Rust Belt Stories

Fellow Rust Belters, we are having such a winter that I find myself thinking things like: “It’s going to be 19 degrees tomorrow morning for my run?  Fantastic!  That means one less layer than last week’s 6 degree morning run.”  Yes.  At this point in the season, smack in the heart of a cold spell, even the most sturdy-wintered souls may ask themselves why they don’t live somewhere else.  And so I’ve been ruminating on the Rust Belt lately.

The first time I heard the phrase “Rust Belt,” it was concurrent with “Sun Belt,” in 4th grade social studies class – 1980s rural northwest Pennsylvania.  Where we live, I was told (or I interpreted), is old, and sad, and without hope.  People don’t want to stay here. What a wretched thing to learn at 9, that many people are leaving the place you live, the only home you’ve known – rusty, dirty, economically depressed and dreary skies to boot- for glamorous, economically booming, clean, sunny, and bright places.  Raleigh!  Phoenix!  Florida!  I’m sure I went home and asked what exactly we were doing in the Rust Belt, when clearly everyone in their right mind was getting the heck out.

If you’ll fast forward about 20 years, you’ll find me on my first trip to Phoenix to visit friends.  We hit their local, and the bartender asked for our city of origin.  When I said, maybe with a hint of pride, “Pittsburgh,”  he said: “Oh, the old country!  My parents are from there.”  Sigh.  As an adult, I have fallen more (cold winters be darned)  in love with “the old country,” the Rust Belt.  To spell out my reasons as simply as possible:  my family is here,  the job that I love is here, and I  learned early to always root for the underdog.  Also, I’ve lived in other parts of the country, and I can tell you that the four seasons we get in this Belt are the right number of seasons for me. They’re much better than the two seasons found in the Sun Belt – like hot and hotter or humid and more humid.

So for whatever reason you might find yourself here in the Rust Belt, know that you’re in good company.  Many writers have also taken a hard look at where we live. Now that we are in the midst of cold weather and long nights, you have plenty of time to ruminate on where you reside, with some good books.


Detroit, once “The Silicon Valley of the Jazz Age,” has become the poster child for urban decay.  Urban studies majors, writers, and artists, New York Times journalists – they all  look to Detroit for answers to economic busts, racial injustice, and the general decline of America.  Detroit residents bristle at the misguided attention.  This title is a truly honest, thorough, and open exploration of how Detroit came to be what it is today.  The author, Mark Binelli, is a native of the  metro area.  He visits the city in 2009 to report on the seeming collapse of the auto industry, but decides to stay and further uncover just what has happened to his city.  Detroit City is the Place to Be covers Detroit’s history, from economics to race and class issues, and it’s clear that the author’s heart is in this book and in this city.

The Post-Gazette columnist we all know and love, Brian O’Neill, has written a thought-provoking collection of essays that peeks behind the “Most Liveable City” veneer.   The Paris of Appalachia unpacks Pittsburgh in many of the same ways that Detroit City is the Place to Be unpacks Detroit.  As Annie Dillard puts it: “Brian O’Neill is a wonderful writer. He analyzes perfectly Pittsburgh’s unerring habit of screwing itself. He loves all the right stuff. I loved his book.”

While this isn’t the story of the Rust Belt, exactly, this is the story of why the Rust Belt had its heyday. It couldn’t have happened without the massive migration of African Americans from the South.  In The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer prize-winning author Isobel Wilkerson interviewed hundreds of migrants, two of whom were her own parents, and retells their stories with harrowing and heart-wrenching details.  The Great Migration changed the economics of Northern and Midwestern cities during the late 19th and early 2oth centuries, by supplying much of the workforce for the industrial boom.

Pittsburghers, if you can put aside your longstanding hatred for Cleveland for just a moment, it will be worth your time.  Crooked River Burning tells a story that starts before our belt rusted. Ohio native Mark Winegardner weaves the path of two ill-fated lovers with the demise of Cleveland over a period of 20+ years, culminating of course with the infamous flames on the Cuyahoga. This book is part historical fiction, part romance, part urban studies. The author has been compared to Jonathan Frazen and E.L. Doctorow, no small compliment.

American Rust takes place in Fayette County, and has a special place in my heart, as it tells the story of what happens to rural communities when the steel and manufacturing economy tanked in western Pennsylvania.  Our protagonist and his best friend are very different from the outside – Isaac English is small, nerdy, and an outsider. Billy Poe is a hulking quarterback and a town hero. Issac wants nothing more than to escape his dejected home, but on the eve of his departure everything goes awry.

Bonnie Jo Campbell writes another rural examination. She has viscerally put together a collection of short stories set in Michigan.  American Salvage features a cast of blue collar characters in post-industrial America, freezing their way through Michigan winters, Doomsday prepping, cooking meth, farming, stealing, and generally just representing the desperation of small town poverty really, really well.  To write that her characters are gritty would be an understatement.  You’ll love them anyway.

Happy Reading!



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11 responses to “Rust Belt Stories

  1. Avid

    You fished deep waters in this post. I’m a come-lately to the rust belt, and still occasionally encounter a native Pittsburgher who raises an eyebrow and says “You left SEATTLE to move here?”

    “Yes, and if you have a few hours I’ll tell you why. Let’s start with Pittsburgh’s history. Then there’s the rollicking topography. And how about the five friendlies, one of them a complete stranger, I jabbered with while walking around my block yesterday. In the snow.”

    Thank you for getting me started!

  2. Kelly

    Holly, I have read and own some of the books you’ve recommended. I can’t wait to read the rest. My love for Rust Belt cities runs deep.

  3. Thanks for the recommendations!

  4. lizzy

    This so-called rust best has been garnering tons of recognition in the last ten years–top destination place, top 10 cities, cities improving for biking and now Kiplinger ranks Pittsburgh among “10 Great Cities for Starting a Business,”
    Much because of the (slowly) changing infrastructure coupled with low cost of living. Pittsburghers have known this for a long time but the word seems to be getting out (finally)…

  5. As a Motown native (who misses her sad, depressed city still!), I also really enjoyed Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle. And I’m on hold for Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.

    • tom

      In much of his fiction Garrison Keillor rifts on his hometown folks’ staying or leaving. Phoenix, Florida and California are frequent destinations for the
      Phoenix, Florida and California for the “exiles.”

  6. Great story and recommendations, Holly!

    Maybe it’s a tendency on my part to disassociate my beloved Pittsburgh with the less-than-flattering “rust belt” moniker, but my quintessential rust belt titles are from Cleveland: American Splendor, Stranger than Paradise, and of course Devo’s Gates of (presumably rusty) Steel!

  7. I’m looking forward to reading through this list. For more on Michigan, pretty much all of Jim Harrison would go along with these but to pick just one, True North resonates especially well.

  8. I actually started reading Detroit City is the Place to be, it’s a great book, and I totally agree with about the author.

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