Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Anorexic Vampires and the Pittsburgh Potty: The Story of Rust Belt Chic by Richey Piiparinen

“Rust Belt Chic is the opposite of Creative Class Chic. The latter [is] the globalization of hip and cool. Wondering how Pittsburgh can be more like Austin is an absurd enterprise and, ultimately, counterproductive. I want to visit the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar, not the Miami of LeBron James. I can find King James World just about anywhere. Give me more Rust Belt Chic.” Jim Russell, blogger at Burgh Diaspora

National interest in a Rust Belt “revival” has blossomed. There are the spreads in Details, Atlantic Cities, and Salon, as well as an NPR Morning Edition feature. And so many Rust Belters are beginning to strut a little, albeit cautiously–kind of like a guy with newly-minted renown who’s constantly poking around for the “kick me” sign, if only because he has a history of being kicked.

There’s a term for this interest: “Rust Belt Chic”. But the term isn’t new, nor is the coastal attention on so-called “flyover” country. Which means “Rust Belt Chic” is a term with history–loaded even–as it arose out of irony, yet it has evolved in connotation if only because the heyday of Creative Class Chic is giving way to an authenticity movement that is flowing into the likes of the industrial heartland.

About that historical context. Here’s Joyce Brabner, wife of Cleveland writer Harvey Pekar, being interviewed in 1992, and introducing the world to the term:

I’ll tell you the relationship between New York and Cleveland. We are the people that all those anorexic vampires with their little black miniskirts and their black leather jackets come to with their video cameras to document Rust Belt chic. MTV people knocking on our door, asking to get pictures of Harvey emptying the garbage, asking if they can shoot footage of us going bowling. But we don’t go bowling, we go to the library, but they don’t want to shoot that. So, that’s it. We’re just basically these little pulsating jugular veins waiting for you guys to leech off some of our nice, homey, backwards Cleveland stuff.

Now to understand Brabner’s resentment we step back again to 1989. Pekar–who is perhaps Cleveland’s essence condensed into a breathing human–had been going on Letterman. Apparently the execs found Pekar interesting, and so they’d book him periodically, with Pekar–a file clerk at the VA–given the opportunity to promote his comic book American Splendor. Well, after long, the relationship soured. Pekar felt exploited by NYC’s life of the party, with his trust of being an invited guest giving way to the realization he was just the jester. So, in what would be his last appearance, he called Letterman a “shill for GE” on live TV. Letterman fumed. Cracked jokes about Harvey’s “Mickey Mouse magazine” to a roaring crowd before apologizing to Cleveland for…well…being us.

Think of this incident between two individuals–or more exactly, between two realities: the famed and fameless, the make-up’d and cosmetically starved, the prosperous and struggled–as a microcosm for regional relations, with the Rust Belt left to linger in a lack of illusions for decades.

But when you have a constant pound of reality bearing down on a people, the culture tends to mold around what’s real. Said Coco Chanel:

“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity”.

And if you can say one thing about the Rust Belt–it’s that it’s authentic. Not just about resiliency in the face of hardship, but in style and drink, and the way words are said and handshakes made. In the way our cities look, and the feeling the looks of our cities give off. It’s akin to an absence of fear in knowing you aren’t getting ahead of yourself. Consider the Rust Belt the ground in the idea of the American Dream.

Photo credit: Sean Posey

Of course this is all pretty uncool. I mean, pierogi and spaetzle sustain you but don’t exactly get you off. Meanwhile, over the past two decades American cities began their creative class crusade to be the next cool spot, complete with standard cool spot amenities: clubs, galleries, bike paths, etc. Specifically, Richard Florida, an expert on urbanism, built an empire advising cities that if they want creative types they must in fact get ahead of themselves, as the young are mobile and modish and are always looking for the next crest of cool.

These “Young and the Restless”–so they’re dubbed–are thus seeking and hunting, but also: apparently anxious. And this bit of pop psychology was recently illustrated beautifully in the piece “The Fall of the Creative Class” by Frank Bures:

I know now that this was Florida’s true genius: He took our anxiety about place and turned it into a product. He found a way to capitalize on our nagging sense that there is always somewhere out there more creative, more fun, more diverse, more gay, and just plain better than the one where we happen to be.

After long–and with billions invested not in infrastructure, but in the ephemerality of our urbanity–chunks of America had the solidity of air. Places without roots. People without place. We became a country getting ahead of itself until we popped like a blowfish into pieces. Suddenly, we were all Rust Belters, and living on grounded reality.

