Editor’s Note: We have just published a second edition of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, the book that was so popular it led to the launch of Belt Magazine. Below is the new introduction. Purchase the book here.
by Dave Lucas
What can you say? The impossible happens
Adam Again, “River on Fire”
Whatever Rust Belt Chic is, I’m for it.
I once bristled at the term “Rust Belt,” corroded as it is with condescension toward this region, upon whose industries and industry other regions were built. I now find myself drawn to the phrase, as one’s fingertips are drawn to a scar. In the midst of the present, we are marked by the past. We bear it everywhere we go. But mostly we bear it here at home.
Rust is remains. Rust makes tangible our ongoing and collective decay. But “chic” is a word for faddish novelty, something passing or already passed. “Rust Belt” goes with “chic” like iron goes with oxygen and water. As Joyce Brabner imagined it, “Rust Belt Chic” was the sound of the coasts sneering at a whole regional culture: “MTV people knocking on our door, asking to get pictures of Harvey [Pekar] emptying the garbage, asking if they can shoot footage of us going bowling.” In the national media, Rust Belt Chic was supposed to be an oxymoron. In this anthology, it is a megaphone.
In these pages, “Rust Belt Chic” may by turns insult and honor; it might name a movement, an aesthetic, an attitude, a brand, or something else entirely. It might already be too shopworn to name anything specific at all.
[blocktext align=”left”]As new generations of Clevelanders look for opportunities to articulate themselves, they will have a book to read and reread, to treasure and argue with in their own words, in their own works.[/blocktext]Whatever else it has become, Rust Belt Chic is a way of speaking about Cleveland and other places like it. More importantly, Rust Belt Chic is a way for those of us who have lived in, who have loved and despised and obsessed over these places, to speak about ourselves. Rust Belt Chic means that our stories are worth telling, and that those stories will not be told for us.
Those pronouns — “our” and “us” — prove troublesome. As the editors of this anthology know, no single narrative — not even the tempting theme of rise and fall and resurrection — tells the story of the city. Stories clarify our experience and allow us to make meaning of it, but when they are reduced to sound bytes and slogans — “the mistake on the lake,” “you’ve gotta be tough” — they lose their complexity.
It’s too simple to say, with Forbes Magazine, that Cleveland is the most miserable city in the United States. Or to say, with Fortune, that Cleveland is the next Brooklyn, whatever that might mean. Too much of the writing about Cleveland is merely some version of such sloganeering elaborated to produce copy. Too much of it seems to have been written by tourist journalists on weekend assignment.
Provincialism thrives in the provinces, of course, but it’s nurtured most lovingly in the capitals, where it masquerades as urbane charm. (Think of Saul Steinberg’s brilliantly tongue-in-cheek View of the World from 9th Avenue). Thus, I suppose the Angeleno who told me, “I never knew there were so many hip people in Cleveland” intended it as a compliment. Thus, when New York magazine published its list of “what to do, where to stay, and what to eat in Cleveland” (after the announcement of LeBron James’s return to the Cavaliers), a cultural critic for Bloomberg Businessweek cluelessly tweeted: “I assume this is just a link to a blank page.”
But the urge to oversimplify persists here too. We see it in the commentary that appeals to Cleveland’s supposed “authenticity” (as if other cities are somehow inauthentic) and in the penchant for reducing debates about the city to a false choice between “boosterism” and “critique.” We see it in our collective elevation of professional athletes to the status of civic and cultural messiahs. And I see it in my own tendency to think of the region’s sensibility as simultaneously fatalistic and defiant. It’s easier, after all, to personify a city than to reconcile its contradictions.
I want to say that Clevelanders expect the worst, that they laugh at the worst when it happens, then collect the usable salvage from whatever wreckage remains in order to build again. I want to say that the urge to wander hums among us, as does the ache to return home. I want to say that within city limits, we’re alternatively mordant and morbid about our home; take us away for too long and we wax sentimental.
But even this is too simple. No community of millions of people can be summed up in a few paragraphs, an essay, even an anthology. While I do find such fatalism and defiance in the pages of this anthology — often cut with a self-effacing gallows humor — I also find other impulses, other stories that do not fit my easy narrative. So I am grateful to the editors of this collection for their sensitivity to the work of telling as many stories as there are Clevelanders to tell them, and Cleveland’s to be told.
Whatever the current dominant narrative of the region may be — as told on the East or West coasts, or here on the North Coast, for that matter—the region’s inhabitants ought to resist it. We’ve heard too much already about what we once were or what we’re going to be from people who don’t know who we are. We don’t need more would-be sages at home who think they know the whole story. We simply need more stories.
Richey Piiparinen and Anne Trubek have produced something remarkable in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. The essays collected here may well introduce even a lifelong Clevelander to otherwise unremarked aspects of the city’s history and culture. These pages ward off easy conclusions—my own included—about what it might mean to be a Clevelander. The essays here speak for themselves, but they do not tell all that has happened since the publication of the first edition of this anthology in 2012.
The work that Anne and Richey began in this anthology, the work of allowing Clevelanders the voice and space to tell their own stories, continues both in the other two city-themed anthologies Rust Belt Chic has inspired (from Cincinnati and Detroit), and in the online magazine Belt, “devoted to long-form journalism, essay, and commentary with a distinctly Rust Belt sensibility.” Taken together, Rust Belt Chic and Belt have led an emerging renaissance in the arts and letters of the region.
The continuing resonance of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology is evident in the remarkable fact that the book has sold through its first two printings. But its influence will be more lasting in less tangible ways. As new generations of Clevelanders look for opportunities to articulate themselves, they will have a book to read and reread, to treasure and argue with in their own words, in their own works.
The editors offer this second edition to continue and expand the conversation begun in 2012, especially by including several essays previously available only in the e-book edition. They have not asked the authors to edit or update these essays to reflect what has changed since the anthology was first published. Rather, this edition of Rust Belt Chic should serve as a document of its original moment as well as a way of speaking to the future of this region.
“This is no book,” Walt Whitman wrote of Leaves of Grass. “Who touches this, touches a man.” Who touches this, I hope, touches a city, becomes part of its many stories, begins to tell them anew.
Dave Lucas was born and raised in Cleveland. He is the author of Weather (Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. The same year, Rita Dove named him as one of thirteen “young poets to watch.” He has also been awarded fellowships from the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan, where he received a Ph.D. in English language and literature. He is a co-founder and co-curator of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery, and he teaches at Case Western Reserve University.
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