Celebrating the "ones who stayed" to reinvent struggling Rust Belt cities

You can tell you’re in the Rust Belt when you start being inundated with “hyperbolic superlatives,” those double edge expressions of pride and anxiety as residents deal with the reality of trying to bring back their cities and communities.
That’s a key (and entertaining) finding of David Giffels’ 2014 book The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt.
Giffels speaks at the Mercantile Library on Thursday, April 7. The free public event begins with a 6:30 p.m. reception. He’s also in town to give the keynote address for the Midwest Urban District Forum presented by Downtown Cincinnati Inc. and the International Downtown Association.
His book was inspired by experiences growing up and working in Akron, where he’s a writer and assistant professor of English at the University of Akron and a former Akron Beacon-Journal columnist. But it has wide-ranging significance for anyone choosing to live in the huge swath of the Midwest and East — older cities usually with lake or river access — that has seen losses of factories and population in recent decades. Ohio is right smack in the center of it.
In the book, Giffels recalls how Akron was once legitimately known worldwide as Rubber City for what it manufactured, at least until the industrial decline of the 1980s.
Since then it’s compensated with proud proclamations, some disputable, about its glorious history inventing the Professional Bowlers Association, hosting the National Skate-Board Championships, being the birthplace of the hamburger and ice cream cone, having the first American punk rock club outside New York City and much more.
Other Rust Belt cities, too, crow about such firsts, as Giffels points out in his book. Cleveland calls itself the Rock and Roll Capital of the World, Canton the Birthplace of Professional Football.
As Giffels explains in a phone interview, there is a subtext to all of these firsts — it’s a way by which civic leaders attempt to plead to departing younger residents. “Children, why are you leaving here? We have these good things,” he imagines the leaders saying.
“I think (the ‘superlatives’) are a source of pride but also a source of anxiety,” Giffels says. “Cities have to define themselves as the home of somebody famous or the first to do something. It comes from a place of insecurity. New York City can claim all sorts of superlatives and no doubt does, but I doubt they do it because they’re afraid people won’t otherwise think it’s a great American city.
“But as soon as you step down from that level and talk about the average cities in America, which is most of us, you do that.”
Akron does have one relatively recent claim to fame that’s recognized worldwide: landmark punk and New Wave musicians like Devo, Chrissie Hynde, Tin Huey and The Waitresses had their origins there.
This is a good time to mention that Giffels doesn’t consider Cincinnati a true Rust Belt city. But we do certainly share characteristics. All you have to do is turn on that cable TV station that shows a litany of facts about city firsts, like “First bag of air mail lifted by hot air balloon.”
But there is a fundamental difference.
“I think of Cincinnati as the beginning of the South,” Giffels says. “A little bit different of a place, although it still has that Ohio name on it. But it never had its great fall.
“I like to think that all Ohio cities have soul, except Columbus, which has none. But while Cincinnati definitely has an old-city soulfulness and grit, it’s different because it didn’t have same kind of hard times as northern Ohio cities.”
Giffels’ book isn’t really about the one-third of Akron’s population that has moved away during his lifetime, nor is it an elegy to the abandoned older buildings and ghostly, under-populated neighborhoods left in the wake. Many urbanologists and sociologists have addressed that phenomenon.
“What about the two-thirds that stayed? That became the whole purpose of my book,” he says.
And those who have stayed aren’t just the ones “left behind.” They are the ones like him, he writes, who saw opportunity for reinvention in what was left.
“I always found it thrilling, this notion of decadence and of abandon and of availability and possibility,” Giffels says. “There’s a quote I love, by the composer Ned Rorem (by way of Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence): ‘Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced.’”
That also helps describe what’s happening here in the rebirth of Over-the-Rhine; the establishment of new breweries, clubs and lofts in old and once-decrepit inner city churches, factories and warehouses; the fierce loyalty to Findlay Market; the efforts to revive the legacies of departed but culturally significant companies like King Records and Kenner Toys; and the murals for boxer Ezzard Charles and strongman Henry Holtgrewe.
In the interview, Giffels explains further.
“One thing I found is that for people who are Generation X or younger,” he says, “it’s like we stuck it out in a place that was hard to stick out in, we took the hard way on purpose, so we get to claim all these things that people left behind. Since we stayed, we get to own that story.”
That even means owning, sometimes with tongue-in-cheek humor, a few of those “hyperbolic superlatives.”
“You see a lot of T-shirts in cities like this that are ironic,” he says. “In Cleveland, it’s the river that caught on fire. It’s a matter of pride now. It’s not like people are clinging to this desperately, but rather it’s part of taking ownership of our weird legacies.”
And in weirdness, there is hope.
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Steve Rosen is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer who serves as CityBeat's Contributing Visual Arts Editor and is a frequent contributor to The Enquirer. His writing also appears in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Variety, IndieWire.com, Western Art & Architecture, Paste and other publications and websites.