By Edward McClelland.
I first heard the term “Rust Belt Chic” in Youngstown, Ohio, from a young software developer named John Slanina. Slanina was driving me around the Yo, as he called it, in a Ford Taurus with a bacon-scented air freshener twirling from the rearview mirror.
“My name,” he explained. “Slanina means ‘bacon’ in Slovakian.”
(Whenever I visit Northeast Ohio, I want to introduce myself as Ted Clellandovich, shifting my “son of” to the end, to fit in with the local Slavs.)
At 34, Slanina was a repatriated member of the Youngstown Diaspora. He had taken his Youngstown State degree to the Netherlands, then to Atlanta, but he’d brought it back, along with an urban aesthetic evident in his chunky glasses, goatee and red sneakers. While working at the University of Delft, Slanina had started a blog called I Will Shout Youngstown! to tell the people back home: “Hey, there are all these neat things in the Netherlands that you can emulate.” Then, he decided to try and emulate them himself. He got a job at Turning Technologies, a software firm that opened in Youngstown because office space is so cheap. (The average age of their 150 employees is 28. The average salary is $52,000.)
“I’m definitely a fan of this place,” Slanina said. “There wasn’t this, ‘I’m gonna do anything to get back.’ But you can get a house in a nice neighborhood for $40,000. And you don’t need to hang around the Kiwanis Club for 20 years to have an impact on what’s going on here.”
In the war between the Cleveland and Pittsburgh mobs, Youngstown was Belgium—a bloody, contested province. So many hoods were blown up that a car bomb because known as a “Youngstown tune-up.”
In fact, true to its name, there is probably no American city where young people have more influence than Youngstown. Part of this is due to Youngstown’s corrupt history as Murder City, U.S.A. In the war between the Cleveland and Pittsburgh mobs, Youngstown was Belgium—a bloody, contested province. So many hoods were blown up that a car bomb because known as a “Youngstown tune-up.” Over 70 public officials have been convicted of various combinations of bribery, racketeering, extortion, tax evasion, gambling and mail fraud, including the Mahoning County Sheriff, the county prosecutor, the Sanitary District director, innumerable judges and, most famously, Congressman James A. Traficant.
Traficant, one of the few colorful characters ever to appear on C-SPAN, was a must-watch House member, both for a high-riding toupee that looked like a stuffed gray owl and for ending floor speeches with the Star Trek tagline, “Beam me up.” A clown to sophisticated Washington, Traficant was a beloved populist in Youngstown. As county sheriff in the 1980s, he had refused to evict unemployed steelworkers, and he beat a Mafia bribery case by claiming he’d taken the money as part of a sting operation. “I got inside of the Mob,” he boasted to a jury more inclined to believe a former Pitt quarterback than an FBI agent sent down from D.C. “I fucked the Mob.” After a long career on the payroll of Pittsburgh Mafioso Lenny Strollo (who went to prison when the FBI finally broke the mob in the mid-1990s), Traficant was finally convicted of bribery, racketeering, and tax evasion, expelled from the House and sentenced to eight years in prison.
As David Grann wrote in the New Republic, Youngstown in the 1940s “had all the ingredients the mob needed to flourish—a teeming immigrant population accustomed to arbitrary and violent authority, a booming economy, and pliable local politicians and police.” After Black Monday, the September day in 1977 when Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced it would close by the end of the week, laying off 5,000 workers, the Mob became more powerful than ever, because who else had money? The professional classes that did so much to break the culture of the Mafia in Chicago and Buffalo and New York in the 1970s and ‘80s practically ceased to exist in Youngstown. The result was a generation of kids who worshipped the dons the way other children worshipped Muhammad Ali and Pete Rose.
When Traficant went to prison, Youngstown threw out that mobbed-up generation and replaced it with kids who would have been too callow to win elections in bigger, more orderly cities. Traficant was succeeded by a 29-year-old staffer, Tim Ryan. The mayor, Jay Williams, was elected at age 34, running as an independent. (Williams is now Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs.) The president of Youngstown state’s board of trustees was also in his 30s.
“There was kind of a reboot,” Slanina commented. “There definitely is a youth movement here.”
