Rust Belt Chic

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Four months after my graduation from Marlboro College, life unexpectedly led me to Cleveland, Ohio, for a three-week stint.  I lived, for part of that time, with a fellow Marlboro graduate who works as an abstract painter in addition to managing a portrait gallery in Cleveland’s arts district, Tremont.  I made my own money washing dishes at a restaurant on Detroit Avenue, a major West Side thoroughfare.

You might ask yourself: Really? Cleveland?  There’s an art scene in Cleveland?  Why would anybody graduate college and then move to Cleveland?  Why would more than one person make this terrible mistake?

Before I actually lived in Cleveland, I had wondered similar things.  The city of 390,000 residents (dramatically down from its mid-twentieth-century peak of 900,000), is currently in the midst of what has been described by different sources as an “urban renaissance” harnessing its allure of “Rust Belt Chic” to attract “millennials and recent college graduates” in search of a “quirky” or maybe “local” vibe.

The fuel for this process, the attraction of “Rust Belt Chic” is the stuff of great debate, but at its core is a familiar story.  Neighborhoods of color, of workers, of immigrants, suddenly share real estate with new faces.  These faces are usually white, young, and accompanied by a decent amount of disposable income.  Over time, the rents rise, and the old residents are forced out.  This process is often celebrated on promotional websites, in magazines, and on television as “revival” or “renaissance,” but it obscures the disruption of people, history, and tradition that characterizes so many gentrifying neighborhoods.  It obscures a narrative of destruction.

Part of this narrative is also creativity, of conjuring a new society from the ruins of the old.  In Cleveland’s steel mills, dilapidated Victorian houses, old laundries, and empty shops, new residents see a blank slate with a gritty, industrial appeal.  But at what cost does the empty slate come?  Yes, there is certainly cause for celebration in the opening of new businesses and the growth of cities’ tax bases.  But look closer and you will see the continuation of other problems: of incredible segregation, of extreme poverty and human suffering, of a historically racist police force.  “Renaissance” is only a partial story of the changes under way in American cities in the twenty-first century.


– David Amato

Marlboro Class of 2014


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