Now more than ever, it is vital for writers of the Rust Belt to represent our sense of place with passion and insight. As politicians, commentators and the entertainment elite try to define us for their own purposes, we must observe and project the reality of our communities and the lives we live here. In […]
Salvage. To reclaim, recoup. In an often very subtle way, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michigan author of 2009 story collection American Salvage (finalist for the National Book Award) saves her characters—and us in the reading. Her characters and the predicaments in which they find themselves are not pretty; yet, Campbell provides a modicum of redemption—the American Dream renewed—I’m looking for in the writing of the Rust Belt.
Campbell’s stories center on everyday people with everyday struggles—from farmers to salvage yard workers, meth addicts to the unemployed—striving to make do with the hand they’ve been dealt in the tough Michigan landscape. These stories are what Ruin Porn could do more of: show us the despairing scene and then populate it with characters to care about.
One of Campbell’s young characters, a 14-year old girl (whose story Campbell expands on for her gem of a novel, Once Upon a River), encapsulates the heart of Campbell’s fiction. In “Family Reunion,” the reader understands that the girl will take revenge by shooting the uncle who violated her. One sentence speaks volumes:
She had to do this thing for herself; nobody is going to do it for her.
Okay, retribution is not the same as redemption, but the reader understands that the two are kin, anyway, for this young girl. If there’s another line that could better hearken back to the Horatio Alger stories of industry and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps (even if it means the girl will put a bullet in her uncle), I don’t know what it might be.
The girl doesn’t exactly resurrect; she salvages. All is not saved, but all is not lost—not for Campbell’s sympathetic girl-with-a-gun. And all is not lost for us writers, readers, and doers in the Rust Belt and beyond.
Maybe the American Dream isn’t entirely lost. But neither is the heyday of industry repeatable. It’s time for a revised dream. A re-envisioning, maybe from a female angle. Is this where I say the future is female? The next American Dream—what shall we call it?—will be conceived and written and built by women? I don’t know. That way we’d lose half the dreamers.
The more I read and write about the place I’m from, the more I hope it’s a collective salvaging by families, villages, and towns with their beautiful architecture—and more importantly, people—to save. And the more I hope what I write and read reflects not a void, but a place worth salvaging.
Which brings me back to the haunting images of Ruin Porn that leave me cold. Why? Because these places aren’t truly haunted. Even if there are no people in the photographs, themselves, there are people on the periphery. The images—remnants of a gilded age lost—are beautiful, many of them. And yet I can’t call the photos beautiful because there are no bearers of beauty to be found in them. (Which is why I was so taken with Howard Hsu’s photos of the Rust Belt, like the one above.)
In Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses, Sonja Livingston calls women “the bearers of beauty.” Indeed, beautiful female American lives unfold all around the author in this memoir, as Livingston’s own life unfolds—all over the U.S., including in western New York. In her essay, “A Party, in May,” a freak snowstorm, almost biblical in its bad timing, rains down on a celebration, a birthday party, which happens to coincide with the last night of the author’s pregnancy. There will be no birth for this unborn child, but beauty does pierce the sadness. The last line, from the morning after the storm:
Except for a few fallen blossoms, no one would have known how cold it had been just a few hours before, the snow falling and melting while most people slept.
Women are the bearers of beauty, in a literal way—as in procreation, but also as in creation of the artistic and built variety. But some of Livingston’s girls and goddesses travel through tough terrain, even ruin—of poverty plain and poverty in relationships—and even the little wins are hard-won.
Beauty does push its way through the cracks, however. Like in this moment, in Livingston’s piece, “Mock Orange.” The author is describing an almost indescribable quality—a luminescence—of her sixteen-year-old niece, who has just discovered that she is pregnant:
If you passed her in your car—maybe she’s laughing with a group of friends, maybe she’s waiting for a bus on Lake Avenue, or sitting alone on a porch with broken front steps—would you see the light coming from her or would she be to you just another pregnant girl in the city, belly looming like the moon over her tiny feet?
I can see those broken front steps made beautiful by this girl’s relation to them. Such a life is no dream, but it’s beautiful all the same.
Don’t you think? Comment and let me know.
As for the 212-page prize—in an earlier post I mentioned the spring 2017 issue of Sou’wester, in which my short story, “Betting Blind,” appeared. I’d love to gain more followers interested in Rust Belt reading and writing. So, spread the word to your social media contacts about Rust Belt Girl; get me two followers; and when they’ve tagged along with us for two weeks, I’ll put a copy of the Sou’wester issue in the mail to your continental U.S. address.
