Saturday, August 06, 2011

Rust Belt Culture

This morning, I found a very nice note from Caleb Stright (We are an Old Town) in my email inbox. The business part of the message reminded me I've neglected my blog roll. I've added Stright, along with The Cleveland Review and Paul Hertneky's excellent Rust Belt Boy. All three websites explore Rust Belt culture. A recent post at We are an Old Town:

I guess maybe growing up here, I take a little more offense to it. I think the inherent argument is that you can’t find beauty in the Rust Belt. Call it patina, like Horning does with a different tone, but rust is like ivy, growing wherever it wants. Call it a snowflake, because no pattern is the same. And the mills themselves, just worn out husks with broken windows, exposed rebar, no different than a stubbly corn field in November. Just like an old tree, knotted over itself and scarred from growing. I hope being inspired by these things is ok.

Stright is meditating on the concept of "ruin porn". I dislike the term. But the discussion is important. The landscape changes depending on the lens of race and class. Art is fine. Go ahead and critique capitalism. I think the controversy is about journalism, the cropped images that define a large region. It's a PR battle.

The larger question is about aesthetics. Is there a universal Rust Belt essence? Or, are we looking at a smaller geography and a unique sense of place? Ruin porn gets at the tension between these two camps, which aren't mutually exclusive. Literature with deep roots in Southwestern Pennsylvania can speak to a global audience. The link between Eastern Europe and Northeast Ohio is still strong:

The Europe he sees is changing and not necessarily always in a welcome way. There is the old man who is delighted when Stasiuk recognises Ceausescu in the photograph on the wall of his little farm house, as well as those who pine for the communist period. The heart of Stasiuk’s Europe, he says, “beats in Sokolow Podlaskie and Husi”. The first is a town in Poland and the second in Romania, but they could be any of the towns and villages he wanders through. It definitely does not beat in Vienna, Budapest or Krakow: “Those places are all aborted transplants. A mock-up, a mirror of what is elsewhere.”

Stasiuk travels incessantly. His passport, he tells us, has nearly 200 stamps. He glories in the ordinary, an old man in a bar, the cattle wandering the little roads and, above all, the Gypsies. Outside the town of Baia Mare, he describes an industrial suburb, or the rust belt that surrounds so many eastern European towns: “The flat field was choked with rusting metal, pieces of concrete, abandoned plastic. Landfill smouldered sleepily, reeking. The sun shone on red-brown construction beams, on the broken windows of factories, on gutted warehouses, on lifeless cranes, on corroded steel, and on eroded brick.” And on it goes. But then: “Among these ruins and dumps, cows grazed on patches of maltreated grass, In the shadow of a giant steel chimney trotted a flock of sheep. In Baia Mare, time circled. Animals walked between inert machines”. The animals which had endured since the “beginning of the world” were now “quietly triumphant”.

Dismissing Krakow as inauthentic is vintage Rust Belt Chic. Baia Mare is cool, where adventurers should go. The landscape described isn't ruin porn. It's magic. I'm drawn there just like I am to the Mon Valley and Youngstown, Ohio.

The economy that birthed such Creative Class darlings as Austin is crumbling. Something new is emerging and you won't find it in Portland, Oregon. Everyone who is anyone is moving to Poughkeepsie.

1 comment:

Paul Hertneky said...

As always, great grist for the mill here, Jim. I hope Stright's question is rhetorical when he asks if it's ok to be inspired by images that tell a story. And that's what we're talking about here -- images -- that, for the most part, carry a powerful narrative.

I don't care if outsiders or insiders make these images or see ruin in a way that exceeds a thousand words. They may stir controversy, even provocation. And I don't have to like them. But if they inspire, that's reason enough for them. And it beats the hell out of contrived images created and promoted by PR firms and ad pros.