Here, people came together as their worlds collapsed. What the rest of the country can learn from the Rust Belt’s history.
In Camden, New Jersey, families saw a lot of tragedy. Buildings that were once cathedrals of manufacturing stood abandoned, as if shelled out in a war. The city was part of a diverse region the rest of the country clumped together and dismissed as the Rust Belt. It was a decline decades in the making, a slow burn that made our crisis even more invisible. Yet something about disasters—perhaps that shared sense of fate and responsibility—makes people come together in ways we never imagine.
It happened throughout the Rust Belt over the years, and, if we play it right, it can happen in today’s crisis. Whether it’s a half century of deindustrialization or a year-long pandemic, people band together in times of need. From Pittsburgh to Grand Rapids, Michigan, longtime residents and newcomers alike created new ways to revitalize their homes and communities.
Camden, which saw a snowball effect of capital flight after World War II, saw its own unique revitalization in the past couple decades. Once a shipbuilding powerhouse, the city is seeing a renewed presence of educational and medical institutions. As in other cities seeing a resurgence of jobs and industry, legacies of inequality and racism persist. Thankfully, you’ll find a vast network of community builders looking to make the city better for everyone: from increased investments into New Jersey’s poorest school district to a community-based police force that’s become a model for the nation.
Even before Covid-19, the Rust Belt has always had an eye toward reinvention. Pittsburgh, where its steel was the literal backbone of every other American city, is now where self-driving cars go for a test ride. The former mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, transformed its textile factories into artists’ spaces. In our hometown, the former shipbuilding behemoth is turning into a hub of healthcare and higher education. In many places, immigrants have rebuilt populations, and we’re seeing how each community is redefining the American experience.
That spirit of transformation is what’s driving us in these coming weeks as we prepare for the launch of Rust Belt Nation. For us, people in the Rust Belt have few outlets to express their love for the places they hold dear. We want to capture that energy through RBN.
You never imagine you’d kick off a brand during a pandemic. But as we look at the lessons of the Rust Belt, we thought that this would be a fitting time to tell our story. For people here, the world fell out from under them over many decades. For everywhere else today, it’s happened in a matter of weeks. Yet whatever the unprecedented challenge, people are rising to the occasion, rebuilding, and forging ahead. We saw it then with the Rust Belt, and we’ll see it now and in the years to come with the rest of the country.