Then somewhere along the way Rust Belt Chic turned from irony into actuality, and the Rust Belt from a pejorative into a badge of honor. Next thing you know banjo bingo and DJ Polka are happening, and suburban young are haunting the neighborhoods their parents grew up in then left. Next thing you know there are insights about cultural peculiarities, particularly those things once shunned as evidence of the Rust Belt’s uncouthness, but that were–after all–the things that rooted a history into a people into a place.

Take the Pittsburgh Potty. For recent generations it was about the shame of having a toilet with no walls becoming the pride of having a toilet with no walls. From Pittsburgh Magazine:

We purchased a house with a stray potty, and we’ve given that potty a warm home. But we simply pretended as if the stray potty didn’t exist, and we certainly didn’t make eye contact with the potty when we walked past it to do laundry.

The Pittsburgh Potty is basically a toilet in the middle of many Pittsburgh basements. No walls and no stalls. It existed so steel workers can get clean and use the bathroom without dragging soot through ma’s linoleum.

Photo credit: Brookline Connection

Authentic: yes. Cool? A toilet?

Only in the partly backward Rust Belt of Harvey Pekar and friends. From the twitter feed of @douglasderda who asked “What is a Pittsburgh Potty?” Some responses follow:

“I told my wife I wanted to put ours back in, but she refused. I threatened to use the stationary tubs.”

“In my house, that would be known as my husband’s bathroom.”

“It’s a huge selling feature for PGH natives. I’m not kidding. We weren’t so lucky in our SS home.”

“We’re high class people. Our Pittsburgh Potty has a bidet. Well, it’s a hose mounted on the bottom, but still ….”

Eventually, this satisfaction found in re-rooting back into our own Rust Belt history has become the fuel of wisdom for even Coastal elites. Here’s David Brooks recently talking about the lessons of Bruce Springsteen’s global intrigue being nested in the locality that defines Rust Belt Chic:

If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place…you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.

Brooks continues:

The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman…Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.

And some are coming, albeit slowly, unevenly. But more importantly, as a region we are once again becoming–but nothing other than ourselves.

Authenticity, reality: this was and always will be the base from which we wrestle our dreams back down to solid ground.

American splendor, indeed.

Topics: Civic Branding, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Cleveland, Pittsburgh

7 Responses to “Anorexic Vampires and the Pittsburgh Potty: The Story of Rust Belt Chic by Richey Piiparinen”

  1. Rod Stevens says:

    The operative word here is “real”. Maybe that’s why people are interested in the “Pittsburgh” potty: it reminds them of work with real, tangible things like steel and coal. There may also be an attachment here to something that is growing in importance and popularity, urban manufacturing, or “making” real things.

    There are two constants in marketing: authenticity and community. Very few places can compare with San Francisco and New York for job opportunities, and both places are demonstrably “authentic”, but both are too expensive for families. If Rust Belt cities can offer more good jobs for young people, their stock of affordable and interesting buildings combined with very real and very established communities should be attractive alternatives for those looking long term. The key will be making the newcomers feel welcome and providing more modern recreational alternatives and good schools. The generation now coming of power has shown itself to be extremely entrepreneurial, so they will create the recreation if it does not exist, but the schools are a bigger challenge, since K-12 is arguably more resistant to change than any other institution. Detroit and its ilk are interesting “urban wildernesses”, places where young people are moving in like pioneers and re-creating society. What will happen in these places when they have kids and these kids come of school age? One possibility is that the families will simply create their own schools, outside the regular system, but this will require time and money that many may not have. If we want these places to come back, we need institutional options that will make money available for these new educational ventures.

  2. EJ says:

    You suggest K-12 education is resistant to change, but changes are nonetheless happening throughout this field at a fairly rapid pace. Charter schools have really begun to proliferate during the past decade, and some of the top performers are achieving results on par with the upper tier of public and private schools. Online charter schools have also emerged, and are limited in their reach only by cumbersome state regulations. As long as people have access to network-capable computers and internet access, kids can have access to education even in otherwise isolated and underserved urban areas like those in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Buffalo.

  3. Rod Stevens says:

    I agree that change is coming, but I’m not sure how rapidly. Charter schools are increasing in number, but good ones are still relatively few and far between (my niece teaches at one in center city St. Louis). I’m also aware of on-line education options, having put together a program for my daughter that uses Stanford’s EPGY program, coupled with intense before-school mentoring by adults. There are also programs like the Nuevo School on the San Francisco Peninsula and a “makers” school in San Francisco that use design thinking and project based learning, but these stellar examples are still the exception and not the rule. It is difficult, as a parent, to navigate all these different options, make sense of them, create a program for your child, and have time to administer it. The schools of of the future may have much more of a cafeteria approach but, particularly in the distressed inner cities, the school districts themselves can be exceedingly bureaucratic and resistant to change. I live in one of hte more affluent and educated communities of the Pacific Northwest, and the top administration here is very slow to change, if only because the test scores give it passing grades. For most people moving back into central Detroit, St. Louis or Cleveland, there are going to be challenges aplenty fixing up property, finding work, and rebuilding community. These are things people have more time for before they have kids. Add the duties of child-rearing, and the challenges of creating do-it-yourself education become much greater. Perhaps some time in the future, if and when we “come out the other side”, we’ll have institutions that see their roles as supporting parents as they individualize their children’s education, but in many if not most places today, the institutional status quo takes precedence.

  4. PeterW says:

    Interestingly, my house in Broad Ripple has a “Pittsburgh Potty,” as well as the large sink and a kind of crude shower. I found it kind of odd when I looked at the house…but, well, two toilets are better than one. I had no idea it was an actual cultural artifact, however. I have seen a couple of other ones in Indy as well, all in early postwar houses.

    (I know this is kind of tangential to the actual point, but still…)

  5. William Barron says:

    I agree with the entire “authenticiity” label or branding of the Rust Belt. It is a creative way to stand out or to market a region, but what I don’t like is how the Rust Belt cities think its great to exemplify and glorify a broken America, or an America of a bygone era; the 20th century is behind; its time to look to the 21st century. That is a cool toilet without walls in a basement though.

  6. As a Pittsburgh native, I’m in agreement with the basic premise of this post. Authenticity is a far better focus than just making it a new [fill in the city name].

    I think some of the good things that have happened in the last decade or so in Pittsburgh have done just that – it’s always been a city of neighborhoods and some of the interesting changes and evolutions in places like Lawrenceville (my old neighborhood) and the Strip combine 21st century practical needs with respect for Pittsburgh culture.

    There’s been a lot of discussion here recently about the measuring sticks one analyzes a city by (including what metrics people used to look at Indianapolis) and strengths and pluses aren’t always measured in “new and shiny.” Pittsburgh has made that mistake before (see under: Penn Circle and Civic Arena).

    I also found a lot to agree with in the Frank Bures article re: Richard Florida. I wrote in depth about it here: http://elegyandirony.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/the-great-madison-debate/

    I know that there’s a debate about many of Professor Florida’s concepts and theories. But what I *will* say about the “Creative Class” theory from my own Pittsburgh perspective is this: in terms of the three T’s (talent, technology and tolerance) Pittsburgh had plenty of talent and has exploded in terms of technology.

    What wasn’t always there, and which I’m still uncertain about, is tolerance. And I don’t know if you can have a culture which is both, as Piiparinen says, “deep in one’s own tradition” and “distinct” and also have the kind of flexibility, diversity, tolerance – whatever word you want to use – that drives new growth or sparks new ideas.

    I love Pittsburgh on an emotional level, and on an intellectual one I think it’s filled with many magnificent resources. But it’s also a city that I once wrote had a “mythological fear of change.”

    Measuring the options for, say, LGBT people and artists can’t be the only yardstick….but that’s *precisely* who has fueled the amazing renaissance of Lawrenceville, which was just waking from its long slumber when I lived there years ago.

    I don’t want Pittsburgh to be anything but the best current version of itself, and I think the trend of celebrating authenticity is great. But it can be balanced with incubating new ideas and new pathways (not always the ‘Burgh’s strength) and by supporting new density and transit initiatives – becoming a more urban living friendly, bike friendly city has been a huge plus for Pittsburgh, but there’s still work to be done.

    (And hey, my coal mining ancestors went one better than the Pittsburgh potty – they had outhouses. That’s as old school as you can get!)

  7. uffy says:

    I’d be quite happy to see a Rust Belt resurgence. Rising labor costs overseas and increasing automation/capital intensity should favor US manufacturing. Cheap energy doesn’t hurt either.

    Funny this is the guy that thinks Chicago is headed straight down though, as I doubt both can be happening simultaneously.

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