Not only were the young people less corrupt, they had a different conception of Youngstown than their parents, who remembered when the city was “Steeltown U.S.A.” Slanina was born a few months before Black Monday—“1977, when the shit hit the fan”—so he didn’t remember. The fact that Youngstown’s population had declined by nearly two-thirds–from 166,000 in the 1960s to 66,000 in the ‘teens—was not a tragedy. It was an opportunity. The elders’ failures had left their children empty spaces in which to create a new Youngstown. Mayor Williams didn’t talk about bringing back the steel mills. He talked about “being the best city of 70,000 we can be.”
We drove out to the west side of Youngstown, where Slanina pointed at a stone mansion afloat on a green knoll that looked as though it could have been built by a prosperous spring manufacturer in Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith (a city the author described as lying “between Chicago and Pittsburgh.”)
“That house sold for $80,000.” Slanina commented.
“Eighty thousand?” I exclaimed. “Hold on. Stop the car. I want to take a picture with my cellphone so I can post it on Facebook. That thing would cost a million two in Kenilworth, Illinois.”
“We are living off the wealth these industrialists created a hundred years ago,” Slanina said. “They left a great infrastructure.
Just a few blocks from this mansion, we found a house with drapes painted on its plywood boards, either as a whimsical statement or an effort to camouflage its emptiness from the scrappers.
On the block behind that ironically painted house, in an empty lot landscaped with woodchips, I met Steve Novotny and Ian Beniston, a pair of urban activists in their 20s. Novotny was a community organizer, administering an Environment Protection Agency grant to salvage abandoned houses for timber, then provide seeds and garden training so neighbors could fill the empty spaces with crops. Beniston is deputy director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, so he worked with the city planning department to demolish houses. To get out of the sun, we huddled beneath a tin-roof shelter built with timbers from a house that had once stood across the street.
“How can we get blight to pay for its own removal?” Novotny asked. “As a house, that had no real estate value, because we’ve got 5,000 vacant houses in Youngstown. But we cut the house apart in panels and salvaged the wood. It’s old-growth lumber. It’s higher quality than anything you can find at Home Depot or Lowe’s.”
But Novotny and Beniston felt a sense of mission here. “This is our Ground Zero,” Novotny said.
“It’s a challenge,” Beniston added. “But you get to innovate here. I could go out to Phoenix and build cul-de-sac houses, but what am I going to say at the end of my life?”
Saturday’s special at Dubic Palm Café is chicken on a spit—half a chicken, with green onions, tomatoes and hot peppers. Dubic’s is a Croatian restaurant whose walls are decorated with palm trees and tropical beach scenes. The only local touch: an autographed photo of Married with Children star Ed O’Neill, who played defensive end for the Youngstown State Penguins. Slanina had brought me here to drink slivovitz, a Central European plum brandy. A three-quarter-aged waitress—a woman with a smoker’s ropy figure and croaky voice—bought us a pair of short glasses.
In no other city has the term “Rust Belt” been so embraced—but only by those too young to have lost a job on Black Monday.Before we tipped them, Slanina asked her what she thought of the term Rust Belt.
“It’s depressing,” the waitress said. “It makes me think of closed steel mills. When I was a girl, the steel mills were thriving. We didn’t have air conditioning, so we had to keep the windows open and you could see the soot settle. We’d have to wipe the soot off the windowsill. I wish we still had soot on the windowsills.”
Youngstown’s generation gap was right there in that booth. In no other city has the term “Rust Belt” been so embraced—but only by those too young to have lost a job on Black Monday. Youngstown is home to the Rust Belt Theater Company, which produces plays by local authors. When John drove to the last bar of the day, the Lemon Grove, on not-at-all-boarded-up Federal Street, I ordered a Blast Furnace Ale from Rust Belt Brewing Company, which has its own microbrewery down by the Mahoning River. In the back room was a display of photographs under the title Rust Rococo: portraits of discarded sofas, corrugated steel mill walls in Magic-Eye colors, models in tuxedos and evening dresses posing in an abandoned factory.
“To me, Rust Belt is a beautiful thing,” explained collective member Daniel Horne, who grew up in Maine, moving to Youngstown after marrying a local woman. “To me, a rusted piece of steel is more beautiful than a clean piece of steel. It’s ever-changing. One week, it’ll be orange. Another week, it’ll be a different shade. It’s coming back to Earth.”
A steelworker might not appreciate that aesthetic attitude toward his product’s decay, but Rust Belt art is not the same as ruin porn—or if it is, it’s homemade, amateur porn recorded on a cellphone camera. It’s not produced by voyeuristic Europeans with $3,000 cameras, but by art students too young to remember when that rotting factory in their neighborhood made steel. It’s as natural as a kid from Maine painting a pine tree.
