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Race in the Branding of Rust Belt Chic

14 March 2011 One Comment

There’s an attraction in the post-glut ethos to an emerging Rust Belt Chic brand. Recently I wrote about cities capitalizing on this attraction by embracing grit-chic as an opportunity to develop by just being what they are: hard-working, resilient, steel- and stone-bodied, frontier-like in their decay, etc. In thinking of what Cleveland is, here is what I wrote:

Cleveland—it is a lot. It’s part Napoleon Dynamite: alienated, quirky, but with a spine of cut-through-the-bullshit intrigue. It is lunch pails and bridges, iron and stone, yet a place of poetics formed from a pensiveness borne from its afterthought status. Cleveland is hard and soft, then: knuckles and tits—and this is perhaps most embodied in its music as hybrid polka-rock DJs share the same city air that catches the sounds of the Cleveland Orchestra. Cleveland is wandering. Cleveland is finding when it’s not blinded by what it’s looking for. Cleveland is the nostalgic comfort that is hearing the night train. Cleveland is Joan Jett in the Light of Day.

For me, a lifelong Near West Sider, this was my take on Cleveland’s version of Rust Belt Chic. Then a commenter opined. Using the name “East Side”, this is what the individual wrote:

Cleveland is Marcus Garvey; Cleveland is Chester Himes; Cleveland is Carl Stokes; Cleveland is a black face with a black fist. Cleveland is a place of amazing black jazz and vibrant hip hop. Cleveland is the Bone Thugs spitting rhymes about life on these streets. Cleveland will be reborn when our brothers and sisters have a truly equal chance at making our stamp.

After reading East Side’s comment, I noticed how different we had imaged the same city, a difference perhaps reflected by the extent our city has been sliced by race. And though lately this has changed—with the black population migrating into the city’s West Side and into certain inner ring suburbs of the East, the fact remains that Cleveland still operates like a body with two heads that have lived different lives.

My next thought was: to what extent is black culture representative of Rust Belt Chic? This is important on a number of levels, for if the grit-chic brand is (or is destined to become) heavily white and hipster—or white and Springsteen-like—or white and ethic, then what is occurring is an economic development strategy catering to part of a city’s flavor, which only serves to reinforce said segregation that so often kills any chance of agglomerating a mass of dynamic thought.

The pillars of Rust Belt Chic: unscrubbed, and culturally ubiquitous

Examining to what extent the black experience is threaded into the brand of grit-chic, it’s necessary to get a feel for what it is. Blogger and geographer Jim Russell—an extensive thinker on the concept—describes the core of Rust Belt Chic as “the possibility of the urban frontier”. Of course this frontier is more post-modern than pre-, and so the realities of the landscape must enter into the brand’s fray: ruins—shuttered entries and openings where they weren’t designed to be—alienated spaces between old forms. Visually, the Rust Belt city is thus the morning body in the bathroom light, eliciting notions of the pre-cosmetic—the stripped down, the authentic. And as is the case with age lines, the “as is” state in the brand is but a leading tip of the past up to that point, making lineage and identity central also. And of course the simple fact of getting up, preparing, and entering into a city of consequences…well, you get the drift.

The above could be described as the unscrubbed building blocks of the brand, with the attributes being found in all cultures within the Rust Belt. Pushing further, if we take the urban frontier as the starting point, you could argue that the seed of grit-chic is in those most system-busted spaces of our cities which—more often than not—are heavily black. And so it is perhaps here that what has hence been called “chic” is more necessary than it is messaged out as a manner to capture the minds of the country’s dreamers.

Some examples of necessity grit-chic from black creators are many, and they need not be listed ad nausea. But the video below shows one of my favorites from Flint. It mixes karate, urban ag, and rap. And then there’s Bourdain’s visit to the Roost in Baltimore. It’s a little piece on lineage, sustenance, and hunger, all with a rust flavor. And finally, there’s this from detroitblog about homesteading in East Detroit (via Urbanophile).

Bling vs. rust

Of course the difficulties and potential divergences of any cultural brand arise when this brand is being refined and messaged for economic gain. The refinement of hip hop not only provides lessons for the branding of Rust Belt Chic, but the effects of its commercialization can be viewed as being at cross purposes to the pillars of Rust Belt culture. This in turn could lead to “whiteification” of the brand, thus ending its chances at coalescing a regional identity across racial divides.

