What holds the Rust Belt back, perhaps necessarily and inevitably, isn’t really the challenge of clearing brownfields and attracting new firms and residents. It is the challenge of history and culture that frames how one can imagine the future. Rust Belt chic is hip, to be sure, but it’s also all we’ve got, for now. Can you imagine a broadcast of Monday Night Football in Pittsburgh that does not feature video of steelmaking? Yet no steel is made in the City of Pittsburgh today, and only a modest amount of steel comes out of the region as a whole — nearly all of it specialty steel, not the giant pieces that framed bridges and skyscrapers. Who knows what Pittsburgh might become, even if it might become anything more than it is right now. But Pittsburgh has to find a way to put steel in its place, metaphorically speaking. To deal with places like Braddock without their becoming simply Steel Valley comeback stories.
Mike's concern applies equally well to the Chrysler ad I obsessed over last week. That is Detroit's "comeback story". How the ad resonated is the Rust Belt's comeback story. We pin our hopes on the revival of manufacturing. That America will, once again, make things.
I don't understand Rust Belt Chic in those terms. Nostalgia is part of it. It's also a matter of pride. Mostly, Rust Belt Chic is the possibility of the urban frontier. We are reinventing cities and developing a new economic paradigm. The future of American cosmopolitanism is in the parochial Rust Belt. It's more blank canvass than tired cliché.
Rust Belt Chic reminds me of grunge music and the emergence of Seattle as a hipster destination. The cauldron for that angst was the collapse of airplane manufacturing and the struggles of the timber industry. A commenter over at The Urbanophile touched on the subject in a critique of my characterization of Portland:
Rust-belters in many ways should view the Rose City (and the Beaver State) as a beacon of hope–Oregon had one of its dominant industry (timber) utterly demolished two-and-a-half decades ago, and has (somewhat) successfully reinvented itself.
Both Seattle and Portland provide examples of how Rust Belt Chic doesn't have to drag down Pittsburgh's future. I lived in Olympia, Washington during the early 1990s. The natives were not thrilled with the influx of outsiders. Grunge was considered local music. I associated it with lumber towns such as Hoquiam. Kurt Cobain is from neighboring Aberdeen. You might have called his look "Lumberjack Chic". All of the above was neither here nor there concerning Seattle's boom or most livable Bremerton (1990).
There is even a Seahawks Nation, which ties together a large region with a certain blue-collar ethos:
The obvious joke here is that Alaskans traditionally have been behind a pair of dog teams—the ones in the Iditarod and the Seahawks.Matt Hasselbeck has the facts. And he sounds eager to clue in the rest of the United States that there really is, believe it or not, a Seahawks Nation. And to let you know how much territory this covers, above and beyond our 48 contiguous states.He wants you to appreciate, for example, that the Seahawks also own the state of Oregon. That they traditionally have a big scrimmage in Portland for all of those lumberjacks and Nike employees there whose only contact with pro football is a John Madden video game.
Seattle is a great foil for Rust Belt Chic Pittsburgh. Today's post actually concerns cuisine and the culinary backwater in Southwestern PA:
Sushi.Sushi and Pittsburgh.Really, based on everything else, the two make for strange bedfellows. Spend enough Internet search time tracking the connection of those terms, and you'll find the story from 1997, when then-Steelers linebacker Chad Brown fled in free agency to Seattle. His wife complained shortly thereafter to the media that Pittsburgh lacked the high-end culinary distinctions they looked for in a city. Like -- wait for it ... wait for it -- sushi.
Pittsburgh doesn't pass the sushi test. Pittsburgh doesn't pass the Zagats test. But Pittsburgh has something better. Something Rust Belt Chic:
Making prosciutto is the very old art of transforming a fresh leg of pork, well rubbed with salt, then hung in the air for many months to lose moisture, ferment a bit and gain flavor, into a revered ham with the texture of a silk tie and a complex aroma. It is a skill perfected in Italy's midsection, in the city of Parma.The art also is a source of pride in Pittsburgh at Parma Sausage. Company founder Luigi Spinabella, 83, who was born near Parma, learned from his father to cure pork in this time-intensive way.Two decades ago he got seriously into prosciutto-making.Adding prosciutto to the store's popular lineup of sausages and cured pork products was a daring move in Western Pennsylvania in the 1990s. High-quality domestic prosciutto was almost unheard of. Few besides Italians and foodies had learned to savor the funky fragrance of the paper-thin sliced ham.
Chad Brown and his wife were too unsophisticated to appreciate such cuisine. Local delicacies are found in unorthodox (or, perhaps I should write "Orthodox") places such as churches or garages:
Pittsburgh Italians take this mystical rite in stride. This may be because so many have a “garage prosciutto” hanging in their suburban homes.One such is Giuseppe DiBattista, 78, father of Vivo chef/owner Sam DiBattista.“My parents’ generation arrived with what I call ‘World War II thrift,’ Sam says. They knew how to keep food without refrigeration by canning, drying, pickling, fermenting.” They were closer to their meat sources too. Sam remembers classmates coming home after school, “appalled to discover a bunch of dead rabbits hanging in the garage, the ones they’d been playing with the afternoon before.”
Note the history, the sense of pride. That's Rust Belt Chic and I don't see how it would hold the region back as outsiders learn to appreciate the same world Anthony Bourdain is making famous on his show "No Reservations". Go ahead and move to Seattle for the sushi. That city could use a few more people looking to buy a home. But come to Pittsburgh for the prosciutto. Wash it down with a Duquesne Pilsener, a fine example of looking forward through the past.