Rust Belt Chic is churches and work plants hugging the same block. It is ethnic as hel1. It is Cleveland punk. It is getting vintage t-shirts and vinyl for a buck that are being sold to Brooklynites for the price of a Manhattan meal. It is babushka and snakeskin boots. It is wear: old wood and steel and vacancy. It is contradiction, conflict, and standing resiliency. But most centrally, Rust Belt Chic Is about home, or that perpetual inner fire longing to be comfortable in one's own skin and community. This longing is less about regressing to the past than it is finding a future through history.
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Anorexic Vampires, Cleveland Veins: The Story of Rust Belt Chic
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
In the spring of 2012, national interest in a Rust Belt "revival" blossomed. There were spreads in Details, Atlantic Cities, and Salon, as well as an NPR Morning Edition feature. And so many Rust Belters were 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 1988. 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 periodically book Pekar — a file clerk at the VA — giving him 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; his trust in being an invited guest gave 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 makeup'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, because 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 illustrated 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 before leaving. 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.
Take the Pittsburgh Potty. For recent generations it was about the shame of having a toilet with no walls becoming the pride of having a toilet with no walls. From Pittsburgh Magazine:
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 (and Cleveland) basements. No walls and no stalls. It existed so steel workers could get clean and use the bathroom without dragging soot through ma's linoleum.
Authentic: Yes. Cool? A toilet?
Only in the partly backward Rust Belt of Harvey Pekar and friends. From the 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 ... 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 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 back to Cleveland, 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.
American splendor, indeed.
The Revenge of the Pittsburgh Potty
I am from Erie. And I know this is a book about Cleveland. But to understand how the Rust Belt Chic of Cleveland came about you need to know the historical inelegance of Pittsburgh. But don't worry. You are most likely from the Rust Belt. So you already do.
The Rust Belt is a place you leave. Loserville (your hometown) is ubiquitous in America's industrial heart. In fact, thanks to the infamous exodus of the 1980s, Pittsburgh was the definition of "brain drain." That mythological landscape served as the muse for the urban strategist Richard Florida's Creative Class enterprise. Life was elsewhere, namely in Austin. Slackers were cooler than Yunzers.
In May 2002, Florida published an article in the Washington Monthly titled, "The Rise of the Creative Class: Why cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race." Pittsburgh (and by association, Cleveland) is the example of what not to do:
Even as places like Austin and Seattle are thriving, much of the country is failing to adapt to the demands of the creative age. It is not that struggling cities like Pittsburgh do not want to grow or encourage high-tech industries. In most cases, their leaders are doing everything they think they can to spur innovation and high- tech growth. But most of the time, they are either unwilling or unable to do the things required to create an environment or habitat attractive to the creative class. They pay lip service to the need to "attract talent," but continue to pour resources into recruiting call centers, underwriting big-box retailers, subsidizing downtown malls, and squandering precious taxpayer dollars on extravagant stadium complexes. Or they try to create facsimiles of neighborhoods or retail districts, replacing the old and authentic with the new and generic — and in doing so drive the creative class away.
Pittsburgh is guilty as charged. There were stadium boondoggles and a casino, as well as a theater district. The city was desperate to keep Carnegie Mellon University graduates from fleeing to Austin. Yet the region remained unattractive to the Creative Class. The rock band Styx performing "Renegade" at Steelers games wasn't gay enough.
In 2004, Richard Florida did what most Pittsburghers with college degrees still do — move to Washington, DC. His stint at George Mason University was short-lived. He landed a dream job at the University of Toronto in 2007. Here was another superstar who had to get out of Pittsburgh in order to make it big.
"Don't be a Pittsburgh." The slogan resonated across the country. In 2003, then-Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm took up the gauntlet thrown down by Richard Florida. Her state's cities would be Creative Class chic. From the "Michigan Cool Cities Report":
The Cool City banner is a fun way to describe a very serious mission. To thrive in the future, Michigan cities must attract urban pioneers and young knowledge-workers who are a driving force for economic development and growth. These individuals are mobile and we want them to consider, and then choose, Michigan cities. To do this, we need to change some of our old ways of thinking by making quality of place a major component of economic development efforts.
Cities and regions with large numbers of urban pioneers, or what author Dr. Richard Florida describes as the "Creative Class," are thriving. Build a cool city and they — young knowledge workers and other creative class members — will come.
Build what, exactly? To this day, the program remains a mystery. Attracting the Creative Class is a black box. Back to Florida's drawing board sketched in the Washington Monthly:
Over the years, I have seen the community try just about everything possible to remake itself so as to attract and retain talented young people, and I was personally involved in many of these efforts. Pittsburgh has launched a multitude of programs to diversify the region's economy away from heavy industry into high technology. It has rebuilt its downtown virtually from scratch, invested in a new airport, and developed a massive new sports complex for the Pirates and the Steelers. But nothing, it seemed, could stem the tide of people and new companies leaving the region.
I asked the young man with the spiked hair why he was going to a smaller city in the middle of Texas — a place with a small airport and no professional sports teams, without a major symphony, ballet, opera, or art museum comparable to Pittsburgh's. The company is excellent, he told me. There are also terrific people and the work is challenging. But the clincher, he said, is that, "It's in Austin!" There are lots of young people, he went on to explain, and a tremendous amount to do: a thriving music scene, ethnic and cultural diversity, fabulous outdoor recreation, and great nightlife. Though he had several good job offers from Pittsburgh high-tech firms and knew the city well, he said he felt the city lacked the lifestyle options, cultural diversity, and tolerant attitude that would make it attractive to him. As he summed it up: "How would I fit in here?"
