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‘Voices from the Rust Belt’ a Lush and Varied Portrait of the Midwest

4 Stars

Voices from the Rust Belt Cover
Courtesy of Picador

“And now the civilization on this little speck of earth was falling apart… Everything around us was changing except the stars in the sky. Under the postcard-picture sunset stood the fragile, naked life of our drunken bodies,” David Faulk writes of a day he and his friends climbed the mound in Moundsville, WV, in “Voices from the Rust Belt.” The remnants of manufacturing booms of eras long past—cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Flint, and Buffalo—are fraught with longstanding racial tension, economic stagnation, and an overall sense of disillusionment with what it means to be American. The collection of essays paints a complex and intensely beautiful picture of a world in decline as a response to what editor Anne Trubek says the media has reduced the Rust Belt to: “Clichés… At a time when it is more important than ever to understand the nuances of this complex region, what is published instead are often articles on the ‘typical’ Rust Belt resident—more often than not a white male Trump supporter.” Trubek and the writers who contributed to the anthology are attempting to help the world understand their hometowns in all their incredible complexity.

The essays are incredibly diverse, ranging from lush literary prose to sociological research studies to a treatise on environmental conservation. The works are expertly curated and arranged by Trubek, alternating in style, focus, and racial and socioeconomic backgrounds of the writers. Essays include a small snapshot of a social worker’s relationship with a construction worker under hard times; a black woman’s memories of her white friends’ moves to escape the post-desegregation influx of black people into their neighborhoods; an image of a father washing his infant daughter in Flint’s contaminated water; and a broad survey of the housing crisis and gentrification that reinforces persistent racial segregation in Detroit. The more personal essays are generally more effective and memorable than the more objective ones, simply because they are more relatable. But the data gives the collection a necessary sense of weight and realness. Despite the range of styles, the collection as a whole somehow flows seamlessly between sections.

A common theme in the commentary is the ambivalence towards the newcomers moving into the Rust Belt cities, their racist implications, and the shifting values of what “real work” is. Referred to as the “latte drinkers” by Dr. Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., a professor of urban studies at the University of Buffalo, they are usually young white hipsters who seem to invade the cities of the Rust Belt with shallow pretensions, hedonism, and an almost colonialist romantic ideal of “finding yourself” in an exciting new wilderness. Aaron Foley, a Detroit journalist, heatedly points out the “undercurrent of racism when you talk about ‘adventure’ in a city that’s mostly black.” And Eric Anderson, who chose to stay in Cleveland working in factories despite his artistic dreams because he had a “a romantic notion” that the “filthiness” of hard physical labor “was what it meant to be a man,” finds himself resenting and envying the art school-trained artists who move into his city and find immediate success in their gallery shows. The American concept of what “real work” is prevails throughout this collection, and shows signs of a fraught metamorphosis.

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“The whole identity that I had built, even as a small child, was a proud Akronite,” writes Jason Segedy, the director of planning and urban development of Akron, Ohio. “This is the RUBBER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; this is where we make lots and lots of Useful Things for people all over the world; this is where Real Americans Do Real Work; this is where people from Europe, the South, and Appalachia come to make a Better Life for themselves…” There is a deep sense of nostalgia for simpler times, and it is easy to see how important the manufacturing industry was to the region, how central it was in shaping the identities of its people, and how close it was to their hearts.

While the collection as a whole does a great job of capturing the vague, sweeping notion of the American spirit of the majority, some chapters can feel like token representations of minorities, such as the single chapter about a gay bar in Cincinnati or the one about an Iraqi woman who finds a community of Iraqi women in Cleveland. Although well-intentioned, there is something a bit troubling and superficial about adding these like decorative splashes of color to make a point about the region’s diversity. And a quick look at the brief biographies at the end of the book shows that most of the contributors are highly educated writers, teachers, and academics. Many aspiring writers in their brief memoirs mention their time in graduate school, specifically creative writing MFA programs. Although not very surprising, given that the collection is of the literary genre, this may be a limiting factor in the broad range of perspectives and backgrounds that the collection aspires to be.

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Despite its limitations, “Voices from the Rust Belt” is overall beautifully written and highly immersive, thanks to its wealth of details and well-researched sociological data. Its best attribute is its ambition to depict the Rust Belt in all of its glorious messiness. As Jason Segedy writes, “We Americans are… not so comfortable with that messy and confusing historical cycle of boom-and-bust, of evolution, of creation and destruction and reinvention. But that’s the world as we actually experience it, and it’s the one that we must live in. It is far from perfect. But for all of its trials and tribulations, the world that we inhabit has one big advantage: it is real.”

—Staff writer Faith A. Pak can be reached at faith.pak@thecrimson.com

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