Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rust Belt Chic Pittsburgh

Thanks to this article in Governing, the Rust Belt Chic trend is enjoying increased visibility. That's not necessarily good news. Mike Madison explores the downside:

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).

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 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.


Paul Hertneky said...

Jim, you're getting to the core of culinary distinction still alive in the Rust Belt (and other places, to be fair) -- specialties made at home or in church kitchens. Every great cook knows he or she can usually eat better at home than in a restaurant. And in the Burgh or Cleveland or Detroit, the best prosciutto, sopressata, pierogies, kibbe, venison stew, or smoked salmon are not bought and sold; they are given and served by someone you've known all your life or someone who just happened to take a shine to you ten minutes ago.

The hottest and one of the most sensible food trends in America is seen in the "locavore" movement. Go into any bar in Carnegie or Ambridge, and you'll find pierogies made by hand from a church down the street. Hit a spaghetti supper in Cleveland and you'll find peerless Gallucci Bros. sausages.

But what you won't find in any of these places is somebody filling out a Zagat survey.

Nancy Thompson said...

This post is right on target, as usual. Our cities need to stop chasing after the latest Big Thing once and for all, and go looking in living rooms, kitchens, garages, and conversations for their own unique cultures, histories, customs, and kitsch.

Asset based community development wins (almost) every time. Good story.

Steve said...

Sushi is everywhere now. I can't swing a dead cat without hitting a sushi joint wherever in the US I am. And most of it while decent sushi isn't really interesting anymore. For me sushi has the problem of "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." I'm more interested in the unique "proscuitto" now.

With the local food movement that's popular now, the "proscuitto" should be on the rise now.

(or, perhaps I should write "Orthodox")

This got me thinking about a separate question. Has everything we have seen about "rust belt chic" affected religion as well? One thing I have noticed from friends and aquiantances is interest in the Orthodox church. I know a couple of people who have converted to Orthodox churches. Just a few years ago I knew no one that was more than remotely aware of the Orthodox church.

The plural anecdote is not data so I'm not sure this means anything. And I'm hesitant to say that anything religious is a part of "rust belt chic" but the timing is a bit more than a coincidence. After all the Orthodox church has its biggest presence in the rust belt.