Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Johnny Knoxville Regional Cluster

Johnny Knoxville should have gone to Youngstown, not Detroit. His film is a celebration of Rust Belt Chic, the artistic side of ruin porn. The cultural vanguard for this movement is not living in Detroit or Buffalo. Hip dying cities are taking their cues from places such as Braddock. There exists a Rust Belt Chic heartland and it defines one of the most potent regional innovation clusters in the world.

The core of the Industrial Heartland (i.e. Rust Belt) is the metals region outlined on this map. Today, some call this corridor the TechBelt. This geography can also be described in cultural terms. Youngstown photographer Tony Nicholas explains in an interview with Metro Monthly:

Metro Monthly: There’s a small group of people using “Rust Belt” as a brand. I was wondering what the thinking was behind that and are all these groups of people affiliated?

Nicholas: It’s an identifiable term that can be used to group a lot of different things together. . . . I’ve worked on shows with Daniel Horne. He’s a local sculptor and he started Artists of the Rust Belt Festivals at the B&O Station. . . . It’s a marketable term that people can relate to. This is where we’re from and this is who we are.

Metro Monthly: The thing that’s interesting about it is that you’re taking [and using] something that has been – for about 25 or so years – a pejorative way to describe the region. Everyone knows what Rust Belt means, but your group has redefined it in a way where you’re using the recognition that Rust Belt has but really creating a new identity for it.

Nicholas: Absolutely. That’s part of it. That’s part of the motivation – to show people that we are, in a sense, the Rust Belt. We are from here. This is who we are. But, at the same time, we’re trying to change people’s perceptions, their attitudes about the area that has evolved so much, and is always evolving to a more positive light. To show people. . . . You don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t come to these [art] shows and see what’s going on. I’m trying to use this as a tool to show people that this is not just what you read 20 years ago. Youngstown is a different place. There’s a group of people here that choose to be here and they live their lives in a really interesting way and they make art that speaks about the area in more ways than I can even explain. ...

... Metro Monthly: You said that when you met someone it led to you meeting maybe five more people. I have a few questions. How many portraits do you plan on doing and what is the area that you’ll cover geographically? How far out do you consider the Rust Belt to be?

Nicholas: Well, I try not to be too limited because it can be a vast area. . . . But, at this point, it seems that most are in the Mahoning Valley, the Youngstown area. Jenn Cole lives in Liberty. That’s probably the furthest north I’ve gone, actually. But if you live from here to almost to Cleveland and to Pittsburgh – in-between that. To me, that’s the heart of the Rust Belt. It [the project] has become such a big thing already. . . . I don’t want to say I’ll limit how many I will shoot. It’s more who’s willing to let me photograph. . . . The more the merrier, is what I say. I had to turn away a few musicians who wanted to do it. I’m happy to photograph them, but this has got to be more or less the visual artists. I just had to narrow the focus. It’s just too vast already.

That conversation is from early August. I've been waiting for the right time to plop that exchange, as well as the Rust_Rococo show, in the middle of a blog post. These artists are appropriating the term "Rust Belt" and reinterpreting the surrounding landscape:

Their work unearths the lush, the curvaceous, the vibrant, the smooth, the solid, and the sexual from apparent barrenness. They indulge. What these artists create is a new aesthetic of abandon. Rejecting the macabre pantomime of aimless nostalgia and refusing to be overcome by the heavy shadow of memory and doubt, these artists invigorate and reconquer how we understand our wasted landscape. By doing so, they expose how our rust can empower, not suffocate, our future.

Jimmy Hagan and Leslie Cusano

That's a radically different approach than the more common refrain, "Our hometown is no longer the Rust Belt. We are not a dying city. Come here and be surprised by what you find."

Detroit is keen to show the world what's just outside the frame of the ruin porn shot. The goal is to dispel the negative place-branding, shatter the myth of an empty city with no hope. Detroit isn't what you think it is. Perhaps Detroit is like Beirut. The past devastation is still too recent.

The perspective on Rust Belt decay as a point of pride is unique to the TechBelt. Here we have a discernible region that will readily lend itself to cluster-based economic development:

To begin with, the cluster framework reveals and emphasizes the regional nature of the economy. Until recently, very little national or state economic thinking recognized the centrality to the nation’s economic outcomes of its regional economies.57 Instead, attention has been focused on either the macroperformance of the nation or on the fortunes of individual industries or firms. However, because physical proximity and locally bounded exchanges matter so much to their workings, clusters highlight the importance of geography, space, and regions in the structure of the national economy. Clusters, in that sense, make unavoidable the fact that locations matter. And the truth that flows from that recognition is critical: As Michael Porter writes, “There is no national economy…but a series of regional economies that trade with each other and the rest of the world.”

Not only do we have to identify a pre-existing cluster to leverage; we must locate a functioning region. This is where economic geography overlaps with cultural geography. The cluster initiative is complicated by the legacy of political geography (e.g. states as containers of power). The strong identity of the Rust Belt Chic heartland indicates to me that these barriers can be overcome. Artists are drawing a map that economic development professionals should use.


The Urbanophile said...

Youngstown doesn't have the power of brand Detroit.

Jim Russell said...


I agree. Neither does Pittsburgh, for that matter. Your post about Detroit's brand is excellent. Will Detroit listen?