Tuesday, August 30, 2011

America's Urban Frontier

But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. - Mark Twain, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

That sentence is burned into my mind as emblematic of the American frontier literary tradition. Our culture can be distilled down to the move to improve. How the geography of the American frontier changes over time is one of my major preoccupations. Where is the "territory" today?

The answer to that question is the Rust Belt. An interview with writer Colby Buzzell:

Buzzell returns this month with Lost in America: A Dead End Journey, an account of his cross-country voyage in a problematic 1965 Mercury Comet. Although the book began as an effort to retrace Jack Kerouac's trip from On the Road, Buzzell flipped the assignment on its head by driving from the West Coast into America's midsection.

We talked to Buzzell about his new book, the role of music in his writing, and how he found hope for America's recovery in unexpected places - namely, Detroit.

Music seems to be a pretty big part of your writing.

My first book was like Black Flag, like a punk record. I never went to college and I never studied to be a writer, so it's kind of like these punk musicians who played by ear, where it's so bad it might sound good.

[Lost in America] is more like my post-punk record, like the Faith album by The Cure. It's kind of a dark picture of America with all the stuff going on in the economy and in my life.

You mention music in My War a lot, but in the new book there's no soundtrack for your trip. You're driving around America in a car and you've got nothing, not even a tape deck.

I just wanted to be alone with my thoughts. I would play music in my head, as weird as that sounds. When I went to Detroit, the first song that came to mind was Slayer, the lyrics to [South of Heaven], "Before you see the light you must die."

I interpret "before you see the light you must die" as a contemporary version of "I reckon I got to light out for the territory". To me that's Rust Belt literature, On the Road in reverse.

The steel collapse decimated Pittsburgh and its region, taking with it nearly 1 out of every 10 jobs there. Entire towns surrounding the city became obsolete. But it is because of that failure, that absolute bottoming-out, that Pittsburgh has been able to cast aside its past and emerge as a unique showcase of what a small, bustling, connected American city can eventually become. The example of Pittsburgh is to fail on the failures and invest in the attributes- granted, of which the 'Burgh had many, in its beautiful architecture, old establishment money, intact communities and ethnic organizations, and cultural trusts and universities- that a place already has. It is a tale not so much for cities facing similar problems to the Pittsburgh of 30 years past, as it is for the country as a whole in this stage of national transmogrification.

Pittsburgh's transmogrification is now a meme. Detroit wants to follow in the Steel City's footsteps and embrace its core identity. You don't want to be the next Silicon Valley or Austin. That's the geography of yesterday's frontier.

There's also the creeping inferiority complex that runs through Chicago. Chicagoans are often a little too eager to defend their city against New York or Los Angeles. Stop it, Chicago! You're trying too hard. Just do you, girl. Just do you. (Look to Pittsburgh for a lesson on how to do this beautifully.)

Emphasis added. Rust Belt Chic is more than a cultural fad. It is a theory of economic development. Here, in America's urban frontier, we are all Braddock. Huck Finn is heading to Corning, NY. I'm not the only one looking at our country through this lens.

1 comment:

BrianTH said...

I keep thinking the cultural side of the Rust Belt Chic coin could be labeled "authenticity", and the economic side could be labeled "sustainability".