Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Genealogy Of Rust Belt Chic

Some people don't like the term "Rust Belt". Others absolutely hate the word "chic". Please don't call the shifting mesofacts of dying Great Lakes cities "Rust Belt Chic". Given the reaction, a lot of it negative, I decided to blog about how I came up with Rust Belt Chic. Way back in 2006, Shittsburgh was associated with a kind of urban chic. The South Side Slopes celebrated in the New York Times:

"If Pittsburgh's market were on steroids like New York's, this would've happened a long time ago," said one developer, Ernie Sota, referring to the recent spark of interest here. "But Pittsburgh's kind of like an eddy. Things move slowly here."

Mr. Sota, 56, is a prolific local developer who is constructing a series of nine 'green' town houses, called Windom Hill Place, into a lush hillside here. He was drawn to the Slopes by the views and villagelike feel, which, for him, conjure memories of visits to Prague and Budapest.

"It's just kind of quirky, funky and real, more organic, built by Europeans and other immigrants," he explained. "The only other American cities that I find as geographically interesting are maybe San Francisco and Asheville, N.C."

Emphasis added. At the time, I thought of Sota's sense of Pittsburgh place as unique to the city. I'm not from Pittsburgh. I don't live in Pittsburgh. I didn't go to school there. I'm a geographer. Pittsburgh appeals to my sensibilities. Pittsburgh is my Paris.

The geographic scope of Pittsburgh urban chic became Rust Belt Chic upon meeting Phil Kidd and John Slanina in Erie, PA for a Rust Belt Bloggers summit. They introduced me to Youngstown. I was hooked.

Rust Belt Chic always will be ironic. People are attracted to shrinking city hellholes. However, the hellhole part is misunderstood. What I mean is seeing opportunity hiding in a community struggling with survival. There's just something about Youngstown that stirs passion in me. I'm not gawking at ruin porn or glossing over everything that is wrong. I love Rust Belt cities. I love Rust Belt culture. I'm proud to be from the Rust Belt. That's what Rust Belt Chic now means to me. It's personal. It's who I am.

For Pittsburgh, I could sense the tide turning. I see the same transformation taking place in other Rust Belt cities. A pejorative, Rust Belt-ness is an asset. It's a starting point for moving forward, not a finish line or a civic booster campaign. Rust Belt Chic is in the same vein as rasquache:

Rasquache sensibility that has become an important component of Chicana and Chicano art. The word, rasquache can be used in several senses. Its most common use is negative and relates to an attitude that is lower class, impoverished, slapdash and shallow. For this reason Tomás Ybarra Frausto who has written the cogent essay "Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility" begins by stating, "One is never rasquache, it is always someone else, someone of a lower status, who is judged to be outside the demarcators of approved taste and decorum (in Richard Griswold del Castillo and others, Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985. Los Angeles: Wight Gallery, UCLA, 1991, p. 155)

However, as the case of several other terms and concepts (most notably the term and concept Chicano itself, which traditionally had a negative sense), the Chicano movement has turned the traditional notion of rasquache on its head. This important Chicano cultural sensibility has been particularly used to address, by means of a stance of resistance that is humorous and ironic rather than confrontational or hard-edged, the harrassments of external authorities such as the police, the immigration service, government officials, social services bureaucrats, and others. Chicano art that is rasquache usually expresses an underdog, have-not sensibility that is also resourceful and adaptable and makes use of simple materials including found ones, such as Luján's cardboard, glue, and loose sand. 

Rust Belt Chic turns the traditional notion of Rust Belt on its head. The Rust Belt is lower class, impoverished, slapdash, and shallow. At least, that's how it looks from the coast, in New York City. Rust Belt Chic as a place to be is a form of resistance. It's also a hot new trend and a threat to those neighborhoods that make my heart beat faster. From San Antonio:

“I see a lot of progressiveness happening lightning quick now. When I came from Los Angeles as a visitor in 1992, I saw all these magic spaces you could rent for 300 or 400 a month. But I would laugh because there was little or nothing going on. I could get together some event with a friend or two and everybody thought it was so cool and innovative – I was just copping what I had seen in LA.

San Antonio has gotten a lot more popular with Austin and California types discovering what a jewel this town is. Eclectic little restaurants and coffee places and shops growing up along Broadway and throughout Southtown. We’re being seen by a lot more cutting edge people by being open to contemporary signage and logos and creative design. With that, unfortunately, comes more expensive retail spaces and taxes are going up.

There is a charm and real-ness to San Antonio I hope we don’t lose in the process. San Antonio is a non-materialistic town; people aren’t looking at your shoes or what kind of car you drive. When I leave San Antonio, it’s that real-ness that brings me back, every time. I left LA, and I left Austin because I got so tired of the trendy-ness. We’re growing fast, we’re drawing an eclectic market that will support artists. However, there will be a compromise. I don’t want to see it get too uptight.”

