7 January, 2016
This is my hometown: Mansfield, Ohio, rated “Worst City to Live in North America” by Places Rated Almanac of 1996, the year I graduated high school. Population: 47,000, though that keeps falling. General Motors left. Before that: Westinghouse, Mansfield Tire & Rubber Company, Ohio Brass, Tappan, Armco Steel. My town is a town of abandonment, oxidized steel, broken and boarded-up windows, warehouses gone to fields, fields gone to seed. More stores are closed than open. More people flee here than are born or move here.
This is the story of a band of former manufacturing towns across the upper Midwest and Northeast. On maps, we’re often shaded in red, red for the net loss, red for the rust. What’s unique about the Rust Belt? Decay is a part of life. We’re used to it, the factories leaving and leaving their structures. We don’t always rebuild. Often, we don’t raze either, letting the old buildings get taken over by weeds and rot; time will do the demolition. It’s a striking combination: the rusted steel and the rural wildness—the land seizing control, running its course: trees sprouting up through the roofs of warehouses, mushrooms growing in the shells of old cars. Abandoned buildings, ruined houses, collapsing barns, weedy boxcars—the landscape here is so arresting, so beautiful and broken, an artistic phrase has been coined to described its rough beauty in photographs: “rust porn” (also referred to as “ruin porn”).
Is it unpleasant here? I remember the first time my former husband, a lifelong New Yorker, visited my family in Mansfield. He stared at the dead deer out the car window—the carcasses, in various stages of decay, along the side of the road, along many roads. So gory. Just left, left to rot. But I barely glanced at them, those carcasses. The bones and hooves and frozen blood were so familiar to me.
Part of this nonchalance is the product of growing up on farms or near farms. As children, my mother and her sisters used to play in the swept-out pig houses on a neighbor’s hog farm. Why were the houses, shelters for the hogs, empty at the same time every season? Where did the pigs go? They knew, my mother and her sisters. They knew—but they still played in those houses. My grown cousin, now a father, let his own daughter help raise a couple of pigs recently. The girl wanted to name them. My cousin said, “Breakfast and Dinner. Those are their names.”
I grew up knowing the dogs at the edge of my grandparents’ farm, half a dozen or more long-eared, baying hounds, were not to be played with, nor petted or visited. They were tied with chains to their wood-slat houses. Those dogs were for hunting. I grew used to the sound of gunshots—many times, in many seasons throughout the year—shattering the otherwise tranquil setting of my parents’ farm.
Certainly our Midwestern weather may be thought unpleasant: extreme heat and humidity in the summers, numbing frozen winters, and shorter and shorter springs and falls. In my early twenties, when I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan (a place even colder than Mansfield) for a teaching job, one of my students reminisced about Halloween; as children, they always had to think of costumes that would be warm, that would include hoods and gloves, fur or plush. They dressed as sheep and tigers and bundled bears.
Our first class was canceled due to a blizzard that next quarter. Spring quarter. I remember trudging to my car after a night class. I was wrapped, almost to oblivion, in a puffy down coat, but it wasn’t enough. I was freezing, the winds howling up my sleeves. The snow blowing across that flat plain threatened to knock me off my feet. I remember thinking, please just let me make it to my car. Let me find my car.
Most winter mornings of my childhood, my parents stood beside the kitchen sink, waiting for the water to fill a bucket they could pour over the frosted windshield. My mother would drive my sister and me to the bus stop, and wait with us in the car when she could. But often, we had to stand out there, stomping in the cold. The bus was late; it was always late, especially on colder mornings when it too had trouble starting. Many mornings my hair, still wet from the shower, would freeze. I remember sitting on the bus, looking out the foggy window and breaking the ice off my hair, hunk by hunk. A Midwestern friend remembers her eyelashes freezing and sticking together while another friend once said that one of his clearest memories from his childhood in New York is never having a warm enough coat.
It was freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer, and there was nothing to do. In summer, we watched television all day or baked our skin on the concrete beside the county pool, jumping into the water when the heat became unbearable.
