Sometimes “Rust Belt Chic” is played out literally, with the hip hocking old-world past times to pass their own time. Take this article from the Wall Street Journal called “How Do You Spell Hipster? It Could Be “B-I-N-G-O”. It talks of how front man for Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corrigan has opened up a swag tea shop in Chicago and now hosts a bingo night.
Ms. Fiorentino came out to play bingo because “it feels old-timey” and to support Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, who owns the tea shop and in February created a monthly bingo night, led each time by a different local celebrity.
Bingo is the latest old-school pastime enjoying a resurgence among young people, along with knitting, bowling and euchre. From the London-based Underground Rebel Bingo Club, which throws wild, impromptu bingo parties around the world, to a version in Philadelphia involving drag queens on roller skates, to “cosmic bingo” played under black light, bingo is crawling out of its recreation-center past…
…Mr. Corgan, the 46-year-old rock star, once famously dated Courtney Love and has sung about suicide and depression in a sometimes harsh, piercing voice. Despite all his rage, he’s a big fan of bingo balls bouncing in a cage.
“Our lives at this point are speeding up…..it’s so nice to just sit with people and go back to the way things used to be where it really is about being together for an hour and talking smack about stupid stuff,” says Mr. Corgan, who also owns a professional wrestling promotion company.
Sarah Ahlberg, a 35-year-old who collects vinyl records and writes letters on fine stationery, attended bingo night at Mr. Corgan’s tea shop because the nonprofit animal shelter she works for was the beneficiary of the night’s proceeds. “I like old-school things. Bingo is a good way to catch up with friends,” she says, explaining that being there brought back memories of going to bingo with her grandfather.
Nothing wrong with a little wholesome, old school activity. Rust Belt Chic.
A city can be a catch-all for personal junk. Here, the mechanism is a psychological one, and it’s one called “projection”, which is defined as “a defense mechanism where a person subconsciously denies his or her own negative attributes by ascribing them to objects or persons in the outside world instead”.
The comment section on Cleveland.com, and other metropolitan comment sections, is perhaps the ultimate proving ground for excavating interpersonal crap onto the other, be it a community, a race, or a group—such as immigrants—who are defined by a shared attribute, in this case by an act of mobility.
Delineating the immigrant angle further, I recently have come across a commentator whose handle is called “My Dad Lost His Job to an Immigrant” on Cleveland.com. The person’s handle, and the body of his comments—i.e., “This idea that America needs immigrants to better America is one giant canard” or “Taking talented workers away from their home countries is a crime”—serves not only to give the commentator a big giant “F” on the basics of international economic development, but it also informs on the “why” of the comment outside of grounded economic theory.
The “why” is xenophobia, or the “irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries”. In other words, the source is an interpersonal one, one from a pit of problems tied to fear or anxiety that’s not being dealt with through self-awareness, but through projecting it onto the immigrant who in all likelihood is bettering his or her own life, their host city’s life, and their native country’s life.
Meanwhile, the xenophobic act of tearing apart what is an act of community building under the auspices of community building is doing nothing but encouraging—indeed—a culture of joblessness. But not because the commentator’s dad lost a job to an immigrant, rather to a generational perpetuation of small mindedness.
As was stated, a city, or a collection of people tied by geographic proximity and culture, can take the brunt of interpersonal projection as well. Take this rant from a site called Leaving Pittsburgh entitled “Pittsburgh Sucks”:
I hate Pittsburgh. Everyone there is an idiot and thinks it’s the best city in the world. There is life outside of the Steelers. I went to school for film, and even though there’s a movie shot there every once in a while, it’s not enough to warrant me living there for the rest of my life. The city itself is fucking pathetic. No matter where you go, it’s either alcoholic, brain dead Pittsburghers who have lived there their entire lives or young, brain dead Pittsburghers who will never leave. Most of my graduating class from high school went to Pitt, most of them won’t leave PIttsburgh even after graduation. No one wants to know what else is out there. It’s a closed city. There might as well be a fucking wall surrounding it. It’s misery. It’s gray. It’s dying.