The term “American Dream” has been so overused as to lose its meaning. Researching for my novel-in-progress, a story set just before WWII, I found Made In America: Self-Styled Success from Horatio Alger to Oprah Winfrey, in which author Jeffrey Louis Decker gives some background on the oft-used phrase:
The term [American Dream] was not put into print until 1931, when middle-brow historian James Truslow Adams coined it and used it throughout the pages of a book titled The Epic of America. The American Dream is to be understood as an ethical doctrine that is symptomatic of a crisis in national identity during the thirties. The newly invented dream calls out for a supplement to the outmoded narrative uplift, which had lost its moral capacity to guide the nation during the Depression.
So, out of extreme poverty and ruin, the collective American Dream was borne.
That dream was grasped like a brass ring by people in the Rust Belt—men and their wives and children, generation after generation of industry and uplift—from the industrial boom of WWII, onward. Prospering. That is, until the downturn of manufacturing in more recent decades.
Not to despair, in many places, the Rust Belt has risen again. On a recent trip to Ohio, I visited the lovely historic village of Milan (pronunciation rhymes with stylin’), the birthplace of American inventor Thomas Edison. Not an abandoned theatre, gutted warehouse, or crumbling façade in site (of the town square, anyway). No Ruin Porn subjects here.
Other Ohio towns—and townspeople—haven’t fared as well. Take, for instance, Chillicothe, Ohio, three hours south of Milan (along with too many places in between).
In an article with the startling quote as header, “All the Men Here Are Either on Drugs or Unemployed,” in The Atlantic, writer Alana Semuels describes the decline of Chillicothe in Ross County, Ohio:
Men were once the primary breadwinners in areas like Ross County, where they worked good manufacturing jobs and came home at the end of the day to wives…But today in Ross County, manufacturing jobs have been outsourced or automated, and men have more time on their hands and less income to support their families. Some have turned to alcohol or drugs—Ross County is one of the areas of Ohio hit hardest by the opioid epidemic…
The upshot of the article: women are left behind—to work the remaining low-paying service jobs, to raise the kids, to bear up under families laid low. Unemployment to opioid epidemic—the latest ruin-er of families.
Sounds like another crisis in national identity to me, a crisis so terrible it has us rolling our eyes at the outmoded notion of an American Dream and looking—to whom?—to decide on a new national narrative to lift us out of, or at least salvage, this mess.
Part 1 of 3 of an essay by me (and some of my favorite Rust Belt writers), Rust Belt Girl
The term “Ruin Porn” doesn’t exactly endear this Rust Belt native to the genre of photography.
David Giffels, Akronite (Akron, Ohio) and author of the wonderfully reminiscent, inspiring, and redemptive (though he would take umbrage with that last descriptor) The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, defines Ruin Porn—also called abandonment photography—in his essay, “Pretty Vacant”:
“Ruin Porn is applied mainly to photography of abandoned, decaying urban spaces and has especially been focused on the postindustrial regions … with urban explorers—ranging from amateur point-and-shooters to high-profile artists—trespassing in empty buildings and distressed neighborhoods, documenting what others have ignored.”
Giffels goes on to list a few of the more celebrated Ruin Porn photographers: Camilo Jose Vergara, Matthew Christopher, Sean Posey, Andrew Moore… Not a female in the bunch, I notice.
You’ve seen such photos, no doubt. Giffels describes the type better than I could:
“Their work unfolds inside collapsed libraries where trees have taken root in rotting texts. And in vacant factories, floors strewn with trash…And around foreclosed homes succumbing to mold and rot. And along polluted rivers strung with run-down industrial strips.”
Absent from most of these photos is people, or people who figure in any meaningful way. Of course, the evidence of human industriousness—in many cases, once-beautiful architecture—is there in the photographs, but now it’s frozen in a suspended image of decay.
Ruin Porn. We could argue whether it’s artistic exploitation, romanticizing the downturn in industry and the resulting poverty—or if the art form might serve as a call to action.
What I see in Ruin Porn is the American Dream on its knees, with no dreamer in the scene.
What’s your take on Ruin Porn?
Tune in for Part 2…coming soon.
As for the call: if you have photos of the Rust Belt you’d like to share, I’d love to see them. Contact me.
And the prize: in an earlier post, I mentioned the spring 2017 issue of Sou’wester, in which my short story, “Betting Blind,” along with a ton of great prose and poetry, appeared. I’d love to gain more followers interested in Rust Belt reading and writing. So, spread the word to your social media contacts about Rust Belt Girl; get me two followers; and when they’ve tagged along with us for two weeks, I’ll put a copy of the Sou’wester issue in the mail to you at your continental U.S. address.
