Monday, August 01, 2011

Bar Mleczny

The second issue of The Cleveland Review is out. If you aren't familiar with the online literary magazine, I recommend reading this interview at Cool Cleveland. I've contributed some work to this issue, which I'm cross-posting here with permission from The Cleveland Review. You can find the original here. Special thanks to Christine Borne for asking me to explain Rust Belt Chic. Now onward to the essay ...

During the Great Recession of the early 1990s, I landed in Minneapolis in search of work. Hennepin County had a reputation as the best place to weather the downturn thanks to a generous social safety net and a relatively strong job market. True or not, I hit the jackpot at Nye’s Polonaise as a busboy. Nye’s is where I first encountered “Rust Belt Chic”. Here, university art students mingled with the two martini lunch crowd. Rat Pack meets Brat Pack, polka music raging in the background. For all adult generations, this was the place to be on Friday and Saturday night.

Erie, PA is my hometown. I’m a Gen X Rust Belt refugee and what was cool about Nye’s is the main attraction for Gen Y in cities such as Detroit, where young hipsters go “featherbowling” along side the eldest residents of the neighborhood at Cadieux Cafe. The cultural artifacts of Industrial America are divorced from the context of hell with the lid taken off.

I have no doubt that to some, Rust Belt Chic is kitsch or ironic appreciation of blue collar culture. Pabst Blue Ribbon. For those of us who grew up in the suburbs ringing the silent manufacturing plants, the appeal is a reconnection with our roots. We are nostalgic for a time we never knew, the world our parents made sure we could escape. The geography of nowhere gets a soul. We move back and haunt the streets of our grandparents.

All the connoisseurs of Rust Belt Chic are seeking the same thing, authenticity. A strong sense of place is highly valued. At every turn, you know that you can only be in Pittsburgh. And you love all of it, the grit and the faded grandeur. A vacant building is more about possibility than the spectacular fall from grace. You have your very own Pittsburgh Potty.

“Rust Belt Chic” is a loaded term. I’m aware of the academic (i.e. Marxist) critique of neighborhood gentrification, where the wealthy push out the working class. Proponents reframe displacement as economic development. The Creative Class will revitalize our cities. The negative reaction is to be expected:

To the degree that they sentimentalize and overlook the ravages of displaced workers and manufacturing flight, they are what John McCarthy, a professor of urban history at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, calls “Rust Belt chic.”

He maintains that viewing blighted cities as blank slates for outsiders to compose upon – artists or not – is arrogant and undermines genuine progress towards renewal. “I don’t see anything in the Robocop image that is positive for the city of Detroit,” he says, noting that the primary message it sends is at best, “an ironic one.”

I love ruin porn. I intentionally chose the term “Rust Belt Chic” to make fun of people so concerned with the exploitation of post-industrial landscapes. The link with post-colonial theory is silly. Insiders, not outsiders, are leading the charge. Just because I was raised in the burbs doesn’t mean I am only capable of an ironic appreciation of manufacturing. Professor McCarthy misunderstands the trend.

I see the plight of the Rust Belt through the lens of migration. At Burgh Diaspora, I’ve written over 2,000 blog posts about the persistent myth of brain drain. The biggest challenge facing a shrinking city is the move of the working class from the urban core to the suburban fringes. Rust Belt Chic is about more than the return home to help. It also concerns a reversal of the flow to greener pastures. The inner city is the new frontier, whereas outlying rural areas used to be the “blank slates” for utopian dreams. The only irony here is that suburbia is now suffering from blight.

Regardless, there is a cynicism about any fascination with something or someone beyond your own identity, taking snobbishness to another level. Can only a person who lived behind the Iron Curtain sing the praises of a milk bar? Arrogance undermining genuine progress towards renewal in Poland:

Sometimes my nostalgia for the old times confounds my Polish hosts. In Krakow, my friend, Kasia, wanted to treat me to a fine dinner and asked where I’d like to eat. I said a “milk bar.” Kasia said her mother would never forgive her if I took her American friend to one of these bleak government-subsidized workers’ diners. I begged, promising I’d never tell, and Kasia agreed.

For me, eating at a bar mleczny — or “milk bar” — is an essential Polish sightseeing experience. These super-cheap cafeterias, which you’ll see all over the country, are a dirt-cheap way to get a meal, and, with the right attitude, a fun cultural adventure.

I ate at a milk bar in Warsaw per the recommendation of a Polish twentysomething. I loved the experience of a place stuck in time. There is a lot of Rust Belt Chic in Poland. I think anyone who is familiar with the dark days of Schenectady, NY can appreciate the wonders of Poznan. To some extent, I am a voyeur. But I also feel a deep kinship with the city and its people. I enjoy what I perceive to be beautiful.

When I say I love Youngstown, I get a look of disbelief. One is skeptical of either my intentions or sanity. In a nutshell, that’s the Rust Belt perception problem. Outsiders just don’t get it. Detroit is changing that. All the negative publicity has turned that troubled city into a star. Cleveland should be so lucky. Still, how many of the urban pioneers there are from somewhere else in the Rust Belt?

Rust Belt Chic means that not just anyone can do the Poznan. You feel a bond with someone from Manchester, England. It’s the blue collar part of a foreign city that reminds you of your hometown. Not only do you have strong opinions about how pierogies are made, you also think you know how the word should be spelled.

For us refugees, Rust Belt Chic is a form of nationalism. We cheer on our sports teams while eating local cuisine we never enjoyed as kids. The food isn’t ironic. It is a celebration of pride. If an outsider also thinks city chicken is cool, that’s fine with me. I’m not going to worry about the implications for class warfare.

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