Is the Rust Belt Ruined or in a Renaissance? And Who Gets to Say?
How Belt is Giving Midwesterners a Chance to Tell Their Own Stories
Eager to spot a rising phoenix after the Great Recession, media outlets began looking to a part of the country they had continuously likened to ashes: The Rust Belt. While the region had been plagued by deindustrialization, depopulation, and social conservatism for decades, the Recession devastated its already-declining local economies and pushed them closer to ruin. So in late 2012, just before the Federal Reserve tapered off its economic stimulus and the Dow hit a record high, coastal journalists went looking inside the disaster for signs of new life.
Before Detroit and Buffalo and Pittsburgh were declared The New Rust Belt Cities, journalists found the triumphant narrative they sought in Cleveland, Ohio, a former manufacturing stronghold that was experiencing cultural growth, largely ushered in by local chefs. New York Post called the city a site of “revival,” claiming that the former “failing Rust Belt town” was “earning laurels for its homegrown talent, . . . farm-to-table eateries, award-winning craft breweries and cool art spaces.” In an article published a few months prior, the New York Times had named Cleveland as just one of the cities in the region that was “transcend[ing] its Rust Belt reputation.”
It’s precisely this oversimplified narrative that compelled Anne Trubek to start Belt Magazine in 2013, a weekly online publication that features longform writing about the Rust Belt by locals who have a nuanced understanding of the area. Today, the business is not just a magazine, but also a small press that puts out a few books a year.
“The impetus for Belt came from this sense that the national media wanted to paint the region as either full of ruin or full of renaissance,” Trubek tells me. “There’s a thirst and hunger for people here to tell what has really happened.”
Before it was the only independent media company dedicated to Rust Belt writing, Belt was, in the words of Trubek, “a lark.” In 2012, she was teaching half-time at Oberlin and working on a book about the evolution of handwriting; this was around the same time that the media had begun to fixate on Cleveland. Frustrated with outsider journalists’ coverage of the city, she decided to collaborate with Richey Piiparinen, a writer, urban researcher, and Cleveland native, on a book. In May 2013, they put out submissions, and in September, they published the Rust Belt Chic anthology with the intention that it would be a one-off.
“It’s so full of typos,” Trubek says, laughing. But once she figured out how to get an ISBN number and put it on Amazon, the book sold through its first two printings and people started asking her what was next. Feeling inspired by the demand, she launched a Kickstarter to fund a magazine, and just a year after publishing the anthology, Belt was born.
“The national media wanted to paint the the region as either full of ruin or full of renaissance.”
Immediately following its inaugural issue, coastal publications responded in a way that further proved the need for Belt’s regional insight. “The decaying cities of the post-industrial Midwest can sometimes seem like a museum of things America used to make: cars, refrigerators, steel, televisions,” reads the first sentence in a New York Times ArtsPiece blog on Belt. However, it quickly moves into less offensive territory: “But if a start-up in Cleveland gets its way, the region may help rebuild the market for another endangered product—long-form magazine journalism.”
So far, Belt has attempted to do just that. Early on, they published a history of Chief Wahoo, the logo of the Cleveland Indians, which remains the site’s most-read article. Another piece of creative nonfiction explores the eviction of the homeless population living in Wooster, Ohio—better known to its former inhabitants as “Tent City.” And an editor who spent 12 years at the now-defunct Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pondered both the historical cause and future of 350 abandoned houses in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, a borough with fewer than 5,000 permanent residents.
Through the magazine’s early success with online content, Trubek was reminded of her first passion: book publishing. Though Belt first began selling books to bring in revenue for the magazine, the former soon became her priority. “I love acquiring books by writers who I think are phenomenal,” she says. After cycling through a few business models—selling without a distributor, trying out partner-publishing, and then working with a third-party distributor—Belt is now distributed by Independent Publishers Group (IPG), though Trubek says they also sell quite a few books directly through the magazine’s website. “That’s a lovely profit margin,” she jokes. And while no one at Belt is full-time, every author, freelancer, and editor is paid.
