Monday, December 7, 2009

Promoting Rust Belt Chic

Phil Kidd and Defend Youngstown receive a nice plug in a recent post over at Rust Wire. The personality and hospitality of the Mahoning Valley vanguard is one of the area's greatest draws. Daniel Denvir makes a reference to another regional asset:

The news format of these articles did not allow me space to describe a lot of what I liked so much about these cities. My time in Cleveland was too short, so I can’t say I really got to know it. But my visits to Detroit and Youngstown sparked some real affection for these struggling locales–along with their bars and delis. In Youngstown, this was all due to the unparalleled hospitality offered by Defend Youngstown impresario and Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative organizer Phil Kidd–really enough reason in and of itself for my sure to be soon return visit. And the next time I do this trip, I’ll have to do a series on Rust Belt bars. Because on a personal note, they were amazing. And microbrews like Youngstown’s Rust Belt Brewing Company certainly qualify as a creative and delicious alternative.

The emphasis added is my doing. There is an curious tension within the group that seeks to revitalize America's industrial heartland. Some see the term "Rust Belt" as a pejorative and reinforcing negative stereotypes holding back so many shrinking cities. On the other side are those who celebrate the same world Anthony Bourdain explored in Baltimore, Detroit, and Buffalo for his show "No Reservations":

I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what's coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will "attract business", always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it's a "normal" city -- or a "perfect" or "safe" one. They go because it's crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat shit crazy -- and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don't arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philarmonic.

Bourdain's post is the best description of Rust Belt Chic I've encountered and aptly characterizes Denvir's fascination with Rust Belt bars. It's about an authenticity of place taken out of context by a younger generation with little to no connection to the world that produced the social environment.

In Youngstown, Rust Belt Chic exists in the relics of the steel industry. It is in the ethnic food from countries that no longer send immigrants to the area. It's captured in ruin porn or on display during a local high school or college football game. Most importantly, Rust Belt Chic is a brand that can attract Generation Y talent.

Like Bourdain, I'm perplexed as to why no place has cashed in on this marketing opportunity. Instead, we obsess the negative publicity misrepresenting our city or chase the title of the next Silicon Valley. Where else can you buy a Daniel Burnham designed building for under $150,000? Is there a better place to headquarter an initiative to revitalize America's great industrial cities?This is a tremendous opportunity, not an indicator of how far Youngstown has fallen. Of course, that depends on how you feel about the term "Rust Belt".

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