Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rust Belt Chic Poland

Last year, I tried to define Rust Belt Chic for The Cleveland Review. One example I used is the ironic nostalgic attachment to the Soviet era milk bars in Poland. Rust Belt Chic as a cultural trend is coming of age. I've been planning a blog post about the cutting edge in Pittsburgh. After reading the New York Times today, I need to write a grant so I can return to Poland and see how the experts do it:

Today, Poles have come full circle and are feeling a lot more confident, embracing their traditions rather than rushing to welcome the latest foreign trends.

This standing-room-only bar, Pijalnia Wodki i Piwa (which translates as Drinking Room for Vodka and Beer) opened in January and is just one of a new breed of watering holes sprouting all over Warsaw that speak to this resurgent pride. Known as zakaskas bars, these new establishments try to recreate the Soviet-era ambience, with intentionally shabby d├ęcor, little or no furniture and cheap offerings. ...

... “I didn’t want a fussy place,” said Iwona Sumka, 44, who owns three zakaskas bistros in Warsaw. “I wanted something even a bit ugly, where one wouldn’t feel the need to show off.”

Miedzy Wodka a Zakaska (Between Vodka and Appetizer), which she opened in October, is furnished modestly, with simple plastic chairs, candlesticks on the smudged gray walls and plywood tables. Mrs. Sumka fondly recalled the Communist-era cafeterias, where older women came to eat ice cream, far from the judgmental stares of strangers or prying neighbors.

“I wanted to create a place where elegant ladies could come and not feel embarrassed about having a couple of shots of vodka,” she said with determination.

Like the Poles, Rust Belt residents are becoming more confident. Buffalo has some work to do. I think Baltimore's a lost cause. But other shrinking cities, such as St. Louis, get it.

For me, Youngstown will always be the place where I first understood Rust Belt Chic. Zakaskas bars and bistros found there are not reproductions. They are the last of a dying breed of blue collar drinking holes and working class feeding troughs from the days of the Iron Belt (as opposed to the days of the Iron Curtain). That's the portal to the dark days of my childhood in Erie, PA during the 1970s. I love it. I love Youngstown.

All that is foreign or Sun Belt or boomtown is not wonderful. Rust Belt refugees now know this to be true. Rust Belt Chic is why you choose Pittsburgh over Portland. It's why I would pick Warsaw over Paris, Berlin instead of New York or London.

Don't try to be the next Austin or Silicon Valley. Find your local version of a bar mleczny and start redeveloping your community there. Rust Belt babushkas are looking for a place to hang out and eat ice cream.

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