GOOD WITH THEIR HANDS

Boxers, Bluesmen and Other Characters From the Rust Belt

By Carlo Rotella

Univ. of California. 293 pp. $29.95 Carlo Rotella, the grandson of Italian immigrants, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and now has his feet in two urban worlds: the "Old Neighborhood" of his youth, in which people worked with their hands in tough industrial jobs, and the "postindustrial" world of his adulthood, in which he works as a professor of English and American studies at Boston College. The passage from the first of these worlds to the second and the connections between them -- changes, similarities, contrasts, enduring traditions -- are the main subjects of "Good With Their Hands," which manages to be about a good deal more than its subject matter might at first suggest.

Carl Sandburg, whose poetry was immensely popular during the first half of the 20th century but probably is little read anymore, celebrated Chicago as "Hog-Butcher for the World / . . . Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders." Rotella understands that this has changed, but he unabashedly celebrates the Rust Belt, in which Chicago and the other cities in this book are included. He sees Rust Belt as "a heroic and perhaps even poetic term rather than a pejorative one," and writes:

"To my ear, 'Rust Belt' has the right ring of machined metal and weather. It resonates with hard use and reuse. It sounds like the right name for a region in which you can always find your way to the railroad tracks or the old working waterfront. Somewhere in town there will be a district of large, solid brick buildings that once gave conventional form to the principles of labor and capital, and somewhere nearby will be stretches of workers' housing arranged tightly and neatly as if for a long voyage. You know where you are, whether you are in a mid-size mill city like Erie or Brockton, in the once-paradigmatic industrial city of Chicago, or even in New York -- which, let us not forget, was and in some ways still is a great manufacturing center."

During the 1990s, Rotella spent a good deal of time in these cities. In Erie, the tough Pennsylvania lake port and General Electric factory town, he followed the career of Liz McGonigal, a woman in the man's world of boxing. In Chicago, he watched the great blues singer and guitarist Buddy Guy walk the fine line between the old city and the new. In New York, he hung out with Salvatore "Sonny" Grosso, the former cop who was consultant to and model for "The French Connection" and now makes "formula television" about crime in the city. In Brockton, the small Massachusetts city once celebrated as the home town of the heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, he saw how an attempt to honor Marciano and revive the center city turned into still another clash between the old and the new.

All these people are or were "good with their hands," a "deceptively unsimple virtue" that "involves technical skill and finesse, craft mated with strength." It refers to "skills traditionally required to make steel or assemble goods in a factory -- the kind of work that has become more scarce in America's older manufacturing centers." It also refers to a boxer's "understanding of how to fight," encompassing "not only the strategy but also the physiology and psychology of fighting, everything from a feel for leverage to familiarity with pain."

When he writes about boxing, in the chapters on McGonigal and Marciano, Rotella is on especially solid ground. Boxing has moved, as he says, from the old arenas into the gambling casinos, where it draws crowds who are far less apt to work with their hands than their industrial-age counterparts were. So it is useful to be reminded that "boxing, as a form of rough, work-related play, still retains its cachet in what the sociologist Kathryn Dudley calls 'the culture of the hands,' the system of values and meaning that evolved around the sweat and shop-floor cooperation of industrial body work."

This is true, but as heavy industry dies away or moves overseas, where does boxing fit in? The story of Liz McGonigal suggests some possibilities. One begins with the obvious: She and those whom she fights are women. However improbable it may seem, boxing is yet another previously all-male arena in which women now compete and, in McGonigal's case, with the vigorous and enthusiastic support of the guys in the GE assembly line. Yet McGonigal herself is no blue-collar woman: She is "an aspiring psychologist whose education [is] more important to her than her boxing career," and most of her opponents in the ring have "solid middle-class credentials of education and property."

Boxing, in other words, to some extent has been gentrified. At least as far as women's boxing is concerned, it is an old Rust Belt sport that has adjusted to fit the realities of the postindustrial city in which the chief product is not goods but information. Rotella gets to this point nicely in his account of how the Chicago blues, which began as an authentic expression of the experience of Southern rural blacks in a Northern city, has become a part of the entertainment package called "Chicago" that is sold primarily to whites:

"Chicago continues to mature as a city that sells services, atmosphere and experiences rather than locally manufactured goods or animal parts, and blues enjoys corresponding new importance in the packaging of Chicago-ness. The most readily consumed packages condense Chicago-ness into images and atmospheres with familiar associations: the view from the Michigan Avenue bridge; the historical charge of big shoulders and hog butchers; the nostalgic appeal of robber-baron swankiness and the salt-of-the-earth charm of the urban village; a smokestack city rising from the prairie grass, a city of skyscrapers and high-end chain stores rising from the ruins of the smokestack city; sports, lots of sports; ethnic foods and ethnic music. Urban blues serves as one of the most effective and recognizable packages, one of the best ways to brand black Chicago in particular and Chicago in general."

There is plenty to regret in this metamorphosis from manufacturing to packaging, and Rotella obviously regrets it mightily, but he is smart enough to understand that this is how the old cities will survive: by accommodating, rather than resisting, the new information industries and the people who work in them. There is always the danger that the cities will turn themselves into theme parks, e.g., Harborplace in Baltimore and South Street Seaport in Manhattan, but it is better to have "the postindustrial city rising from the ruins of the industrial" than to let it wither away and die.