Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rust Belt Rebranding

If you listen to the podcast about the GLUE conference in Buffalo, you will gain an appreciation of how young adults plan to revitalize their cities. The Rust Belt is getting a long overdue makeover and GLUE will help get the good word out. I have no doubt that shrinking cities suffer from an image problem. Erie is aggressively battling inaccurate perceptions. A host of cities in the Great Lakes mega-region are desperately trying to get on national and global mental maps as worthwhile destinations.

The Rust Belt brand is considered to be a curse, but I think places such as Pittsburgh can use popular imagination to considerable advantage. The children of the postindustrial heartland share a powerful landscape nostalgia that informs a cultural fabric worth celebrating. I remember how strongly a Charles Burchfield exhibit in Washington, DC resonated with me. His paintings capture the dreamworld of my childhood.

Many of us have left our hometowns, but we are remaking the world with the same vision that binds our fates together. We see our new surroundings in a certain way, something quite apparent when you happen to run into another Rust Belt expatriate. Our oeuvre is beginning to make an impression:

“This year, my Advanced Fiction Writing students are reading Jim Daniels and Sebastian Barry,” said [Mick Cochrane, a novelist, English professor and writer-in-residence at Canisius]. “We have a course in Native American History and Culture, and Heid Erdrich will be with them. There are guys in the management department who are using Jim Daniels’ poetry because he writes about blue-collar work and the auto industry, where his dad worked in Detroit. So it’s multidisciplinary.”

Cochrane is enthusiastic about Daniels, whom he calls “kind of a Rust-Belt writer — he grew up in Detroit, he lives in Pittsburgh, he’s anthologized in a lot of books devoted to work and blue-collar literature.”

In the 1980s, Daniels visited Buffalo to judge a Labor and Literature contest open to union members, Cochrane said. “He’s very much got the Great Lakes sensibility. His poems are very immediate, they don’t need footnotes, they’re very accessible, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. to understand them.”

Daniels is mainly a poet but has also published “Mr. Pleasant,” a short-story collection, and has written screenplays for two independent films, “No Pets” and “Dumpster,” which he also produced. “It’s interesting, from students’ perspectives, to see a guy who does different kinds of writing,” said Cochrane.

As shrinking city boosters know, the landscapes of our memory are disappearing and help fuel our irrational attachment to relics of the industrial economy. Instead of trying to sweep these traditions under the rug and putting only the latest developments on display, I recommend a mega-regional historical project to capture the fading Rust Belt lifestyle.

I've been reading "The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War." The book wonderfully captures the art of building a nation. One way to usher in a new entity is to catalog a common historical geography. This messy job often reveals an overwhelming diversity, but the act of constructing a grand narrative of what a place is and has been changed the way the world viewed France. I can't think of a better way to advertise how much a region has changed than to rush around in an attempt to fix an ephemeral way of life before these actors leave the stage.

A good start would be a tome about Rust Belt urban politics.

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