Thursday, July 08, 2010

J’Adore Rust Belt Chic

Windsor (Ontario) has embraced Aaron Renn's love letter to Buffalo. In this case, the following passage seems to strongly resonate with the natives of that region:

Where once moving to one of these cities would have been likened to getting exiled to Siberia, it’s now shocking how little you actually give up. And for every high-end boutique or black tie gala you miss, you get something back in low-cost and easy living. The talent pool may be shallower, but it’s a lot more connected.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still a long and hard journey ahead. And not every place is going to make it, particularly among cities without the minimum scale. We have to face that reality. But more of them will revive than people think.

That’s because a new generation of urbanists believes in these cities again. These people aren’t bitter, burdened by the memories of yesteryear and all the goodness that was lost. The city to them isn’t the place with the downtown department store their mother used to take them to in white gloves for tea. It isn’t the place full of good manufacturing jobs with lifetime middle class employment for those without college degrees. The city isn’t a faded nostalgia or a longing for an imagined past. Most of them are young and never knew that world.

No, this new generation of urbanists sees these cities with fresh eyes. They see the decay, yes, but also the opportunity—and the possibilities for the present and future. To them this is Rust Belt Chic. It’s the place artists can dream of owning a house. Where they can live in a place with a bit of an authentic edge and real character. Where people can indulge their passion for renovating old architecture without a seven-figure budget. Where they have a chance to make a difference—to be a producer, not just a consumer of urban life, and a new urban future. Above all, these people, natives or newcomers, have a deep and abiding passion and love for the place they’ve chosen—yes, chosen—to live.

To me, Rust Belt Chic is an ethos that people from this part of the world deeply understand. I recognize that the label has negative connotations. The critique is Neo-Marxist. Celebration of Rust Belt Chic supports class division, the further exploitation of the less fortunate. I can imagine Neil Smith's head exploding as he warily eyes another wave of gentrification.

The battleground between the good and evil of Rust Belt Chic can be found in Braddock (PA). CBS News nicely summed up the tension:

[Mayor John Fetterman's] commitment has attracted a small but growing list of urban pioneers, including a company that turns vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel, and a group from Brooklyn transforming another old church into a new art center . . . a decision that has mystified residents.

"What do they think about your moving here?" Glor asked artist Ruthie Stringer.

"I think some of them think we're crazy," she replied.

Stringer admits it has not been easy, but she's glad she came to Braddock. "It has been extremely challenging," she said, "but that's what makes it exciting." ...

... "Him and I don't see eye to eye," [Council President Jesse Brown] said.

Brown says Fetterman cares more about his own image than the town, and that he's overstepping his authority.

"For some reason he's come to Braddock, which is a predominantly Afro-American community, that he seem to want to be the white savior for this community, and I just feel different," Brown said.

Thanks to the Levi Strauss campaign, Braddock will be the face of Rust Belt Chic. The commodification of the urban frontier is blatant, almost shameless. Yet the idea of Braddock as a place of boundless opportunity is inspiring. As a Rust Belt refugee, it speaks to me. I want to be a part of the revitalization, not buy jeans.

Rust Belt Chic is the common currency between me and the folks who love Windsor or Buffalo or Youngstown or Braddock. It's my home and I don't care what Neil Smith thinks. J'adore Rust Belt Chic.


John Morris said...

Jim, seriously it's time you moved here.

It is exciting on lots of levels. I don't know your situation well, but I doubt you could not find a fairly decent job and make out on average.

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for the encouragement. I've read with great interest your burgeoning enthusiasm about the scene taking root in Pittsburgh. I can feel the excitement all the way here in Colorado.

I'm still trying to figure out a way to move to Pittsburgh. I think it will take 2 or 3 years before I can make it work.