Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Rust Belt Chic Is Fatal

Does civic pride matter? Does it affect economic development? Those two questions still linger in my mind after reading about the burgeoning Rust Belt rap scene:

Now the reasons rap is overlooked as a legitimate Rust Belt renaissance tool are numerous and cannot be fully digested here. Lets just say that images of rhyming young black (and increasingly white) men with tattoos and whatever have not been traditionally associated with the health of a city identity.

This is unfortunate. For what is a reality in the most real of American conditions is a generation less ashamed about the decline of their industrial society than they are proud that what has grown from the rust is a resilience-driven honesty captured in the raw beauty of the region’s emerging creations. And rap is becoming an increasingly important part of this output, and the nation is listening.

Richey Piiparinen sees a strong link between Rust Belt renaissance and a healthy city identity. Rust Belt cities do seem afflicted with low self esteem. Hence the inability to embrace Rust Belt Chic. We're aren't any near as great as emerald cities such as Portland.

At the other end of the pendulum swing is too much civic pride. Pittsburgh is fine. Nothing is wrong. Life here is good enough. No one aspires to greatness. Rust Belt cities do seem afflicted with hubris or, at least, complacency.

Rust Belt Chic is enduring its "so what?" moment. Existential crisis in Buffalo:

City’s have distinctive flavors and cultures, even our over-homogenized America, and I find watching Buffalo transform itself an endlessly fascinating exercise. It’s messy, it’s argumentative, and the process is without rules, standards or easily identifiable goal posts; perhaps a reason this conference, as a distinct measurable event, drew so much interest. How do you remake a city? Who gets to decide what a city becomes? Pittsburgh is regularly lauded for transforming from a steel town into the first Eds & Meds Rust Belt success. Who got to decide Pittsburgh was throwing in with its hospitals and universities, and not another industry? Who sets the agenda?

Buffalo certainly used to be a hard working manufacturing mecca, and we still do make a lot of stuff. But white collar jobs have out numbered blue collar ones around here for quite a while, and that self-image is hard to shake. As we wallow in past identities, former glories, and a wishy washy future, how did architecture stick all the way down to our cab drivers? There have been other efforts, other successes, that could have captured our imaginations. [Dabkowski wants Buffalo to be known as a Rust Belt-chic funky arts town]. We have our own constantly under-appreciated Eds & Meds effort, one that has generated far more economic development than architectural tourism, but is largely overlooked in plain sight. Newell Nussbaumer has tried to get the College Town label to stick on Buffalo, but some student housing ventures failed to take off, his site morphed into Navigetter, and no matter how correct the statistics (70K+ total students), unfortunately the vibe never resonated.

Emphasis added. How can Buffalo cash in on its greatest Rust Belt Chic asset? People develop, not places. Apparently, no one has figured out how this wonderful architecture can develop people. Rust Belt Chic Buffalo is nostalgia. Can nostalgia fuel economic development?

The answer to that question is a resounding no. Via the editor-in-chief of The Cleveland Review, nostalgia as an anecdote for homesickness:

But the problem with homesickness isn’t just that it impedes ambition; it’s that the object of longing, home, is not as fixed as one might think. After the Civil War, for instance, “the transcontinental railroad and steam-powered ocean liners,” Matt writes, “made it easier to return to a physical home and thus, at least theoretically, easier to assuage homesickness. Upon traveling back, however, they found they had not arrived, and never could, for the same technologies that had brought them home had also disrupted traditional ways of life.” The schedules and even the clocks of hometowns had been recalibrated to train schedules and standard time; certain commodities, like ice, reshaped the diet. Traveling back revealed that “home” had been vanquished by time, and a word necessarily arose to define this longing for what was lost: nostalgia.

While homesickness was suppressed in America, nostalgia was allowed to flourish. In 1899 New Hampshire figured out a way to profit off of it, and began throwing annual “Old Home Weeks.” These festivals, wherein the town might display old photographs and antiquated town artifacts while concessionaires in old-timey clothes served up regional specialties, were conceived of as reunions, meant to draw former residents back to their birthplaces. By 1903, these weeks were attracting half a million people, and today quite a few New England towns still throw them—such as Freedom, New Hampshire, which hosts one every August. Neither early El Granada nor my El Granada of the 1980s and 1990s had enough of a community to justify an antiquarian street fair. But America’s comparative acceptance—embrace, even—of nostalgia makes sense to me. It’s safer than homesickness because it’s neutered; it can’t be realized and won’t get in the way of work; it asks you to long only for something that no longer exists.

While nostalgia may allow the wayward to remain productive, it can stifle development in the hometown. Buffalo's architectural treasures are holding the city back. Rust Belt Chic impedes ambition.

Brownfields are greener elsewhere in the Rust Belt. Nostalgia takes on a different hue when you adopt a city. I'm not from Pittsburgh. I chose the city. Pittsburgh is exotic, not stiflingly parochial. I am inspired by Rust Belt Chic Pittsburgh. Rust Belt Chic need not be fatal if you can stay away from your hometown.

No comments: