Getting the Rust Belt Story Straight
Air Date: May 26, 2018
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. We’ve been a proud forum for the nation’s rust-belt mayors over the past year. John Fetterman of Braddock, Pennsylvania, now a candidate for Lieutenant Governor as well as Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio and mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Our guest today is Anne Trubek, founder and director of Cleveland based, Belt Publishing, which unveiled this year a series to reintroduce readers to under-appreciated works that involve midwestern culture. “We wanted to find works that had some particular contemporary resonance. I was going through a huge list and wanted to find titles that people who aren’t graduate students would find absorbing and interesting.” Trubek is the editor of a new Picador volume, “Voices from the Rust Belt” which similarly unearths poignant stories from the linguistically new if economically broken Rust Belt region. From cities known to us like Detroit, Flint, Buffalo, to Oxford, Indiana, Moundsville, West Virginia, Lakewood, Ohio. We’re delighted she’s made the journey from Cleveland to our Big Apple sprawl. I appreciate your time, Anne. Thank you for being here.
TRUBEK: Thanks so much for having me.
HEFFNER: What is your ultimate insight into the restoration of the Rust Belt from these collective works, what do you hope this volume will achieve?
TRUBEK: I think the reason why the Rust Belt is such a fascinating place is that it’s complex. There is some restoration and revitalization and new energy, but there is also a lot of devastation, as you mentioned before, and struggle, and economic problems. And so you have the whole gamut of you know good news and bad news, new folks and old folks, and a lot of incredible stories that people have been really anxious to tell that I hope that readers will find and be interested to discover.
HEFFNER: I think those stories capture both the misunderstanding, illustrate the humanity embedded in these towns and cities, and the desire to overcome. But I think it’s important that we step back and ask ourselves what are we overcoming, what are the conditions that led to the deprivation, decimation, devastation, that we talk about?
TRUBEK: Well I do think it’s manufacturing, which was the driver of the economy of the region. That’s why it’s called the Rust Belt. And that economy has fallen since the 70’s, and I think it’s important to remember it, since the 70’s, not as some might think the 90’s. It’s been going on for a long time, and nothing has really replaced it. So it is a long period of struggling to find you know, how to replace what once was a robust manufacturing center.
HEFFNER: I was just recounting to you that I came back from St. Louis, and in St. Louis, you’ll remember from the famous- Chicago Tribune headline, Harry Truman. “Dewey Beats Truman.” He’s standing at that station. And that station in St. Louis, Union Station of St. Louis, was the most populated train station in the world, at its height. And it was in the 1970’s when Amtrak effectively abandoned the station and all the folks who travel via train. How connected is the Rust Belt to the culture of trains and the need for a revitalized high-speed rail system that can be effectively our new intercontinental railway?
TRUBEK: Oh, what a great question. Yes, absolutely. In fact, the only map I found that I think really shows what the Rust Belt is, is a 1940 railway map. And if you look at how many stops there were and how many trains going through the density right through these cities that you’re talking about, and St. Louis. And really it’s those connections are key. And in fact, they still are. I mean there are still a lot of trains that go through and that infrastructure is there, and it would be a huge boon to the region if that were revitalized.
HEFFNER: And to give our viewers a context, when I referred to the Union Station of St. Louis, it housed hundreds daily. Then ultimately, it was three or four. They moved from a beautiful facility to what they called AmShack. If you go there today, the Union Station of St. Louis, it is a hotel. It is of a Ritz-Carlton quality. But it’s not accessible to the layperson. It’s not accessible to 99 percent of Americans. Is that part of this story, of the outsizing or outsourcing of wealth, the divestment from the Rust Belt as the industry has left these townships and cities?
TRUBEK: I think there’s a lot of that but I also think that suburban sprawl is a key issue here. There is a lot of wealth in the Rust Belt, it just tends to be in the suburbs. And there is growth in the suburbs of all of these cities. And I think that we tend to forget that. So that downtowns are definitely a lot of them, you know still struggling and trying to figure it out. And there certainly is a lot of disinvestment that went to the coast. But there was also a lot of investment that went to the suburbs. And I think that that is also a really key part of the whole narrative.
HEFFNER: The Rust Belt is geographically, topographically, humanistically [LAUGHS] diverse. So if we were to just take it one state at a time, we’ve hosted recently three mayors from three states that are part of that constituency. Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio. Where is the natural starting point in effect, if there is one. A starting point for this discussion, we can…
TRUBEK: To define the region?
