Saturday, June 19, 2010

Authentic Rust Belt

Defining the Rust Belt is more difficult than you think. Every region has cities and towns that fit the bill. There's a discernible manufacturing ethos. Working hard to make things is highly valued. America's Industrial Heartland would like to claim that distinction. I'm skeptical. If you buy that cultural argument, then Los Angeles is a Rust Belt city.

Distill the Rust Belt essence and you will be drinking Appalachia. This post is a confession that I've come around to Mike Madison's line of thinking. Pittsburgh is uniquely parochial:

I'm not much of a believer in the influence of individual disposition or ideology, and I'm inclined to accept the role of culture. Not everyone is. The persistence of cultural types associated with the original Appalachian pioneers has been widely noted, including previously on this, and not by me -- rather, by local descendants of those original communities. Make of that what you will.

While I certainly agree that Pittsburgh suffers from a profound lack of in-migration, I don't think that righting its demographic imbalance is alone the key to prosperity. I do think that local hostility to outside influences is markedly more pronounced than similar attitudes in Minneapolis, or Providence, or Louisville, Denver, or St. Louis, to pick three cities more or less at random, and that the difference makes in-migration far more problematic as a Pittsburgh solution. "You're not one of us" is a nearly universal human emotion, but its impact depends on the existence of an "us." Pittsburgh is one of the most powerful and enduring "us"-es in the U.S.

How parochial is your community? That's the measure of authentic Rust Belt Chic. Mike referenced an article in the New Yorker that aptly marks the Rust Belt core:

Virginia Democrats knew, however, that, impressive as Obama’s primary victory was, the most notable result from that day’s voting might have come in the only district he lost—the Virginia ninth, which includes Lebanon. The rout there—by thirty-two points—had troubling implications for Obama’s chances in Virginia as a whole, and beyond. The southwestern region, rising from the Roanoke Valley up to the Appalachian Plateau, is a place of small farms, coal mines, and chronic economic hard times. It was settled in the eighteenth century by Scots-Irish Calvinists who fled Anglican-dominated Ulster and, eventually, came to that portion of Virginia which the planter aristocracy didn’t want. Their descendants live in small hill towns that are nearer, in mileage and in spirit, to the old factory town of Ironton, Ohio, than to the glass office towers of northern Virginia. Three weeks after the Virginia primary, the mostly white, working-class voters of southern Ohio, a significant portion of them of Scots-Irish descent, helped deliver that state to Hillary Clinton. In the next weeks, their kin did the same in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, and Kentucky. It became clear that if Obama hoped to win in November he would probably have to overcome his Appalachia problem.

Many people think that the Midwest is synonymous with the Rust Belt. That's mistaken. To the extent that Detroit is a Rust Belt city is thanks to migrants from Appalachia. Authenticity is found in the political geography. How Balkanized is your city?

This moment of clarity is brought to you by moonshine. Authentic moonshine:

In 1800, there were 14,000 distilleries in America. Over the course of the Nineteenth Century, that industry experienced a natural consolidation -- with better transportation, bigger cities, bigger commerce, it was only natural that distilling would commercialize. Still, in 1900, there were about 1,000 distilleries. After prohibition, and for the next 60 years or so, there were about a dozen. Small distilleries are a part of the American landscape that vanished. They are coming back. We’ve got about 200 now, and to me they speak to a historical authenticity. They make something with care, they use local products, and they sell to people with whom they have a connection. That’s authentic.

Among the moonshiners, the illegal distillers, there is a group of people who work very hard to carry on the mountain traditions and to make whiskey in what I’ve come to think of as the “bluegrass” way. They are few, but they are up there in the hills, making liquor the way that it’s always been made. Hats off to them.

Of course, there’s nothing inauthentic about the new, foodie, explorations of the crazy folks haunting the farmer’s market for overripe fruit. That’s new, but new can be authentic, too.

America's cradle of illicit whiskey is the true Rust Belt. The Great Lakes really has little to do with Rust Belt ontology. Concerning Michigan, remember "Roger and Me"? Flint Rabbit. Or, try Ypsitucky. The images are all Appalachia. Cultural imports. What outsiders hate the most about shrinking cities.

Backwards Nation is also home to Slow Food. Rust Belt Chic is one part nostalgia (see ModCloth) and another part hyperlocal (i.e. parochial). Nomadic Generation Y has a taste for place. Hence a book about white dog and the anti-globalization ethos. What's the flavor of Suburban Chic?

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