Sunday, March 25, 2012

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Where is the Rust Belt? What is the Rust Belt? The latter question is easier to answer if you focus on economics. Try to figure out the second question through a cultural lens. What is Rust Belt culture?

Mr. Williams said that, years ago, members of the Penn State geography department asked a bunch of questions in the territory of northern West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio -- and decided we had no regional identity at all.

The region in question is Northern Appalachia. Brian O'Neill (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) interviewed historian John A. Williams at the Appalachian Studies Conference about the unique cultural geography that often defies definition. Northern Appalachia, the real Rust Belt, has no culture.

I'm from Northwestern PA. I grew up admiring other parts of the United States for their distinctive regional cultures. The Rust Belt? That was nowhere. We had no regional identity. That perception began to change once my family joined the hundreds of thousands of other economic refugees looking for work. The idea that I could be proud about my own distinctive cultural identity dawned on me when I started writing about Rust Belt Chic. Rust Belt Chic is the celebration of a Northern Appalachian culture no one thought existed. Northern Appalachia is the Rust Belt.

Iconic Rust Belt cities such as Detroit were made that way by Appalachian migrants, a cultural diffusion no one mentions. Cleveland, my hometown of Erie, and Buffalo were all heavily influenced by Northern Appalachian (i.e. Rust Belt) culture. That goes both ways. People churn around the Greater Great Lakes, which is what makes defining the Rust Belt so difficult.

Northern Appalachia is the Rust Belt's heartland, with Pittsburgh at the center. There you find cosmopolitan hillbillies, people who don't seem to fit in anywhere. Pittsburgh is a paradox, the rural city of mountain folk. Regional culture doesn't get more distinctive than that.

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