Rust Wire editor’s note: The following was written by contributor Daniel Denvir, a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.
I took off on a road trip across the Rust Belt this summer both because I saw it as a potential for some good stories (which you can find here) and because it seemed like a great opportunity to visit a part of the country that I knew solely through reading and conversation. I also veered a bit out of the Rust Belt’s traditional boundaries to do a story for NPR’s Latino USA (scroll down and then listen here) on immigrant urban farmers in Cincinnati.
And it turns out I wasn’t the only person with such ideas. One group of planning students from Department of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois made a similar trip, calling it “Rust Belt Road Trip.” Another group did the same thing as well. It has to be more than the catchy alliteration–there must be something in the air.
Certainly some of this energy derives from something a bit less honorable, having more to do with a bizarre impulse for post-industrial rubbernecking, a fascination with modern ruins. An article in Vice subtitled “Lazy Journalists Love Pictures of Abandoned Stuff” poignantly describes some of the problems with focusing on urban collapse porn without providing the necessary context.
But we are not just drawn towards looking at these places for bad reasons. They are more than post-industrial pornography. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in Harper’s, they make us rethink the broader assumptions of industrial progress. If American Capitalism couldn’t save the great city of Detroit, that beacon of modern industry and autonomous transportation, what makes the rest of us feel so secure? Certainly with the Great Recession, we don’t need the Rust Belt to remind us of the general precariousness of things.
So I took this trip thinking of the Rust Belt as a potential beacon–having entered crisis first, they have, in an optimistic way of framing things, had longer to think about what solutions might follow. And the solutions in Detroit, Youngstown and Cleveland should not be overstated–these cities still have such deep economic woes and too much suffering for anyone to call it a day after christening a new enterprise or community farm.
Amidst the familiar scenes of economic abandonment, exciting ideas abound. In Youngstown, I looked at the Youngstown 2010 plan, an innovative program to sustainably shrink the former steel giant. I toured Cleveland’s Evergreen Laundry, a worker-owned cooperative that aims to capture procurement spending from the troubled city’s still-huge anchor institutions: hospitals and universities. And in Detroit, I looked at the positive role that could be played by a combined approach emphasizing both green industry and urban agriculture. The former, unfortunately, lacks the much-needed political will to get off the ground. The latter, however, is booming.
The news format of these articles did not allow me space to describe a lot of what I liked so much about these cities. My time in Cleveland was too short, so I can’t say I really got to know it. But my visits to Detroit and Youngstown sparked some real affection for these struggling locales–along with their bars and delis. In Youngstown, this was all due to the unparalleled hospitality offered by Defend Youngstown impresario and Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative organizer Phil Kidd–really enough reason in and of itself for my sure to be soon return visit. And the next time I do this trip, I’ll have to do a series on Rust Belt bars. Because on a personal note, they were amazing. And microbrews like Youngstown’s Rust Belt Brewing Company certainly qualify as a creative and delicious alternative.