On Rust Belt Shame

By Richey Piiparinen

This essay is from a working manuscript entitled “Hunting Octopus: Collected Essays”.

In a June 15th, 1981 Time magazine puff piece called “Nothing Rotten about the Big Plum”, the author describes how then-Mayor of Cleveland, George Voinovich, sauntered onto the mound at Municipal Stadium wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Cleveland’s new marketing campaign, “New York’s the Big Apple, But Cleveland’s a Plum.” Predictably, Voinovich then proceeded to throw out the “first plum”, a play off the ceremonial first pitch. Unlike a baseball, however, a plum splats. Which it did in this case. In the catcher’s mitt. The Yakety sax-like scene illustrates the lengths cities will go to project an image as far away from reality as possible. These city branding campaigns usually end poorly. 

Figure 17: Mayor Voinovich throws out of the first plum. Source: David I. Andersen

Meanwhile, In Pittsburgh the city’s marketing elite leaned in with a character called Border guard Bob. Dan Fitzpatrick, a reporter Post-Gazetteexplained that Border Guard Bob was a fictional Barney Fife-type persona who was to star in a television ad and be put on billboards. “The idea was for Border Guard Bob to wear a uniform and stop young people at Western Pennsylvania’s borders, he wrote, “before they had a chance to leave for other cities. If he was unable to persuade people to stay, Border Guard Bob would have hitched a bungee cord to the car’s back bumper and, looking into the camera, say: “’He’ll be back.’” 

Yikes. 

Where does the will, or lack of will, come from that incites these once-powerhouse cities to so pitifully delude themselves into thinking that this is how to put yourself out there? How does a collective devolve to be so vulnerably self-unaware?

Though my career is in the field of city building, particularly urban theory and policy, my initial graduate training—my first love, really—was in clinical psychology. My thesis was on secondhand, or vicarious, trauma related to the September 11th attacks, which turned into a few published studies with titles like “stress symptoms of two groups before and after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01” inplaces like Perceptual and Motor Skills. The broader ramifications of the findings are that groups, such as nations, cities, or neighborhoods, are impacted by experiences on an aggregate level just as individuals are on a personal level. Collectively, the perceptual “catch” of these experiences—be they traumatically and instantaneously profound like 9/11, or slower-moving and distress-inducing like deindustrialization and the job and income losses and communal, familial, and personal conflicts that inevitably follow—become absorbed as memories of what was, what is, and what may never be. These memories, however, often remain below the level of conscious awareness. They are thus not processed but left “undigested”, not unlike a brick of food in the belly that echoes forward in the tainting of future experience via the prism of emotional distress, else emotionlessness. In other words, loss unfelt is loss everlasting.

“Only echoes answer me,” writes the playwright Anton Chekhov in Swan Song, the quote referencing the extent of how things can unravel like a fountain of bits and pieces, the manifestation of which is breakage flowing into breakage. Or as Yeats put it in his poem “The Second Coming”: “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. The issue, then, for people, and groups of people i.e., cities, isn’t about whether things fall apart—things will fall apart—but what’s to be done with the remains. Will they be ignored while yet another undoing is in the making? (This seems the approach humanity is taking toward climate change and late capitalism.) Or will they be leveled with and carried forward?

Arguably, the Rockstar of the notion that collectives have thoughts and feelings is sociologist Emile Durkheim, who formulated the idea of a “collective conscience”, a concept described in his 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society as the “totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society.” The focus in this essay is on the specific beliefs and sentiments about the geography of the Rust Belt that arrive as projected judgement from the outside in yet are preserved by a peculiar regional flare for the self-own that operates from the inside out, the latter of which I’ve come to call “Rust Belt Shame”. 

It’s important, here, to delineate shame from other negative affect, particularly guilt. Guilt is about an act done and the consequences of one’s conscience. “I feel bad. I have done wrong.” These are the types of words we hear in our head when feeling guilty, and it’s is an Adam- and Eve-like self-discourse arising from the backlash that is a moral authority. “Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’.”