HEFFNER: Maybe to define the region and explain its diversity because Indiana, Indiana might be more homogenously one category of Rust Belt, and Ohio and Pennsylvania another story.
TRUBEK: Right, and it doesn’t even break down along states. Right? So Pennsylvania, if you think about western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, you’re thinking Rust Belt. But if you think about Philadelphia, you’re not thinking Rust Belt. So it doesn’t really, it doesn’t abide by state boundaries. And that also makes it more complex, although those mayors are fabulous and all our…
HEFFNER: So what is the source of the camaraderie then in the experience, or the lack of camaraderie?
HEFFNER: The different kinds of industries that either were there or are not there now.
TRUBEK: Right, the industries that were there, the industrial areas of the Midwest. So you know Detroit, and Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana, places that had a lot of factories. As opposed to the areas that tend to be more agriculturally based. So if you think about states like Iowa and Minnesota and Wisconsin, for most part you’re thinking areas that were agriculturally based as opposed to industrial. So it really is post-industrial is what, you know would be the closest way to define a Rust Belt area.
HEFFNER: Mining? Where does that play into this?
TRUBEK: So my Appalachia is really a distinct region than the Rust Belt. I will say in the last year or so there, it’s been blurred more and more in the way people talk about these, and we certainly do cover Appalachia but it has a different culture and a different industrial history, than steel, which would be the sort of traditional Rust Belt economy or manufacturing base.
HEFFNER: West Virginia now is being lumped in with that. And you were going to say, what is St. Louis?
TRUBEK: So St. Louis, the great thing is that you know we get to just decide, you know ‘cause there’s no government definition of the Rust Belt. St. Louis I consider a Rust Belt town in that it is definitely some place that used to have a lot of industry and is now suffering through depopulation. But St. Louis is fascinating ‘cause it’s a little bit southern, it’s a little bit of the agricultural Midwest. So it’s a, it’s a fascinating, complex place.
HEFFNER: If there is a resentment or empowerment, a cultural empowerment, what is the shared story here in terms of how people have responded to the departure of business, and the departure of conditions that are livable. And then you tell stories of conditions that are still livable, but you know, people think of the reaction to globalization as giving an impetus to a certain resentment that why did we abandon American cities and towns?
TRUBEK: If there is a unifying theme, it’s of loss. This is a region that is marked by loss. I don’t know that there’s a unifying theme for what is going to bring it back or even any resentment. I mean, I, for many of us, loss is sort of a beautiful, wonderful thing. Because it’s a chance to, you know, start anew, you know to figure out what’s next. But when we’re talking about loss, we’re also talking about, we’re not talking about jobs, necessarily. Again, this is now forty-fifty years ago. This is not a recent thing. We’re talking about people, right, that have left. We’re talking about buildings that are vacant and need to be torn down. That’s the everyday reality of people living in the Rust Belt, which is also a place of vast wealth as well as poverty. And it’s a place of as, you know has a very proud progressive history, and union history. So it’s, we’ve got it all, but I would guess I would have to say loss would be the unifying theme.
HEFFNER: In his praise for your new volume, Thomas Frank who we hosted recently said that we ought to stop fantasizing about Midwestern, or Rust Belt values, and instead start listening. So in the process of editing these really moving essays, what occurred to you as the thing that we’re most not listening to right now?
TRUBEK: Absolutely. Well there has been in the last year, year and a half, a sort of new narrative about the region, which sort of makes it seem a place of the white working-class, which it is not. There are white working class people in the Rust Belt, but that is not what defines it. And so I really wanted, you know, to be able to have people who live in the Rust Belt, who are from the area, who think deeply about it, and who are beautiful writers who could tell their stories, their experiences about how diverse it is, how just, it, everyone lives their own profound lives and there are, you know, maybe 25 essays in here, and there are 25 different stories that are all true. There isn’t just one. And what’s really important to me is that people just listen to the people living in this region about what they have to say about what’s happening in the region, what’s happening in politics recently, which is very different than it’s often made out to be, particularly again in the last year or so by the, you know, mainstream media. Which is…
HEFFNER: How so?
