Stamatakis: Don’t mock the Rust Belt chic — Note value in history-to-growth perspective

By Nick Stamatakis

I recently had the pleasure of driving to Pittsburgh somebody who had never seen the city…. I recently had the pleasure of driving to Pittsburgh somebody who had never seen the city. Raised on the West Coast and schooled in the East, she had visited and even worked in the great cities of Europe and the Middle East but, through a poor twist of fate, had never seen the Steel City.

As we came in from the Parkway North, with the skyline peering out between emerald mounds on a crisp summer evening, her initial impression interested me: Pittsburgh, she thought, had a palpable sense of history.

This was just her initial impression from the highway. Before getting out of the car, just by observing the buildings and layout, she saw in the landscape a sense of America in the 1910s and ’20s.

Incidentally, this is the period of time when much of modern Pittsburgh was created. In Oakland, this was the time when Pitt constructed its oldest, still-standing buildings. It was when the rapidly expanding population began to fully settle on streets like Atwood and Bouquet. It was in the decades around WWI, when the nation arguably settled into its current identity, that the city reached the physical form it still holds today.

But is there any significance to this? According to Salon.com, there might be. An early-May article detailing the “Rust Belt chic” movement supposedly responsible for the revitalization of previously declining Midwestern cities points to this turn of the century mystique as one of the region’s great assets. While part of new growth is undeniably attributable to cheap housing for young professionals and immigrants not available in more expensive parts of the country, this mythology adds a creative fire: If 20th-century America was defined in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes Region, an uncertain 21st-century America can be defined here too.

Unsurprisingly, a small controversy has developed on the blogosphere about the article. Richey Piiparinen, a blogger at rustwire.com, likes the message, but doesn’t like its simplicity. Even as a term itself, Rust Belt Chic implies some kind of goofy, Brooklyn hipster aesthetic — a “loose and lazy” message too self-referential and self-aware to have any meaning beyond, “Come hither; we’ve got coffee shops in our ruin porn.” (For the uninitiated, ruin porn is the fascination with industrial decay, not XXX-rated entertainment atop old Bessemer converters.)

On one level, it is hard to disagree with Piiparinen. Rust Belt Chic does exude East Coast conceit: “There go the working men with their sloop buckets learning to overcome their dreary existence.” It isn’t just some silly narrative driving the region forward, but the happy resurgence of American manufacturing and a population still somewhat familiar with the techniques and skills required to thrive in industry. Lower start-up costs and costs of living also make these areas more than some ironic experiment in polka and bowling.

But before completely discounting Rust Belt chic, I am reminded of the drive to Pittsburgh with the newcomer. She wasn’t impacted by the low cost of living or the availability of a cheap housing stock. It was the very real sense of history. It was the Beaux-Arts Post Office and Federal Courthouse and Mausoleum of Halicarnassus-inspired Gulf Tower Downtown that got her thinking. And though it wasn’t enough to get her to drop her current life and resettle in Pittsburgh, this historical centricity did leave her with a more resonating experience than a similar drive into Charlotte, Atlanta or Los Angeles would.

It remains an open question if this connection to America’s past foundations will mean anything in terms of real growth in the rust belt. Inevitably, the decision to open a new factory is based on projected profits, not on an unbending faith in the power of historical narrative. Not even a Manifest Destiny-seeking pioneer or tired, poor and huddled immigrant would make a journey if it meant certain failure. The rust belt must still fundamentally become a place where the modern economy is an ally, not an enemy.

But if Rust Belt Chic can impact an uninitiated, traveled outsider, who knows the impression it can leave on tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and innovators?

Nick can be reached at [email protected]