It’s clear the comment is coming from a not-so-nuanced take about the city—which is actually doing quite well and statistically getting younger!—and more so from a source of anger and/or loathing. What the person loathes who knows. It’s enough here to say the so-called critique is not constructive, instead adding to a long history of “woe is us” talk that so easily tips from self-assessment to self-deprecation.
And so the decades-long post-industrial chorus line continues: “The Rust Belt is dead. Long live elsewhere”.
Now, does this mean as a city or a region we cannot be self-critical? Hardly. That’s absurd. Especially given the economic and sociological struggles the Rust Belt is still facing.
What it does mean is that the motivation behind criticism should be checked, as criticizing your community through projection will mean a criticism that never ceases, as it is less about a community’s needs or progress—less about a city’s assets or deficits—than it is about a constant internal urge to dump on a thing outside of oneself if only because there is no honest self-assessment as to what is going on inside oneself.
To that end, there are few folks in the Rust Belt who I think are toeing the balancing act of simultaneously critiquing and celebrating the region nicely. With both, you could tell there is care there. Missing is the vitriol that comes with projection. Present is a sincerity that just wants a fucking Rust Belt progression.
Courtesy of Sean Posey
One is Phil Kidd of Youngstown. Phil is both a civic leader that fights the city’s status quo as well as a champion of Rust Belt identity as a means of attempting to progress the city out of its self-defeat. From a recent Atlantic Citiespiece:
Phil Kidd stood below the veteran’s monument in Youngstown’s Central Square most every Friday and Saturday night during the summer of 2006. Kidd, whose civic spirit channels the fervor of a street preacher, held a sign to engage passing motorists: “Defend Youngstown.” People started to talk to him. Then came t-shirts, which he sold first on the corner, and later online—in the thousands and for just slightly above cost.
The solitary stand became Defend Youngstown, “a movement dedicated to the advancement of the city of Youngstown.” Its logo is a Soviet realist-style worker wielding a sledgehammer, expressing, perhaps, both an enthusiasm for demolition and a willingness to strike hard against external foes. For Kidd, it’s a marketing campaign to get the city to believe in itself.
“This guy says, ‘I built this place. Do something.’”
Another is Cleveland’s Jack Storey. Storey, a community advocate, is also a filmmaker, having recently finished up a Rust Belt documentary called “Red, White, and Blueprints”, which is currently screening at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Storey, like Kidd, is a Rust Belt defender, with his heel-digging a means to push forward and away from a mindset stuck in a state of all that is lost.
Does that make him a booster? He doesn’t believe so. Nor does he care. He has work to do. Community capital to produce.
Speaking recently to WCPN’s David C. Barnett, Storey responds to the question of how he addresses the inevitable boosterism charges when it comes to making a movie that celebrates a struggling region:
“I will tell that person ‘you are absolutely entitled to your opinion. I appreciate your thoughts. Now get out of my way’…
I have sat through some incredible discussions—public debates—on boosterism versus what they will call ‘realism’. To me, there is a vast difference between calling something ‘boosterism’ just to call it ‘boosterism’ and trying to deflate progress, and when you are just negative constantly about where you are, what value does that add?”
Very little. In fact, though the Rust Belt has a poverty of a multitude of things, negativity-fueled criticism isn’t one of them. It has been around for a while, with a poor track record of fostering an environment for change.
That said, here’s to a new generation that can accept the good with the bad, and that doesn’t fall into the trap of all this or all that. Cities, like our insides, are ambiguous and conflicted. Honestly recognizing this can allow the discourse to be freed from projective screams of anger to a yelling because you want your region to have a voice.
Last fall saw publication of a wonderful book called “Rust Belt Chic.” It featured a variety of essays, memoirs and vignettes by Cleveland-based writers, artists and thought leaders on the theme of an old Cleveland becoming new. The contrasts rang a bell for me. I’ve lived in (or near) Cleveland for 30 years now and have seen a lot of change. The change is especially dramatic for me, coming as I do from a Rust Belt childhood. It prompted me to put in my own two cents worth
–Richard L. Peck, Lakewood resident since 1982
Rust Belt Chic, or A Love Hate Love Story
Consider the youth: A childhood spent on inner city Buffalo streets spotted with horse manure from the local rag man, streetcars with tracks soon to be paved over for buses, elementary school a half block from home, best buddy’s house set in a pocket between the youth’s house on one side and a row of shops on the other, with access to it via a piss-stained corridor from the street, and nearby a Nabisco factory and a soccer field next to railroad tracks—all within two blocks of home.
