The City-States of the Rust Belt

2015-10-15T09:47:26+00:00October 1st, 2015|

By Anne Trubek

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. During the summer, on weekends and breaks, my friends would often go to Milwaukee (1 1/2 hours drive ) and Chicago (3 hours) with their families for vacations. When I moved to Cleveland, I expected I would similarly visit Detroit (2 1/2 hours) and Pittsburgh (2 hours).

I have taken those trips. But not nearly as much as I thought I would.

Nor have many of my friends. “I have never been to Detroit,” one native Clevelander who travels a lot told me last week. When asked their impressions of it and of Pittsburgh, others replied with answers not so different than a birds-eye, cliched Buzzfeed-type listicle: “Murders. Cars. Steelers. Rivers.”

Why this ignorance and disinterest in cities that are so similar? After all, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh — to choose the three most alike and near by — were all founded during the same period, settled by similar immigrant groups, and defined demographically by the same migration patters. They all expanded at the same time as industries took off, and contracted in concert as those same industries declined. They all boast cultural riches thanks to philanthropists and foundations of similar stripes. It does not require an adventurous spirit to take a visit.

Credit: Bruce Berrien (

Credit: Bruce Berrien (

Initially, I blamed sports. Is the Steelers/Browns rivalry so deep that they preclude even trips to eat delicious food and drink beer? Higher education is also a culprit, keeping kids in their home states — Lansing, Columbus, Happy Valley, say, instead of the big city next door.

None of those seemed sufficient explanation. The next theory was even more depressing: civic self-centeredness. I have seen this play out as the editor of Belt. Clevelanders love to read about Cleveland; they do not click much on stories about Detroit. Last week, I was selling Belt books at a street fair in Cleveland. On the table were our anthologies about Cleveland, Youngstown, Cincinnati, Detroit and Pittsburgh. “Take off Detroit and Pittsburgh,” said a man as we looked over the titles. “You can keep the rest.”

I was going down a rabbit hole of grouchiness, mumbling very unkind thing about my adopted city’s lack of regional curiosity. But then I asked the editors of Belt’s Detroit and Pittsburgh anthologies about their cities, and it turns out Cleveland is not unique in this, either. Pittsburgh and Detroit are similarly disinterested each other, and Cleveland.

“We might make a crack about Detroit if the Red Wings are in town…and the Browns used to be fun to poke at, but they have been too bad for too long for that to be fun,” Eric Boyd, editor of The Pittsburgh Anthology told me, “but typically you just don’t hear much of anything. On the other hand, if an out-of-towner comes in, they’ll hear all about how great Pittsburgh is, or if a Pittsburgher visits another city, that city will hear all about how great Pittsburgh is.”

This same combination of civic pride and disdain for neighbors was echoed by A Detroit Anthology editor Anna Clark: “There’s just not that much attention paid to what happens elsewhere, at least in terms of what we could learn from it. You sometimes see articles in local news about how Pittsburgh transformed its economy and its industrial image…but that’s about it. I don’t hear it boiling down into everyday conversation and practical action….Or, Detroiters get defensively proud of even rotten things about our city. ‘Oh, you think you’ve got bad schools, Cleveland? I’ll show you some bad schools!”’

detroitCleveland and Detroit certainly do like to play off each other in the race to the bottom. If Detroit gets the we have it worse card, Cleveland has the “at least we’re not Detroit!” card, most perfectly summed up in the last frame of the Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism video. This, in fact, may be the most common reason Detroit comes up in conversations in Cleveland — as invidious comparison.

When I first started Belt, I envisioned the region as one whole, splayed across the south side of Great Lakes. These days, I see it as a series of separate city-states, self-contained units looking inward, with the outer ring suburbs serving as a sort of moat. Or, as it appears on my Google Analytics dashboard, a series of large orange dots, with nothing, including transportation, connecting them.

