The mark of a brilliant idea, I would argue, is how jealous it makes you feel when you first learn about it. By that criterion, I was incredibly jealous of the organizers of the Rust Belt Humanities Lab.

By Ed Simon 

On the website of the Rust Belt Humanities Lab, housed at Ursuline College in bucolic Pepper Pike, Ohio just outside of Cleveland’s city limits, there’s a poll where respondents can vote on which states they think constitute this hoary and inchoate region we’ve deigned to call the Rust Belt. Predictably, Ohio is the rustiest of choices, with a whopping 93.2% of people viewing the home of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and Sherwin Williams Paint as being the Rust Belt’s buckle. Within the statistical margin of error is my home-state of Pennsylvania at 90.4% of respondents viewing it as the Rust Belt, balanced as we are between U.S. Steel in the west and Bethlehem Steel in the east. Following Ohio and Pennsylvania are Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, with the first state getting under half of the vote being New York at 48.8% of the vote, perhaps because those taking the poll imagined the Upper East Side more than Rochester or Syracuse. Some states that are almost never viewed as being part of Rust Belt, but for which an argument could be made that they deserve at least honorary status, had a surprisingly decent showing. New Jersey, where “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” had a respectable 11% of folks viewing them as in the Rust Belt, while Massachusetts, which for many evokes Boston Common, Harvard Yard, and the Berkshires, but is also of course home to Lowell and Worcester, came in with 5.3% of voters categorizing it as in the broader post-industrial region. The only real shock to me was that anyone considered Washington DC the Rust Belt, with an admittedly paltry 1.4% of respondents believing that the Beltway deserved to be included in the region, though perhaps they were just confused by the relative short distance to Baltimore. All of which is to say that the answer to the question “What is the Rust Belt?” is a complicated one.

Arguably Belt Magazine was founded a decade ago to derive an answer to that inquiry, not necessarily in just the geographic sense, but also in the historical, the political, the cultural, and even the spiritual meanings of the phrase. Looking at the moon-base ruins of the Carrie Blast Furnace in Rankin, Pennsylvania or at the orange-tinged smoke stacks of Gary, Indiana, and it can seem intuitively clear what the “Rust Belt” is, but it was always a contention of this publication (as the boilerplate on our site reads) that ours is a region that’s “complex, vibrant, and vital, full of interesting people, thriving culture, and some of the greatest cities in the world,” a place that could be broadly explained by the history of “U.S. expansion, the Great Migration, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century industry,” while not being reducible to those things either. As a born-and-bred Pittsburgher who lived away for twelve years (in places viewed by respondents as 48.8%, 11%, and finally 1.4% as being in the Rust Belt), I’ve long perseverated on what exactly our region is. What it means to everybody else in the country, but more importantly what it means to us. Unlike New England, or even the South, which have distinct historical definitions of their geographic parameters, the Rust Belt is more ambiguous, yet just as those first two regions connotate a number of different (often complex and contradictory) things, so too does our region signify something far larger than just lines on a map, or states colored a certain shade to signify an ever-shifting membership in a confused region. There are of course a multitude of ways in which people can address what exactly the Rust Belt is, what exactly it means to be from this place. Geographers can tells us about how terrain affected westward expansion, the role (and roll) of the Appalachians towards the flatness of the prairies beyond and the presence of the Great Lakes. Geologists can examine the crucial aspect of deep coal deposits in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky, or limestone in Indiana, while economists can explain the ways in which industrial expansion and collapse forever marked this area. All of these are crucial and integral approaches, but there needs to be something under which all of them can be subsumed, something distinctly humanistic.

