By Scott Atkinson
Last summer I was at the Soggy Bottom Bar in downtown Flint, Michigan for the launch of Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology, which I had edited, and author Aaron Foley and I were doing the very cool thing of signing each other’s books. I’d bought his How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass and handed over a copy of Happy Anyway to him (both books from the publishing arm of the magazine you’re reading). Blame it on all the Manhattans (or Kenny, the manager and a friend of mine, who kept making them appear like magic) but I couldn’t think of anything cool to write, and so I said something I hoped was funny (it wasn’t) about how I hoped to never be a jackass in Detroit.
Aaron, being Aaron, wrote something far more thoughtful. After a brief congratulations he scribbled something that has stuck with me: “We’re all in this together.”
And, well…yes. Goddamn right we are.
The problem is that sometimes it’s hard to feel that way. Aaron had to only drive an hour north to get to Flint, and yet at times Detroit can feel like a world away, even though we’re often talking about similar issues that plague our cities. Yeah, those problems might look alike, but hey, you’ve got your problems and I’ve got mine.
Maybe that’s because, among all we have in common throughout the Rust Belt, one of the strongest things we all have are our roots. We all have our own histories and mythologies, the things that make us, often proudly, often angrily, what we are.
From a distance, this might seem strange. Very broadly speaking, most of the hubs in the Rust Belt have a similar history. There once was a group of people who found a river. They settled on that river, and then they built things — so many things that entire cities sprung up with economic tendrils worming their way through the surrounding countryside until the things they built became the lynchpin for an entire region. Then, one day, those things weren’t being built anymore, and they all tried to figure out what to do.
Then, one day…well, we’re still waiting for that day. Waiting to see what happens next. As I might tell my writing students: Your story doesn’t have an ending.
And when you’re waiting — or fighting — for the next thing to happen — it’s easy to forget that yours is a familiar story. You can’t always take that distanced view afforded to the outsider.
I did not grow up in Flint, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how closely tied I was to the city. I grew up in a small, rural town of Durand, about halfway between Flint and Lansing, Michigan’s capital, with only a vague understanding of what General Motors was and the role it played. My friend’s dads worked there. I grew up in a construction family, and before I learned to drive any heavy equipment myself all I knew what that my dad, grandpa, uncles, and the rest of Atkinson Construction put in the infrastructure for subdivisions all over Genesee County. As far as I knew, there was no connection to what my friends’ dads did and what my dad did.
My first introduction to Flint was really when I was seventeen and I realized that “Flint” meant more than the mall in the neighboring township, nestled among chain restaurants, strip malls, and big box stores. It was when I discovered the Flint Dojo and began learning Brazilian jiu jitsu. The dojo was an old building on the east side of Flint, a place I was naïve enough to never be afraid of driving to (some prospective students — even a cop once — saw where the building was and kept on driving). But I knew I was in Flint, in a building next to a vacant house where a lone heavy bag hanging in the corner, duct tape wrapped around its middle like it was the victim of a stab wound.
I felt tough as hell. Connected.
But I wasn’t tough, and certainly wasn’t connected — at least not the way I thought I was.
It never occurred to me who was living in those subdivisions my family built the roads and laid the pipes for, or that my first car — a Chevy — were tied directly to the money that put me through journalism school and allowed me to have a job when I came home each summer. It never crossed my mind that when the family business scaled back on construction and built the summer campground where I would spend much of my childhood, that it had anything to do with fewer people buying houses because fewer people were making cars.
I don’t think I’m alone. I think it’s easy to miss those connections, to see how much the Rust Belt affects all of us — those living in it and those who don’t but are, whether they realize it or not, very much a part of it.
We witnessed this perhaps most obviously in the recent presidential election. No one saw it coming — but the truth is, we could have. Ask people in the Rust Belt how they feel and a common answer will likely be “ignored.” And when someone comes along promising to bring back your community’s days of glory, is it so surprising that so many people were willing to vote for it?
We are in uncertain times, and the Rust Belt matters as much as it always has. What happens in this country tends to happen here first. We should pay attention.
Which also means we should be writing about it. And by we, I mean those of us who are in the Rust Belt, who have lived it, who “get it.”
In fact, that’s what Belt Magazine is, a magazine by people who get it, so that the rest of the world might, and so those of us who do can learn more about each other or simply nod and say, yes.
(That also costs money, so if you agree, become a member and help us do this.)
I’ve been writing about Flint since I found Flint’s old alternative newspaper sitting in the Flint dojo and convinced the editor to turn me loose with a pen. I’ve since gone on to write about the city for several more papers and magazines, but teaming up with Belt was my chance start seeing how Flint’s connections reached far beyond the factories and city limits. My first story was about a country musician…but also about how people, and cultures, traveled across the country to work in the factories that built the country, making it the unique place it is. Since then I’ve watched our writers dig deep into what the Rust Belt means to us all — the stories of immigrants, the impact of freeloading seagulls, the true expense of hip new cafes serving trendy coffee, and exploring what it means to be LGBT in the Rust Belt.
I look forward to dispatching our writers into more nooks and crannies of the Rust Belt, revealing its connections to the rest of the nation and showing why more of us should get it. I look forward to making clear what should have been obvious all along, even to me: that we’re all in this together.