Friday, September 03, 2010

So Not Rust Belt Chic: Baltimore

Pittsburgh, prepare to have your mind blown. Baltimore, the chickens have come home to roost. Generation Y loves Rust Belt Chic:

It is surely not as hard a slap in the face to Baltimore's sense of media identity as the makers of John Waters' "Hairspray" filming the movie version in Toronto. But now comes the official word from the producers of MTV's "Skins" that this American version of the Brit teen hit won't be filmed in Baltimore — nor will it even be set here. ...

... What makes this more maddening is that MTV did send the first 25 minutes of the pilot, and it is outstanding. It has an edge, texture and sense of authenticity that you will not find in any other teen drama on TV. The sex, drugs, wild partying and talk of suicide by some characters will trouble some adults, but it is the same formula that has made the series a huge success in the UK among young viewers – as well as a launching pad for new talent such as Dev Patel, who went from the UK version of "Skins" to starring in "Slumdog Millionaire," the independent film that won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Picture.

And the look of the pilot is so Baltimore. Call is Rust Belt chic. The imagery is urban with lots of bridges and underpasses made of aged concrete with huge bolts bleeding rust down the sides of ancient stones. Weedy lots, crisscrossing train tracks, bare-branch winter trees and lots of concrete. The neighborhood in which several members of the teen tribe at the center of this drama live is a dead ringer for the one I call home in Hamilton — except with warehouses. But we have those, too, in other parts of the city. The only thing missing in the Toronto setting are the rows upon rows of row houses, but otherwise, it could have been us.

"I think they were looking for something not so glamorous, a Pittsburgh kind of a look," says Charley Armstrong, a location manager for "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire."

Perhaps this should serve as a warning to all shrinking cities looking to shed their Rust Belt images. More about Baltimore's loss:

And so it ends — the short, unhappy love affair between Baltimore and MTV's "Skins."

But in hearing about Simon and Noble out in Africa acting as ambassadors for Baltimore, I couldn't help thinking about those who complained while "Homicide" and "The Wire" were on the air that the series presented a negative image of Baltimore to the nation and the world — even as the two series pumped tens of millions of dollars into the local economy.

Baltimore blew it, big time. You might recall that Baltimore whined about Anthony Bourdain's portrayal of the city on his show "No Reservations". Civic boosters would (still will) do anything to shed the Rust Belt image. That was a huge a mistake. Now Baltimore is nothing special, like every other city.

When I told friends and colleagues I was off to Pittsburgh for four days the most often response was, "Pittsburgh?"

Yes, Pittsburgh. While I've been to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo, Pittsburgh has always been off my radar. The city has always had a reputation as being down-in-the-dumps since it lost hundreds of thousands of jobs from the 1960s into the 1980s when steel mills and factories closed shop. While the population of the city has dwindled from 675,000 in 1950 to 311,000 in 2009, the city has reinvented itself as a bio-medical and education hub (luckily, the city has six universities all within walking distance of each other).

And I found that Pittsburgh shares a few similarities with Toronto, most notably the tile mosaics found at the steps of many stores. In Toronto, you can find similar works of craftsmanship along Queen, King, College, and Bloor streets (Spacing writer Dave LeBlanc wrote about the Toronto designs in our Fall 2007 issue). The designs I highlight from Pittsburgh can be found in the Southside Flats neighbourhood (which reminded very much of Bloor St. W. in the Annex).

That is to say, Rust Belt Chic is hot right now and Pittsburgh is the new urban It Girl. It could have been Baltimore. It still might be Detroit:

Another speaker at the opening session, celeb San Francisco architect Eric Corey Freed, who said he’s “been obsessed with sustainability for 20 years,” put his obsession on display in a wide-ranging, irreverent presentation using text, video and other images on a triptych of large screens. ...

... Freed suggests that in some ways Detroit has become a great laboratory to learn how to rebuild cities and communities in a more sustainable way. The median home price in Detroit, according to Freed, is an astonishingly low $5,737. “To give you a sense of perspective, you could buy over

100 houses in Detroit for the cost of one in San Francisco or L.A., which really kind of makes me sick, because I live in San Francisco,” he said. He mentions the phenomenon of “Rust Belt Chic,” in which artists move in and buy houses. “You can buy a whole city block for what you might pay for one house in other cities,” he said.

There is plenty of room for experimentation in Detroit, it seems. According to Freed, Detroit is a large city, with 139 square miles, about one-third of which is vacant. “Detroit is a chance to undo the mistakes of the past and to [create] a new urban paradigm for the 21st century,” Freed said.

Freed is expressing more ruin porn than Rust Rococo. However, the term "Rust Belt Chic" is turning up a lot these days. It represents urban renewal, opportunity, and cultural authenticity. But it is also a brand that no shrinking city (save Youngstown) seems willing to embrace. Time for Pittsburgh to step up and seize the moment. Don't be Baltimore.


Unknown said...

Great stuff, as usual. Just wanted to point you to a little
Rust Belt Chicness in Cleveland

Eric H said...


As someone who grew up outside of Baltimore, I got a glimpse of that city's long history of disowning any association with the Rust Belt. It considers itself in good standing with other Eastern Seaboard megalopolitan centers of global stature.

Signage conveys what is important to persons or entities that create them. Along Baltimore's Beltway and its stretches of Interstate 95 the "control cities" listed on overhead traffic signs are major Mid-Atlantic coastal cities [with the exception of Philadelphia, curiously]. But at the junction of Interstate 70 and the Baltimore Beltway the only city listed on the signs is Frederick, Maryland [50 miles westbound on I-70]. The world ends at the Appalachian Mountains in the minds of most Baltimoreans.

When a Baltimore regional economic development organization hired a highly respected economic development professional in 1997, she advocated that Baltimore should aspire to be seen as a kindred spirit of booming Sunbelt cities and not be compared with other "Rust Belt...and "Northeastern burgs that Baltimoreans often consider their peers and main rivals."

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for chiming in on Rust Belt Chic Baltimore. That Baltimore Sun article piece quoting Ioanna Morfessis is a gem. I've seen the same rhetoric coming from every Rust Belt city. The switch from pejorative to positive is recent, just starting in most places. For whatever reason, the anti-Rust Belt ethos is strongest in Baltimore. Perhaps it doesn't matter, being near DC and Philly.