Is the “Rust Belt” a Dirty Word?


Many people hate the term “Rust Belt”. They dislike the aesthetics of the Rust Belt. For others, the term is less loaded, but rather a moniker denoting who we are. Consider me in the latter camp. But I often cross paths with those who loathe the term, or more exactly any notion of there being a Rust Belt culture.

For instance, I recently ran into a top official for the City of Cleveland. We shook hands, discussed backgrounds, before the individual put a name to a book I co-edited called Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology, which is a collection of stories detailing what it means to be a Clevelander, a Rust Belter. The official let on she didn’t care for the term “Rust Belt”, and in fact found the idea of celebrating a Rust Belt culture backwards and distasteful. I told the official there was a new generation taking ownership of having grown up in a post-industrial reality, and that make no apologies for it. The official insinuated those people are not in positions of power, so what does it matter. I responded in ten years many will be, and so it matters a lot.

Anyway, the conversation stayed with me for a few weeks, if only because it was a living, breathing example of what needs to go in Cleveland, if not the whole of the Rust Belt; namely, shame and false pride. Both characteristics go together. Said philosopher Lao Tzu:

Pride attaches undue importance to the superiority of one’s status in the eyes of others; And shame is fear of humiliation at one’s inferior status in the estimation of others. When one sets his heart on being highly esteemed, and achieves such rating, then he is automatically involved in fear of losing his status.

Shame. It’s pretty thick in these parts, and it’s linked to the region’s nickname, “The Rust Belt”. After all, rust connotes disuse, or of being left behind. Yet we are only shameful because the region did have status. We were a proud region once, as our forefathers and foremothers built this country. They protected this country. They enabled the defeat of Hitler. No hyperbole on that last part.

Specifically, before being the “Rust Belt” the region was the “Arsenal of Democracy”, which was a term coined by Detroiter Bill Knudsen in his conversation with a weary and worried President Roosevelt on the eve of WWII. At the time of the talk, May 28th, 1940, America had the 18th largest army in the world, and so what FDR needed from Knudsen was reassurance Detroit’s industrial infrastructure could produce weapons at a pace unimaginable. Knudsen replied Detroit’s manufacturing might could transform into the country’s “Arsenal of Democracy”, with term eventually gaining traction in an FDR fireside chat dated December 29, 1940. In it, the President states:

We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.

Obviously, the area succeeded, with Pittsburgh having produced one-fifth of the Allied forces steel from 1940 to 1945 alone.

Courtesy of Seeking Michigan

Needless to say, the region has had a lot to be proud of. But then macroeconomic forces took hold. Things globalized, and thus the way we lived and the things we did became obsolete. Shit happened. Shit is still happening. Yet part of the reason this is so is because we cannot let go. Being proud turned into stubborn pride, particularly for the region’s leadership who is hanging on to the illusion that yesterday will happen as long as we adhere to the same thought processes and power structures that held tow during the region’s heyday. But then yesterday doesn’t happen. Year after year it doesn’t happen. The pride becomes desperation. The pride becomes false. Said William Blake:

Shame is pride’s cloak.

And so with the collective shame comes collective temptation and desperation. Casinos will save the cities. Convention centers will save the cities. If only the cities will beautify enough. If only we had an outdoor chandelier. Or a suburban-type downtown mall. Or a tech district. Or a critical mass of microbreweries and boutiques. Or whatever anyone else doing. Anyone else, but us.

Meanwhile, such city transformations erode the region’s true competitive advantage, which is who we are, and the various potentials inherent in our ability to persevere, i.e., our “learned resilience”. Writes Erie, PA native and economic development blogger Jim Russell:

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.

There is indeed a growing movement of Rust Belt pride taking hold. Yet it is not a false pride, rather a pride that’s derived from an acceptance of having become rust. Such can be immeasurable for the psychogeography of the region. After all, says William James,

Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.

Richey Piiparinen is a writer and policy researcher based in Cleveland. He is co-editor of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. Read more from him at his blog and at Rust Belt Chic.

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Rust Belt

I do not live in the "Rust Belt", but I live in Texas so I know what negative stereotypes can do to collective self-esteem. I know slogans are never the total answer, but sometimes it can help rally people who need to rally. For the Rust Belt, how about: "Built, and always Rebuilding." Just a thought.