Winter was more complicated. The sun set at four. There was no movie theatre with more than two screens until I was in high school. The town roller rink burned down, possibly because kids used to smoke in the bathrooms. There was no skate park, no community center. The nearest music venue was an hour away in Columbus (Cleveland was an hour and a half). And no one came here. No band, no group with name recognition would ever come to Mansfield.
Where would they play? The auditorium at the Westinghouse factory?
I am not certain how my friends survived. One dropped out at sixteen. One got pregnant (that was something to do). Of my two closest friends, one spent more and more time at her synagogue; she eventually became a cantor. And the other, who was to win a scholarship to art school, worked on his paintings, spending long afternoons in his attic bedroom, his canvases tilted to the light. His room, where I occupied many hours watching him work or listening to music, had a single, peaked window which looked out onto fields, fields as far as you could see: yellow and nodding and endless.
My friend is gay, which I knew, but I did not know kids threw paintbrushes at his back in art class, mumbled slurs in the hall. He wouldn’t come out, not widely, until college. We didn’t know any other gay people, especially not any grown ups, not in Mansfield. There was briefly and tragically, a gay bar in town. (I’m trying to remember its name—the Alternative Night Club? The Alternative Place?) The bar occupied a small white clapboard building behind the Renaissance Theatre downtown where I spent much of my time.
Because that is how I survived while my friends went to religious services or drank or painted or got pregnant: I went to rehearsal. I pretended to be someone else. I pretended I was somewhere else—anywhere but here. The gay bar had a balcony, which was splashed with pink and blue and silver lights from the dance floor inside every time the door banged open. I remember, from my position in the parking lot of the theatre, waving to the men out on the balcony with drinks in their hands. They would always wave back. The bar was raided. Men were arrested. (For what? Lewd behavior? What excuse?) The bar closed.
We were far from the city and it always felt farther—far from enlightenment, far from ideas, far from music and first-run movies and art and anything decent to eat. We were virtually landlocked, isolated by miles. We were also the butt of jokes. The dominant perception when I was growing up, which persists today: Everyone is fat in the Rust Belt, fat from laziness, from too many Happy Meals. People whose legs work perfectly well drive Little Rascals around Wal-Mart where they do all their shopping. They vote Republican (if they vote at all). They own guns. They lease trucks. They are lazy, uncultured, illiterate. They are white. In high school, when I traveled to New York for a theatre conference, it was embarrassing to say I was from Ohio. Even the name of the state, the way my mouth had to stretch around the vowels, felt nasal, dumb. I felt dumb.
For the rest of the country, the Midwest—particularly Ohio—stood in for something. It was an indicator of naïveté, of ignorance and isolation. On television, if the character is inexperienced, wholesome, conservative and/or plump, chances are, she’s from Ohio. Wide-eyed girls moving to the city, bland well-meaning parents, earnest kids—all shiny white Ohioans, as an out-of-state friend used to say. Characters from Ohio who fall into these stereotypes may be found in the television programs: Glee, Greek, Clarissa Explains It All, Harper Valley PTA, Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, 3rd Rock from the Sun and The New Normal—to name just a handful. In literature, Mary Ann Singleton, the heroine of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels, set in swinging 1970s San Francisco, is blonde, naïve—and from Cleveland. The Midwest, particularly Ohio, is a backwards cocoon of bland safety—and really, it’s best if we just stayed put.
And then there is the darkness of our landscape. Certainly, from New York to Illinois, the terrain is various, but all the states in the Rust Belt are marked by both rural beauty and post-industrial ruin. There are wildflower plains, wooded hills and small mountains. There are long stretches of farmland, patchwork green and yellow fields. There is space to breathe.
There are also industrial corridors or former corridors, where the factories loom, lung-colored and empty. There are ghost structures: abandoned asylums, abandoned schools, abandoned amusement parks, abandoned homes. Such a milieu seems primed for violence; there are simply so many places to hide.
