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Rust Belt Chic: Not Just for Hipsters

18 May 2012 2 Comments

“The biggest challenge facing a shrinking city is the move of the working class from the urban core to the suburban fringes. Rust Belt Chic is about more than the return home to help. It also concerns a reversal of the flow to greener pastures. The inner city is the new frontier, whereas outlying rural areas used to be the ‘blank slates’ for utopian dreams. The only irony here is that suburbia is now suffering from blight.”

Jim Russel, from Bar Mleczny in the Cleveland Review

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Salon’s Will Doig wrote a thoughtful, nuanced piece detailing the concept of Rust Belt Chic as a way to revitalize America’s broken legacy cities. The story is getting play, and so the concept—while bantered around in Rust Belt circles for a minute—is bubbling up in the country’s zeitgeist. At its most basic, Rust Belt Chic is about defining the factory coast’s culture and aesthetic as a means to attract those longing for a dose of authenticity and usable space. Miami we are not. Buffalo doesn’t need to be.

Buffalo's Art Deco. Courtesy of Art Deco Architecture

But Rust Belt Chic is more complex than that. And it’s high time the concept—as an economic development strategy—gets spelled out. This is perhaps the first attempt to do so. Consider it a working manifesto.

But first let me say what Rust Belt Chic is not: a gentrification tool—or a white-breading of the post-industrialized landscape with a homogenized group. In fact it’s loose and lazy to pigeon-hole Rust Belt Chic into the message: “come hither; we’ve got coffee shops in our ruin porn”. Because if that’s all it was then it would be nothing, as true economic development is derived from cities that integrate the breadth of life’s experiences by ensuring the presence of those with varied life experience.

Here’s what else Rust Belt Chic isn’t: playing in decay—drinking PBR with a temp tat on your neck— and attracting cool by acting cool.

Instead, Rust Belt Chic is churches and work plants hugging the same block. It is ethnic as hell. It is the Detroit sound of Motown. 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 babushka in 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 of longing to be comfortable in one’s own skin and one’s community. Yet this longing is less about regressing to the past than it is finding a future through your history.

Courtesy of Cleveland Press. h/t: Cleveland SGS

Now let me take a step back to delineate the history of Rust Belt Chic’s arrival—an arrival, mind you, that was created by no one, but rather evolved by macro-cultural and economic shifts much bigger than an idea.

Rust Belt Chic leverages a person’s attachment to place to get them reinvested in that place. And no doubt, folks in the Rust Belt are attached: to their place and culture, to plain-spoken talk and mannerisms secured by red blood restraint, to blue-collar values and roots. Granted, it can be a restrictive attachment, one primarily defined by separation.

You see, this attachment—it fostered a complacency that held the region back. We became too secure in our way of life. We held onto old industry, and innovation passed us by, and so went the jobs. We were kind of like the dude who loved the thing so much he held it until its suffocation. So many people left because they had to. The Rust Belt diaspora cannot be regionally matched. But this forced separation has served to strengthen the attachment over the decades, albeit across space. America’s Team became Steeler Nation. And many want to come back. From Changing Gears, some letters from the diaspora on a series called Midwest Migration:

After university I explored several different career options but found none fulfilling. Therein lies the true reason I ultimately left Michigan: the opportunity to explore a far deeper pool of creative and career opportunities. After living in New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, I can definitively say this: the grass is NOT greener…I would move back in a heartbeat. If a good job opportunity presented itself, I’d be out of Los Angeles before I could blink.

But then many prefer to stay away.

My high school is now a vacant lot…and the cold wind blows old papers in the same spot where I had to study algebra. Yet my mind goes back to the room where Miss Edith Pollock taught me how to write.

I love Sioux City so much it hurts. I wish to hurt it back.

Would I move back to the Midwest? Not if they made me the governor of Iowa. Not for a million dollars in cash. Not at gunpoint. Not if I got to relive it all, and be a teenager again. But the memories of that place and time are precious.

Both of these stories illustrate the split nature that is Rust Belt attachment: it can be played out in an all-hands-on-deck desire to come back, or it can exist in nostalgia which—as defined in a recent Paris Review piece—“asks you to long only for something that no longer exists.”

And both are useful in terms of attraction, believe it or not. Because if Rust Belt Chic is informed by anything it is this: that Rust Belt city built on a restrictive legacy is not the future of the Rust Belt cities. Cities are built on flow: the ins and the outs of a variety of people. So attract those wanting back, but also encourage those who stay away to tell the story to those who are up for the challenge to rebuild America.

Which brings us to the second main tenant of Rust Belt Chic: the attraction of mythical geography—or that land of opportunity and usable space.

America is broken. Not just the Rust Belt, but everywhere. Income disparity. Unemployment. In the past those who were shut out—in particular the immigrants and the yet-minted young—would do what Americans did best: Go West, and build something of your own. But now we have saturated the coasts. Many are looking around for a geographic workshop where a new American way can be built. Some are beginning to turn inward to find that “out there” is really in here: the Rust Belt.

There are a few reasons for this. First is the opportunity that comes with usable space. Artists are being priced out of established cities like New York and L.A. Cheap space to live and work is becoming attractive. First- and second-generation immigrants are getting the itch too, and they are finding that Rust Belt cities can be the “America” within America. Take the case of Allentown, the fastest growing city in Pennsylvania. After years of shrinking, this is shocking. And the city has Hispanics to thank for it.

Where are they coming from? Major East Coast cities. Why? From The Prospector:

“A lot of the growth has to do with the Puerto Rican community. They tend to be moving from New York and Philadelphia, areas with high rent,” said Emilio A. Parrado, sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania…

“This historically is the way people move up socially. You move up by moving out of the [big] city, by following better opportunities and better housing.”

But while cheap space is a big plus, it isn’t the whole story of Rust Belt Chic’s attraction. Part of it is psycho-geographic. And here is where ruins and the idea of the urban frontier comes in.

Courtesy of Sean Posey via Details Magazine

Urban ruin is a dirty word in America—so dirty that it has been referred to as “ruin porn.” The thinking goes that decay invites gawkers in the same way celebrity funerals attract scumbag journalists. But this says more about those censoring American evidence of failures than it does about those willing to frame failure via ruin. It is the latter that’s embodied by Rust Belt Chic. Says Cleveland painter Amy Casey in a San Francisco Chronicle piece:

“It’s not too uncommon to find people [in the Rust Belt] who sort of love the broken-down industrial history of the area. It’s very bittersweet, which may be a Midwestern thing. There are people here transforming leftover remnants – old manufacturing commercial buildings into…interesting projects. It’s a pretty slow process, though I find a great deal of inspiration from the landscape.”

Be it artists, urban agriculturalists, immigrants, infill developers, architects, or the sweat equitable worker, vacancy is often less about emptiness than it is about space. But saying that’s the end of it is selling the aestheticism of decay short. Decay shouts that things don’t last forever, so don’t hold on. Be open as a culture—a city—lest you be fooled again.

In fact the best revitalization efforts occur by bringing the past into the present—or by seeing what was there, understanding how it failed, and then integrating those mistakes into a plan for the future. This is how individuals revitalize broken lives. So why is it not apropos for a collection of individuals in their attempts to revitalize a broken city?

The Rust Belt is a region steeped in both great rising and great decline, and in that regard it’s ahead of the curve. There is a trending sense in American consciousness that here is where the country’s creative destruction is centered. We have been like a splattered seed that has been sitting to stew. Now it is time for the creative part of our destruction.

And there is space for everyone. Even the hip.

Richey Piiparinen