Age ten: the youngster moves to a north Buffalo house with a “big back yard” (laughed at by his eventual spouse and children, claiming claustrophobia), with a ten-minute walk encompassing an elementary school, a high school, two convenience stores on opposite corners, a movie theater, a shopping district with three five-and-tens in a row (Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, Neisner’s), a bank and a supermarket. A ten-minute bus ride to downtown passes the city’s minor league ball park, a major movie theater, a massive library and five major department stores. Halfway in between home and downtown is Dad’s ice cream factory—he worked 70-hour weeks as an ice cream mixer—which happens to be located in the middle of a declining black neighborhood.
This is the city I left in 1960 for New Haven, Connecticut to attend Yale University. Not generally well-recognized, perhaps, is that Yale is an inner city campus bounded on one end by New Haven’s scattershot downtown and giant central park called the Green and what was at the time (haven’t been back lately) a declining Dixwell Avenue neighborhood on the other. While at Yale I first heard the phrase “town/gown” relationships, and that usually meant bad.
Returning from Yale and, eventually, the Army, I found Mom and Dad still living in the same house, but with a neighborhood turning black and, despite people maintaining their homes, losing store after store and becoming more isolated. Meanwhile, the inner city childhood home has disappeared, flattened to the ground, along with its entire neighborhood and the neighborhood of Dad’s factory, with only a few propped up old houses left standing. Several inner city blocks look devastated as though a bomb had hit them. A brief trip downtown discloses a few small odd shops and restaurants remaining on the main streets, with a shabby attempt at a downtown pedestrian mall featuring small shops fronted by plywood sidewalks. This is the city I felt compelled to leave one month after my Army discharge, headed for a reporter’s job near my dream city of New York. My “dream jobs” go on to take me from New York to Washington, DC and, eventually, Baltimore. This rustiest of Rust Belt cities has just completed transforming its waterfront with a cinnamon-scented shopping mall (thanks to nearby McCormick Spice factory) called Harbor Place.
In the early 1980s I made a reluctant move to Cleveland (or, more accurately, its neighboring city Lakewood) from Baltimore for a new job. I had already declined a possible Cleveland job opportunity in the early 1970s because the train trip in and out of town for the job interview left me feeling monumentally depressed at the sight. I feared that the Cleveland of the 1980s would be no better, except….
During the next 30 years Cleveland’s downtown encompassed within a 20-minute walking area, two new sports stadiums, the nation’s largest non-New York Equity theater district, a sculpturally designed rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame, a sleek metallic science center, several upscale restaurants in an old warehouse district, a renovated multi-story shopping center atop the old railroad terminal, a massively upgraded and expanded library, a couple modern hotels, a spanking new healthcare mart convention center, and access via a crosstown trolley to a world-class concert hall and nationally ranked healthcare facilities. New apartment developments started springing up east and west, with the city gaining population for the first time in decades. And, of eternal but growing significance, a Great Lake of increasingly precious fresh water washed the city’s northern boundary.
Perfection it’s not. Gaping holes of urban nothingness loom between popular venues, and the lakefront offers shockingly minimal access. The renaissance of in-town living grinds slowly, with necessary neighborhood shops and stores slow to arrive. Pockets of poverty and persistently dangerous streets loom at night during trips from Playhouse Square. Foreclosed and abandoned homes litter the landscape.
But it could be worse: the turn of the 21st century saw my aging Mom sell her Buffalo home for exactly what she and my dad paid for it 50 years before: $12,000. By contrast, Cleveland is one city that is well on its way to becoming home again. Give it five more years, and you can drop the “rust belt” and keep the “chic.”
Last week, Angie Schmitt wrote a piece called “My Problem With Rust Belt Chic” that generated a long comment stream (including several responses from me, so for my views on the piece, read those comments).
From the piece I learned Angie’s negative views about Rust Belt Chic. In the comments section, I heard other not-so-pretty things about the concept and the book (also some good things too, which I admit warmed my heart). These sentiments and arguments were new to me. I didn’t always agree, naturally, but it was illuminating to hear them.
