rust belt chic: the cleveland anthology

The term "Rust Belt Chic" has been bandied about in urban journalism circles for over a decade, but lately, the connotation and import of that catchy phrase seem to be taking on a welcome new identity.
Daily, it seems, another cultural sociologist is writing about the current trend of reverse migration -- young creatives fleeing the Coasts in droves in favor of "decaying" industrial cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit. These cities, you see, are appealing because of the decay. That and ironic pleasures like bowling, pierogies, and polka.
Of course, there is enough truth and fiction in that charming narrative to choke a thesis on contemporary demographics. The truth is, young people are moving back to cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh -- and at rates that outpace those of posh suburban zip codes. Offering the promise of a better (cheaper) quality of life -- and yes, the ironic pleasures of bowling, pierogies, and polka -- Rust Belt cities truly have become "chic."
The pivotal point in the narrative may have occurred on May 12, 2012. That's when Salon published the article "Rust Belt Chic: Declining Midwest cities make a comeback." The sub-hed was "Gritty Rust Belt cities, once left for dead, are on the rise -- thanks to young people priced out of cooler locales."
But the idea of Rust Belt Chic is far more complex than a catchy anecdote, and one that should be defined by those inside -- not outside -- Rust Belt borders, argues local writer Anne Trubek.
That's why she -- along with our help -- will publish a book in record time. Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology aims to offer "the longer view" of what it means to live in a recovering Rust Belt city. The book will be neither blindly optimistic nor self-loathing; its aim simply is to be descriptive. Oh, and it will be published by Labor Day.
"This is a moment; people are writing about this. First there was the Salon piece, then articles based on the Salon piece, and then Atlantic Cities," says Trubek, referring to the bumper crop of positive national media attention.
"I had this moment of panic -- that people will be running with this story of Rust Belt Chic when we should be doing it ourselves. I'm always pissed off when I see these stories written by somebody from New York or San Francisco who flies in or picks up the phone to write about what's going on in the Rust Belt. So I thought: Let's put something out there quickly that can take hold of this narrative and define it ourselves."
Some of the most thoughtful "definers" of the phrase are already here. Writer (and editor of the anthology) Richey Piiparinen, who was quoted in that now-infamous Salon piece, covers the topic frequently on the insightful blog Rust Wire. Here is how he describes Rust Belt Chic.
"Rust Belt Chic is churches and work plants hugging the same block. It is ethnic as hell. It is the Detroit sound of Motown. It is Cleveland punk. It is getting vintage t-shirts and vinyl for a buck that are being sold to Brooklynites for the price of a Manhattan meal. It is a babushka in snakeskin boots. It is wear: old wood and steel and vacancy. It is contradiction, conflict, and standing resiliency. But most centrally: Rust Belt Chic is about home, or that perpetual inner fire of longing to be comfortable in one’s own skin and one’s community. Yet this longing is less about regressing to the past than it is finding a future through your history."
Why is it even important to manage the meaning of this phrase? Isn't all press good press? No, not when the message gets all twisted around like an oversize pair of rose-colored balloon glasses. Rust Belt Chic has the potential to be misappropriated as a catchy civic slogan, argue guardians of the term, expressing precisely the wrong message at precisely the wrong time.
"The important part of the concept," explains Piiparinen, "is not using Rust Belt Chic to 'become cool' so as to attract people. But describing the trend of how we are attracting people by having been cool all along. There is a difference there."
The book will be released in a small printed form, as well as a longer e-book. Writers of all stripes are invited to pitch stories, ideas, even previously published articles.
"We're really interested in hearing from anybody, even if you don't consider yourself a writer," says Trubek. "Business owners, community development leaders. Topics include history, design, architecture, urban planning, sports, politics, personal stories, but also stories that flesh out the idea of Rust Belt Chic."

The deadline is June 30 -- yep, three weeks from now -- and the length of the features should be in the area of 500 to 2,000 words. If the book does well, compensation may be offered.
Send pitches to Rust Belt Anthology. For more info, visit here.

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas Trattner.

Douglas Trattner is a fulltime freelance writer, editor and author. In addition to acting as Managing Editor of Fresh Water, he is the Dining Editor of Cleveland Scene, author of “Moon Handbooks: Cleveland,” and co-author with Michael Symon on two New York Times best-selling cookbooks. His work has appeared in Food Network magazine, Miami Herald, Globe and Mail, Wine & Spirits, Cleveland Magazine and others. He lives in Cleveland Hts. with his wife, two dogs, five chickens and 20,000 honeybees.
Signup for Email Alerts