TRUBEK: Well it’s reducing the region to clichés. And those clichés aren’t valid. I mean I think people are shocked to realize that there is a huge Muslim population in the Rust Belt. They are shocked to know that for the last 10 or 20 years, many mayors of these cities have been working very hard to bring in immigrants and refugees to repopulate the region and that the region has been experiencing those populations for a long time. People are surprised to know that it, you know there’s a higher percentage of African-Americans in the Rust Belt than there is proportionally in the country. They are surprised to realize that the major employer are, there’s healthcare, it’s retail, and it’s universities. It hasn’t been manufacturing for a very long time. Again, that’s an old story. And we know how to tell that our story. And what the book really wants, hopes, you know, of readers is that you listen to us ‘cause we know the story well.
HEFFNER: Do you gather any particular insight from the political rhetoric as it has evolved in 2018 from the Democratic party to be more appealing to the Rust Belt?
TRUBEK: If you really look at the numbers from the last election, the numbers of people who voted for Clinton are just about the same that you know voted for Obama. A lot of people stayed home. That’s, you know, and there was a tiny fraction of people who you know turned the tide in these you know, strangely important electoral college, you know, states. And so there is a huge base of very progressive Democrats, again have a history, if they have a memory manufacturing they also have a memory of unions. And to not assume that people are looking for as centrist of a solution as possible, but to, but to hone in on this, on this base of a very liberal region.
HEFFNER: I’m wondering, is the more compelling argument today an economic one, or a moral one?
TRUBEK: Economic. Invest in the cities, address poverty address racism and segregation. These cities are some of the most segregated in the, in the country. Deal with the fact of sprawl. If you look at the metro area population versus the city populations, you’ll see this huge disparity. Treat employees well. Give them you know basic income. And they think , you know you’ll see [LAUGHS] a lot of gains.
HEFFNER: I wanted to read this particular passage describing an individual in the, in the book. “He’s the kind of person who really listens to people, really tries to figure out who they are. When we were in school, he was a nice guy, I mean a really nice person, everyone liked him. And if somebody didn’t, well they were the jerk. And that was generally known.” When asked what happened to this same individual who you profile, or one of your essays profiles, Blankenship, “What happened to make Blankenship grow up to be the type of person who would care so little for his colleagues? She could only shrug. Coal got to him.” And the author, the essayist goes on to elaborate that Blankenship became the leading force against the workers. But that resonated for me, that, the idea that coal got to him. How do we look at this still-existing industry, namely coal, and the political clout that seems to have been reborn over the election cycle, the importance of these miners and workers, even if it is just a perception and not a reality. You mentioned before unions. How do these activists, how can they respond to the current political environment in your estimation in an effective way?
TRUBEK: Well if we’re talking about West Virginia, we just had this incredible West Virginia teachers’ strike. That’s, and they won. And it was amazing. There are less than 40 thousand coal miners in the country. It is, it is all perception, it’s not reality. And coal is going away, it is dying. I don’t think even Blankenship who is now again back in the news is going to do anything about that. So there has to be a lot of attention to figure out what is going to be after coal.
HEFFNER: But I think this goes back to your really important point about cliché. If you were to imagine the Rust Belt you would think perhaps of the miners, perhaps of the mills. But the fact that there are such a disproportionate number of people in that industry relative to the prominence it gets in the media, and the media depiction of the Rust Belt is pretty astounding.
TRUBEK: Absolutely astounding. And again it’s the people that you might see on the news interviewed, talking about how they want those coal jobs back or they want those steel jobs back, they want their fathers’ jobs back. Not their jobs. There haven’t been these jobs since the 1970s. So it is also a sort of perception and myth on the fact of those who are longing for these jobs back because it, it’s not like they were laid off last year. They’ve been gone for decades, and they’re not coming back.
HEFFNER: I told you, I might not ask you this. But I want to ask you this. Do you have a favorite essay in this compilation?
TRUBEK: [LAUGHS] I don’t…
HEFFNER: Or one that speaks to you at this particular moment, when we’re recording this.
TRUBEK: There are a couple that I think will speak to people who are interested in the Rust Belt now as a result of last year or so and these narratives that we’re talking about. There’s a gorgeous essay about heroin and opiate addiction in this essay by Ben Gwin who’s a Pittsburgh writer and it’s just a beautiful, beautiful heartbreaking essay. And then there’s another essay that is absolutely heartbreaking by Connor Coyne called “Bathtime”. And it’s about giving his daughter, his two-year-old daughter a bath in Flint, Michigan right after the water crisis hits. And he’s worried about what happens if she gets some of the water into her mouth and swallows it. And these are stories about what it’s like to live through these horrible crises, and, and the everyday experience, but also, gorgeous writers, incredibly talented people who can really explain their circumstances in this warm, human and just very elegant way.