The mark of a brilliant idea, I would argue, is how jealous it makes you feel when you first learn about it. By that criterion, I was incredibly jealous of the organizers of the Rust Belt Humanities Lab, the purveyors of the aforementioned poll and the only interdisciplinary institute whose purpose is to study the Rust Belt. It’s the sort of idea that’s so vital and good that I wish I’d have had the initiative to come up with it. Dedicated to “Co-Creating Regional Humanities Ecosystems,” the institute at Ursuline promises to inaugurate an entirely new discipline of Rust Belt Studies, bringing into conversation those geographers, geologists, and economists alongside sociologists and historians, literary theorists and creative writers, and other scholars who have a contribution in knowledge to make about this intrinsic part of the Untied States. The visionaries behind the Rust Belt Humanities Lab are Dr. Katie Trostel and Dr. Valentino Zullo, both from Ursuline’s English Department, and Dr. Jacob Waldenmaier of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department, along with input from several of their colleagues and other community partners. As humanists, they promise to bring a unique perspective and sensibility to the study of the Rust Belt, gathering scholars and writers who can discuss the intricacies of the region in new and different ways. Trostel explained that as professors in “a regional liberal arts college in greater Cleveland, we noticed that the students in our humanities classrooms had absorbed the largely negative scripts about the Rust Belt – that it is in decline, vacant, and rooted in the past.” As literary scholars, both Trostel and Zullo understand the power in narratives to shape material reality, and part of their purpose in founding the lab was to complicate ready-made cliches that both their students and the wider public share. Trostel told me that it was the institute’s goal to “use the humanities to find new solutions, tell better stories, and empower our students to imagine themselves as productive citizens within their rooted context.”

As part of that project, the Rust Belt Humanities Lab is currently in the midst of sponsoring a two-week seminar for university faculty with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the hopes of more firmly establishing Rust Belt Studies as a discipline. Participants read and discussed works such as our own staff writer and former engagement editor Raechel Anne Jolie’s Rust Belt Femme and poet Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water, or Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life and Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Attendees work in collaborating with local institutions such as the think tank Enlightened Solutions and the Historic Cleveland Trust, while visiting sites like the Cleveland Museum of Art to learn about local art initiatives and the Cleveland Trust Building to discuss historic restoration. I was honored that I got to spend at least an hour with the participants in the seminar, ensconced in front of my computer some 134 miles away, to talk a bit about the work that we do here at Belt Magazine and the public humanities more generally. Central to the lab’s vision is an understanding of the ways in which those with academic training, now more than ever, have a responsibility (and a privilege) to interact with the wider populace, to use the ideas which we discuss in the classroom to a purpose which speaks to the widest possible number of people. Not to simplify concepts, but to make them accessible, to make them pertinent. “We believe that the future of the humanities depends upon allowing students, citizens, scholars, and teachers to look at 21st-century problems, challenges, and possibilities from a regional standpoint,” Trostel said. Indeed that’s similar to the answer I gave to a question during my talk, in which I argued that much of what the nation currently faces, from ecological calamity to the perils of privatization, political polarization to deindustrialization, was first faced in the Rust Belt a generation ago. Both our failures and our successes have lessons, for as Trostel told me “so much of the United States’ problems and promise converge on the Rust Belt.”

Now, here is what my journalist friends call “burying the lede” (and rather egregiously in the final paragraph). Belt Media Collaborative, the 501(3)c company which publishes Belt Magazine and of which I’m the executive director, aims to assist in the purpose and mission of Ursuline’s Rust Belt Humanities Lab by being the publisher of a new academic journal to be called Rust Belt Studies. Absolutely nothing like this exists right now; though there are journals dedicated to subsets of the region, no para-publication exists which considers the Rust Belt from the Susquehanna to Lake Superior, from the Gordie Howe International Bridge in Detroit to the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati. There is Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South and Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures, The New England Quarterly and Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Western Historical Studies and The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, but no Rust Belt Studies. The Midwest, which we of course overlap with substantially, has Studies in Midwestern History, but again, there’s no Rust Belt Studies – until now. “With the launch of this journal, we seize the opportunity to reimagine the Rust Belt region and to give it the scholarly attention that it deserves,” Trostel said, and it’s an honor for Belt Media Collaborative to be involved with this. What this means moving forward is that the editorial vision for Rust Belt Studies will be decided on by Trostel, Zullo, Waldenmaier, and their colleagues. They will work on establishing a board, a coterie of peer reviewers, and standards for the journal. Belt Media Collaborative, as their publisher, will host links to the journal on the site, and help with production while supplying an aesthetic and shared version whereby Belt Magazine and Rust Belt Studies will function as sibling publications. Different sites using different methods, but to the same aim – to better understand our region. To be sure, there is room enough in a region as expansive as ours for two such publications. Belt Magazine has always published, and will always publish, investigative reporting, creative nonfiction, commentary, poetry, photo-essays, and book excerpts. We’ve also prided ourselves on being a home for academics to popularize their research and to hopefully reach a wider audience, and we’ll continue to do that as well. But Rust Belt Studies will address an absence in the academic world, it will eliminate a lacunae as regards this region in the academy, by providing a forum for scholars invested in this part of the country. We’re honored to be a part of that project.

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine.