Monday, April 9, 2018

Voices From the Rust Belt

Voices From the Rust Belt is an offering of essays edited by Anne Trubek on the legacy of a post-industrial world in the once great manufacturing centers including Buffalo, Detroit, Flint, Akron, and Chicago.

I found these essays to be beautifully written and personally moving. I savored each essay, reading them one at a time. The stories are about places I know, stories I am familiar with.

These are stories that break my heart.

Getting Personal
I am a Rust Belt girl.

I spent my first ten years of life just north of Buffalo until 1963 when my family moved to the Detroit suburbs so my dad could find work in the auto industry. With a high school education and hands-on experience, he was able to get a good job with benefits. My grandfather was a GM engineer, my brother is a Ford engineer, and other family members worked on the line.

My husband is from outside of Flint, MI, where his father worked at Fisher Body and his grandmother, a GM employee, was in the Woman's Brigade during the famous sit-down strike. My husband's brother was the third generation to be a Flint resident and he raised his children there.
Union pins that belonged to Valdora 'Girl' Bekofske
As a young wife, I lived in and around Philadelphia, including in one of the earliest industrial centers, surrounded by empty factories. We returned to Michigan, for a while living in Lansing a short way from the downtown GM assembly plant. At retirement, we moved into my family home in Metro Detroit.

Our families were lucky. Dad often mused that he had seen the best days of working in the auto industry.  Dad survived several downsizing cuts thanks to his seniority. My dad-in-law took advantage of early retirement and lived into his nineties, spending more time retired than in his career. But he had to watch the Flint and Grand Blanc plants die.

Looking Deeper Between the Pages

The book is divided into thematic sections.

Growing Up
  • Jaqueline Marino's A Girl's Youngstown begins with memories of the 1970s pollution that made her and her sister hold their breath when crossing the Market Street Bridge. It made me recall the smell of entering Tonawanda, driving up the River Road past the Ashland gasoline storage tanks.
  • The Kidnapped Children of Detroit by Marsha Music recalls White Flight and ponders how today Detroit can move forward without the crippling divisions of the past. 
  • Busing, A White Girl's Tale by Amanda Shaffer considers what she gained from the experience. 
  • North Park, With and Without Hate by Jeff Z. Klein recounts growing up Jewish in Buffalo when prejudice was out in the open. 
  • Life on the "slag heap of society" is presented by David Faulk in Moundsville. In Love and Survival: A Flint Romance, Layla Meiller admits her hometown taught her a pervasive sense of vulnerability.
Day to Day in the Rust Belt
  • Dave Newman talks about starting over in mid-life in A Middle-Aged Student's Guide to Social Work as he learns the limitations of social work. 
  • Fresh to Death is Eric Woodyard's recounting of his double life drinking in a Flint neighborhood bar at night while working as an award-winning sportswriter by day.  
  • Ben Gwin shares a heartbreaking story of addiction in Rust Belt Heroin Chic. Henry Louis Taylor Jr. asks Will Blacks Rise or Be Forgotten in the New Buffalo, proving that the racial division of progress plagues Rust Belt cities other than Detroit. 
  • Aaron Foley asks Can Detroit Save White People? 
  • Huda Al-Marashi writes about Cleveland's Little Iraq community.
Geography of the Heartland
  • John Lloyd Clayton remembers a Cincinnati gay bar in A Night at the Golden Lion Lounge. 
  • The lack of identity in assimilated white European families is addressed in Ryan Schnurr's Family Bones. 
  • The Fauxtopias of Detroit's Suburbs by James D. Griffioen discusses Henry Ford's legacy, from the Rouge plant to Greenfield Village's idyllic nostalgia that whitewashes history. Eric 
  • Anderson juxtaposes working in the steel mills, gentrification, and art in Cleveland in Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall
  • I learned that "redneck" came from the red bandannas worn by Matewan unionizers in King Coal and the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum by Carolyne Whelan. 
  • Martha Bayne questions accident or intention in Seed or Weed? 
  • On the Evolution of Chicago's Bloomingdale Trail 
  • Ecologist 
  • Kathryn M. Flinn realizes the diversity of Rust Belt ecology in This Is A Place
  • Mobility as benefit or detriment is considered in That Better Place; or the Problem with Mobility by G. M. Donley. Donley looks at how historic suburban growth impacted downtowns and offers ways to improve where we live instead of chasing the 'dream home' elsewhere.
Leaving and Staying
  • The pursuit of a relationship brings Sally Errico to move in Losing Lakewood. Notes from the Expatriate Underground by Margaret Sullivan is about nostalgic Buffalo natives looking for connection. 
  • Confessions of a Rust Belt Orphan; or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Akron by Jason Segedy recalls the 'smell of good jobs' when Akron was the Rubber Capital of the World. 
  • Our idealistic image of an upward line of progress must be replaced with the cycle of boom and bust. 
  • And Connor Coyne talks about what it is like to bath a baby in Flint Water in Bathtime.
Thoughts

Voices from the Rust Belt will be poignant reading for those of us associated with these cities. We will connect with some readings, and definitely will learn we are not alone. I was surprised how Buffalo's experience of white flight was not too unlike Detroit's.

The stories will inform those who want to understand the Rust Belt experience on the personal level. There are essays that dig deeper, dissecting a history of public policy and boom and bust economics that contributed to the decline of these cities. Best of all, included are suggestions for moving forward.

This book would be a good discussion starter in the classroom or in a book club.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Voices from the Rust Belt
by Anne Trubek
Macmillan-Picador
ISBN 9781250162977
PRICE $16.00 (USD)