Don’t let ‘Rust Belt chic’ make a trend of our troubles

After what seems like a long, cold, “Game of Thrones”-esque winter, some sun is finally shining on the Rust Belt.

This apt terminology applies to our former steel mill glory days, and the area that used to churn out steel like so much molten-hot butter. The Rust Belt is so named for the formerly churning factories, along with a number of other once-bustling buildings, have been left to the rust, the rats, the hordes of Instagrammers.

After decades of the rest of the world being kind of “Eh, whatever, let us know when you got some new football players” about the Youngstown-Warren area, we have been the object of much scrutiny in recent years. It seems that the rust-to-riches?model has been used to turn other former industrial strongholds into thriving, trendy locales, and the national media began to look at measures our area was taking to transform, from implementing a “shrinking city”?plan to incorporating things like urban gardening and green space into the endless blocks of abandoned homes. Great. Grand. Wonderful. Cool for us.

Media outlets have been visiting our area, curious about not only the things going on here, but also the people who are doing them. You see your friends being interviewed on Huffington Post or NPR, or your house being shown in driving-the-streets footage on TV. It’s no longer unusual to bump into German or Italian or Swedish journalists on the street. Just hope you’re not wearing your sweats.

A friend of mine runs a blog, Rust Wire, which is a prime news source for all things up-and-coming in former steel cities like ours. She recently wrote of the idea of “Rust Belt chic,”?a term which may seem contradictory to some, but for those of us living in a city being fussed over and analyzed by people all over the world, it kind of makes sense.

“Rust Belt chic”?refers to the idea that there’s street cred in being from a tough, rusty town. That our natural we-don’t-care-what-you-think attitude is now a commodity, often imitated by richer, bigger cities who try to look and act like they are from a poor steel town like ours.

This is nothing new. Grunge exploited the working-class look in the ’90s, inflating flannel prices everywhere. Now, cities like Portland and New York want dirty dives, crappy apartments, gritty fashion. Instagram is flooded with oh-so-artistically tinted photos of abandoned buildings, a photography subject second only to whatever you’re eating for dinner.

While Rust Belt culture is unique (and it is a culture), our steel town tragedy has been turned into a sort of style. So, inversely, trying to clean up would be seen as selling out.

Sure, struggle builds character, and our area has it in spades. We can be proud of our past, our heritages. But if our area can improve, don’t let it be held back by the idea that doing so would be betraying our roots.

Let the tourists live in the decay; we want change.

So don’t let “Rust Belt chic”?become a household term. There has been much sadness and loss at the expense of this trendy landscape. Being poor isn’t cool. Don’t glamourize urban decay. And please, we all know what an abandoned factory looks like. It will always be cool to have your picture taken next to a graffiti-covered wall, but try and stay away from the asbestos.

Got a problem with Rust Belt chic??Tell me at ssepanek@tribtoday.com, or comment on this story at www.tribtoday.com.