FREELAND, Mich.—This is the heartland. It’s a part of the country many Harvard students may not be familiar with. When I accepted my internship here as a polymer-chemist-in-training, I was more than a little bummed that I’d tacitly accepted living in a Michigan cornfield (not a joke). It’s one thing to read the daily reports of Michigan’s death spiral in the New York papers; it’s another to see it firsthand. The state has been hit hard by recession and perhaps harder by decades of painful decline before it. The scars are everywhere—shuttered factories, foreclosed homes, abandoned small businesses, decaying barns, crumbling roads. The list goes on.
But in the face of it all, the mid-westerners I’ve met show uncommon grit. Despite the challenges, or maybe because of them, they hang on to a uniquely American viewpoint: It can all be fixed. As the state arrives at something of a slow recovery, there’s a sense that what happened in Michigan wasn’t an inevitable economic reality. Rather, it was complacency that led Michiganders to unwittingly turn their backs on the promise of America. All that’s needed is a fresh embrace of innovation and hard work.
But is American manufacturing really on the cusp of a great renaissance? It’s hard to say. The emotion here isn’t exactly the infectious hyper-optimism of Silicon Valley. It’s more of a dim but steady faith that things are about to be set right. There’s also an intangible apprehension, and it gives pause. No one quite knows just when industry will make good on the peoples’ optimism. For now, hope seems propped on a very visible glut of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signs and a few proverbial bridges to nowhere—but at least it’s out there.
Back east, most people I know are resigned in their vision of a labor-lite future. It’s an easier belief to hold, but it’s counterproductive to the billions of private-sector dollars invested in reshaping American manufacturing, nor does it give a fair shake to the people of Michigan and their gritty determination to preserve their livelihood.
Karthik R. Kasaraneni ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a chemistry concentrator in Currier House.