An island in the rust belt,
once perhaps a wayward
rhinestone jewel and now?
Some parts have seen
better times and some
have seen bitter times,…
…some hang around
like the ghosts of a
history of light and dark,…
…and some don’t see time
at all, but time sees them
Like a rag or a bag snagged
on a stick in the river, some
parts moving, some standing still,…
…a city that seems at
times not to know where— or even when—it is.
“Watching Time” poem and images by Johnny Crabcakes at A Prayer Like Gravity
Rebecca here: thank you, thank you to Johnny Crabcakes at A Prayer Like Gravity for these fine photographs and words. Together, they provide a window into the Rust Belt city of St. Louis, always changing, ever still. Please visit A Prayer Like Gravity for much more.
I’ve said before that my lack of talent with a camera has turned out to be a blessing. Wanting to feature regional photography here at Rust Belt Girl, I’ve turned to the experts–like Johnny Crabcakes; along with my fellow Northeast Ohio native, Johnny Joo, who specializes in abandonment photography at architecturalafterlife.com; and Michelle Cole, who posts her thoughts and photography at Intensity Without Masteryand who shared with Rust Belt Girlhere and here what her life is like today in Lima, Ohio.
Want more photography? Check out my handy-dandy Categories.
Are you a photographer in a Rust Belt-ish place? I’d love to hear from you!
Top 3. Top 10. Top 100. We attach ourselves to the superlative and feel tops–if only for a moment. And that almighty numeral: even an English major gets to feel like a statistician.
So, without further ado…
A Rust Belt Girl Top 3 (according to you)
with related recommended viewing for the new year:
Number 3: A blog is born, my first-ever post, covered my rationale for starting this blog. (Among my reasons: an online search for “female and Rust Belt” turned up rust-colored ladies’ belts for sale by JCPenny.) For those of you who made it to post two, thank you!
How did we get here? Not here at Rust Belt Girl so much as here—writing, blogging, connecting? (Anyone else have that Talking Heads song running on repeat in their minds? You’re welcome.)
For me, it was my mom who was the reader in my young life, who made it okay to “waste” an hour or a day on a good book. She was my biggest fan, even when my writing hadn’t a prayer of reaching a larger audience than my immediate family. She made me feel like a writer—and sometimes a vote of confidence from someone you love is enough to begin to believe it, yourself.
As I emerge from my Thanksgiving Day food coma, I say thanks to memories of my mom and to everyone else who makes me feel like something of a writer.
For Part 2, I wanted to see where Michelle finds her inspiration, what sparks her creativity.
Michelle—what inspires you to take photographs, especially of your Ohio city? What do you shoot with?
I must first credit my parents with impressing me with the notion that hobbies are vital to happiness. My dad kept an aquarium and made pictures of ships with strings pulled around pins painstakingly positioned on canvas or velvet (there is a name for these sort of pictures that escapes me now; its popularity rose and fell alongside macramé). My mom painted and drew. She also read an ocean of genre fiction.
My dad had a significant interest in photography in the 70s. My parents’ bathroom did double duty as a dark room for a few years. My dad’s interest in photography was mostly confined to portraits of family members and some architectural photos. One of my earliest memories involves taking the elevator to the top of what was then the tallest building in Indianapolis, probably the National Bank Building. We went to the top so Dad could take a cityscape picture from that vantage point.
Like for so many Rust Belt families, the prosperity we knew in the 70s did not last, so Dad put aside his photography habit due to cost.
Despite that our fortunes rose and fell, the example of their hobbies endured. Creative pursuits had value. Eventually, my history of major depression intersected with this notion. When digital photography became widespread, I decided to try it because I wanted to see if I could develop a skill that I knew was not a total waste of my time. My parents taught me by example that all creative expression had inherent value.
Then I was struck by the idea that photography could remind me that life was worth living, that my life itself had value. The places I saw, my city especially, were a part of that value.
As I took more pictures of the places I had seen so often, I began to feel something akin to teaching a dying language. I was capturing scenes that should not be forgotten: this is how we lived, the good, the bad, the ugly . . .
I also have an enduring interest in nature photography. I feel serenity in documenting the change of seasons.
I shoot with three different cameras, a Nikon D5200, a Canon Rebel T6, and my cell phone camera (a budget LG V8). None of my equipment is expensive or super sophisticated. There is still much I should learn about the technical points of photography. My favorite shooting combo is my Nikon D5200 with a Nikkor 55-200 mm f4-5.6 VR lens.
What moves you to provide a short essay or story around your photographs?
I wish I had the time and consistent motivation to write about the pictures in every photography post on my blog. When I look at my pictures, I see shorthand for memories that I wish others could read. I suppose that great photographs past and present tell that story with no annotation necessary.
I feel like my inclination to write an essay to accompany a picture is a function of two things: time and depression. If my depression is flaring up, my picture posts have little or no text offered, and the writing is perfunctory or clinical in tone. If the text is short but optimistic in nature, I am simply too busy with work or parenting to write much more.
The photos I take of places in my city usually tap a rich vein of memory for me because I’ve seen them so often, and I really should offer an anecdote to accompany them.
Today I took a picture of a house near the downtown area that intrigues me with its longevity.
