Some Rust Belt Chic History

Rust Belt Chic is a dated cultural artifact. As the term implies, the appreciation of this blue collar ethos is snooty. Harvey Pekar’s wife Joyce Brabner explains:

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.

I love that quote (from the mid-1990s). It puts Anthony Bourdain’s celebration of Pekar in a different light, an exploitative one. Brabner also highlights the important linkages between Cleveland and New York City. Regardless, authentic Rust Belt is a cosmopolitan preoccupation.

So what, if anything, has changed over the last 15-years? There’s big difference between documenting Rust Belt Chic and going native. Furthermore, economic refugees from the region are among those who romanticize the culture. For this demographic, Rust Belt Chic is nostalgia. It’s a taste of home. It’s the distinction between ruin porn and art. It’s a form of nationalistic pride.

The current iteration of Rust Belt Chic speaks to people intimate with the landscape. The following example seems, at first, to be more ruin porn:

Part of the success of vacationing in a dying industrial hot-spot is to have like-minded travel mates who also want to spend a goodly amount of time riding bicycles up hills as well as be surrounded by abandon buildings, lots of brickwork, the oxidized colors of industrial decay, and loud, sometimes sudden clanging noises. Luckily my buds Meg and Jean are exactly those type of people. And we were doubly lucky to be housed by our New England ex-pat friends Miriam and Jeffery.

“Dying industrial hot-spot” is quite the oxymoron. But so is New England ex-pats living in Pittsburgh. Miriam clues us in about the relocation decision:

So long Providence – hello western PA. Yes, we packed up and moved to Pittsburgh. We really did it. Here we are. Pittsburgh! There is a great post-industrial decay vibe here that is really exciting. Kind of like Providence ten years ago, before it sucked.

Providence has substantial Rust Belt city credentials. There is considerable interest in the “post-industrial decay vibe” among artists. I should note that Miriam and Jefferey opened a cafe in Morningside. I think they qualify as members of Pittsburgh’s burgeoning hipster scene, a Rust Belt Chic community. They are indicators of an important talent migration to Pittsburgh that has been going on longer than many people think.

Bottom line, Rust Belt Chic influences relocation decisions. Pittsburgh is on the map for connoisseurs of urban frontiers. It’s a cool destination.

Back to Bourdain and Pekar:

What a two minute overview might depict as a dying, post-industrial town, Harvey celebrated as a living, breathing, richly textured society.

A place so incongruously and uniquely…seductive that I often fantasize about making my home there. Though I’ve made television all over the world, often in faraway and “exotic” places, it’s the Cleveland episode that is my favorite–and one about which I am most proud.

A New Yorker from New Jersey is fantasizing about moving to Cleveland. That’s the upside to Rust Belt Chic and a movement I see taking root. Each shrinking city would seem to have its own unique brand to pitch to those looking for alternatives to their first-tier city digs. Now is a good time to come home.
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Rust Belt Chic Duluth

Rust Belt Chic is easy to define. Concerning your struggling hometown, your attitude shifts from shame to pride. Far down the road in the future, the migration to Rust Belt cities will include people who wish they were from there. Then I might seriously¬†consider the angst about the trend.¬†Mayor Don Ness about Duluth’s transformation:

“For a long time, when I was growing up, if someone was talented they would feel a need to distance themselves from [Duluth],” Ness said without mentioning Exhibit A: Bob Dylan. The iconic troubadour was born on the city’s steep hillside just a few blocks from where Ness grew up a generation later, but Dylan only recently admitted it.

“I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at a certain point it became a point of real pride to say, ‘We’re from Duluth,'” Ness said. “That’s the most important change of the past decade for our city: People are proud of where they’re from and the cool things happening up here.”

Rust Belt Chic, it’s personal. The history and culture you once tried to escape, you now seek. That’s the extent of the revitalization. It takes someone from a place like Pittsburgh to appreciate the bones of Greenville, SC. What’s so troubling about this urban aesthetic? That it helps to sell jeans and automobiles?

Seeing Rust Belt cities in a positive light is a good thing. Doing so doesn’t gloss over the blight and social injustice. Rust Belt Chic is about action, not waving civic pom-poms. People care about what happens to urban Duluth and Detroit. Not too long ago, that wasn’t the case.