'Glass House' views the rise and fall of US industrialism through one town

'Glass House' is Lancaster, Ohio, native Brian Alexander’s account of his hometown and its change from a prosperous, vibrant community to a bedroom town with a lot of minimum wage jobs and very little hope.

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town By Brian Alexander St. Martin's Press 336 pp.

In November 1947 almost an entire issue of Forbes magazine was devoted to praising a town most Americans had never heard of: Lancaster, Ohio.

The town embodied an America that now seems to have existed only in Frank Capra movies. Much of the cityscape was Victorian buildings and antebellum homes, with American flags fluttering from lamp posts. Its most famous sons were Civil War generals. Friendships crossed social class lines. Prosperity was so evenly shared that a factory worker might live on the same block as a bank director.

And the heart of this model community wasn’t its schools or its churches or its civic clubs, but its glass factories, particularly Fortune 500 company Anchor Hocking.  Teenage boys would graduate from high school on a Saturday and go to work at Anchor Hocking 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 make 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 took pride in their work.

Forty years later Anchor Hocking was battered by layoffs. It had been through bankruptcy. Worker pensions were gone.  Equipment deterioration caused industrial accidents, filling rooms with molten glass.  Lancaster’s once bustling streets were now lined with empty buildings. The new growth industry in town was drug dealing.  And a lot of high schoolers didn’t wait until graduation to get started in that business.

Glass House is Lancaster native Brian Alexander’s account of his hometown and its change from a prosperous, vibrant community to a bedroom town with a lot of minimum wage jobs and very little hope.  Lancaster’s decline is the result of numerous complicated factors. Globalization has both weakened the power of American industry and strengthened the international drug trade.  The post-sixties decline in real wages has led to people working longer hours: No one has as much time for school fundraisers and civic improvement clubs.  

But the real villains in this story are corporate raiders, or in contemporary parlance, private equity firms, which in themselves embody a profound shift in the post-industrial American economy. The world of Anchor Hocking was one of people who made things, who understood a business as an institution committed to making a product of certain quality, who saw the importance of investment in training and infrastructure. The private equity firm is the creation of the post-'70s wizards of high finance, who understand businesses and stock prices as pieces in a complicated shell game whose goal is to artificially elevate the perceived value of a company (no matter how many employees they have to lay off or production corners they have to cut), so they can sell it to another group of financiers for a hefty profit.

The hostile takeovers began in the eighties with corporate raider Carl Icahn, who bought shares in Anchor Hocking and then began paring down the business. During 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 didn’t know anything about glassmaking and didn’t care. In one of the book’s more bitterly symbolic passages on the destructiveness of corporate raiding, Alexander recounts how the private equity firm Barington forced the closure of another local company, Lancaster Glass. All 140 workers were fired and the machinery sold for scrap. 

In 1934, Lancaster Glass employees made the replacement lens for the torch on the Statue of Liberty. 

“Glass House” is grimly fascinating history:  it illustrates the real, local impact of the seemingly abstract financial deregulation of the Reagan era. But the book really comes alive in Alexander’s portraits of the people caught up in the town’s unraveling.

Eric Brown, the chief of Lancaster PD’s Major Crimes Unit, is determined to stamp out the town’s drug problem. However much the job has hardened him, 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 out of disgust with the deteriorating conditions in the factory and the negligent corporate owners. Yet he can still say, “That was the only job I’ve ever been proud of.”  

And perhaps most poignantly, Alexander talks to Rebekah Krutsch, a divorced mother of four and a full-time drugs educator in the public schools, who works a second job as a waitress to stay off food stamps. She could make more money somewhere else, and when Alexander asks why she doesn’t move, she just says, “This is my town.”

If you want to understand the despair that grips so much of this country, and the love of place that gives so many the strength to keep going, “Glass House” is a place to start.

[Editor's note: The original version of this review originally misstated the location of Lancaster.]

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