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The Rust Belt Isn't a Riddle; It's a Home

A new essay collection showcases Rust Belt writers on topics like desegregation, clean water, racism, classism, and what it's like to be misunderstood by the coasts.

Despite popular coastal mystifications, the Rust Belt isn't a riddle. It's a place. It's people. It's complex and nuanced. It's a language. It's someone's home, someone's history, and someone's future.

It's my history, though certainly not mine alone. The 1800s Michigan farmhouse I called home throughout the 1980s and '90s had rooms so small they couldn't legally be labeled bedrooms. Train tracks cut our town into the oldest of clichés, where whichever side claimed you would determine whether you drank city water or country water. We drove Fords for three generations. Every driveway had a basketball hoop; every kid had a Barry Sanders lunchbox; and while we led normal, mundane lives riding Big Wheels and reading Judy Blume, we also learned how to drive combines, deciphered weather by reading airstrip windsocks, changed our own engine oil, and figured out the formula for breeding a county fair blue-ribbon pig. We're complicated folk, and our stories become diluted the more they get told by voices that aren't ours.

Anne Trubek, the editor behind the Voices From the Rust Belt anthology and the founder and director of Belt Publishing, writes in the introduction, "We have created ... narrative inequality in this nation: Some stories are told over and over while others are ... muted." The anthology collects 24 of those muted narratives from Rust Belt residents under several reoccurring themes: the "white flight" that left factory towns abandoned and home values depreciated, landscapes that shaped the writers since childhood, lead in the water, drug abuse, school busing and the mixed legacy it left behind, racism and class structures that define a region but don't tell the full story of its individuals. These are writers of varied stripes and ages united by one common thread: They live with the rust. They know the area inside and out and still love it.

The stories are rich and diverse, showcasing the internal conflicts of the writers as they witnessed the changing times that left their hometowns vulnerable. The anthology evokes a deep sense of place and of how nostalgia and identity become tethered to that place. Jacqueline Marino's story tells of her complicated feelings toward her Youngstown home as she breathed in the mill's pollution, yet associated the smell with a happy childhood. "Arguably the most symbolic date in Rust Belt history," Trubek writes in the introduction, "was Black Monday, September 19th, 1977, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Ohio closed down, leading to a loss of some 40,000 jobs."

Voices From the Rust Belt.

Voices From the Rust Belt.

Marsha Music tells of losing all her white neighbors when they disappeared overnight as if they'd been "kidnapped" in their urgency to leave behind Detroit's burgeoning black population. A father who loves Flint gives his daughter a heartbreaking bath in lead-contaminated water and can only "relax ... when the last of [it] has vanished down the drain." In a piece about a social worker who wants to help everyone despite the frustrating limitations of his organization, Dave Newman examines the desperate side of poverty. "I can see McKees Rocks," Newman writes, "right there beneath the bridge. ... I could drive there in minutes. I could run there. ... Out of our service area, my boss said. We are here, and they are there." Ben Gwin catalogues the steps taken to earn custody of his daughter from the girl's neglectful heroin-addicted mother, and Ryan Schnurr's "Family Bones," which traces the footsteps his great-grandfather took in building his own house, unsettled me to the point that I had to set the book aside. "We drove by the homeplace after my grandma died," Schnurr writes, "[and it] was like going from one graveyard to another. ... I know little of my heritage. But my family bones fill these holes in the ground in Oxford, Indiana." It's these human stories that prevail in the collection, the ones that choose the personal side over the pedantic. They have a lilt to their endings that focuses on things getting better.

About halfway through the anthology, however, the tone takes a didactic turn, with multiple essays that focus on the statistics behind housing crises, forced segregation, coal barons, local ecology, and problems associated with social and literal mobility. While each is interesting on its own (James D. Griffioen's "The Fauxtopias of Detroit's Suburbs"—about Henry Ford's obsession with collecting historical buildings and relics for Greenfield Village—is especially fascinating), together they bring an air of academia to the collection that removes the reader from the personal and offers a jarring if obvious reminder: The voices represented here are still only a fraction of the voices of the Rust Belt. One cursory glance at the contributors' biographies shows that these are the voices of the educated, mostly liberal-leaning, in implicit contrast to the overhyped Trumpism of the area, where Donald Trump won most of the Rust Belt in the 2016 presidential election. The contributors are educators, professionals, urban planners, editors, scholars, organizers, and writers, many of them with bylines that include high-profile national magazines. In several of the stories, authors recall taking honors courses in high school. While it is crucial to remember that educated people live and thrive in the Rust Belt, the anthology emerges as an incomplete collection, still missing many other representative voices of the region. There's a whole corner of the picture ripped off.

The book focuses hard on cities, and on a few select ones—Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Flint—almost exclusively. But surrounding these cities are hundreds of rural places and smaller towns whose residents don't have a prominent voice in the book. My brother—who works two jobs yet still qualifies for food stamps, never votes, lives for hunting season, hasn't read a book since Hatchet in middle school, and sleeps in a trailer in our tiny and struggling hometown (that he loves and has never left)—is not on these pages. There are a few stories about him, but no stories by him. And while the anthology includes an admirable number of black contributors, there is a conspicuous lack of other marginalized voices, especially given the ambitions stated in the introduction: "Many Rust Belt cities have minority populations that statistically outpace those in other parts of the country." Even though four of the top 12 metropolitan areas with the highest populations of Asian Americans are located in the Rust Belt, there don't appear to be any essays by Asian Americans. The Amish (who were my neighbors) and Mennonites are not mentioned once; factory closure also affects them, and these communities additionally face their own unique problems. Decreasing amounts of farmland have forced a rapidly increasing Amish population to seek new methods of farming, while pesticides and factory-farm water pollution have tainted natural resources, resulting in the Amish pursuing new methods of organic farming. Although West Virginia has the highest percentage of people in the U.S. with a disability, the region's disabled citizens don't visibly appear in these pages. Trubek's introduction states, "The largest per capita Muslim population in the United States is [in] Michigan," but there's only one story in the anthology by an Arab American: Huda Al-Marashi's "Cleveland's Little Iraq," one of the most endearing and important pieces in the collection. Yet, its inclusion feels singular, still consigned to a minority.

Moreover, several of the writers come across as rather bitter; a few of the essays read as outright rants, especially the entries about the influx of new young people coming into reviving cities. One wonders if an anthology designed to counter stereotypes might not be propagating a few of its own—with missing voices, select minorities still relegated to the side, and a cyclical dislike of newcomers by some who can remember what happened when previous generations didn't like the influx of newcomers either. It's impossible to collect every story, to represent every voice; nonetheless, we are still missing important slices of the Rust Belt.

That is not a terminal flaw in the anthology, but I would recommend that any reader approaching Voices From the Rust Belt avoid thinking that the collection represents the region fully. For most regions, that task would be difficult; given the eclecticism and disparities of the Rust Belt, I'd say it's close to impossible. The anthology is deeply touching and thought-provoking and doesn't dabble in emptiness or filler. But it is better served as a counter to the dominant narratives. Pick it up as an answer to what was wrong with Hillbilly Elegy. Pick it up to see important topics handled delicately and intimately. While these are not the only voices of the region, they are well-spoken, intriguing voices, and they have wisdom to offer. Let this anthology stand as proof that there's still lots of work to do to reap the rest of these stories—that we're more complex and manifold than what can be sandwiched between covers.