Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rust Belt's Grandchildren

A few weeks ago, I had a brief exchange with Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) about the urban frontier meme. I was referencing his post about Beirut and the attractive qualities of that city. Aaron likens Beirut to Detroit:

I read this and immediately thought of Detroit and other struggling cities. These places too fail on any conventional measure of urban success. That might make some believe they’re doomed to failure. And no doubt many places won’t make it. But Beirut shows that it’s possible to find something of success, and what’s more a draw, even in a place that’s been an actual war zone for much of the past three decades.

There are striking parallels between postwar Beirut and Rust Belt Chic urbanism. Watching Anthony Bourdain's two visits to Beirut served to confirm the connection. Is Beirut Rust Belt Chic?

Trying to answer that question demonstrates the fuzziness of the concept. I'm still struggling to work it out, falling back on the cliché that I know it when I see it. Considering Beirut and how the city is very different from, say, Detroit is a good way to move the conversation forward. An article about German identity suggests a distinction:

As a youth in the 1950s, the film director Volker Schlöndorff tried to hide his German origins by learning to speak unaccented French. This summer, his daughter painted German flags on her cheeks and joined crowds of thousands on the Kurfürstendamm, a historic avenue, waving their black, red and gold banners to celebrate the country’s World Cup victories.

Elena Schlöndorff confessed that she never watched her father’s Academy Award-winning adaptation of “The Tin Drum,” Günter Grass’s World War II epic, until a new director’s cut was released earlier this year. She had little interest in the Nazi era. “I don’t really feel touched by it,” said Ms. Schlöndorff, 18, with a teenage shrug. “In our generation, we’ve gotten past it.”

Twenty years after reunification, Germany has come to terms with itself in a way that the postwar generation proclaimed would never be possible and Ms. Schlöndorff’s post-Berlin Wall generation finds completely natural.

The shift is evident on the airwaves, where German songs are staging a comeback against the dominance of American pop, and in best sellers about Goethe and Schiller or in discovering Germany by foot, by car and by train from the Bavarian Alps to the old Hanseatic ports on the Baltic Sea.

The generation currently coming of age in Germany has a lot in common with similarly aged adults in the Rust Belt. The defining moments of history are far enough in the past not to burden a certain demographic with its gravity. Regional pride is reborn, old is new again. Beirut is at least a few decades from forgetting enough for nostalgia to take hold. Back in the Rust Belt:

The word “sacred” does invite a sort of reverence in poetry, yet I’m happy that this class has taken the term a bit further. With one of the exercises, Todd asked us to list (brainstorm) a group of sounds we associate with our own sacred places. However, last night when I did this, my list came out harsh — I heard grinding, chortling, huffing, scraping. In fact, when I reviewed many of my poems, the verbs seem sort of, well, rough. In fact, my natural landscapes that I hold sacred are rough — full of debris and wreckage and ruins. Fans of The Scrapper Poet know that I was born in the Rust Belt, grew up in the Rust Belt, and currently live, teach and write in the Rust Belt, so the beauty of corrosion is part of my life. I love barns that are decorated with faded letters: Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco, Treat Yourself to the Best. I love railroad yards with old boxcars. I love crumbling factories that are falling, slowly becoming part of the earth.

Beirut's landscape is rough, but not faded. People have firsthand experience with the devastation. Buildings recently bombed are not ruins. The ghosts hold people back instead of inspiring creativity.

The amount of forgetting necessary to invoke the urban frontier Rust Belt Chic is substantial. Last week, Justin Kownacki explained the critical dose:

When I was 18, I moved in with my grandfather. He was in his early ’80s, he still golfed 4 days a week, and he was always right (even when he was entirely wrong). Needless to say, we had some differing opinions, but we generally got along well.

As the neighborhood’s unofficial historian — mostly by virtue of being one of the few octogenarians with his wits about him — my grandfather took great pride in educating people about where things used to be, who used to live there and what life used to be like. At the time, I was partially fascinated (because no one else had that much information about our history) and partially frustrated (because any mention of the present day would invariably prompt an explanation about how some long-dead person, place or technology was better than whatever I’d just brought up).

Above all, my grandfather perpetually reminded me: “Never forget where you come from.”

I think what he meant was, “never forget that you’re from Poland.” But I’d already forgotten that, because I was born in America — and so was he. My grandfather was the youngest of eleven (if I’m remembering correctly), and his father had traveled to America from Poland, but the children were all born here.

When I think of “where I come from,” I think of Erie. I think of my family. I think of America. Rarely do I think of Poland. In fact, I’ve never been there. But I’m also part of a generation that isn’t afraid to not be there, and that wasn’t always the case.

Justin starts out his post telling his readers about Zabawa, a Polish festival held in his hometown of Erie. The Polish identity celebrated is complicated. Very complicated. The meaning of heritage changes with each generation. The Rust Belt Chic experience is divorced from the homeland, from Poland. The sacred space is Little Poland in Erie, not the country in Eastern Europe. Former ethnic divisions no longer matter, smoothing over the brutality of the immigrant experience. What's left is funky and entertainingly anachronistic, as well as strangely displaced.

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