By Michael McAlonie
I was intrigued when my old friend Bill told me he had gotten a new job as an editor at a magazine based in Cleveland. I was more intrigued when he told me the title of the magazine and its subject matter – the “Rust Belt.” Having won the 8th-grade creative writing award, I felt no-doubt qualified to contribute something to the magazine, so I told Bill in as serious a voice as I could manage that I would be submitting a piece on the rust here in my hometown.
I don’t think Bill could tell if I had lost what was left of my sleep-deprived mind and was serious, or not, and he politely said that he didn’t think that the Rust Belt technically extended to the Hudson Valley of New York. Immediately, I felt slighted. Not for the personal rebuke I had just suffered, but for the exclusion of this fine, historically rich area surrounding the capital of New York that some of us hold so dear. This area was one of the original birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution in the United States – many parts of which have survived the loss of manufacturing base and are no stranger to the oxidation that your fancy Belt lays claim to. The images of rusted, postindustrial twisted metal and concrete flowing through my head quickly gave way to wounded disappointment.
But what had started as a joke was transformed by rejection into semi-steeled determination. Immediately I sought redress. As any good nonintellectual would do, I went straight to Wikipedia to consult the world’s experts on all matters. According to the version of the Wikipedia article that appeared when I first typed in my query, the geography of the Rust Belt extended to “the midline of New York State.” I immediately felt redeemed. I called and explained to Bill that Wikipedia’s definition did not specify which axis was used to define “midline,” and, if in fact the east-west axis was used, and not a north-south demarcation line, then, in fact, our fair cities of Troy, Watervliet, and Cohoes, NY, would be included in the Wikipedia definition of the “Rust Belt.” At which point I feverishly began to write.
One thing I’ve noticed about rust is that, at least on things well made, it’s only skin deep, to an extent. With some effort, it does come off and you are left with shining steel again…
Well, not really. More like blank stares. As I pondered my inaugural attempt at literary publication and glory I realized that like anything in life done well that is worthwhile and meaningful, it can’t, or shouldn’t, be born of negativity. I decided to stow my hurt feelings, my jealousy at being left out of the Belt – though where I lived was undeniably rusty – and my feelings of inadequacy. Be positive, I decide. To offer hope, or solutions, instead of criticism without constructive intent. Sans any sort of literary training, or experience, or talent, I decide to write about what I know.
But then the problem became, what the hell do I know? I am an RN, but the subject matter of my employment would be neither appropriate nor appealing to your savvy readers, or at least the ones you would like to keep. I am married to a beautiful woman, a history teacher, and am also a father of three young sons who live on a small mountain east of Troy on a small farm built in 1870 by a Hessian farmer. And I love history. I see the history in every inch of my house and barn. I am intrigued and amazed by the steel relics of the farm that existed here 140 years ago: the old hand-forged hinges and latches in the barn; the wagon wheels thrown out to rust in the weeds; the relics of old farm machinery. I love to dig these things out and save them. I’ve made signs and artwork with old horse shoes and wagon axles. One thing I’ve noticed about rust is that, at least on things well made, it’s only skin deep, to an extent. With some effort, it does come off and you are left with shining steel again. A new coat of paint, and it’s as good as new for another 50 years.My parents’ families all lived at one point in Troy, NY, a major center of industrial development in the northeastern U.S. during the early to mid-1800s. It was across the shore from where the Erie Canal met the Hudson River. Its ornate Victorian-era architecture is impressive and irreplaceable. It was where Henry Burden and his fellow industrial tycoon types built their mills on the two creeks named by early Dutch settlers that flowed through Troy into the Hudson River, and where in 1835 he invented a horseshoe-making machine that could produce sixty horseshoes a minute. Our ancestors fabricated the steel plates that protected the sides of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor. It was the first place in the U.S. that the Bessemer process of steelmaking was used in the 1860s, which made possible the explosion of railroad networks nationwide to Cleveland and beyond. Troy was the place of business of Samuel Wilson, who later became known as “Uncle Sam” for stamping “U.S.” on beef he sold to the Army in the War of 1812. As with so many other American cities, Troy, like Cleveland, was devastated by the loss of its mills and manufacturing base. Bill and I swam with our friends in these creeks and cliff-jumped into the pools left behind from these old steel works as teenagers, amid unidentifiable iron and concrete masses of industrial ruin – perhaps our first intimate experience with the remnants of Troy’s rust belt. More than a belt, the loss of Troy’s manufacturing industries of steel and cotton had left it with a century-old rust overcoat. During post-World War II suburbanization, if you lived in downtown Troy it was because you either loved it so much you wouldn’t leave, or you just couldn’t leave for some reason – usually money. The neighborhoods my parents’ families had lived in became dangerous. Urban renewal attempts in Troy in the 1960s and 1970s were not very effective, and some would say they were downright destructive when you consider all of the beautiful old neighborhoods with ornate architecture and history that were bulldozed to build architecturally bland and culturally devoid plazas and atriums.