I’m a big fan of healthy debate and civil disagreements. Not only do they help refine and alter positions, but they can encourage people to join into conversations who might otherwise stay away. I’d love to hear more voices, more positions, more ways of skinning this Cleveland cat.
So bring it on. The more we talk honestly, the more new perspectives we bring in, the better.
An important post entitled “Fear and Self-Loathing in the American Rust Belt” was recently posted over at the new site The Handbuilt City. The post was in response to a recent Rust Wirepost entitled “My Problem With Rust Belt Chic”, which characterized Rust Belt Chic as boosterish and fetishizing decay, a claim the editors of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology bristled at in the comment section.
Regardless of which side you’re on, the posts, particularly the Handbuilt City post (which is based out of a Gary, IN, Chicago, St. Louis nexus), serves to advance the discussion of Midwestern and Rust Belt history and culture, particularly our hesitation at recognizing it, embracing it, and–when needed–letting it go. Some key excerpts:
Yet Midwesterners, as Schmitt’s article evidences, are terrified of owning, promoting, or, God forbid,improving upon their own culture. If we have something nice, the logic goes, it’s because someone else must have come up with it first and brought it here. We have to leave our region to go discover real culture, the maxim seems to go. How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Par-ee, Nora Bayes asked in 1919
Here comes the kicker: I’m not a native Midwesterner, and I’m not apologetic. I came to Iowa for college after deciding I was fed up with the East Coast in 2008, moved to St. Louis in 2010 after college to work on community arts and development projects, and have since been splitting my time between St. Louis and Chicago, where I work on community development projects in Indiana. Gary and St. Louis have collectively given me a pretty good portrait of Rust Belt decline and Midwestern identity (the latter certainly also a product of my time amid the corn in Iowa), not to mention a strong incentive toward innovation in these areas, things I don’t feel the need to apologize for when talking with peers and colleagues who have joined the exodus to the coasts and the Sunbelt.
Yet overall, it seems that we’re scared to own up to our own culture here, something I’ve noticed, oddly, in Chicago. As the largest city in the Midwest, Chicago is the geographic core of this apprehension about expressing one’s own identity, as the city doesn’t feel that it lives up to New York or Los Angeles, instead viewing itself as a reactor for making things happen on the road between one or t’other. Indeed, Chicagoans complain about this all the time, something I hear on WBEZ nearly weekly as the sundry performer, comedienne, or artist talks about the purchase of his or her one-way ticket to L.A. since they simply “can’t make it” here.
At the center of all that is Midwestern—low density, flat, gridded streets, and some sort of population decline- is Chicago, which in 2010 boasted a substantial decline in population, the only of a major American city for that decennial period (except Detroit). Eric Wennermarkreferred to the “sense of comparative inferiority that seems to pervade any discussion of the local visual art scene.” A February 27th event of the Chicago community meal and food pantry fundraiser, Soup and Bread, begged the question in its culinary theme, “NY or LA?” I don’t view this type of discourse as accidental, I view it as quintessentially Midwestern. That’s the problem.
Read the rest here. Suffice to say, this is an important topic in advancing the future of the Rust Belt and Midwest.
Winter hangs on. The calendar says spring but it is cold outside. Gray. Let’s celebrate with one of the best Cleveland winter cinema scenes of all time. From Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, filmed at the end of the now-defunct E. 9th St. Pier.
Rust Belt Chic is a complex term, as it touches on who we are, i.e., our warts such as patriarchal insularity arising from an oligopoly mindset, as well as our assets, like our long history of having strong ethnic communities. The following piece I did for Cool Cleveland shows how Rust Belt social capital can be both a good and bad thing, and how we need to change as a region to keep up with an increasingly borderless world. –Richey
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s recent comment about immigration has drawn some local ire. At his annual remarks on the state of the city, the Mayor—in response to a question of how Cleveland can end its population decline by attracting immigrants—stated: “I believe in taking care of your own”.