Shame is different. If guilt is the internal feeling Adam and Eve felt as they left the Garden of Eden, then shame is the feeling they felt from the hisses of the onlookers that watched from the balcony of biblical context. In modern-day parlance, shame is the gas that gets you cancelled. It’s the societal norming that acts as guardrails to where culture can and can’t go. But hive-minded morality chutes can lead society astray, especially if they are constructed from a collective conscience that is more repressed than processed. Or more virtue signaling than virtuous. As a guiding, resolving, feeling shame carries with it a lot baggage. “Shame is a soul eating emotion,” explains psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, referencing shame’s groupthink tendency to try and erode what’s wrong instead of grow what’s right. And it’s an emotional self-tunneling that can lead to a house of mirrors as far as not knowing where progress proceeds from, a reality eloquated supremely in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s, The Little Prince. “Why are you drinking? demanded the little prince. So that I may forget,” replied the tippler. Forget what? inquired the little prince, who was already sorry for him. Forget that I am ashamed, the tippler confessed, hanging his head. Ashamed of what? insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him. Ashamed of drinking!” Or in this case: “Why are you ashamed, Cleveland? Because I am a plum. Why are you marketing yourself as a plum? Because I am ashamed.” 

That shame is a particularly important sentiment which clots in the Rust Belt consciousness, and it’s the tributary so many Rust Belters flow into and out of in this stream of living that’s been labeled “flyover country”, what’s the source emotion, or the experiential watershed, that gives Rust Belt Shame its materiality? It’s most basic element, its ground truth, is loss, chiefly the loss of status. Here, Lao Tzu put it best: “Pride attaches undue importance to the superiority of one’s status in the eyes of others And shame is fear of humiliation at one’s inferior status in the estimation of others.” Legendary sociologist Charles Cooley theorized in 1922 that there were essentially only two social emotions, pride and shame “The thing that moves us to pride or shame,” Cooley wrote, “is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.” 

The Rust Belt, of course, is not alone here. Cities the world over are afflicted with the hangovers of history. “Nearly every historic city has its brand of melancholy indelibly associated with it,” begins the author of the essay “From the “Geography of Melancholy” in the American Reader, “each variety linked to the scars the city bears. Lisbon has its saudade: a feeling of aimless loss tied to the city’s legacy of vanishing seafarers, explorers shipwrecked in search of Western horizons. Istanbul has huzun: a religiously-tinged brand of melancholy rooted in the city’s nostalgia for its glorious past.” But the Rust Belt’s version seems to go beyond the romantic notion of nostalgic longing for better times, and into the Japanese art of self-impaling, or Seppuku, known as “hari-kari” in the West. If not for a strange, if subconscious, tendency for the self-dig, how else would you explain selling Barney Fife as a prison guard as the star of an attraction campaign to retain the city’s younger, creative types? The whole concept is perverse. Like selling sand to the thirsty. 

A few years back, I got contacted by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, a writer for the New Yorker, about a piece I wrote that discussed the self-flagellating tendencies found in Cleveland and the rest of the Rust Belt. “Shit happened,” I wrote. “Shit is still happening.” My point was that a fall from grace had occurred. Deindustrialization and urban core abandonment were real and long-shadowed. Cleveland shrank. It shriveled. As did Pittsburgh and Detroit. Socioeconomic effects ensued. A colossal housing market collapsed. A new settlement pattern was categorized called the “shrinking city” and a novel urban aesthetic was even birthed: “ruin porn”, referring to the predilection of vacancy gawkers to play on the untaken cathedrals of the Industrial Revolution. And the fact that it all did—the leaving, the shrinking, the decay, the return to earth, in fact all those features of mortality—it triggered a projection in America’s mind’s eye that something was wrong with “them” but not necessarily with “us”. 

That’s because it’s soothing for a collective to compartmentalize its failing parts. To jersey-barrier the appendages vanishing on the vine. And for good reason, because while swaths of the inland were failing, the Sun Belt was growing. The Coasts prospered. New York was New York, never sleeping. Las Vegas was shiningly gluttonous, albeit literally and figuratively built on a house of cards. Matter of fact, it can be argued that the Rust Belt was the first geography in modern America to “die”; that is, not grow. There was the Old West and its ghost towns, but the Old West never held such a prominent position in the American hierarchy as did the Arsenal of Democracy—home to the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, and Ford. And given America is a manifest-destined country whose soul was conceived on the crossroads of unbridled consumption and growth, the side-eyed glances, the head shakes, the laughs at that kept coming from late night talk shows at a region that was named after a loss of gloss, well, it was not unexpected. American exceptionalism wasn’t conceived to expire. So, mock the loss and tend to growth. Mock reality and make myth. Drink a boat drink and play roulette. It’s all uphill from here…

