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Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Tour the psychogeography of Rust Belt shame.
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Barrels and buildings at an oil refinery in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the 1870s. (Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Barrels and buildings at an oil refinery in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the 1870s. (Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

"I grew up on the Pennsylvania border with West Virginia—sort of Pennsatucky, Rust Belt, nowheresville, basically," Idra Novey says. I hail from nowheresville too. Mashing up my mental map with an actual map, my hometown is 1970s Erie, Pennsylvania. 1970s Erie, Pennsylvania, is stuck between Cleveland (where rivers catch fire), Pittsburgh (hell with the lid taken off), and Buffalo, New York (hell frozen over). Those three places represent my geographies of aspiration.

Whence I come, the nowhere part of nowheresville. Millcreek, what James Howard Kunstler defines as "The Geography of Nowhere," is a suburb of dreary Erie. The Millcreek Mall acts as the center of this soulless place. Youngstown, Ohio's William Cafaro, arguably the King of Strip Malls (if regional goodfella Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. didn't wear the crown), built this palace of conspicuous consumption in the shape of a firearm aimed at city hall or the courthouse. There's more to this suburban mafia myth. My father told me a farmer on part of the land targeted for mall development held out and his barn succumbed to fire. "Arson," my dad insisted.  Ill-begotten gains rooted in a godforsaken cul-de-sac. Home.

If the oblivion of Rust Belt sprawl weren't enough, industrial Appalachia lacks distinctive culture. Journalist Brian O'Neill paraphrases historian John A. Williams:

Mr. Williams said that, years ago, members of the Penn State geography department asked a bunch of questions in the territory of northern West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio -- and decided we had no regional identity at all.

I'm not just from nowhere. I'm nobody from nowhere.

Don't fear the Cyclops. Nobody from nowhere has its advantages. I know only the bottom, the worst. Generation X expects disappointment and chaos. As for the Boomers, they are the population peak. They embody Rust Belt shame:

But for those of us who were here in the 1950s, during Buffalo’s heyday, well, we are not back to that yet – back to the times when there were pedestrians crowding the streets of downtown Buffalo and stores open every night of the week on every block. And for people living in many neighborhoods, concentrated poverty and blight have been getting worse in recent years, not better, and jobs are still hard to find.

I know 1970s Buffalo. I remember Commander Tom and the brutal winters toward the end of the decade. Buffalo's heyday remains a mystery. A better Buffalo delights my nobody eyes.

For the 1950s Manufacturing Belt, Buffalo will never measure up. Neither will Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Erie. The triangle of nowhere, with my hometown at the center, is dying.

In the Rust Belt, Millennials are the children of fallen angels. Cleveland could be great again. For me, for Gen X, Cleveland is already better than we dared hope. Generations spar over analysis and policy. Millennials and Boomers benchmark yesterday, some other time. Gen X benchmarks someplace else struggling to rise out of the slag heap.

I see the up. You see the down. How do we work together?