Around the corner from the Lemon Grove is Youngstown Nation, an all-Youngstown boutique run by Phil Kidd, a YSU graduate whose product line began with “Defend Youngstown” T-shirts, intended to build pride in a beaten-down community. The shirts spawned an online community, and now a store, with Youngstownwear, historic Youngstown prints, and a library of Youngstown books.
“I came here from Pennsylvania to go to college at Youngstown State,” Kidd said. “Where I grew up, most of my family worked at Weirton Steel, and it was going through a similar kind of slide. I was interested in what other small industrial communities were doing to adapt. To me, Defend Youngstown meant we’ve got to recognize all our baggage and scars. Now’s a new opportunity. I wanted that symbol people could rally behind.”
For Slanina, though, Rust Belt Chic is not just an artistic movement. It’s also a way of carrying on the urban, Slavic-American culture into which he was born. It’s slivovitz, pierogis and pepper-and-egg sandwiches. It’s polka karaoke at Polish Happy Hour, and ice hockey in an old steel mill. It’s a wedding with kolacky, pizzelle and baklava on the cookie table—“a fantastic example of Rust Belt Chic and classic Youngstown.”
If it’s true that every trend skips a generation before returning to fashion, then the young people who embrace Rust Belt Chic are celebrating their World War II-era grandparents’ urban blue-collar lifestyles, and rejecting their Baby Boomer parents’ flight from the cities, and from their ethnic heritage. In the 1970s, polka, bowling and Hamm’s on tap at the Polish National Alliance were not hip: they were symbols of a reactionary culture, the white ethnic hardhat, vilified as a blindly patriotic bigot by upper-clan liberals and black militants alike, lampooned on All in the Family. Forced to pay for the racial sins of someone else’s ancestors by sacrificing his children to forced busing, his career to affirmative action, and his tax money to welfare, he retaliated by buying a ranch house in an inner-ring suburb and voting for Ronald Reagan. Slanina’s grandfather was a steelworker. His parents were schoolteachers.
Plenty of Rust Belt cities are trying to repatriate the grandchildren of steelworkers, although the return to urban living is a creative-class movement, not a working-class movement. After NAFTA passed in 1993, the small manufacturing shops on Cleveland’s industrial East Side began moving to Mexico. The city noticed that artists looking for cheap studios were moving into the old brick factories. In 2000, the city council rezoned a light industrial district for live/work spaces. Valerie Mayen, a fashion designer who appeared on Season 8 of Project Runway, had moved from Texas to Ohio to study illustration and graphic design at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She decided to stay after she found an inexpensive 2,000-square-foot loft with ionospheric ceilings, tall grid windows and exposed brick walls. Mayen had been living at the Hodge School, a grade-school turned artists’ colony, but had to move out when the run-down building sprang a carbon monoxide leak. Mayen won a $20,000 grant from the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. She used the money to help fund a clothing company she started in 2007 called Yellowcake. Her loft was stuffed with sewing machines, curvaceous dummies and rolls of fabric. She also established a (now defunct) sewing collective, Buzz and Growl, where other aspiring designers could share equipment.*
“Cleveland’s probably got the most affordable places I’ve ever seen,” Mayen said, when I visited her loft as part of an ArtSpace tour of the East Side. “I was bound and determined to go to L.A., but here you’ve got multi-media artists, people involved in poetry, fashion, music, dance. The small group of burgeoning underground artists, I really liked being part of that scene. I don’t think you need to be in New York at all. I haven’t had any problems. I’ve done well for myself.”*
I was bound and determined to go to L.A., but here you’ve got multi-media artists, people involved in poetry, fashion, music, dance. The small group of burgeoning underground artists, I really liked being part of that scene. I don’t think you need to be in New York at all. I haven’t had any problems. I’ve done well for myself.The live/work ordinance was one reason downtown Cleveland gained 1,300 residents in the 2010 census, according to Councilman Joe Cimperman, making it the only growing neighborhood in a city that lost 83,000 people. Cimperman—a loquacious politician who ran against Rep. Dennis Kucinich in the 2008 Democratic congressional primary—helped pass the ordinance. Artists’ lofts don’t employ as many people as factories, Cimperman told me, but they’re “a hell of a lot better than vacant.” The artists who occupied Hodge School opened their studios once a month to give art lessons to the neighborhood kids, “kids who were doing drugs, having sex, setting cars on fire.”
