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Rhetoric & Composition and English Professor Creates Anthology of Cleveland Stories

Aug. 20, 2012

Liv Combe

Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology
Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology

As summer approached, Anne Trubek ’88, associate professor of rhetoric & composition and English, considered how she wanted to spend her time. She contemplated a few professional and personal projects, as well as traveling to Croatia. What she didn’t consider was assembling an anthology — getting the idea, putting out a call for submissions, editing stories from more than 50 contributors (several of them Obies) and sending the finished manuscript off to the printer — in slightly more than two months. But that is what she did.

Trubek was joined in creating Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology by coeditor Richey Piiparinen, a fellow Cleveland resident and writer whom she first met last spring. Despite the brief time as friends, the speed of their collaboration suggests that the two are kindred spirits, at least when it comes to their views on their city.

Trubek was inspired to reach out to Piiparinen by his writing on the website Rustwire, where he muses on the changing dynamic of not only Cleveland, but many other up-and-coming blue-collar cities throughout the Rust Belt — Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis. He calls this change “Rust Belt Chic,” a term that originated from a blog called “i will shout youngstown.”

But Rust Belt Chic is a not just a term; it is a youth movement and period of revitalization in which Piiparinen has become something of an expert, blogging extensively on the concept and being referenced and quoted in national media coverage by Salon, The Atlantic, and NPR’s Morning Edition.

On Grist.org, the website for an organization focusing on environmental news and commentary, Piiparinen describes how Rust Belt Chic is “part aesthetic: the warmth of the faded, and the edge in old iron and steel. It’s also part old-world, working culture, like the simple pleasures associated with bagged lunchmeat and beaten boots in the corner. And then there is grit, one of the main genes in the DNA of American coolness.”

And while Rust Belt Chic can be simply defined as this sort of quintessentially American cool, it also runs deeper than the aesthetic of independent coffee shops side by side with dilapidated houses and abandoned steel mills. “Rust Belt Chic is about home, or that perpetual inner fire of longing to be comfortable in one’s own skin and one’s community,” writes Piiparinen on Rustwire. “Yet this longing is less about regressing to the past than it is finding a future through your history.”

“[Cleveland] is often fodder for jokes, but that has started to shift in recent months,” says Elizabeth Weinstein ’02, the assistant director alumni outreach and engagement, who contributed to Rust Belt Chic a story about legendary Cleveland rock n’ roll journalist Jane Scott. “Reporters from major news outlets who have traveled to Cleveland are filing stories about this surprisingly cool Rust Belt city with amazing restaurants, an emerging arts scene, and a rich musical legacy.”

It’s not just the reporters who are flooding into the Rust Belt. The region’s newfound trendiness is mostly thanks to an influx of young professionals between the ages of 21 and 34 many of whom have been pushed out of the overpriced coastal cities like New York and San Francisco and have headed back inland.

“There’s this sort of silent migration which is young, hipster types priced out of the larger cities and the coasts, finding that it’s kind of cool, the kind of blue-collar Rust Belt aesthetic and culture,” says Trubek. “If you look at the demographics, a pattern is starting to emerge.”

In a report entitled “Not Dead Yet: The Infill of Cleveland’s Inner Core,” conducted by Piiparinen for Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, he noted a shift back to Cleveland’s urban center. Though the city’s overall population has decreased by 17% over the past decade — that translates to about one out of every five people — the city’s inner core and downtown have boomed, growing by 96% in two decades.

When this surge of new life began getting some national press, Trubek’s attention was caught.

“I had this sort of panicked feeling,” she explains, “that the national media was going to come talk about this town when we can talk about it better than anyone. So I had this idea with Piiparinen that was really a little bit of a lark — let’s put together something really quickly that puts our stamp on what’s going on in town and see what happens.”

The two put out a call for submissions at the beginning of June, and within weeks they had pieces from more than 50 contributors, Cleveland natives and transplants alike.

“They only had three weeks to contact us,” says Trubek. “And what’s amazing is that most people wrote something expressly for the anthology. We said we would accept reprinted work, and we have a few reprinted pieces in there, but for the most part people wrote pieces just for the project.”

Among the contributors are several with Oberlin connections. Along with Trubek and Weinstein, pieces were written by Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Sean Decatur, who wrote about his childhood in Cleveland; Denise Grollmus ’03, a former staff writer for Cleveland Scene and current contributor for the Village Voice Media who wrote about growing up in Cleveland’s punk rock scene; and Jim Rokakis ’77, whose piece “Ward 6” describes how at the age of 22 he became the youngest member ever elected to the Cleveland City Council.

“One thing we’re really proud of in this anthology,” says Trubek, “is that we’re equally profiling very established, well-known authors like food writer Michael Ruhlman and Pulitzer Prize winner Connie Schultz as we are people for whom this is their first publication.”

For Decatur — a native Clevelander for whom his piece “When the Number 9 Bus Was Like Home, and Downtown Was My Playground” was the first “overtly biographical writing I’ve done,” much less had published in an anthology — the prospect of being included in the group of Rust Belt Chic contributors was at once flattering and intimidating.

“I’ve always wanted to write something about my experiences growing up in downtown Cleveland in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I was pretty terrified by Anne’s invitation (I’m still pretty awed to be in the company of an amazing group of writers), but I thought this would be a fun and challenging writing project.”

“This is just another story illustrating how this project has been really charmed,” says Trubek. “I emailed [Dean Decatur] on a lark asking if he would write something, and I didn’t think he would have the time or the inclination. But he worked really hard on this really fantastic piece.”

Decatur’s story is not the only charmed aspect of the anthology. The production process has been extraordinarily quick, helped along by the skills of the project’s book designer, Jesse Miller ’10, and the community support for the project.

“It’s just taken our breath away,” says Trubek. “The interest from the community has been extraordinary.”

Trubek and Piiparinen are planning on hosting and attending several events in September to drum up publicity for Rust Belt Chic, which will be published on Sept. 5. They are also working on contacting regional outlets to see if they might stock any copies, and are preparing an expanded edition of Rust Belt Chic to be released as an electronic book.

After experiencing the stories of Rust Belt Chic, Grollmus hopes that “readers will have a better sense of what Cleveland is about. Most people think: post-industrial, depressed, the Browns. But it’s so much more than that and I think that, often, its incredible music and art scene gets forgotten about in the show of much bigger cities. I also hope people will see how the less desirable aspects of Cleveland also offer their own sort of beauty and inspiration.”

With this book, Trubek hopes that they can do something for the city, “That we can start to tell a new story about Cleveland. That’s really it.”

And if they sell as many copies as they print, that wouldn’t hurt, either.

To learn more about Rust Belt Chic and pre-order copies of the book, visit rustbeltchic.com.


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