By Anne Trubek
I regularly read Slate. I regularly read a raft of publications that are based in D.C., New York, San Francisco and other coastal cities. I have written for Slate and many national publications as well. But sometimes when I read these publications, I think: the writers and editors assume I do not read publications like theirs. I am not their intended audience.
Why? Because I live in the Rust Belt. And there is a discomforting post-colonial angle to many pieces written about the Rust Belt. The latest case in point is Alex MacGillis’ The Rust Belt Theory of Low-Cost High Culture, in which MacGillis explains to his readers that many cities in America have quality, affordable art museums and orchestras.
MacGillis is right, of course: there are many such cultural resources in the Rust Belt. A recent transplant from D.C. to Baltimore, MacGillis is delighted with these offerings, and it is to his credit that he takes advantage of them. It is also to Baltimore’s benefit that he purchases subscriptions and tickets and spends money at the restaurants near the concert halls and museums.
But MacGillis’ assumes he is explaining these cities’ offerings to his readers. That he has “discovered” something, and, by implication, that the Rust Belt is a land to be explored, full of people who do not themselves read publications like Slate (because you don’t explain something to the ‘natives’—you explain it to the tourists).
Here is the conclusion to his article about the cheap tickets you can buy to high-culture venues in the Rust Belt:
“Some day, the bargains may vanish, once more people here in town realize what they’re missing out on, or once more people from overpriced and oversaturated cities like Washington discover what’s up the road. But for now, the deals are there for the taking, and we’ll be first in line, making the most of our happy singularity.”
“Discover”? “Our happy singularity?”
MacGillis and his wife are not the only patrons at the events they enjoy: the orchestras are not playing to empty seats; the galleries are not walked by them alone. Others in Baltimore—and Detroit, Milwaukee, Buffalo and Cleveland—buy tickets, too. So why this odd ending? Either because MacGillis does not see—or just elides the presence of—the “natives” joining him, or because he assumes the only people reading his article are those who live in the “creative-class capitals such as New York and Boston, where theaters and concert halls can fill seats with deep-pocketed local elites and high-spending tourists,” as he writes earlier in the piece.
But of course, there are over 50 million people living in the Rust Belt. Almost all are fluent in English, and many read Slate. Like me.
The rhetorical assumptions here, as in many other similar pieces, are post-colonial. They position those living in the Rust Belt as the simple locals (“once more people here in town realize what they’re missing out on”), and the Rust Belt a new territory to be “discovered.”
All the pieces are there: the delightful natives, the elite who discovers them, and, also, the hint of profit down the line: “some day, the bargains may vanish.” So not only can coastal elites trek off to exploit the cheap charms of the Rust Belt (and feel a bit of white—or coastal—guilt, as MacGillis says he feels about paying so little for such riches), but there is an assumed narrative of progress at work here. Presumably, “once more people from overpriced and oversaturated cities like Washington discover what’s up the road,” prices will rise. The implied message? Get in early while it’s still cheap, and you can profit later on.
And we all know how well things usually turn out when a group of outsiders with money decide a place might be worth more than it is currently valued and starts buying things.
I do not think MacGillis has any such nefarious motive, and it is true I am using his piece to make a point I have long been thinking about. Which is that what MacGillis and Slate—and other writers in other publications— forget is that people in Baltimore (which, by the way, is a city few would agree is part of the Rust Belt)—and Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, etc.—read national publications, too. We read them the morning after we have gone to a concert, and before we are off to the museum. We also read them while we struggle with our bills, and worry about the decaying infrastructure and continued loss of jobs. Because we are part of the nation, and part of the conversation about the troubled economy and cultural resources of this sizable portion of the United States.
To forget this fact is to continue the unintended “happy, ignorant native” narrative being built about the Rust Belt by national publications today. Imagine a British writer publishing an account in a London newspaper describing his sojourn to India in 1920. Okay, I exaggerate—but you get the point.
Sometimes I joke that I should to pitch Slate or The Boston Globe a piece that goes something like this: “I live in Cleveland and I visited New York last month, and I was amazed to discover all these ethnic grocery stores and cool small museums! Would you like a travel piece on the gems of New York City?”
It would never fly. But such stories about the Rust Belt do. They make great “look what I discovered” fodder. The millions of us who read these articles while living here in the territories are not surprised to learn basics about our cities—though many are often very excited to have the coastal elites “discover” our charms (the Uncle Toms of the Rust Belt?).
Me? It makes me queasy and uneasy. The Rust Belt is not a continent to be explored—a diamond in the rough to be mined—and people who live or relocate here are not “pioneers,” with all the Manifest Destiny that implies. When the coastal media forget that we who live here are their audience too, they are at best depriving themselves of 50 million readers, and at worst perpetuating a dynamic long-ago proven disastrous.