–Robert Tatum

Pittsburgh is Rust Belt Chic Paris. San Antonio is Rasquache Paris. When Richey Piiparinen and I were in San Antonio to do fieldwork, we were both struck by the Rust Belt Chic qualities of the city. At the time, we weren't familiar with rasquache. We are now. I see a lot of similarities between Pittsburgh and San Antonio, particularly the way both places are under-appreciated. They enjoy a cult following. Hopefully, neither one will become the next Austin or Portland.

Rasquache is further along, much further, than Rust Belt Chic. In fact, Rust Belt Chic is rasquache:

This called to mind a passage I’d read in Have You Seen Marie? It’s an unusual book for a writer whose work has been at turns bawdy, avant-garde, and politically trenchant. Entirely autobiographical, Marie is a short, illustrated story with a childlike tone about Cisneros searching the streets of King William for a friend’s lost cat while mourning the loss of her mother, who died in 2010. I read Cisneros the passage I’d thought of: “ ‘King William has the off-beat beauty of a rasquache, and this is what’s uniquely gorgeous about San Antonio as a whole.’ ”

She smiled. “Rasquache is when you make or repair things with whatever you have at hand. You don’t go to Home Depot. If you have a hole in your roof, you put a hubcap on there. Or you fix your fence with some rope. That’s rasquache. And then there’s ‘high rasquache,’ which is a term the art critic Tomás Ybarra-Frausto coined. He lives here. Danny Lozano knew high rasquache. He’d serve you Church’s fried chicken on beautiful porcelain and use Lalique crystal for flowers he’d cut from an empty lot.”

“And that was one of the qualities that drew you to King William?”

“Not just King William but San Antonio. A kind of elegance of found things. San Antonio has that soul. It’s not, ‘We gotta copy what we saw in New York.’ No! It’s going to come out of our own idea of what we think is beautiful.” She stared at me as if to make sure I understood. “But that’s also what’s getting lost. People feel like the city’s got to look like someplace else. Our mayor needs a stylist. He thinks he has to dress like a Republican. Pues, he’s Chicano! He’s got this gorgeous indigenous look, and he would look so cool if Agosto Cuellar, one of our local designers, dressed him, or someone like Franco, or Danny, or John Phillip Santos—he dresses totally San Antonio cool. He should do a style column for Texas Monthly.”

I allowed that Santos, who is a regular contributor to this magazine, does have singular style (the last time I saw him, in December, he was wearing a horsehair charro tie and ringneck python boots) but joked that there might be a preponderance of leather pants in his fashion advice. Cisneros waved the joke aside.

“Our problem is that we can’t recognize or celebrate what we have. We have this inferiority complex in Texas that we have to look elsewhere. Well, who knows more about inferiority than Chicanos? We grew up being ashamed because the history that is taught to us makes us ashamed. The whole colonial experience surrounding the Alamo is meant to make you feel ashamed.”

In writer Sandra Cisneros, I sense a kindred spirit. As a Rust Belt native, Erie no less, I felt ashamed. I come from failure. I have no culture worth celebrating. Anywhere else must be better. That's why we leave. Brain drain.

I, too, was drawn to King William while in San Antonio. It is New Orleans (creole) and Pittsburgh (parochial). It's like nothing I've experienced before. I get that boom town vibe of a place that is cool before anyone knows it is cool:

Russell has seen what’s coming before. “When the buzz starts – when San Antonio embraces the brain gain, goes in the right direction on the talent economy and hipsters start to get wise to the neighborhood assets that are here – once the hipsters get wind of it – you’ll have to beat them away with a stick,” he said.
I think that's the concern of Robert Tatum. About a year ago, such a notion was unfathomable to Cleveland. What will the compromise with gentrification look like in Ohio City? Will somebody utter the words, "He dresses totally Cleveland cool"?

Danny Lozano knew high rasquache. He’d serve you Church’s fried chicken on beautiful porcelain and use Lalique crystal for flowers he’d cut from an empty lot.

Rust Belt Chic is served.


The Urbanophile said...

If you look at the cultural markers of all sorts of things, you see that in fact it is the lower class elements of poverty that attain iconic status. Think about various forms of liquor like slivovitz that were I believe originally low grade drinks home distilled by people too poor for anything else.

Jim Russell said...

Anthony Bourdain often made the same point on his show, "No Reservations." Much of today's chic cuisine has a working class tradition. The ethos is making lemonade out of lemons.

Patrick Prescott said...

"It's just kind of quirky, funky and real, more organic, built by Europeans and other immigrants," he explained. "The only other American cities that I find as geographically interesting are maybe San Francisco and Asheville, N.C."

Yes! Thanks for this. It gives me words to help explain to people why a guy who grew up in LA is so obsessed with Pittsburgh.