Belt publishes single-subject books as well as those that are under one of their series: City Anthologies, Notches (nonfiction books about the Midwest that are under 150 pages), and Neighborhood Guidebooks. About half the books start as outside proposals, and the other half are conceived in-house, assigned by Trubek or senior editor Martha Bayne, who’s worked for Belt since 2014. Regardless of a book’s premise or author, though, Belt won’t greenlight until they find the right editor—preferably someone familiar with the region that the book concerns. For the past few years, this process has resulted in the publication of five to six books a year, and Trubek is hoping to either maintain or top this number in 2018.
And given this tumultuous period in American history, Trubek could garner enough Rust Belt-related content to publish a book a week, logistics and funding aside. After the 2016 presidential election, Belt yet again found itself on the defensive, confronted with the imperative to elucidate the region’s cultures, histories, and communities at a time when the mainstream media was consistently reducing the diverse flyover states to the sole terrain of an angry, white working class who believed Trump’s voice was loud enough to be theirs, too. In the past ten months, the question “What happened?” has been asked of the Rust Belt more than ever before. But it’s the same question Belt has been answering for the past four years. Has anyone had been listening?
The two most recent periods of heightened interest in the Rust Belt—the Great Recession and the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election—signify the cycle in which Rust Belt stories often become newsworthy: whenever the region is perceived to be in crisis. It’s not that these narratives are necessarily false. The recession did push Detroit into bankruptcy, and the 2016 presidential election outcome proved that the Democratic Party had failed to represent the interests of working-class people of all races, many of whom are gathered in Middle America’s red states. The problem is a lack of nuance. Keen to write what will function as a trend-piece, explainer, or human interest story about a character who suffers under all of the region’s oppressive forces, coastal writers either parachute in—or ruminate from a distance about—the economic anxiety of the white working class in red states.
The narrative has stuck. In July 2013, Paul Krugman asked the question, “Is the crisis in Detroit simply a function of the industrial decline of the US heartland, or is it about internal developments within the metro area that have produced a uniquely bad outcome?” In his January 2017 column “Making the Rust Belt Rustier,” he reminded readers that “it was under Reagan that talk of ‘deindustrialization’ and the use of the term ‘Rust Belt’ first became widespread.” Between the two articles, the word “decline” is used a total of seven times.
“The argument to support publications like Belt is less an argument to change the face of national media and more of one to support smaller, local, alternative media that still takes chances.”
But while national media outlets have attempted to provide blanket analyses about the incentives of an entire region of people, local independent publications and alt-weeklies have pursued stories that shed light on their city’s problems—many of which have existed before, during, and after periods of perceived crises—as well as stories that celebrate the spirit of their inhabitants in face of adversity. Chicago’s Reader ran over 4,000 words on grassroots groups around the city fighting for police abolition. In NUVO, Indianapolis’s alt-weekly, a writer explored the state’s complex relationship with the coal industry. And most importantly, not all stories out of the Rust Belt are somber or critical. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, one of the largest communities of Burmese people outside of Myanmar has been growing since their home country’s student uprisings in 1988, and local media outlets cover the community’s influence on the city’s grocery stores, their construction of the first Burmese Muslim mosque outside of Myanmar, and their new education center.
At its core, the argument to support publications like Belt is less an argument to change the face of national media and more of one to support smaller, local, alternative media that still takes chances, in many cases despite lacking resources or supportive management.
“Talking with dozens of editors, from Atlanta to Wyoming and Texas to Tulsa, has reaffirmed my belief that a massive share of the most important journalism done in America today is from reporters and editors committed to improving their own communities, not in amassing empty praise or followings on Twitter,” Kathleen McLaughlin writes in a recent piece in The Guardian. “From beautiful new magazines to old-fashioned small-town daily newspapers, local journalism is still fighting a tough financial battle, but doing incredible work.”
When I spoke to Trubek and Bayne, weeks apart, they were both excited to talk about the newly-released Rust Belt Chicago anthology, which features work from writers including Britt Julious, Kari Lydersen, Kevin Coval, and Yana Kunichoff, about everything from the city’s reparations legislation to personal essays about growing up as a black woman in the Windy City. They were also both finishing up edits on a book that’s not only illustrative of Belt’s broadening agenda, but also its scope. What You’re Getting Wrong About Appalachia will come out in 2018, and as the name implies, it is about a region geographically distinct from the Rust Belt. But for author Elizabeth Catte, it made sense to publish with Belt.