The live/work ordinance “was almost like a blessing by the city,” Cimperman said. “The artists realized that we cherished them. That they weren’t those, what’s the word? Squatters. I think it just kind of changed the idea of arts and culture. I have heard from a lot of people that that legislation really helped with the passage of the arts and culture tax on cigarettes. I think the fact that we finally have a policy for bringing people back to the city is kind of generational. People in my generation—you know, you don’t really realize your population is declining when you are in it. But you see these buildings and you are thinking—if there’s one artist in there, why wouldn’t there be 10?”
The most unusual experience in Rust Belt homesteading is taking place in Braddock, Pa., a borough across the Monongahela River from Homestead, the city that replaced its steel mill with a shopping mall whose tax revenues rescued it from bankruptcy. In many ways, Homestead and Braddock are twins—the Negro League Grays played in both towns—but Braddock had the bad luck to keep its steel mill. In the 1980s, U.S. Steel had intended to shut down Braddock’s Edgar Thomson Works—Andrew Carnegie’s first acquisition—but closed the Homestead Works instead, because of the local union’s theatrical intransigence. The mill contributes nothing to Braddock but a stale stench that discourages any of its workers from living in the borough. The mill contributes nothing in taxes either because it is in the adjacent borough of North Braddock. Instead of steelworkers, Braddock is populated by poor blacks who live in the flats between Braddock Avenue and the river on a grid of Tobacco Road backstreets where the houses seem about to collapse on their spindly porch struts. Braddock, whose population has declined from 20,000 to 2,700, would have been just another unheralded Rust Belt failure had it not been discovered by John Fetterman, the scion of a family that made big money in insurance, and a graduate of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School in Government. A native of York, Pennsylvania, Fetterman arrived in Pittsburgh as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Hired to start an anti-youth-violence program in Braddock, he bought an old church and took up residence inside. Then he ran for mayor, getting himself elected by one vote.
Fetterman used his office, and his family money, to turn Braddock into an art colony. In an old Catholic school, he opened an gallery/studio space called Unsmoke Systems, after a disaster recovery company that once occupied the building. Fetterman was not in town the week I visited the Mon Valley. So I made arrangements to meet Jeb Feldman, Fetterman’s sidekick and de facto deputy mayor, at Unsmoke Systems.
Cross the Rankin Bridge, and dip down to Braddock Avenue, and your first impression is that someone has glitter-bombed a slum. The “Welcome to Historic Braddock” sign is a mosaic of mirror glass and tiles in the Earth’s brightest colors—ocean blue and mango orange. A series of yellow murals—the “North Braddock Aviary”—depicts a peacock, an owl and a prairie chicken. And a commercial art revivalist has painted a sign for “Tom Tucker Southern-Style Ginger Ale,” even though such a drink was not on sale at Comet News (Newspapers, Magazines, Sundries), the business whose brick wall it brightens. Elsewhere, a used furniture store did a stingy business in tables, chairs and old lawnmowers, a barbershop doubled as an informal community center, and the BRADDOCK NEWS legend seemed to have been rubbed half clean with an eraser, because how much news can 2,100 poor people generate? The world’s first Carnegie Library is the only remnant of the industrial money that built Braddock. The Braddock National Bank, which looks like a temple, is now the headquarters of a social service agency. The last strongholds of white ethnicity are USWA Local 1219 (Please Wipe Your Shoes Before Entering Union Hall); the site of a historical marker to the 1919 Steel Strike; and the Slavonic Social Hall, whose windows are blocks of frosted glass, and whose sign warns PRIVATE PARKING MEMBERS ONLY. Even the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center recently pulled out, evidence that Braddock is further down the slide than most Rust Belt burgs, which are at least able to depend on nursing jobs to tend the retirees. And this, to repeat, is a town that still has its steel mill, which emits papal white smoke from a slender tube.
Homestead’s Mayor Betty Esper sums up Braddock as “what I used to have.”
Feldman was long and stringy, and seemed kind of spacey, although maybe that was just my Midwestern impression of a guy from California, where Feldman grew up before moving to Pittsburgh to do graduate work at Carnegie Mellon University. We sat down in a room that used to be a church sanctuary and was now an art gallery (Could any place be more post-modern?). Feldman had lived in Braddock himself for three years.