The parochialism, like any form of inbred prejudice, has serious drawbacks, of course. I am poorer for my lack of time spent in other cities, as are my friends. Detroit and Cleveland could certainly learn from Pittsburgh about how to improve economically. And all three cities — as well as Buffalo, Milwaukee, St. Louis and even Chicago — could certainly improve if we would talk to each other about the stunning segregation we all share.

But this civic inwardness, this internal brooding, this external boasting — these are, in the end, one more thing Rust Belt cities have in common. Within each city, we are wrapped in a warm, safe hug with our backs our to our neighbors. “Great Museum, Fresh Water and Disinterested In You!” might work for some regional branding. What do you think? Maybe we should discuss it amongst ourselves.

Anne Trubek is the founder and publisher of Belt.


  1. Joe Baur October 1, 2015 at 10:27 am

    I’m surprised and not surprised to hear that folks don’t like reading about others cities. Personally I love traveling to Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cincinnati and Buffalo whenever I can for the very reasons stated above. But I also don’t count myself as the norm.

    It could also be that the distance is so close. I had been guilty of overlooking destinations because of their proximity. Travel is my job and I only got to Toronto for the first time last year out of happenstance. I would keep telling myself, “Eh, I’ll get to it.” I’ve found this same phenomenon in other countries from Central America to Europe and of course the States. When we get time to travel, we want to feel like we’ve traveled and counting off the miles plays a role in that for better or worse.

    Whatever the reason, I would regardless strongly encourage that we visit one another amongst our Rust Belt brothers and sisters.

  2. Brian October 1, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Interesting article. However, one of the points repeated in this article and repeated very often in Rust Belt and other media outlets is Pittsburgh’s “economic rebirth/transition”. I feel like this is more hype than reality. Pittsburgh is a great city and enjoy visiting there. However, Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate is significantly higher than Cleveland’s. Pittsburgh has done some good things worth taking note of and learn from but they aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire economically either.

    • John S. October 3, 2015 at 12:53 pm

      I’ve wondered too whether Pittsburgh’s “rebirth/transition” is more hype than reality. Good things are happening there with Google, the universities and downtown, for sure, but it’s not like the whole city and region has been completely transformed from its battered and beaten-down former Steel City self into “Silicon Valley East.” The region is still one of the oldest, demographic wise, and also one of the least diverse in the country. Also, population change in the city of Pittsburgh itself, while no longer in outright free fall, is flat or only marginally moving in either direction. I don’t want to take anything away from the successes that Pittsburgh has truly achieved, but I also wonder how much the “rebirth” meme being perpetuated is doing it and our other Rust Belt cities a disservice by glossing over the deeper seated issues that are still very much going on there and in all of our cities, things that all of them should be working together on to address in fundamental ways?

      • CB August 30, 2016 at 11:09 pm

        I’m not sure about this whole Rust Belt thing. Pittsburgh is hardly a Rust Belt City (whatever that means). For example, Pitt residents have much higher salaries than Philly, Baltimore, or Cleveland (the three closest cities). Rust Belt is a dumb term.

        • David September 12, 2016 at 7:49 pm

          huh? Pitts is an iconic rust belt city. The articles reference to regional provincialism seems to speak to fighting for your own modest superiority while trashing the whole region.

