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Canadian Review of American Srud1es/Reuuecmzadiettned'etudesamim:.aines Volume 27, Number 1, 1997, pp. 43-75 The Making of the "RustBelt" m the Minds of North Americans, 1969-1984 Steven High 43 Roger & Me, Michael Moore's irreverent 1989 film documentary about corporate greed and the hollowness of the American Dream, propelled Flint, Michigan into the North American limelight. The fall of Moore's home town was a decidedly sharp one. To the upbeat music of the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice," Moore showed his audience what Flint had becomea town of abandoned homes, vacant lots, boarded businesses, and empty streets. Interspersed between these scenes of urban decay were newspaper headlines announcing the closure of one automotive plant after another. Moore's technique of juxtaposing contrasting images led to a devastating indictment of General Motors. The most damning example occurred at the end of the film when Moore overlaid G. M. Chairman Roger Smith's Christmas message of human fellowship with visual images of a family being evicted on Christmas eve. While a choir sang "You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry," the family's meagre possessions were piled onto the curbside ; even the Christmas tree was added to the pile. The film's impact owed not only to the creativity of Michael Moore, but also to the fact that North Americans were already primed to interpret, in terms of decline, the history of Flint, and other industrial dties in the Great Lakes region. Had Moore made such a negative film about a city-in what was then known as the "industrial heartland"-at the outset of the 1969 recession, he would have 44 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue canadienned'etudes americaines been dismissed as an alarmist. By the 1980s, however, North Americans had become used to thinking pessimistically about the Great Lakes region. As the industrial heartland transmuted into the "Rust Belt" in the minds of Canadians and Americans, the fate of its cities became the ideal targets for black humour. 1 The ambiguity surrounding the meaning of region is largely due to the many purposes it has been asked to perform by North American scholars. "Its content will vary with the purposes and standards of those using the concept," cautioned Frederick G. Luebke (1984, 19). While scholars in the United States, under the influence of Frederick Jackson Turner, honoured the westward moving frontier as the essence of American identity, their Canadian counterparts were drawn instead to the metropolitan theories of J.M. S. Careless, Donald Creighton, and others. Even though these two fundamentally different national mythologies still shape how North Americans view themselves, a new cultural conception of region emerged in the scholarship of the 1970s. The appearance of the "new cultural region" coincided, in Luebke's mind, with a new emphasis on pluralism. Region became increasingly seen as a complex and fluid mental construction, rather than an objective spatial entity (Westfall 1980, 11). Chad Gaffield, for example, has shown that regionalism is a mind set.2 As such, the criteria upon which regional identity is based changed from one point in time to the next (Gaffield 1991, 69-70). According to R. Douglas Francis, new regional images evolved from and eventually supplanted previous ones (1989, xvii). Despite the multiplicity of images projected onto a spatial area at any one time, Francis has argued that historians can ascertain the prevailing image of a region. The identification of prevailing regional identities did not go far enough for British geographer Peter Jackson; he recently suggested that representation is a field of political contestation and negotiation because there is a plurality of cultures (1989, 1). The historian interested in the "making of the Rust Belt" must therefore go beyond the prevailing image and study the interaction of competing regional identities. The focus of this paper is the transformation of the image of the Great Lakes basin-from industrial heartland to Rust Belt-in the minds of North Americans. American geographer Wilbur Zelinsky defined these so-called Steven High I 4S vernacular regions, or popular regional identities, as shared spontaneous images of territorial reality represented by ordinary people (1980, 1). The mental process in which people comprehend the world...


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