To be fair, the Mayor contextualized the statement by inferring that the best attraction strategy is to build a city that works for those who reside in it. In some respects I agree. In fact America attracts immigrants not because of “attraction strategies”, but because it offers the prospects of a better quality of life. So, if a city can nail that down, well, that is a hell of a pull.
The problem, though, is that historically inward-facing legacy cities such as Cleveland have had a hard time moving the needle toward progress because fresh blood is lacking, and so a “taking care of your own” strategy often devolves into policies that simply further fossilize the status quo.
Because such cities—with low rates of inmigration, and a long lineage of social capital that can tip to the side of insularity and territorial encampment—have too much inertia, which is defined as “the resistance of an object to change its state of motion or rest”.
Inertia is real, not simply in physics, but in organizational behavior, such as city politics and policy. And the more historical it is, the thicker the status quo, and thus the harder it is for a city to change—meaning the future, or the momentum of the city, can be like a train chugging to constant stops of stagnation unless a “force outside the system…act[s] upon the system for a long enough period of time to have any effect on changing the momentum.”
Enter the importance of outsiders, be they immigrants, returning expats, or just new people from other parts of the country. Without them cities get stuck. People see the same things, talk the same things over. Bullshit territorial divides like East- versus West-side of the Cuyahoga River reign, effectively cutting a city’s “brain” in half. Business is business as usual, then. Hence the post-industrial-sixty-year decline.
I previously noted how it generally takes a critical mass of outsiders, enough to create a constituency for change in its own right, to drive real disruptive change in a community. These are the people who aren’t invested in the status quo. Absent that, getting reform that works will be a difficult challenge.
Without migration, there are no cities. An urban landscape is more than a draw for talent. Metros thrive on churn, both the influx and egress of people…
… The very act of moving, particularly to the top tier of global cities, is entrepreneurial. You are surrounded by risk-takers and innovation. The competition is fierce. The cream of the crop is seeking any edge, looking for any opening.
I am learning about the power of migration first hand. You see, I am a lifelong Clevelander, a West Sider, one well-versed in the how things are customarily done around here, and what thoughts and words are commonly produced if only through a Rust Belt inertia that can be cloaked in “tradition”. My partner, Andiara Lima, is a relative newcomer from Vale do Aço, or the “Steel Valley” of Brazil. Before I met her I was ignorant to the presence of the Brazilian community in Cleveland. Now, I no longer am, and the experience provides me with on-the-ground lessons as to the importance of migration in evolving the Rust Belt “way”.
For instance, individually speaking, my panorama is being broadened, with the dominant cultural connotations of Cleveland defined primarily by whiteness or blackness taking a needed hit. For instance, I was at a Brazilian-hosted house party not long back, and it was like nothing I ever experienced. The dining room was cleared, bodies moved, sweat poured, people screamed and shook ass. A band was set up to play bossa nova along a window seat. And it was happening all in the neighborhood of my childhood, but way beyond my childhood. Rather a feeling of something forward. Not just past. Not identity politics, but a freshness needed so that crusty legacy and power can be dampened if only to bust identity politics up.
No doubt, these identity politics hurt the region’s ability to welcome and catalyze emerging groups. For instance, I am reminded of a recent Facebook comment on a local politician’s page that discussed a community forum about how Cuyahoga County government reform would affect race relations. The commenter notes:
The whole panel was black or white people. The Asians and Latinos were in the back of the room wondering “what about us?”
“What about us?”
It’s a good question, and one local leaders shouldn’t underestimate given the region’s need for fresh blood. And we aren’t just talking bodies, but talent, as migrants are “economic ass-kickers”, particularly due the fact that migration is in itself an act of entrepreneurialism.
For instance, my partner Andiara studies the Brazilian trade market for a local investment company. Her informational network into the country, both professionally and informally, is deep. For me, she is a link between two Rust Belt worlds, shattering my sense of restrictive locality for a borderless view that gets me thinking about how to position Cleveland not just regionally, but globally.
For Cleveland, she is a reserve for local industry that should be both cultivated and tapped, especially since—as the US Ambassador to Brazil recently said at Cleveland’s Union Club—“Brazil is an economic and democratic power the United States needs as a partner”.