  3. Tom October 1, 2015 at 11:44 am

    My years as a newspaper copy editor are kicking in: please don’t say “disinterested” when you mean “uninterested.” Disinterested is what a judge trying a case is supposed to be — doesn’t have a financial or personal interest in one side or the other.
    Sorry. Had to get that off my chest.
    I live in Erie, PA, which is so uninterested in other Rust Belt cities that nobody here even knows what Belt Magazine is. Nobody goes to Cleveland or Pittsburgh except for sports events or hospital procedures. God forbid anyone would go to Buffalo or Detroit, despite the burgeoning music and art scenes in those most forbidding of Rust Belt cities. I travel a lot because I make films about musicians, so I go where the music is. I love Buffalo, I love Detroit, I moved back to Erie from Pittsburgh because I can get to more destinations in a half day’s drive.
    There is definitely a bunker or silo mindset in this part of the country. People are keenly interested in their own city, and uninterested in those other cities that lie close by.
    Part of the reason for this mindset is insecurity: we all believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we are second-rate. We need constant validation. This is why articles about this city or that city’s revitalization are pounced upon eagerly by local elected officials, chambers of commerce, etc., and why the opening of a chain restaurant like IHOP is treated like a big deal. We take it as validation from the outside world that we are important.
    Part of the reason for the mindset is scarcity. There isn’t enough success to go around, so we are very jealous and suspicious when something good happens in another city. We all believe that Cleveland’s success comes at Pittsburgh’s expense. We are like crabs in a barrel; when one crab tries to escape, the other crabs pull it back in.
    My discovery of Belt Magazine last spring led to an orgy of reading. I read everything on the website, all of the anthologies, and then as many books about Rust Belt cities as I could find. (I was particularly impressed by Andrew Highsmith’s “Demolition Means Progress” and Sean Safford’s “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown.”) I am struck, as you were, by the commonalities among cities in our region. We should be promoting a regional identity and emphasizing our strengths instead of bemoaning our weaknesses. Perhaps the name “Rust Belt” is a problem for some people. I would love to see some kind of regional festival or gathering as a first step in that direction.

    • Anne Trubek October 1, 2015 at 11:55 am

      Thanks for this fascinating and super-supportive reply, of which I have much to say. But first: let’s talk disinterested! I actually meant to use it in its meaning as neutral. But perhaps uninterested is more what the cities are vis a vis each other? It’s a fine point. I like fine points.

    • taco1353 October 4, 2015 at 4:42 pm

      That idea of a festival of our cities, while at first sounding iffy, becomes better upon reflection. I think if it was a rotating fair that might be doable. All of these cities embrace this sort of exhibition. They all have arts, business and other organizations that could create interesting midway content, booths etc. Add some food trucks, music, and local spice and people would undoubtedly attend. I think that the lack of interaction and sad transportation could be overcome using this vehicle. there used to be a jazz series that connected Cleveland , Detroit, and Pittsburgh. Exchanges of artists from those cities with a bit of competitive gaming. There is a buking competition with Pittsburg. Working together, existent organization could combine into a terrific weekend of fun and education.

    • John March 10, 2016 at 11:36 am

      Just for the record, here is at least one more Erie dweller who knows about and reads Rust Belt. This article and discussion are worth our pondering, and acting.

  4. Steve P October 1, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    Hi Anne

    Nice article.

    Regarding the “internal brooding”/”external boasting” dichotomy that you observe, I can’t think of a better example than the hideous “Detroit vs. Everybody” t- shirts that everyone seems to be wearing when I go back to Detroit to visit. To me the internal message is that we are victims and our problems are not of our doing. The external message is that we are survivors, stronger and different from you, so please treat us with the respect we deserve. Seems to be a very sad attitude and makes me wince for what was once a great and proud city.

    • Anne Trubek October 1, 2015 at 1:32 pm

      Cleveland vs. Everybody shirts are popular too…

  5. Mike B October 1, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    I’m in Chicago and while I’ve visited all of these places I have zero plans to go back to any of them except maybe back to Detroit at some point. Minneapolis I plan to return to as well even though it’s not on this list. The main reason I don’t care to visit St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Cincinnati or Buffalo again is that they are basically just crappy versions of the crappiest parts of Chicago. My S/O lived in Buffalo for a time during grad school and it was literally one of the worst places I’ve ever been. She actually considered dropping out it was so miserable but she stuck it out so she could study abroad somewhere else. Every day she lived there she looked forward to leaving. If I suggest a trip to Buffalo now she would just laugh at me. Constant horribleness.

