Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rust Belt Chic Houston

I'm a big fan of old school sportswriting. Frank Deford was the one who converted me. In 1985, Deford wrote a story about boxer Billy Conn:

Billy is a city guy, a Pittsburgh guy. Billy says, "Pittsburgh is the town you can't wait to leave, and the town you can't wait to get back to."

Deford captured the Pittsburgh I never knew. But Conn's quote gets at an eternal essence. In that Deford tradition, ESPN's Wright Thompson takes aim at the Burgh Diaspora:

Their kids grew up hearing about blast furnaces, about the way dockworkers and millworkers ate Primanti Brothers sandwiches and, of course, about the Steelers. Many claim the fans at away games are more raucous than fans at games in Pittsburgh. For three decades, largely through this team, they've kept something alive in themselves and their children. Says Heidi, "They know that even though they live here, home is Pittsburgh."

Bret Tirlia is looking at Penn State and Pitt for college. When he and his dad, Tim, roll into the Fort Pitt Tunnel, they crank "Renegade," the Styx song played in the fourth quarter of Steelers games, accompanied by a black-and-white montage of crushing hits. The song has a long, eerie buildup, just singing and a kick drum -- "Oh, Mama, I'm in fear for my life from the long arm of the law" -- before it quickens and explodes with guitars.

Tim and Bret time their exit from the tunnel so the skyline appears as the full band takes off. The soundtrack allows them to see the city as it is today and as it once was.

Even in Houston, home is Pittsburgh.

Thompson interviewed me for the piece. I didn't let on that I love his work. I'm giddy that one statement I gave him made the final cut:

"The ethnic enclaves of Little Pittsburgh exist most poignantly in tailgate parking lots of away games," says Jim Russell, a Western Pennsylvania-born geographer who studies geopolitics and the relationship between migration and economic development. "That's where you see people doing the performances of culture. The blue-collar Pittsburgh that you see flashed on the screen during games exists only in Steeler bars and in the visitors' parking lot."

Really, my big contribution was helping with the copious amounts of information about the exodus from Pittsburgh. The ESPN fact checker who contacted me is from Pittsburgh and she, too, expressed her desire to move back home one day. She was also exasperated with all the details in the story that had to be triangulated. I hope I didn't steer her down any blind alleys.

I consider Wright Thompson to be a purveyor of Rust Belt Chic. I tried to talk to him about the trend. He didn't seem to cotton to the term. However, he understands the concept:

A recent story I wrote on Cleveland came out of a conversation at dinner with John Walsh about disappearing America, another subject that really fascinates me. I’ve come back to it again and again: Nazareth, Texas; Yankee Stadium; even Vince Lombardi’s house.

"Believeland" is the best articulation of Rust Belt Chic I've seen in print. Disappearing America lives on in shrinking cities. Hipsters such as Anthony Bourdain literally eat it up. Thompson on the expanding cult of the pierogi:

A woman and her son, both in Pittsburgh gear, stop to gawk. "We're making Primanti Brothers sandwiches," Lucas says proudly.

"What's that?" Joan Roach drawls.

Sara and Lucas think the same thing. "Are you from Pittsburgh?" she asks.

"My dad lived there all his life," Joan replies.

"You ever tried a pierogi?" Lucas asks. Joan shakes her head. She's from south Houston. She's never even heard of a pierogi. Lucas spears a potato-and-cheese. Joan studies it carefully before taking a bite. In the moaning revelation of a new taste, she wheels around to find her friends. Her drawl turns short words into long ones. "Oh my god," she screams, "Ka-ren. You got to taste these. Oh my god."

She returns a few minutes later. "Pirollis?"

"Pierogies," Lucas says.

Working class food as nouveau cuisine. You want authentic Pittsburgh? You will have to travel to an away game for the Pittsburgh Steelers to get it. For one Sunday, Rust Belt Chic Pittsburgh was centered in Houston, Texas.

1 comment:

Paz said...

Didn't put the pieces together that he wrote Believeland, but I love that story.