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The great recession hit the industrial Midwest especially hard. And that's where we're going next, as we continue our series on hard times. Today, NPR's David Schaper takes us to one small, Midwestern city where local leaders hope the hardest times are behind them: Granite City, Illinois.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Sitting across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, Granite City, Illinois has certainly seen better days. Downtown, there are more boarded-up and empty store fronts and vacant lots than there are businesses. Granite City's population in last year's census dipped under 30,000, down from a peak of over 40,000 in the 1970s. And many people here say good-paying jobs are hard to find.

TAMMY SCAFF: People are struggling.

SCHAPER: Forty-nine-year-old Tammy Scaff is sitting at a computer in Granite City's downtown library. Right now, Scaff says she's working part time at K-Mart and part time as a home care aide to the elderly, jobs that pay minimum wage. And she's looking for a third.

SCAFF: The economy is not good. It's not good at all. Several of us have had to have two or more jobs. A lot of people are having to use the food pantries or get help through the government and stuff.

SCHAPER: Unemployment in Granite City is nine-and-a-half percent, quite a bit higher than the larger St. Louis region. And the backbone of Granite City's economy is steel.

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DAN SIMMONS: It's a hard-working town, and they are totally reliant on the steel mills.

SCHAPER: Dan Simmons is president of United Steelworkers Local 1899, which represents workers at the U.S. Steel plant here, which in its heyday in the 1970s, as Granite City Steel, employed more than 4,000. Randy Virgin is another Local 1899 official.

RANDY VIRGIN: It is the absolute heart of this city, of this community. You know, when this plant was idled for the first time in its history, its 130-year history...

SCHAPER: Virgin is talking about late 2008 and into 2009, when U.S. Steel temporarily shut down the mill and laid off almost everyone.

VIRGIN: I mean, it was amazing the change that you saw take place within the community. I mean, you know, like, the restaurant across the street here was empty. The, you know, the Walgreens on the corner was, you know, there was no customers inside.

SCHAPER: U.S. Steel reopened in mid-2009 and now employs 2,200 workers. And Virgin says he believes the steel mill's jobs are here to stay, as the company had invested in upgrading the plant.

VIRGIN: Its future is probably more secure now than it's been in a long time. And these are good-paying jobs.

SCHAPER: Wages at U.S. Steel start at around $20 and top out around $30 an hour. And in a sign of the hard economic times, the union officials say they're seeing more college graduates apply for work at the steel mill. But it is still hot, dirty, difficult and dangerous work.

BRENDA WHITACRE: When I first walked in, it looked like Dante's "Inferno," "Paradise Lost." You saw this steam rolling through and this orange glow. And I thought: What have I done?

SCHAPER: Brenda Whitacre worked on that steel mill floor for 15 years. Now she's across the railroad tracks in a place she calls a world away.

WHITACRE: Hi, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, I'm good. There's just going to be two of us.

WHITACRE: Going to be just two?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Uh-huh.

SCHAPER: In this hardscrabble, cold steel town, the 49-year-old Whitacre opened her own cute, quaint little lunch restaurant called the Garden Gate Tea Room. And what did the guys back at the mill think?

WHITACRE: Oh, my gosh. They looked at me like I was crazy when I first opened this, because right in the heart of an industrial community, you have this little oasis. In the springtime, we have the most beautiful garden. And we have al fresco dining and people set out, and it's just - you know, just close your eyes for a minute and, you know, you forget where you are. And then, all of a sudden, you feel the roar of a truck coming by and a big piece of steel on it, and you realize you're back in Granite.

SCHAPER: Whitacre was a pioneer in taking a chance to open a new business downtown when others were leaving. She's now on the city council, working to broaden Granit City's economic base and bring in more small businesses like hers.

WHITACRE: I think we have always been defined solely as a mill town. I think we have seen, especially with - when the mill laid off, that we have to diversify.

SCHAPER: Whitacre says Granite City can no longer depend solely on steel, but it's still a critical element of the town's economy. And she acknowledges that that presents a challenge in attracting newcomers, as too many people still see Granite City, Illinois only as a dirty steel town. David Schaper, NPR News.

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