The Perils of Rust Belt Memes
The Rust Belt has been broken, and many have come to document the pieces. For instance, a few years ago Time magazine bought a house in Detroit to house reporters, the better to document the city's demise. Rust Belt decline stories became so prevalent we even got an embarrassingly named meme for them, ruin porn, which, while focused on visual images of abandoned factories and the like, also described some of the voyeurism and schadenfreude at work in national media coverage.
But embedded in the definition of decay is the possibility of rebirth, and these days, an increasingly popular angle for national articles on former manufacturing cities is to celebrate a "rust belt revival." These pieces—while exposing the creative resilience and "up from the boots straps" mentality of Rust Belt residents—can be as problematic as the "ruin porn" ones.
Many dispatches from the industrial north are written by writers who fly to report what they saw during a day or a weekend, and almost invariably, the memes get in the way, or more likely, were in the writer's head before she arrived. Looking around cities like Cleveland, it's easy to draw hasty conclusions, to either sentimentalize the old, gritty working class blocks now abandoned, or be all gobsmacked to find signs of modernity and life. The resulting picture looks too black and white: "this is where the good stuff is—the rebirth!—and this is where the bad stuff is--the ruin!" Truth is, the Rust Belt is a very gray place: it is both in ruins and reviving. It’s a fascinating time and place for the region, particularly for urbanists. But the ruin and revival memes flatten out complexity.
In a recent piece on this website about Cleveland’s University Circle district, just as one example, writer Mark Byrnes describes Cleveland’s ed’s and med’s hub using a clear renewal meme. He highlights the "flashy" new contemporary art museum created by Iranian starchitect Farshid Moussavi before ticking off other urban planner wet-dream gems: condos, bus rapid transit, biotech incubators, and so on.
All is not well, though. The author mentions areas just outside of University Circle—primarily East Cleveland (though he doesn’t name it)—that he describes as "no go" zones. As he writes:
In fact, it’s understood by most locals that once you’ve reached the railroad underpass and the "Gas USA" station just before E 123rd, you’ve gone too far for your own good. When I visited earlier this year, my friend, a University Circle resident, insisted we turn around once we reached the underpass. On the walk back, he regaled me with a series of crime stories passed around among his Case Western peers.
This passage is problematic for several reasons. First, it leaves out the fact that just beyond the railroad pass is one of Cleveland’s most iconic urban spaces: the Lakeview Cemetery, where John D. Rockefeller is buried, as well as new housing developments and one of Northeast Ohio’s most beautiful and historic neighborhoods, Forest Hill.
Lakeview Cemetery. Photos courtesy of Lakeview Cemetery
Secondly, who are the locals? The white, educated college students who are living amid the renewal or the blacks on the other side of the tracks living in the ruin?
Passages like these create real-world consequences: the "gone too far for your own good" perception held by some Clevelanders hurts the development of East Cleveland. It creates fear-driven behavior, and that leads to disinvestment. Does East Cleveland have troubles? Yes. But there is real work being done in the neighborhoods, work done by a variety of folks who—when crossing the underpass into the city—do not feel they made a mistake.
"Ruin!" versus "Revival!" narratives are mesofacts— broad, flexible yet significant beliefs about places or peoples. Mesofacts influence perceptions, which drive behaviors, which affect how places are cared for, praised, derided, or left for dead. When we package the idea of a Rust Belt death and rebirth with superficial themes, people on the ground are left to clean up the mess.
Urban journalism needs to allow for more ambiguity, as in the recent documentary Detropia which narrates Detroit’s hope and hopelessness in one uneasy if not inspiring movie. We need more gray-area approaches to the Rust Belt that are less pre-packaged, more uncertain, and not as "feel good" or "feel bad" as “the ruin” and "rebirth" memes. We need reporting that helps us understand the inherent messiness of current conditions, and by so doing allows us to have better discussions of what and where is good and bad in the Rust Belt. These, by consequence, will lead to better real-world effects.
Top image: Henryk Sadura/Shutterstock (right); spirit of america /Shutterstock (left)