Thursday, May 03, 2012

Rust Belt Geographic Mythos

Rust Belt urban geography is ironic. That picture of blight you have in your head? You'll find it. What defines the Rust Belt place experience is the unexpected:

THINK of this city in the 1970s, and the picture that springs to mind is of a dying industrial metropolis. Once called the City of Light because of its abundant hydroelectric power (courtesy of Niagara Falls), Buffalo was a manufacturing and rail hub for much of the 20th century. But by the ’70s, as its mills and foundries closed, it was gradually becoming a symbol of urban blight.

During that decade Buffalo also boasted a thriving avant-garde arts scene, rich enough to nurture Pictures-generation artists like Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, to attract visiting video and film artists like Bill Viola and Stan Brakhage, and to encourage large-scale land art by Martin Puryear, Nancy Holt and others. How and why this scene came about is the subject of the survey show “Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-Garde in the 1970s,” at the Albright-Knox museum here through July 8.

Thanks to Richard Florida, we have a strange idea what makes a creative city. It should be cosmopolitan (i.e. "tolerant") like New York. The economy is thriving with tech and talent. It's a story of success, not a backwater dump abandoned by history and punished by globalization. Buffalo was Paris:

For the area’s artists, it was the perfect combination, said the photographer Ellen Carey, who moved here in 1975 for an M.F.A. at the State University at Buffalo. “I didn’t think of Buffalo as crumbling or falling down,” she said. “I just thought it was great. It was rough in the 1930s in Paris too.”

This idea of urban frontier is important to artists. It fuels creativity and community. I look for "rough" geographies. Flint or Youngstown could be the next Berlin. Out of the slag heap comes greatness.

What makes Buffalo special are the legacy assets and the proximity to NYC. Buffalo also demonstrates the limits of the creative economy. If you can't get on the mental maps of RISD graduates, then you are screwed. Those wonderful bones only go so far. But the proximity advantage remains unappreciated:

“I could have been in New York City, but it was almost the same thing to be in Buffalo,” said Mr. Conrad, who joined the faculty in 1976 and remains there. “In fact there were things that were better, because of the funding resources, and the animated spirit of the young people in our program and other places in the city.” Bill Viola, who also visited frequently in the 1970s, agreed. “Everybody managed to go through Buffalo,” he said. “It was kind of the mecca.”

Emphasis added. Many Rust Belt cities have sustained a creative nexus through all the hard times. The rest of the world is rediscovering its Parisian splendor, while Brooklyn looks to rekindle its magic in Poughkeepsie. You can still find Patti Smith's New York in Buffalo.

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