- The Voices of the Rust Belt
In 2013 Anne Trubek, an English professor at Oberlin College and Cleveland resident, founded Belt Publishing, which is committed to exploring and giving voice to the regional identity of the postindustrial Midwest. Working toward this goal, she has launched online Belt Magazineas well as publishing a series of anthologies, each focusing on a single Rust Belt city. By the close of 2016, there were anthologies on Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Akron, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Flint, and the Belt Publishing website promises additional collections on Grand Rapids and Chicago in 2017. The [End Page 171]volumes present essays, poetry, photographs, and drawings by a variety of creators with ties to the subject city. Each lives there now or has done so in the past. A few are known nationally but most are local voices not previously heard by many outside their home territory. They are not journalists from the New York Timesor USA Todayrehashing the standard ruin porn narrative of death and abandonment or repeating the equally commonplace upbeat pieces about comeback cities on the road to economic revival. The anthologies present the more nuanced perspective of people with roots in the subject cities who have experienced Rust Belt existence firsthand for a number of years.
Although each volume has a different editor and set of contributors, the anthologies share a similar general tone. The authors and visual artists embrace the grittiness of their hometowns and do not ignore the troubling change that has transformed their cities from destinations for workers seeking good wages to landscapes of closed factories and abandoned mills. The image of smokeless smokestacks and rusting steel mills recurs frequently. Yet the contributors have an abiding devotion to their cities that they cannot seem to shake and firmly believe that Rust Belt grittiness creates a grittiness of character, thus endowing residents with an endurance lacking in denizens of softer cities. An Akron contributor admits that the Ohio city “is a little rugged around the edges” but endeavors to “describe the charm of Rust Belt Ohio and the grittiness that fosters creativity” (57). The Youngstown anthology identifies the local work-hard, don’t-quit spirit that “lets people born here to know they can rise above tough circumstances no matter where they are” (174).
Seemingly this endurance is about to be rewarded, because the contributors also generally share a belief that their hometowns are reviving and shedding the deep doldrums of recent decades. Cleveland is turning hip with a potential to become the Midwest Brooklyn. The prime exemplar of “Rust Belt Chic,” Cleveland “is becoming attractive to folks–be they returning ex-pats from Florida or young creative types tired of the bells and whistles of Global City USA” (19). Elsewhere the same resurgent spirit seems to prevail. The editor of the Cincinnati anthology writes of “the exciting energy bubbling up from the river basin” and of the city being “on the precipice of great things” (8–9). Even in bankrupt Detroit, the people seem to be hanging in there with an endurance that promises a better future. One Detroit contributor describes her hometown as “a place that is two parts post-apocalypse and three parts stubborn as hell” (190). [End Page 172]
Indicative of this supposed new energy are the writers, visual artists, chefs, craft beer makers, and musicians who are enlivening the cultural scene in Rust Belt cities. An...