My Problem with "Rust Belt Chic"

I have to admit, I never could get into this whole “Rust Belt Chic” thing–even though we ran a series of articles about it on this blog. Let me explain.

First of all, to me fetishizing ruin feels insensitive, as many others have pointed out. Industrial ruins aren’t just a pretty backdrop to live a “chic” life. They represent lives of poverty, unemployment, and abandonment, and in Cleveland–unlike in several northern Brooklyn neighborhoods–there is no separating the two: profound, desperate poverty and the post-industrial landscape.

I can’t discount the idea that “gritty” may be fashionable, but I don’t really think cities like Cleveland or Detroit can take credit for it–it’s a glamorized aesthetic that has emerged out of places like Brooklyn and Chicago, I think, where industrial landscapes really have become playgrounds for the country’s cultural elite.

On the other hand, I don’t really think Cleveland is very glamorous. Maybe Rust Belt Chic proponents would say, that’s it! We’re not glamorous and that’s cool! And maybe it’s impossible to argue against Rust Belt Chic because it’s been so vaguely defined.

I guess I do think cities like Youngstown and Detroit and Cleveland can be cool, at times. Chic? I don’t know. It definitely sounds like the kind of word your uncool uncle would use.

Rust Belt Chic. For me describing things about the Rust Belt that are legitimately cool, calling them “chic,” sort of ruins it. Making a big deal about how cool they are seems like the opposite of a cool thing to do–trying too hard, you know? Trying too hard is especially pathetic if  we’re not actually cool. Who’s an expert on what’s cool? I think there are actually pretty effective, impartial ways to evaluate that.

I’ve lived in a half dozen cities in this region. There were definitely moments when I thought, this is cool. This is a cooler experience than I could maybe have anywhere. Those times were almost all in my early twenties. Couple times when I saw the shameless deadbeat Youngstown rock duo Gil Mantera’s Party Dream. That kind of irresponsibility–coolness–might not be possible in a place like NYC, at least not without a trust fund. Cleveland’s informal west side fireworks display, where no one would bat an eyelash, I don’t think, if you lost your arm. The Royal Oak.

But every place has a culture. I do think, yes, ours is worth celebrating, hence this blog. What I don’t think is that it is necessarily better than the culture anywhere else. To me, that is just kind of jingoistic. Perhaps even just flat out wrong. While we do have a unique culture here, it may be less distinctive culturally, than, like, say Texas, Boston, Miami.

I think if the rust belt really were culturally transcendent, as this Rust Belt Chic concept seems to imply, I don’t think there would be a need to sort of artificially promote this concept. (We’re so cool, guys!) If the rust belt we’re really having a moment, we would be genuinely influencing the country culturally. Our music scene would be as influential as Seattle’s in the 1990s, for example. Our artists and designers would be sought after by major clients in all corners of the country. Our tech nerds would be revolutionizing something. There would be a recognizable style, or movement, based here that was being emulated elsewhere. There would be a group of creative people leading these brilliant tribes in an unorganized, organic fashion.

I’m not going to say there aren’t organized creative movements underway anywhere in the rust belt. I just don’t see them as having tremendous influence outside the region–at least not in a new, remarkable way right now.

People like program managers at the Cleveland Foundation don’t influence the wider culture in a big way, generally speaking, the way like a rock star or even an ad designer might. Whether or not they think Cleveland is cool, I don’t think it really says much about whether we are cool or not. Especially if they are from here and have lived here most their lives.

I also think this Rust Belt Chic thing is a little bit boosterish. It implies that the status quo is okay. We’re better and special without even trying! When what we really need to be cool is to progress, to stop dwelling on nostalgia and licking our wounds and start innovating again.

This whole exercise, declaring ourselves in the Rust Belt to be “chic” and demanding we be recognized that way, just seems like more of the same. There are so many people here who have lived in this region most of their lives and they legitimately think Cleveland is as cool as New York or Portland. These people are entitled to their opinions, I guess; it’s just that sometimes they seem terribly myopic. Cleveland can have a tendency to be very insular. It’s almost like, if we can convince ourselves we are cool again, what does it matter what other people think? Cleveland versus the world–a tired old battle Cleveland always loses.

The cities in the United States that are really cool–recognized that way even by people who aren’t from them, have never visited them–don’t hang their hats on nostalgia, or attempt to define cool so it matches what they are. Fundamentally, in my opinion, they are progressive places that are innovating. They’re on the cutting edge of art, or music, or technology, like Austin, or sustainability, like Portland.

Do we need to be exactly like Portland to be cool? No, of course not. But does not being Portland make us cool? I don’t think so. Rejecting the wider cultural trends other cities are embracing might make us feel more special, might allow us to reject the idea that we are falling behind, but only to ourselves. To the rest of the world, we just look sillier–and rightly so. We’ve been deluded about our place in the world. We’re happier that way.

-A.S.

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One response to “My Problem with "Rust Belt Chic"

  1. Pingback: Beneath the Rust: Part 2 |

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