A Ride on the Rails Reveals America's Changing Economy

Adam Davidson reflects on the urban decay that can be glimpsed out the window of an Amtrak train traveling between New York and Washington D.C., and the forces transforming the nation's economy that cannot.
November 5, 2012, 9am PST | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Davidson and photojournalist Pieter Hugo use the to tell the story of America's changing economic, social, and physical landscape of "urban and industrial decay" as glimpsed from the seat of an Amtrak train bound for D.C. from New York. "[F]for most of the 180 or so years of the train line's existence, the endpoints of this journey - New York and D.C. - were subordinate to the roaring engines of productivity in between," writes Davidson. "This model was flipped inside out as Wall Street and D.C. became central drivers, not secondary supports, of the nation's economy."

In his essay, Davidson charts the loss of middle class manufacturing jobs, the decline of the communities built around that economy, and the rise of highly-specialized and service sector jobs. 

"Manufacturing nostalgia is as powerful as ever. But one more look out the Amtrak window reveals something else: the shiny new buildings that are actually filled with workers have nothing to do with manufacturing. They're in the broad service sector, in the anonymous office centers that bloomed out of nowhere - near Metropark Station in New Jersey and in Claymont, Del., and Aberdeen, Md. - to hold law firms and engineering companies and I.T. firms. For people with advanced training, the service sector means an above-average wage, a below-average risk of unemployment and days sitting at a desk. For those with only a high-school degree or no degree at all, far fewer jobs are available, and the ones that are pay poorly and disappear quickly."

"Calling for a return to the days when everybody who was willing to put in a hard day's work could make a good living at the factory is a fantasy, maybe a lie and certainly an implicit acknowledgment that nobody has any idea what to do with the underemployed in the slums of Trenton, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Southeast D.C. It's safer to talk about Pakistan."

Editor's Note: We've updated this post to include Diana Lind's commentary on Davidson's essay, which was published this morning:

"As someone who lives in Philadelphia but grew up in New York City, I found the Times' position that the economies along the Amtrak corridor are nothing like New York or D.C. as typical of New York provincialism," writes Lind. "I reject the underlying thesis of the photo essay, which is that - according to the view from Amtrak - cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore have wretched economies, are poor and are radically different from New York or D.C...Where Davidson throws his hands up and wonders how places in the 'Empire of the In-Between' will ever rebound, I'd like to propose a few solutions that are specifically related to the condition of Amtrak and what differentiates the cities along its corridor."

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Published on Friday, November 2, 2012 in The New York Times
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