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The Rust Belt as a Cultural Bellwether

Looking to a diverse and vibrant region for the country’s cultural direction.

To a lot of people in cultural industries, places in the Rust Belt feel far from the cultural vanguard of the nation. Yet every four years in November, the nation trains its eyes on states like Ohio (and these days, Wisconsin and Michigan), to see where our elections are headed. They’re the nation’s political bellwether, and increasingly today, a cultural one too.

 



It’s easy to see why. Take Ohio, for example. It’s a state with many identities: a strong Southern tradition in Cincinnati and areas surrounding Louisville across the river. There’s a highly educated startup hub in Columbus. Rural fields in the east resemble Appalachia, and of course, there are the Rust Belt cities including Cleveland, where majority-black communities found their homes after the Great Migration. In that state, we see a microcosm of the country. It’s no wonder that every American president since Lyndon B. Johnson has had to win Ohio.

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Apart from telling us where we are politically, however, places in the Rust Belt can also point to where we are culturally. For most of our lives, that was exactly the case on the big and small screen. In the eighties, Robocop saved a dystopian future Detroit, while kids in John Hughes movies provided glimpses into teenage life in middle class suburbia. And who can forget those sitcoms? Roseanne was set in exurban Illinois, Family Ties in suburban Columbus, Family Matters in Chicago.

These days, many TV families have moved to the coasts, and when the Rust Belt does make it to the stories people tell, they’re overwhelmingly ones that feature hardship. Shuttered plants, opioid addictions, and widespread poverty are part and parcel of the contemporary Rust Belt story.

Launching a lifestyle brand centered on this diverse and misunderstood region is a way to refocus that narrative. So many creators and shakers here, however, have already started this work before us. There are the ones who’ve made it big, who’ve incorporated their upbringing into our collective national stories. Singers and rappers like Bruce Springsteen (Long Branch, New Jersey), Whiz Khalifa (Pittsburgh), and Eminem (Detroit) have turned their hometowns into national anthems. Recent movies and documentaries, from Street Fight (Newark), Minding the Gap (Rockford, Ill.) to Fences (Pittsburgh) tell stories that each contribute something unique to the American experience.

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And there are the creatives who inspire us daily in our own communities. There’s Barbie the Welder from Elmira in Upstate New York, who creates wild metal sculptures. Artist Jim Pollack illustrates incredibly inventive prints and does a ton of work for Phish. And one of our hometown favorites, Donkey's Place , is a cheesesteak go-to for locals and stars like Anthony Bourdain alike.

When we see people like these, it’s easier to see how many Rust Belt communities have had more of a pulse on the nation’s cultural scene for far longer than we give it credit. We’re well past the days of mills and factories here, but that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped producing great things.