Pittsburgh tried everything to be cool. It didn't work. The prescription for urban success was always vague. The emperor had no clothes. Either your city was Creative Class chic or it wasn't. Pittsburgh was stuck in the latter category.
Cool All Along?
In May 2002, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh took issue with Richard Florida's brain-drain narrative. Chris Briem published an opinion piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled, "Young people are NOT leaving Pittsburgh: Statistics in hand, Chris Briem is happy to explode the myth of a continuing exodus." Apparently, the Creative Class has an unusual tendency to stay in Pittsburgh:
The rate of younger workers fleeing the region is a small part of the change in population. The rate of net migration of those in their 20s is perhaps something on the order of 0.1 percent per year, a very small fraction of what it was 15 years ago. That means for every thousand 20-somethings we count here this year, we will expect to count 999 a year from now. Is that what we are getting so upset about?
A typical out-migrant was over 65, probably lacking a college degree (if not a high school diploma). Not exactly your dance club regular. Pittsburgh's population was shrinking, but not for the reasons Richard Florida was touting.
Fortunately for Florida, no one believed Briem. Communities lined up to learn how to get out of the Pittsburgh trap. You too can put the lid back on hell. Little did anyone know, hell with the lid taken off was cool.
From a travelogue in Atlantic Monthly, 1868:
There is one evening scene in Pittsburg which no visitor should miss. Owing to the abruptness of the hill behind the town, there is a street along the edge of the bluff, from which you can look directly down upon the part of the city which lies low, near the level of the rivers. On the evening of this dark day, we were conducted to the edge of the abyss, and looked over the iron railing upon the most striking spectacle we ever beheld ... It is an unprofitable business, view-hunting; but if anyone would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara, he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg, and looking over into — hell with the lid taken off.
The blog AntiRust noted the negative connotations that had been tied to the phrase "hell with the lid taken off" for some time. Little do people know, it was meant as a comment of praise, not condescension.
The writer is describing the view, molten wreaths of fire, as far as the eye can see; not the livability of the city, the cuisine, the people, or anything else. "Here," he wrote, "all is curious and wonderful; site, environs, history, geology, business, aspect, atmosphere, customs, everything ... To know Pittsburg thoroughly is a liberal education in the kind of culture demanded by modern times." It was practically a love letter to the city, yet that damned "hell with the lid taken off" line is all that survives.
This was the birth of Rust Belt Chic.
Steel Valley Chic
Randy Fox is my favorite Rust Belt Chic photographer. I'm drawn to the same images he captures. I admire the same artists he shares with his audience at his blog, American Elegy. What is so captivating about those pictures? Rust Belt Chic is like ruin porn. I know it when I see it.
Akin to James Parton's strange love letter to Pittsburg, Fox celebrates "steel valley chic" cinema (e.g. Deer Hunter) from the local's perspective:
Reckless was set in Weirton, W. Va., and was largely filmed there, as well as in Steubenville, Ohio (right across the bridge from Weirton) and Mingo Junction. While still formulaic and marketed as a teen flick, Reckless was a cut above the Tom Cruise steel- town tale, All The Right Moves, which was filmed in Johnstown, Pa.
Excerpted from "Rust Belt Chic"
Copyright © 2012 Rust Belt Chic Press.
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Table of Contents
Anorexic Vampires, Cleveland Veins: The Story of Rust Belt Chic Richey Piiparinen 17
The Revenge of the Pittsburgh Potty Jim Russell 22
Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall Eric Anderson 33
Pilgrim's Progress Pete Beatty 38
Cleveland's Little Iraq Huda Al-Marashi 43
Drinks on the River Kristin Ohlson 49
Little Italy's Shabby Chic Clare Malone 54
Unstoppable Houses On Changeless Terrain Michael Ruhlman 61
Tales of the Regional Art Terrorists David C. Barnett 65
Ward 6 Jim Rokakis 69
Pray for Cleveland: Reflections of an Investigative Reporter Roldo Bartimole 76
IV Growing Up
When the Number 9 Bus Was Like Home, and Downtown Was My Playground Sean Decatur 87
Letting Go of the Stats Noreen Malone 90
The Lake Effect David Giffels 93
Rust Belt Dreams Connie Schultz 99
Speak In Tongues Denise Grollmus 103
Harvey Pekar's Nagging Muse Erick Trickey 117
Toward a literature of the Rust Belt Christine Borne Nickras 122
Dangerous Poets Nicole Hennessy 127
Not a Love Letter Jimi Izrael 130
The Tiny Record Empire in Cleveland Laura Putre 135
A Cove in Collinwood Rebecca Meiser 141
Remembering Mr. Stress, Live at the Euclid Tavern Philip Turner 144
Jane Scott's Rust Belt Values Elizabeth Weinstein 147
A (Really Nice) Drink for the Working Man Alissa Nutting 155
How We Arrived At Braised Beef Cheek Pierogis Douglas Trattner 158
Lessons of Industrial Tourism Mark Tebeau 161
Randall Tiedman: Genius Loci Douglas Max Utter 164
The Seriousness of Vintage Claire McMillan 170
VIII Back Home
Why I Am Not a Boomerang Joe Baur 177
One that Denver Lost Stephanie Gautam 180
Crossing the Ohio Border Laura Maylene Walter 184
A Comforting Kind of Shame Jacqueline Marino 189
Hart Crane, Poet and Park Anne Trubek 193
Hunting for Gain in a City of Loss Richey Piiparinen 200
About the Editors 219