And there is Luca Mondaca and Moises Borges, both acclaimed Brazilian musicians who are plugging (into) and broadening (out) Cleveland’s musical legacy. Yet there is frustration, particularly for Luca, as she feels isolated, untapped, and sometimes lost in the culture of a city that—while desperate for freshness—has difficulty getting beyond the inertia that comes with being comfortably stale. And while I am hopeful that the city is in fact becoming more welcoming—and that the opportunity afforded by the region’s affordability and legacy assets can further open the inmigrant sluicegates—passive optimism is not an option.
Neither is parochial playmaking.
In fact, Andiara Lima, Luca Mondaca, and Moises Borges are Cleveland’s “own”. But without that recognition, they may not be for very much longer.
“Rust Belt Chic is the opposite of Creative Class Chic. The latter [is] the globalization of hip and cool. Wondering how Pittsburgh can be more like Austin is an absurd enterprise and, ultimately, counterproductive. I want to visit the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar, not the Miami of LeBron James. I can find King James World just about anywhere. Give me more Rust Belt Chic.” Jim Russell, blogger at Burgh Diaspora
National interest in a Rust Belt “revival” has blossomed. There are the spreads in Details, Atlantic Cities, and Salon, as well as an NPR Morning Editionfeature. And so many Rust Belters are beginning to strut a little, albeit cautiously–kind of like a guy with newly-minted renown who’s constantly poking around for the “kick me” sign, if only because he has a history of being kicked.
There’s a term for this interest: “Rust Belt Chic”. But the term isn’t new, nor is the coastal attention on so-called “flyover” country. Which means “Rust Belt Chic” is a term with history–loaded even–as it arose out of irony, yet it has evolved in connotation if only because the heyday of Creative Class Chic is giving way to an authenticity movement that is flowing into the likes of the industrial heartland.
About that historical context. Here’s Joyce Brabner, wife of Cleveland writer Harvey Pekar, being interviewed in 1992, and introducing the world to the term:
I’ll tell you the relationship between New York and Cleveland. We are the people that all those anorexic vampires with their little black miniskirts and their black leather jackets come to with their video cameras to document Rust Belt chic. MTV people knocking on our door, asking to get pictures of Harvey emptying the garbage, asking if they can shoot footage of us going bowling. But we don’t go bowling, we go to the library, but they don’t want to shoot that. So, that’s it. We’re just basically these little pulsating jugular veins waiting for you guys to leech off some of our nice, homey, backwards Cleveland stuff.
Now to understand Brabner’s resentment we step back again to 1989. Pekar–who is perhaps Cleveland’s essence condensed into a breathing human–had been going on Letterman. Apparently the execs found Pekar interesting, and so they’d book him periodically, with Pekar–a file clerk at the VA–given the opportunity to promote his comic book American Splendor. Well, after long, the relationship soured. Pekar felt exploited by NYC’s life of the party, with his trust of being an invited guest giving way to the realization he was just the jester. So, in what would be his last appearance, he called Letterman a “shill for GE” on live TV. Letterman fumed. Cracked jokes about Harvey’s “Mickey Mouse magazine” to a roaring crowd before apologizing to Cleveland for…well…being us.
Think of this incident between two individuals–or more exactly, between two realities: the famed and fameless, the make-up’d and cosmetically starved, the prosperous and struggled–as a microcosm for regional relations, with the Rust Belt left to linger in a lack of illusions for decades.
But when you have a constant pound of reality bearing down on a people, the culture tends to mold around what’s real. Said Coco Chanel:
“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity”.
And if you can say one thing about the Rust Belt–it’s that it’s authentic. Not just about resiliency in the face of hardship, but in style and drink, and the way words are said and handshakes made. In the way our cities look, and the feeling the looks of our cities give off. It’s akin to an absence of fear in knowing you aren’t getting ahead of yourself. Consider the Rust Belt the ground in the idea of the American Dream.
Of course this is all pretty uncool. I mean, pierogi and spaetzle sustain you but don’t exactly get you off. Meanwhile, over the past two decades American cities began their creative class crusade to be the next cool spot, complete with standard cool spot amenities: clubs, galleries, bike paths, etc. Specifically, Richard Florida, an expert on urbanism, built an empire advising cities that if they want creative types they must in fact get ahead of themselves, as the young are mobile and modish and are always looking for the next crest of cool.