Still, the projections, the Cleveland jokes, they are one thing. That’s punches taken. But why do we as a people accept it, let alone curate it? “I have, in fact, never lived in a place whose proud residents so consistently and gleefully disrespect their hometown as Cleveland,” notes well-known Jeopardy champ Arthur Cho in his Daily Beast piece “Cleveland Comes Crawling Back to LeBron: The Masochism of Rust Belt Chic.” Cho, a Cleveland transplant, goes on to write that though he hates to “engage in victim-blaming,” the reason “everyone dogs on Cleveland is that we ask for it.” Why? Cho concludes: “If we weren’t suffering, we wouldn’t be Cleveland anymore.”

Beyond shared identity, there’s an adaptive reason for Rust Belt Shame. It’s not just a collective phenomenon. It’s not simply about losing out on some kind of civic pride arms race measured in skyscrapers, population growth, and Fortune 500’s. No, losing one’s livelihood and one’s ability to make meaning is deeply personal. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” explained a GM Lordstown plant worker in a 2018 Guardian piece “A ‘kick in the stomach’: massive GM layoffs leave workers distraught”, “This is my third GM plant. I’d like to be able to plant my roots somewhere. I feel like a gypsy.” “This is devastating. This is our livelihood,” echoed a co-worker. These public-but-private happenings, then, get stitched into a shared experience that becomes cultural, or part of the menu of sentiments defining a Rust Belt daily life. This response, however, is often adaptive. It’s not moaning. “[T]he very fact that shame is an isolating experience also means that if one can find ways of sharing and communicating it this communication can bring about particular closeness with other persons.” so notes the author of “Shame and the Social Bond.” Hence, the collective character armor that is Rust Belt Shame. 

Yet this doesn’t mean such a group identity can’t tip from adaptive to maladaptive. Or from digested and transcended to imputed, identity-defining, and concretizing. 

Which brings us back to the New Yorker reporter I noted earlier. A few days after we talked he wrote a piece entitled “Donald Trump and the Idea of the Rust Belt”. From our discussion, the reporter, Wallace-Wells, correctly latched onto the notion that in the national discourse of the Rust Belt there was—beyond macroeconomic explanations for deindustrialization and the ideological and voting proclivities of alienated Reagan Democrats—a depth of the narrative that wasn’t exposed and rarely discussed. I called this hidden reality “the idea of the Rust Belt”, or a worm at the core in the national psyche that’s carried around like a shadow, i.e., barely noticed but constantly cast. Wallace-Wells explained that the “idea of the Rust Belt” is a projected upon reality that “…everyone is vulnerable. The story that is told is about the certainty of loss.” 

Yet he also lamented the fact that in that process of existential displacement onto the region, a parallel sentiment has been left out. “It’s a little strange to remember the ideas of the Midwest that the Rust Belt has crowded out,” he writes. “The conviction that the heartland provided a moral counterweight to coastal excess and cynicism.” He’d go on to reference a Jonathan Franzen interview wherein the author remarked: “There is a prolongation of innocence there, a prolongation of childhood, that has to do with the Midwest being just a little bit farther from the rest of the world.” “There is what would strike many Americans as a bizarre absence of cynicism in the room,” echoed the writer David Foster Wallace. 

As for the future of the Rust Belt, there are really only two directions for the region to proceed from, not only from a collective conscience standpoint but also the associated response that is city leadership, policy, and, of course, city branding. There’s the direction that is away from loss. And there’s the direction that is through loss. The former gets you a bungee cord hooked up to your belt loop in which you are snatched from the horizon and slung back to your baseline. That Sisyphean existence.  The latter gets you room to know who you are versus what you are told you are, or what you wrongly tell yourself. 

Like you’re a plum.

About the Author: Richey Piiparinen is Director of Urban Theory & Analytics at Cleveland State University. He resides in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, OH with his wife, no dog, and three kids. He believes the term “Rust Belt ” is not a pejorative.