    • BenP October 1, 2015 at 7:32 pm

      I’ve seen T-shirts that say “Buffalo hates you too.”

    • Winthrop October 2, 2015 at 7:58 am

      Thanks Mike B. ! Now I got find my old “Buffalo vs Everybody” shirt. Or wear the new one “Buffalo Loves You Too”

    • Brian October 2, 2015 at 3:39 pm

      What’s funny is I look at Chicago in a similar/opposite way that you look at Cleveland. I see Cleveland as having the same types of things you can get in Chicago (arts, restaurants, parks, architecture, etc. – although not the same number of options) without all the headaches associated with Chicago (expensive, crowded, traffic, crime, etc.).

      Chicago is a great and global city, but from my perspective I already can get the parts of Chicago that I like in Cleveland.

  6. Mandy October 1, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    I’m from Detroit, I’ve lived all over the place and now I’ve made my home in Pittsburgh for the past 12 years. I love Pittsburgh and Detroit and the rust belt in general. I go to Detroit to visit family at least once a year, and I go to Chicago for the same reason less frequently. Chicago is a place I would go on purpose just to have fun, because it’s a great city. I’ve been to Cleveland once, Cincinnati once, and Buffalo twice (to visit a particular friend).

    I don’t have a lot of money, and when I can scrape some together to travel, I try to flee the Rust Belt aesthetic–get a breath of fresh air, so to speak. Despite my love of the Rust Belt, it’s often shitty and depressing–it’s nice to go places with more sun (it is REALLY gloomy here in the winter), more money, or more vibrance.

    • Chris October 2, 2015 at 12:03 pm

      I think you hit on something with your”Flee the rust belt aesthetic.” Why go to Detroit or Buffalo when I can get a similar experience here in Cleveland? Why not go to somewhere lively, more inviting and completely different.

  7. John S. October 1, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    Very insightful article, Anne. I’m an Akron native, currently living in Columbus, who has often wondered as you do, why our Rust Belt cities are seemingly so willfully ignorant of and uninterested in each other. As much as this is a problem between larger Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh, it’s also quite evident in the Akron-Canton area, where two smaller cities less than 30 minutes apart barely acknowledge each other beyond a passing reference to the airport they share. Never mind the fact that working together as close allies and neighbors could help both cities address many long standing problems and concerns that they each share. Canton has recently enjoyed success and acclaim thanks to its thriving Downtown Arts District. Such is the extent of their success that they have even been consulted by other communities and cities elsewhere around the country that are looking to restore the sense of place and shared community that they have lost, for whatever reason. Meanwhile, just 25 miles north on I-77, Akron is casting about looking for ways to revitalize its own neighborhoods to reverse brain drain and keep the city viable for generations Y and Z. Akron has better marketing strategies in place and the wherewithal behind them, yet Canton seems to have made placemaking around the arts and entertainment an art unto itself. You’d think there would be all kinds of back and forth between the movers and shakers in both cities, but the sad reality is they might as well be on opposite ends of the country. The irony is, Akron has recently been sending groups of its community, business and political leaders on trips to places like Omaha, NE and Greenville, SC to find out how these cities have made strides in remaking themselves.

    I keep thinking to myself “if only…” while I drive up and down I-71 and see car after car with “HOME” decals plastered to their back window with the arbitrarily-drawn silhouette of the state of Ohio substituted for the letter “O”. If only our Rust Belt cities saw themselves in a similar but organic sense, as part of a common regional identity that transcended state lines, and also in a collegial, neighborly sense, willing to support and help each other out to the greater benefit of all. My true “HOME” is Pittsburgh, Detroit, Toledo, Youngstown and Buffalo, as much as it is also Cleveland and the cities of Akron and Canton.