Since I mentioned the ‘Burgh in my last post, thought I’d re-blog this post from Belt Magazine. ~ Rebecca
The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye: A Pittsburgh Story By Mark Meyer and Meredith Meyer Grelli November 15, 2017 ISBN: 978-0-9989041-6-0 American whiskey was born in Pittsburgh, The post “The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye” Now Available for Pre-Order appeared first on Belt Magazine | Dispatches From The Rust Belt.
Cleveland and Pittsburgh have always enjoyed something like a sibling rivalry. Unlike the relationship between Cleveland and Akron, or Cleveland and Chicago, Cleveland and the ’Burgh are too close in size for one to take the other under its wing like a little sister city, or to aspire to big-brother city coolness. So, rivalry it is—or always seemed to be, to this Northeastern Ohio native.
Later this summer, I will travel through (or around) both cities on my way to visit my dad in Port Clinton, Ohio—home of the annual Perch, Peach, Pierogi and Polka Festival. Along my way on the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes, I will cross a lot of pierogi territory.
If the Rust Belt is a bastion of anything still—Catholicism? grit?—I think we can all get behind pierogi. Of course, the people of the sibling cities of Cleveland and Pittsburgh share much more than a love of dough pillows swimming in butter. But, while the rituals of religion—and stick-to-itiveness, for that matter—require more than a modicum of self-sacrifice, food is about self-love.
And food, like pierogi, that is passed down from generation to generation is about the sharing of love among a people.
A treatise on pierogi: that’s how I knew that Paul Hertneky, author of Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood [one spent in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh], was my kind of people.
From Paul’s WordPress blog, RUST BELT BOY: A Blog by Paul Hertneky, now on my blogroll: “The book tells the story of a generation–children and grandchildren of immigrants, half of whom became emigrants themselves. When heavy industry collapsed in the late 1970s, nearly six million Baby Boomers fled America’s industrial north over the next twenty years, creating Rust Belt diaspora. Another six million stayed.”
Me, daughter of (early) Boomers, I left the Rust Belt and don’t get back often enough. But, one thing I’ve learned from reading and writing about the Rust Belt is that it is a heritage still in the making—if you make it. In much the same way that a recipe—for my Uncle Louis Heineman’s wines, Aunt Maria’s pierogi, or anything else—is dead, if you don’t use it; so too is a history, a heritage, dead if you don’t remember it.
From Paul’s lovely chapter, “The Prurient Power of Pierogi,” featuring a Lenten Friday lunch of pierogi, or pirohi, at his elementary school—if only young Paul can make it through Mass:
During Mass, the promise and seduction became unbearable. My stomach clawed toward its quarry while I knelt through the long Latin consecration. I stared at the ornamental sacristy and my eyes glossed over, seeing Jesus feeding hordes of followers by multiplying pirohi instead of loaves and fishes. Or my gaze landed on the soft white mound of Monica Halicek’s top vertebra, how its contours transported me, how its roundness resembled a tender potato pirohi.
And later in the essay, the pay-off:
The first bite made me close my eyes. The multipurpose room fell silent and every cavity in my head absorbed a humble gift composed of elements that sang secret lyrics to notes along an archetypal scale, a harmony to my subconscious. In my pirohi rapture I could be lost and found, week after week, even when I reached the age when ardent kisses tried to surpass it, and never really could.
I could never be a memoirist or essayist, like Paul Hertneky. I don’t journal and my memory is poor. I remember snippets, just enough to create a story. But, I always remember the food.
One of my favorite summer memories is staying with my aunt and uncle and cousins in Port Clinton. They had sidewalks, a boat, and Cedar Point nearby, and so I was in heaven. Until I got sick with a terrible stomach flu. The remedy: Aunt Maria’s Polish pierogi. Blueberry-filled, I remember, which sounds strange to me now. But, as a kid, I knew only that these dumplings were made from a recipe brought all the way from Poland (which seemed so much more exotic than our German side)—where a young Maria had once sat on a train next to Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II. If anything could ease my stomach, it was her holy pierogi.
My next trip through Pennsylvania to Ohio, I will try to forget any silly notion of Rust Belt city rivalry in favor of lauding our shared cultural heritage: one perfect pocket of food heaven. When I get to Port Clinton, maybe I will even polka. But, definitely, I will visit with family and see if I can beg the recipe from my aunt for her pierogi.