These “Young and the Restless”–so they’re dubbed–are thus seeking and hunting, but also: apparently anxious. And this bit of pop psychology was recently illustrated beautifully in the piece “The Fall of the Creative Class” by Frank Bures:
I know now that this was Florida’s true genius: He took our anxiety about place and turned it into a product. He found a way to capitalize on our nagging sense that there is always somewhere out there more creative, more fun, more diverse, more gay, and just plain better than the one where we happen to be.
After long–and with billions invested not in infrastructure, but in the ephemerality of our urbanity–chunks of America had the solidity of air. Places without roots. People without place. We became a country getting ahead of itself until we popped like a blowfish into pieces. Suddenly, we were all Rust Belters, and living on grounded reality.
Then somewhere along the way Rust Belt Chic turned from irony into actuality, and the Rust Belt from a pejorative into a badge of honor. Next thing you know banjo bingo and DJ Polka are happening, and suburban young are haunting the neighborhoods their parents grew up in then left. Next thing you know there are insights about cultural peculiarities, particularly those things once shunned as evidence of the Rust Belt’s uncouthness, but that were–after all–the things that rooted a history into a people into a place.
We purchased a house with a stray potty, and we’ve given that potty a warm home. But we simply pretended as if the stray potty didn’t exist, and we certainly didn’t make eye contact with the potty when we walked past it to do laundry.
The Pittsburgh Potty is basically a toilet in the middle of many Pittsburgh basements. No walls and no stalls. It existed so steel workers can get clean and use the bathroom without dragging soot through ma’s linoleum.
Only in the partly backward Rust Belt of Harvey Pekar and friends. From the twitter feed of @douglasderda who asked “What is a Pittsburgh Potty?” Some responses follow:
“I told my wife I wanted to put ours back in, but she refused. I threatened to use the stationary tubs.”
“In my house, that would be known as my husband’s bathroom.”
“It’s a huge selling feature for PGH natives. I’m not kidding. We weren’t so lucky in our SS home.”
“We’re high class people. Our Pittsburgh Potty has a bidet. Well, it’s a hose mounted on the bottom, but still ….”
Eventually, this satisfaction found in re-rooting back into our own Rust Belt history has become the fuel of wisdom for even Coastal elites. Here’s David Brooks recently talking about the lessons of Bruce Springsteen’s global intrigue being nested in the locality that defines Rust Belt Chic:
If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place…you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.
The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman…Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.
And some are coming, albeit slowly, unevenly. But more importantly, as a region we are once again becoming–but nothing other than ourselves.
Authenticity, reality: this was and always will be the base from which we wrestle our dreams back down to solid ground.
Economic developmentally-speaking, Rust Belt Chic is akin to stop trying so damn hard to copycat what everybody else is doing. Embrace your self: your ugliness, your beauty, your bad attitude, your love, and last but not least: your rust. Who gives a shit if the term “Rust Belt” has been borne out of a pejorative. Words and concepts take on new meaning. That is why the young in the region wear their Rust Belt cred on their sleeve, literally. It is about resilience. It is about self-pride.
Rubber City Clothing in Akron
This concept of building your community from your own identity is now getting mainstream. Take Joel Kotkin’s new piece at the Daily Beast in which he takes down Richard Florida’s idea of rebuilding cities into a version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, or cities as vessels for all beautification, all amusement, all escape all the time. Kotkin, quoting some of the ideas that have defined Rust Belt Chic for some time, writes:
For Rust Belt cities…following the “creative class” meme has not only meant wasted money, but wasted effort and misdirection. Burning money trying to become “cooler” ends up looking something like the metropolitan equivalent to a midlife crisis.
It would have been far more sensible, Piiparinen suggests, for such areas to emphasize their intrinsic advantages, such as affordable housing, a deep historic legacy tied to a concentration of specific skills as well as a strategic location. He urges them to cultivate their essentially Rust-Belt authenticity rather than chase standard issue coolness Focusing on attracting the “hip cool” single set…simply sets places like Cleveland up for failure.
There is a whole generation saying what Kotkin is referring to. Hopefully our leaders get this before we powder our nose to spite our face.