In Mansfield, shadows clung to us to like mud, like that “Worst Place to Live in North America” label. I had questions, which no one would answer. Why had the lake been drained? What was under the railroad bridge? What happened to the girl who dropped out of school? What happened to the man in our neighborhood who dressed as a woman? I wondered; I couldn’t help my mind wandering to these darker places, even if—or maybe especially because—as a child, I wasn’t physically allowed to go there.
So many stories of my own childhood, I wonder about: Did this actually happen to me, or did I see it on TV, one of those long afternoons when my sister and I lay stomach-down on the family room carpet in front of a glowing, lie-telling machine?
I had difficulty distinguishing real life from fiction, a fact my parents discovered when I began to tell them about the twins who had murdered each other. What twins? Where? It was soon discovered that my babysitter watched—and I with her—soap operas all day.
How is truth and truth slippage particular to the Rust Belt? It’s not—except we have been fed lies all our lives. The water is safe. The factory is fine. Mining is a good job.
In 2012, I opened the Mansfield, Ohio newspaper to read a story about the old, shuttered GM Plant. It was the cover story, the headline huge and bold. The factory had sold to a development group! This was true. The group had an interested party! Not true. The interested party was bringing in one thousand new jobs! Really, really not true. My father worked in local business development, and I turned to him as he shook his head: I don’t know where they came up with that.
We want to believe things. We want to cast them in a light, which is not so unbearable.
Looking at subjects in a new way; looking beyond an object, into its past and its future—this is the way we see. We see our towns. My middle school had once been a parts factory for NASA, and so the building was one story and had no windows. Sometimes, the old factories were razed and turned into sheet metal, sold for scrap, and bare muddy fields. But often, the factories were left, just left, and we looked at them, day in and out, remembering what they were, watching them rust and decay and change, and managing to find the loveliness in it. Or something in it.
People have a saying about the weather in the Midwest, particularly Ohio: If you don’t like it, wait five minutes. Yet the whole region is changeable, in flux. My old high school friend moved to Columbus, and driving down his street one day, I saw many of his neighbors out: an African American woman working on her lawn, an Orthodox Jewish family walking to services, a gay couple holding hands—all on one street, one spring afternoon. The diversity of the Rust Belt is dizzying, if mostly unremarked upon by the country at large, and it extends to the landscape. There are factories and farms and warehouses and stores and scenic downtowns and row houses and roundabouts and hills and mountains and long, flat plains. How would you began to describe such a place, such a various place?
Traditionally, the term “Rust Belt” refers to a swath stretching from upstate New York to Chicago, but even these boundaries are fluid. Some would include parts of Wisconsin in the Rust Belt, or Maine, or even New York City. Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, Flint, Pittsburgh, Gary—those are the main cities that come to mind when discussing the Rust Belt. But Youngstown, St. Louis, Akron,
Albany, Dayton, Mansfield—these cities, smaller though they may be, have been hugely impacted by the decline of manufacturing, the loss of jobs, the loss of hope. It could be argued that these smaller cities feel the impact of a closed factory more than the metropolitan areas because their economies are smaller, more fragile.
Perhaps the Rust Belt is not even a place or group of places so much as it is a set of socio-economic conditions. Perhaps any area now in decline may be said to be Rust Belt. Perhaps “Rust Belt,” then, is not a geographic designator but a constructed one more than anything, a blanket term: of absence, of abandonment. So much has happened and continues to happen here, so much destruction, abandonment, failure and waste. Also: waiting, striving, persisting and hoping. So much change in lifestyles and lives.
The economic conditions that conspired to create the Rust Belt may, of course, be found in more and more locations as the economy has tanked. Since 2008, what town doesn’t have a closed factory, a street or two (or five or ten) of abandoned houses? Perhaps the Rust Belt is not a spot with clearly designated borders so much as a patina. Not a place, so much as a persona—always a persona. When we go to a dark place; when we skitter off the subject; when we lie; when we obsess; when we still find the beauty, the hope, the potential in our busted lives and our broken towns, maybe we’re performing the Rust Belt. Maybe, no matter where we live or call home or write from or about, maybe the abandoned houses are all of us.