Hip hop is more than rap, but culture. And it caught fire in part because it represented a creative reworking of a reality that was once only discussed in terms of what the hell was wrong. This goes on today when urbanists lament the diseases of the incredible shrinking city.

The state of hip hop today is mixed. Some in the industry say the gross commercialization robbed it of its essence. Greg Tate writes:

Given that what we call hiphop is now inseparable from what we call the hip hop industry, in which the nouveau riche and the super-rich employers get richer, some say there’s really nothing to celebrate about hip hop right now but the moneyshakers and the moneymakers—who got bank and who got more.

Conversely, some think any bastardization of hip hop’s authenticity is overshadowed by the extent of its global scale:

50 Cent is one of the biggest stars in the world, from Kingston to Capetown, and whether or not you like 50 is irrelevant; he’s a mythic figure who has attained a cultural relevance so massive that it is hard to comprehend from our perspective. Rap’s cultural capital is larger than ever before. A mixed blessing, because in the United States, and many other countries, cultural capital doesn’t translate into social justice, economic justice or any kind of justice—it’s just another opportunity.

Regardless of who’s right, hip hop’s meme of becoming something outside of inner-city poverty has captivated a generation of youth, both black and non-black. And it’s not hard to see why. Because with global comes the obvious: way beyond the mere local, which in the realm of becoming means more fame and more money. This is a pretty powerful message when its laid at your damn feet, or even when it’s not: just thinking the thought, of going global. That said, mass fame vs. the pillars of grit-chic—it’s definitely and underdog fight and Cleveland isn’t A. Creed.

Of course Exhibit A of this is the Decision. LeBron James, a self-professed Akron honk who grew up in the real of it—he made it known he got the meme long ago. Himself a Yankees and a Cowboys fan, James said he was going to “light Cleveland up like Vegas”, and that his goal in life was to be “a global icon”. Of course the irony here was that his global reach was set up by his brand as a local in a region where locality still meant something. And perhaps the country—more than anything—appreciated him for that. Yet it’s also a country of “Go West, young man” in which the brand of authenticity must be grown into something greater than an idea of simple, broken, and resilient beginnings. Because of course: the Rust Belt is shit and dead, while the real frontier is near the sands edging the edgy night clubs. So said Richard Florida in his reaction to why LeBron left:

But real entrepreneurs—those who want to build something new—sometimes pick “frontier locations,” places where they can mold the environment to help them reach their desired goals…Perhaps this is what Miami had to offer the Three Kings. The place is diverse enough, open-minded enough, free-wheeling enough, and hungry enough that they can make their own rules.

Rust Belt Chic and hip hop: brothers from another mother?

While this is one line of thinking—i.e., that the hip hop meme clashes with the pillars of grit-chic thus imbuing the latter with a brand that is more Pabst and pirogies than it needs to be—there remains the possibility of an another line of thinking as well. This line of thinking goes that the 50 cent(s) and LeBron(s) and Richard Florida(s) of the world are on the cusp of a trajectory that is a twilight of today, and that the Rust Belt was so yesterday that it’s approaching the cusp of a new tomorrow. Going further, this post-glut ethos that has given rise to Rust Belt Chic is bubbling up in existing cultural brands, hip hop being one of them. And when paired–the aesthetic of rust with the sounds of stripped rap–it’s like a spoon full of meat to the country’s consciousness after a diet on eye candy. The Chevy ad is a perfect example of this. So was the movie 8 mile.  And then here, in Cleveland.

Come to think of it, in many respects the pillars of grit-chic are the pillars of hip hop: resilient; imaged in the boarded yet stoic building standing before the backdrop of your city’s skyline; locally flavored; creatively reworked so that another’s understanding of failure is your awareness that the truth is more complicated; and perhaps most importantly: a brand that has arrived out of the lived as opposed to being manufactured for the living.

That said, in developing the brand the purveyors of grit-chic should learn from hip hop’s evolution so as to not diverge from the principles it had evolved from. Part of doing this is to fight the temptation to use Rust Belt Chic to become the reflection of another city’s success.  In fact grit-chic is less about becoming than it is keeping on in the face of consequences.

–Richey Piiparinen

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Cleveland SGS