While this home has some striking Victorian details, its greatest distinction is being the last home left standing in its area. Every other home along that street for several blocks was taken by eminent domain for the construction of a new high school and stadium. I don’t know how this house escaped this dragnet that resulted in the razing of many aging homes and row houses in the vicinity. The powers that be made the school’s lawn large beyond reason to justify demolishing a problem public housing project that had been built in the 80s. This house reminds me that the place we call home stirs feelings of ambivalence.
At heart, I feel this project was like liposuction to this town; poverty and crime can’t be erased just by demolishing buildings and planting perfect lawns where they once stood. I wish some of the other houses had been spared. The perfect lawn and angled brick of the new high school are reminders that the Lima my parents and grandparents knew cannot be resurrected. At least we have this one home left from the old era.
Michelle—thank you for giving me a window into your world. Your personal journey captured in stunning images inspires me to keep growing by creating and connecting with bloggers like you. Anything else you’d like to say?
We live in a golden era of photography. Chances are you have at least one camera within reach almost all the time. No one’s life is just like yours. No one sees all of the places you’ve seen. What you’ve seen today could be gone tomorrow. Now is the time to share those images with the world.
Thanks again to Michelle Cole at Intensity Without Mastery for reminding us to keep sharing our visions in words and images. And don’t forget to visit Michelle’s site.
Do you feel you, too, are “teaching a dying language” by resurrecting memories of the past through your writing or photography?
For my next two posts here at Rust Belt Girl, I am honored to present Michelle Cole, a fellow Ohio native, who blogs at Intensity Without Mastery. I first stumbled upon Michelle’s photographs of the city where she lives: Lima, Ohio. I have posted before about abandonment photography, or “ruin porn,” as leaving me cold. Michelle’s photography, on the other hand, struck me with its depth of feeling, and I knew I had to learn more about the woman behind the lens. She has agreed to guest post here at my blog, and I’m so grateful.
As Michelle will tell, life in Lima—like in many Rust Belt places—has seen its share of hard times: leaving and loss. There are also sweet spots.
Between her photographs and candid backstory, Intensity Without Mastery moves me with its intense truthfulness:
My life was a mess of attrition and despair until the Recession. As the economy crumbled, I got better, and I’m uncertain why. … In this blog, I explore my sometimes incomplete recovery from mental illness. While I am candid about this aspect of my health, I also explore a hodgepodge of interests, such as photography …
Michelle describes for Rust Belt Girl life in Lima, Ohio:
Lima is situated near the midpoint between Detroit, Michigan, and Cincinnati, Ohio [cities along the north and south edges of America’s post-industrial heartland]. My family has deep roots in the Lima area, but I did not move here until I was nine years old, in 1981. I did spend a total of five years outside Lima in my late teens and twenties, pursuing my education, first, and starting a family, second. By the way, both of these ventures were failures in a conventional sense. I didn’t get a degree, and I became a single parent, which begins in heartbreak unless that’s the outcome intended from the start. I didn’t truly feel at home in Lima until I had failed to create the sort of life I envisioned for myself when I was young. I think that sentiment is key to describing what Lima is like.
The longer I live in Lima, the more I get the sense that this city is full of people who once wished they had landed somewhere else more replete with wealth and growth, somewhere the countryside is perpetually bulldozed to make way for more homes, stores, and schools. Reality eventually tempers these dreams for those who don’t have the skills or wealth to move away.
There’s a lot of healthy cynicism in those who inhabit the “post-fantasy” world of surviving in Lima. I found a perfect portrayal of it in a now-old article from The Onion (which, by the way, started in the bleeding edge of the Rust Belt: Madison, Wisconsin) called “Coca-Cola Introduces New 30-Liter Size.” This little satire is a clever critique of the conventional American urge toward that which is big, bright, and new.
It is necessary to reject those sort of values to be happy here.
The city of Lima has lots of reminders of its past glory days, from abandoned homes to empty or underused factories on the outskirts of town. Nowhere is this more evident than our downtown area. Where once finely dressed shoppers and business people trod the streets, now there are people who were broken and couldn’t quite be put back together. That’s another reason I feel at home in Lima.
I am one of those broken people, and when I am feeling well, I am proud of all I do. When I am depressed, I feel a bit resentful of rising to the occasion despite having some disabilities. I am hearing impaired. I have arthritis and spinal stenosis, along with a long history of clinical depression that’s been treated with varying degrees of success. This situation is not rare in people who’ve stayed in Rust Belt towns like Lima that are long past their prime. I encounter so many people who are trying to get by despite their medical problems. It’s so common that at times qualifying for disability benefits is like crossing a finish line, a mission accomplished instead of a surrender.
I’d be remiss not to mention that there is an enduring vitality to Lima despite its long-term decline in wealth and population. There’s a longstanding effort to revitalize the city and improve our local schools. We have a local symphony and community colleges.
There’s also the treasure I see in the fundamental dignity of all people as they go about the business of living, whether rich or poor, old or young.
No matter how cynical or depressed I feel at times, I see a beauty and notice innate intelligence and wit in every person I encounter. When I drive through the city of Lima or walk some of its streets with my camera in hand, I often think of the following lines from Walt Whitman from “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass:
“There was never more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,