“John had just become mayor,” he said. “He had some ideas about things he was trying to do. He was helping kids get their GEDs. I was living in Pittsburgh and was just sort of touristing Braddock. I sort of found Braddock on my own. I was attracted to it as part of the Rust Belt.”
Feldman held a day job as a county employee—“It’s realistic to have a part-time job here to be able to afford life”–but his real work was Braddock. Along with Fetterman, he had transformed Unsmoke Systems into an art/exhibition venue which displayed work from Brooklyn, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Nine old offices had been converted into studios, for which artists paid just enough to cover utilities.
The man Rolling Stone called “The Mayor From Hell” was 6-foot-8, 300 pounds with a shaved head and directory of arm tattoos that listed Braddock’s zip code—15104—along with the dates on which five local youths had been murdered.Shortly after moving to Braddock, Feldman made a trip to New York City to speak at a meeting of planners and architects organized by his sister. Feldman’s sister told a friend who wrote for ReadyMade, a DIY craft magazine, and the friend wrote an article profiling Fetterman’s effort to transform Braddock into “a stage for experimental urbanism.” Fetterman had just purchased the First Presbyterian Church with $50,000 of family money, and was turning it into lofts and an art gallery while living in the basement. Fetterman’s public image and charisma made Braddock every editor’s and producer’s favorite small town. The man Rolling Stone called “The Mayor From Hell” was 6-foot-8, 300 pounds with a shaved head and directory of arm tattoos that listed Braddock’s zip code—15104—along with the dates on which five local youths had been murdered. He was a Harvard grad who looked like a biker, a wealthy heir who’d adopted a poor borough. The contradiction made great copy and TV, so Fetterman was interviewed on The Colbert Report and written up in The New York Times Magazine. But his biggest coup occurred when Levi’s Workwear offered $150,000 to feature Braddock in a national ad campaign. Locals were paid to pose for billboards and act in a TV commercial–in which a child intoned, “Maybe the world breaks on purpose, so we can have work to do. People think there aren’t frontiers anymore. They can’t see how frontiers are all around us.” (Feldman was in the opening shot, standing beside a campfire and watching a train go by.) Levi’s also paid to complete a community center, and contributed to local agriculture. (Along Braddock Avenue was a patch called The Farm, a few islands of beans and zucchini surrounded by bricks.)
“Destruction breeds creation,” Feldman said. “If this is for you, come and visit. See if you want to create amidst this setting. We’re trying to build a better, more vital community for people here and other people who are interested in using empty space. There’s more empty space here than space being used.”
Despite all the magazine column inches and the TV time it’s received, Braddock is a less successful urban renewal project than Homestead. There’s no new commercial activity. Only a few convenience stores and the Hotel Puhala, the longtime dive bar. The borough actually seems to be going backwards, since the health center closed. Fetterman had deliberately recruited the most poorly paid occupation in the middle class: the artists could only paint over Braddock’s decay, which wasn’t the same as repairing it, and they depended on its emptiness to provide an outdoor gallery for their art. Artists are the first generation of gentrification, but Braddock seems unlikely to attract the second and third—gays and young families. Its housing stock, designed for immigrant steelworkers, was not meant to endure, and then there’s the mill. Braddock is a case of environmental racism by subtraction: the only remaining residents are blacks too poor to move where the air is cleaner.
“They don’t have no money,” Mayor Betty said. “Braddock is not successful. They lost their main street. He’s going through what we went through 20 years ago. I don’t see if Braddock can come back.”
After leaving Unsmoke Systems, I went to the Carnegie Library, which looks like a Fifth Avenue millionaire’s brownstone. The lights were off and no one was at the circulation desk. “Closed Sunday,” a sign advertised. But an Italian bike was chained to the fence, and the door was open. I went inside, where I saw a group of what looked like grad students fiddling with their cell phones.
“What’s going on?” I asked a young man wearing an Oberlin College t-shirt.
“It’s a treasure hunt,” he explained. “It’s part of the Steel City Games. We’re looking for a clue inside the library.”
At least Braddock was now a tourist attraction, although it seemed unlikely the treasure hunters would spend money there. There was nothing to buy. I hadn’t spent any money in Braddock. I sat down and read an Andrew Carnegie biography by the sun through the windows until someone came along to tell me the library was closed, and I had to leave.
Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, And Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland
*Sept. 27, 2013: Information in these paragraphs has been corrected from the original edition.
Cover image by Sean Posey