Though Belt was on her radar before her book deal, Catte said it was a piece that Trubek wrote just after the election about the Rust Belt for Refinery 29 that kickstarted her correspondence with them. In the article, Trubek argues that the rest of the country’s misunderstanding of the region is a result of national publications sending outsider journalists in to cover a place they don’t know well, the decimation of local media, and a lack of interest in regional stories. “The irony is that people with the most education and worldly experience are often the most provincial, bragging, instead of being embarrassed, that ‘they have never been west of the Mississippi’ or that they ‘always get Iowa and Ohio confused,’” Trubek writes.
Catte was inspired by the article because she saw similarities in the way that national media covers—and doesn’t cover—the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, but now residing in Staunton, Virginia, Catte is a public historian who lives in the land of Hillbilly Elegy, the best-selling book that The New Republic’s Sarah Jones best summarized as “liberal media’s favorite white trash-splainer.” Catte, too, has some thoughts on J.D. Vance, which will become even clearer when her book is published in February.
“Working with Belt has been a treat because I get to work with super smart, passionate women,” Catte says. “They’re so generous with their time, guiding me through this entire process. And to be really blunt, they are the most considerate people when it comes to compensation and payment.”
Catte’s last point is a crucial one—especially today. While finding success as a freelancer has never been a straightforward achievement, Catte brought up a newer looming threat to her livelihood: the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Because freelancers don’t have employer-based health insurance, they have to purchase health care plans; with the ACA, these plans became much more affordable. Consequently, without the ACA (or, ideally, a single-payer system), it would become much more difficult for freelancers to support themselves.
“[Anne and I] are both very concerned about being entrepreneurs because if we lose health insurance, we lose our social safety net,” Catte said of she and Trubek, both of whom are insured through the ACA. “We’re very much hoping that we’ll be able to do what we’re doing now in a few years.”
Trubek, in a tone as bleak as this matter of life and death warrants, told me that Belt would not exist today if it weren’t for the ACA. Because she knew that she could afford health care through it, she was able to muster the courage to quit her tenured position at Oberlin and leave behind her employer-provided healthcare to start Belt. With the ACA under threat, she said she’s constantly in deep denial.
“At one point when things looked very bad for the ACA, I started thinking about exit plans, which was horribly painful, because Belt is just now at a place where our sustainability looks pretty secure, and where I am not working my ass off and constantly stressed about money,” she told me. “I still may need to make more exit plans. Maybe I’ll look back and think I was lucky to take advantage of short-lived opportunity that allowed me to become a small business owner.”
“Trubek, in a tone as bleak as this matter of life and death warrants, told me that Belt would not exist today if it weren’t for the ACA.”
Health care costs aren’t Trubek’s only concerns. She’s also always wondering how to ensure that her business model can support Belt’s plans for future growth at a time when alt-weeklies are shuttering their print versions or folding altogether, and small newspapers struggle to make their corresponding websites into viable businesses in the web-first world. However, Trubek has recently gotten some extra help. Jordan Heller, the former editor-in-chief of The National, just relocated to Cleveland to run Belt Magazine and start as its first full-time employee. Aside from upping online content, Heller will also be working on fundraising and grantwriting for the magazine, which will become a nonprofit as the press continues as a business.
Talking to Bayne and Trubek, I don’t get the sense that Belt will shutter any time soon. Their publishing mandate is expanding. Both women are seeking out more pitches from people of color, especially women, because the majority of the unsolicited book proposals they receive are from white men. Next April, Picador will publish Voices from the Rust Belt, an essay collection edited by Trubek that features pieces from Belt; and in fall 2018, they’ll publish Red State, Blue City, an essay collection about living as a left-leaning individual in a right-leaning state.
As Bayne reminds me, “the Midwest is a region of doers,” and those behind the business believe in its mission. “You see this amazing creativity here that isn’t flashy,” she says. “There’s profound activism around labor and environmental issues, and there’s such a strong history of radicalism here. The midwest is cool and weird, [and we’re] trying to bring its stories to the world.”
What Trubek and Bayne ask of their audience is simple: Care about this region; support regional magazines, newspapers, and publishers, through word of mouth, pageviews, and money; and take seriously the work that’s already being down in the Rust Belt.
“[Quality journalism] already exists here,” Bayne says. “It’s just severely under-resourced. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel. The wheel is here, and it’s doing really good work.”