeovers began in the 1980s with corporate robber Carl Icahn, who bought shares in Anchor Hocking and then began to wind down the business. Over the next three decades, Anchor Hocking was bought and sold by one private equity firm after another, firms that frequently offloaded their debt onto Anchor Hooking’s books, firms whose executives knew nothing nothing to the glassware and didn’t care. In one of the book’s most bitterly symbolic passages about the destructiveness of corporate raids, Alexander recounts how the private equity firm Barington forced the closure of another local business, Lancaster Glass. The 140 workers were made redundant and the machines sold for scrap.
In 1934, Lancaster Glass employees manufactured the replacement lens for the Statue of Liberty’s torch.
“Glass House” is an eerily compelling story: it illustrates the real, local impact of the seemingly abstract financial deregulation of the Reagan era. But the book really comes to life in Alexander’s portraits of the people caught up in the dismantling of the city.
Eric Brown, the head of the Lancaster PD’s Major Crimes Unit, is determined to root out the city’s drug problem. Even though the job has toughened him up, Brown still cries when he talks about arresting family members of high school classmates. Brian Gossett was a machine operator at Anchor Hocking who quit in disgust at deteriorating conditions in the factory and negligent business owners. Yet he can still say, “It’s the only job I’ve ever been proud of.
And perhaps most poignantly, Alexander talks to Rebekah Krutsch, a divorced mother of four and full-time public school addictions educator, who works a second job as a waitress to dodge food stamps. She could make more money elsewhere, and when Alexander asks why she’s not moving, she simply says, “It’s my town.
If you want to understand the desperation that grips so much of this country and the love of place that gives so many the strength to carry on, “Glass House” is a place to start.
[Editor’s note: The original version of this review originally misstated the location of Lancaster.]