HEFFNER: What would your suggestion be for the most constructive way that we as a society can invest or reinvest in these communities? And, should we look at it differently from the coastal cities, which have also been victim to the erosion of a egalitarian state?
TRUBEK: Yeah. There’s a lot of very talented people, whether you’re talking about writers or economic planners or politicians who live in the Rust Belt. Let them do the work. They understand the region, they understand the problems, and they can, if, help solve them. Don’t invest from afar…
HEFFNER: And, how much does that depend on the courage and liberal investment of the local mayors and governors?
TRUBEK: Well they need people to decide to invest in them and they need the legislatures to decide to invest in them. But they’re also now you know a couple of efforts to try to, from Silicon Valley to put more capital into the Rust Belt. Give us the tools and the means, and we will figure out how to revitalize the region. Don’t come up with some idea from afar and say well this is what will save the Rust Belt. Rust Belt doesn’t need saving, it needs, it needs capital, money.
HEFFNER: And linguistically, since Rust Belt is perhaps misunderstood, what, what would be our hope for the way that our vocabulary should shift to reflect what is a more accurate portrayal in your book of these towns and cities? If Rust Belt is going to give people the wrong impression, and is also going to be destructive to our long term understanding of the region, what, how, how should people conceive of it differently?
TRUBEK: I personally love the term Rust Belt because it is redolent, it has history, it helps you understand what the region is. And it has, you know it, it is meaningful. A lot of people don’t like the term, and I completely respect and understand why they don’t. But I’m not someone who likes to come up with rebranding ideas. You know people talk about the Fresh Water region, the Great Lakes region. I say if it becomes a different region, then a name will emerge organically from those on the ground that will be a, will be a better way to describe it.
HEFFNER: But how do you see it relative to the Sun Belt or to the other constituencies, the Rocky Mountains, you know is it just a general plague on American cities and towns that- the new economy has given so much more means to so few people? Isn’t that just a consensus or a consistent trend in American society more broadly? That you have episodes that are high-profile like Flint water, but that’s, that’s going on everywhere any time of day.
TRUBEK: Yeah we may be the canary in the coal mine. I would say you might want to look at the difficulties that the Rust Belt has been experiencing and say well this might be what happens to the Sun Belt in ten, twenty years.
HEFFNER: Well- final question. And I, and I didn’t want to skate over this. But there is also an essay here that’s, quite compelling about a new Cleveland, if you think Cleveland was all first generation, or all third, fourth, fifth generation, Cleveland is home to a very diverse immigrant population. There’s a little Iraq in Cleveland that you describe, one of your essayists describes. How can the rest, the Rust Belt retain and showcase its diversity, specifically with immigrants in a way that is going to prove to people that you know Rust Belt is not synonymous with just nationalism or hopefully not nativism, which is an important contrast I’ve made on the show recently. But, you know what are some important examples that you think could further elevate these essays to demonstrating the diversity of the Rust Belt? And, and the fact that the Rust Belt is welcoming to immigrants.
TRUBEK: Absolutely. I mean I think it’s all there. It’s just that it gets overlooked and that there is a sort of desire to have a narrative, you know the mainstream media, the desire to paint it in a certain way. So that’s why I just go back, listen to us. We’re, we’re telling this story, this is all there. These programs are there. You walk down the street, you see that it is a different place than it might be imagined to be. So tell those stories as well.
HEFFNER: I’m just wondering, to put a name on it again, what is the tribal element or alliance, if it’s not a racialized tribalism. It needs, there is a need in our humanity to have some common identity. And I’m just still searching in this last ten seconds we have for what is that pride that will be more inclusive of immigrants that I do think are, can be shunned, or can be misunderstood in these communities?
TRUBEK: Well, they create jobs. They’re very entrepreneurial. They create jobs, they create opportunities for the rest of us.
HEFFNER: Immigrants, we’ll have to go into the mines and we’ll see immigrants protest people of color protesting the Trump rally who were just coming from the mines. I mean it’s gotten to that point where we’re reduced to such clichés that we need a correction course. But this book is a start. Thank you, Anne.
TRUBEK: Thank you very much.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.