But those people who saw through that rust and the faded paint, back to a historically and culturally rich past, the ones who remember the old neighborhoods and talked about the old days – they never left. As I am sure is the case in Cleveland. The artists and the writers who feed off that rich culture and history never left. The academics who attend one of the finest and oldest engineering schools in the nation, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, my father’s alma mater, keep graduating and coming back. Or at least they kept donating enough to keep the school bursting at its seams, which included buying and renovating old houses and irreplaceable buildings like my father’s old high school, Catholic Central High, which had been repurposed prior to WW2 from the old Troy Hospital built in 1848. Proctor’s Theater, an ornate vaudeville theater built by my great-grand-uncle’s construction company in 1914, which sat sadly vacant and dilapidated for decades, was purchased by RPI and now is being renovated into office space with a “Restore NY” public grant, preserving its architectural beauty.
The combination of all these different people – the artists, the historians, the academics, and the dreamers, as well as, of course, the developers and entrepreneurs – is, year by year, noticeably bringing this tired, rusty, yet resilient old city back to vibrant downtown life. Brewpubs, trendy restaurants, boutiques, and old warehouses and factories being re-purposed into new offices and high end apartments, are being invested in and willed into existence all over the city. All of the new development nicely complements the surviving remnants of “old” Troy, as this urban development is occurring among many of the old treasures that never left – the restaurants and businesses that clung on through the hard years, like DeFazio’s Pizza, a corner store in Little Italy where my father would take me as a boy to buy grated cheese and talk South Troy with old Mr. DeFazio. And Manory’s Restaurant on Congress Street, which opened in 1913, where I used to crash my father’s retirement “breakfast club” on Thursday mornings and listen to the salty old vets gripe about how my breakfast alone tripled their bill, as my father quietly grinned at me.In March the New York Times ran an article titled “A town on New York’s Hudson River Reinvents Itself,” detailing Troy’s “comeback.” Although the city still has more than its fair share of very serious financial and socioeconomic problems, those who love its history and believe in Troy just won’t let it fade away. But still clear in my memory are those great places here that did go away. Marty Burke’s South End Tavern, where my Irish mother would take us for corned beef sandwiches, was the last place in Troy to have a separate entrance with a sign that read “Lady’s Entrance” into the dining room. It is now gone. So is Prediger’s Bakery on Green Island, where in my fond, drooling memories I can still smell the heavenly sweet smells of fresh sticky cinnamon buns and hear my father yelling at me for reaching into the bag before we got home. After being run by the same family for four generations, Spiak’s Restaurant in Watervliet, on the other side of the Hudson on the Erie Canal in old “West Troy,” where we were rewarded after special occasions with their still-unmatched pizza (at least in my mind) and a single pitcher of soda for six kids, was recently closed. And seeing the architecturally irreplaceable churches that my stonemason ancestors built and worshiped in in the 1800s sit empty and shuttered and vandalized is heartbreaking.
I shall refrain from any literary assaults from us back east on being excluded from your scope of interest…Just don’t forget that you’re not alone in all of this. How about putting a few more holes in that belt and keeping us back east in mind?
So, Cleveland, and the rest of your geographically exclusive Rust Belt, I shall refrain from any literary assaults from us back east on being excluded from your scope of interest. No corny jokes commensurate with my sophomoric mentality and total lack of literary tact. No pointing out that the only things we simple people in upstate NY know about Cleveland, or Ohio, are the Cavs, the Indians, Jim Brown, Betty White, and Ford’s famous 351 Cleveland car engine. I won’t kick you when you’re down, Rust Belt, because upstate New York has been there; like you we’re still struggling from decades of postindustrial economic depression. I’m sure that the Rust Belt and the midwest have every bit of the rich historical and cultural past that we have to write about in Troy. After all, that is why your magazine exists. So despite the fact that history and its steward, Wikipedia, have defined us out of your rusty world, I’m quite sure the fine city of Cleveland and its fancy oxidized belt will continue to survive and thrive again, and you will have helped keep it connected to its historic and cultural roots. Just don’t forget that you’re not alone in all of this. How about putting a few more holes in that belt and keeping us back east in mind? And remember, with things worth saving, the rust is only on the surface; a little elbow grease and it shines again.
Michael McAlonie is a Registered Nurse and father of three young sons with an interest in local and family history. He lives on a small farm with his history teacher wife Wendy, their three children, and their dog Samantha on Taborton Mountain, east of Troy, NY. He is a childhood friend of Belt managing editor Bill Rickman.
Banner photo by Matt H. Wade, via Wikimedia Commons
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