Monday, July 25, 2011

Rust Belt Geography Lesson

The Rust Belt is not in the Midwest. In fact, the Rust Belt and the Midwest are two distinct regions. Yes, there are parts of the Midwest that clearly qualify as Rust Belt. But the same could be said for parts of the South (e.g. Greenville, Birmingham, and Chattanooga). For whatever reason, I've been reluctant to separate the two. Thanks to Christine Borne and The Cleveland Review for setting me straight:

Borne grew up on Cleveland’s west side, left and worked in publishing for a number of years, and came back. Grigsby grew up in Bardstown, Kentucky, and ended up in Northeast Ohio via Hiram College. Norris grew up in Lakewood, and although she spent time in India as an exchange student and went to college in New Mexico and Maryland, she’s lived the bulk of her life here. Addington grew up in rural Canaan Township, Ohio, and is currently a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University. While each of the four has a unique relationship to the area, they share some common values and goals: a realization that Cleveland and cities like it have unique characteristics that make them a distinctive region, a lack of identification as “Midwestern,” and a desire to encourage the influence of the Rust Belt in the work of both local writers and ex-pats—those who’ve moved away from the region and haven’t returned.

The idea for the journal originated with Borne, who didn’t recognize “any voices that I could identify with. It’s like the Midwest thing. I don’t feel like I’m Midwestern. And people from Cleveland who end up doing something with themselves seem to kind of scrub that Cleveland part out…. Beyond just Cleveland, it’s a really unique area of the country. It’s not rural, it’s urban but it’s not urbane. It’s a very singular sort of place, and people sort of tramp down that influence in their work instead of allowing it to be there…. I think we have different ideas on what it means to be a Rust Belt author. It doesn’t have to be anything thematic to our area, it doesn’t have to have factories in it, but if you’re really writing authentically then your voice is going to have something of where you grew up.”

That's the surprising theme that emerges in the interview with Cool Cleveland. "Rust Belt" isn't a sub-genre of Midwestern literature. The voice is different. Very different. The Cleveland Review is trying to figure out exactly how the two are different.

Ironically (subjectively speaking), being from Erie, PA means I hail from a pocket of weirdness. That might explain my obsession with Rust Belt Chic. Not too long ago, I felt that "how it plays in Peoria" applied to me. I wasn't Southern, that's for sure. New England? Northeastern? Closer, but still not quite right. That left Midwestern, my identity by default. I say "pop". Good enough.

The actual Rust Belt is very small. It's Northern Appalachia and the cities that heavily drew on this labor pool to staff the mills. I'd argue that including Detroit is stretching things. The Rust Belt core is the triangle of Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh.

Perhaps the confused cultural geography binds us together. We are neither this nor that, nothing worth celebrating. Mongrels, an uninspiring mix of Midwestern, Northeastern, and Appalachian. We are Weirton.

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