  8. Roamingirl October 2, 2015 at 1:47 am

    My moms family started in Toldedo (from Poland) and branched out a little to Detroit and Cleveland and visited each other frequently. As a kid we took the bus to Toledo for bar mitzvahs maybe twice and that’s it. Now, talking to my cousins (46 of us second cousins!) still nearby and discussing getting together, I still have the mind of my childhood experience. It’s a Big Deal trip. (And this from a worldwide adult traveler! Checkout my usual handle. Haha) Looking at places to meet, I see now how close we all actually are! So silly! I could literally drive almost the whole way on a street a few blocks over and meet them halfway in the same time it takes me to get home from work some days. Hah.

    • Roamingirl October 2, 2015 at 1:49 am

      Sorry – Toledo. Can’t edit?

  9. Neb October 2, 2015 at 11:26 am

    Interesting post.

    I wonder if the lack of frequent rail connections (even non high speed rail) would change this. The East Coast has this, and it is so easy to hop from city to city. I personally have visited Cleveland and Pittsburgh from DC and had a great time in both cities.

  10. Inkstained October 4, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    In the late 1980s, I made my one and only trip to Milwaukee to visit a friend who’d moved from Cleveland. I was struck by how similar the two cities were and, when I mentioned it to my friend, he agreed, but said he’d learned not to point that out to Milwaukeeans because they always got angry and insisted the two cities were nothing alike.

    • D. Holmes October 8, 2015 at 2:36 am

      I’m from Milwaukee and I would agree there are many similarities with Cleveland. I think Milwaukee is much further ahead in downtown revitalization and in particular waterfront and old industrial areas. But Cleveland has more legacy assets, and I wish we had something equivalent to Cleveland Clinic.

      Will post more comments when i can do so other than on my phone.

      Overall the article raises an interesting and important topic. I think there is a different dynamic at work in Milwaukee, Chicago, Madison. I feel more of a regional connectedness and affiliation. Perhaps the distinct attractions in each city combined with the size differential limits feelings that the cities are rivals, whereas the similarities including size engender a much greater sense of rivalry between Cleveland, Cincinnati Pittsburgh etc.

  11. Dan November 1, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    Buffalo only got a passing mention in this article. It’s kind of what I expected. It plays second fiddle to NYC in its own state; a distant outpost that competes with wealthier white-collar Rochester (the Buffalo-Rochester dynamic is very similar to Cleveland and Columbus), and New England-ish Albany. It’s also an outpost of the Rust Belt; a footnote to “real” Rust Belt cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.

    Buffalo is a pickle in the middle, trapped between two worlds — geographically in the Northeast, but culturally deep in the Great Lakes Midwest. (Three, if you count the Golden Horseshoe conurbation across the border.) Neither seems to want Buffalo in its clique. So, the region hides behind its toll booths and turns its back on both, as if it’s collectively saying “That’s okay. I didn’t like either of you anyways.”

    There’s a lot of comparisons to other cities — “It’s a denser version of a half-size Cleveland”, “It’s a smaller Milwaukee without alleys”, “It’s a bigger Toledo with better food”, and “It’s a little Detroit, but with white people”. Few see Buffalo as just Buffalo.

    I grew up in Buffalo, and lived in Cleveland. An indicator of sorts – aspirational colleges and universities. In Cleveland, it was the University of Michigan, Ohio State, University of Chicago, Northwestern, Notre Dame, … basically, prospective students looked west. In Buffalo, it’s UB, Rochester, Syracuse, the Ivies, NYU, Penn State, Syracuse, and anything within an hour of Boston. It’s a city that might look and feel Midwestern, but its economic ties are to the Northeast.

    Lots of Clevelanders have visited Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, the UP, and other points to the west. I’ve met only a couple of Clevelanders that have been to Buffalo. Maybe they passed around it on the way to Toronto or Boston, but stopped in the city? Why bother? “it’s like a big Toledo, or a little Detroit. 90 to 290 to 190 north to the Queen Elizabeth Way, right? I’ll experience Buffalo at the Wegmans in Erie on the way back.”

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