December 7, 2019
We are Postindustrial
Forget ‘the Rust Belt.’ Forget ‘the Midwest.’ The real name — the real idea — has been staring us right in the face all this time.
By Matt Stroud
Photo by Pete Marovich // American Reportage for postindustrial
Is Pittsburgh in the Midwest? Is there really a Rust Belt? If so, where does it begin? And where does Appalachia end? These are questions you hear about cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland.
The questions miss the point. These cities should be defined by the people who live there — not where they sit geographically, or how much rust they may contain.
Let me explain.
My name is Matt Stroud. I’m a 36-year-old journalist, husband, and father of three. Though most of my reporting over the last 15 years or so has been done for newspapers, websites, and magazines based in New York City or Washington, D.C., I live in Pittsburgh by choice. Here, I can afford to do the kind of reporting I want to do, as well as own a home and have the freedom to spend time with my kids and my wife, who has a stable job here.
Up until 2016, living here seemed like a logical life decision. After that, it began to feel like a kind of overt political act.
You know the story: In 2016, national politicos focused on the amorphous region of the Upper Midwest and Greater Appalachia — on cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit, and on towns throughout West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana. All sides of the mainstream political system made a huge deal about the people here — and not in a flattering way.
If you watched the weekend political talk shows or went to rallies in 2016, you heard about “forgotten” steel workers and coal miners. You heard about Rust Belt revenge. You heard about opioid addiction and pill mills. You heard about the plight of the “white working class,” and decimated manufacturing towns, and the decline of rural America.
When I traveled outside the region, I’d get questions about Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate, or whether I felt safe reporting in West Virginia. I fielded questions from people I didn’t know, asking: Is it really as bad as it sounds there?
No, it isn’t.
I’ve reported on my share of murder and mayhem, governmental malfeasance, and fraud. I’ve reported on drugs and prisons and crime and vice. So I have no qualms about discussing bad things when I see them. But I’m more inclined to point out all of the good things — and fascinating people — that seem to be everywhere I look in the region.
Forget about steel mills. Pittsburgh is home to some of the most advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning technologies in the world — technologies that bring billions of dollars in investment not only from the U.S. Department of Defense, but from local nonprofits and companies innovating to use these technologies in fascinating new ways. And that’s just the stuff that’s been reported. On the ground, an incredible number of community groups are spearheading social justice events, creating collectives for shared work spaces, and also doing what they’ve always been great at doing here — supporting art and music and general creativity.
Ten years ago, some mainstream media outlets glommed onto what became a typical, quirky story about Detroit — the tale of the couple who bought a house for $500 and turned it into a palace for what it’d cost to rent a one-bedroom apartment in New York City for a year. Those aren’t just one-off stories anymore. Entire communities have sprung up around that very idea — of people reinvesting relatively small amounts of money into land or businesses in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Knoxville, Tennessee, and turning those tiny investments into great successes.
Chicago is home to some of the most celebrated restaurants in the country; it’s the only non-coastal city in the U.S. with a Michelin three-star restaurant. Most of those restaurants are in neighborhoods that were considered decaying relics 15 years ago. Now they’re home to some of the best eateries in America.
And there’s so much more.
To me, these cities are not defined by where they sit on mountain ranges or in proximity to the Great Lakes. And when we speak of them in relation to the amount of rust they’ve collected — well, that’s just not right. I challenge anyone to drive out of the Fort Pitt Tunnels overlooking downtown Pittsburgh and describe it as a rusting city. It’s just not.
These cities are, instead, defined by the people choosing to live here — and why.
Everywhere you look in cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus, and even as far south as Nashville and Birmingham, you find ambitious people pursuing myriad entrepreneurial ideas, careers, and hobbies. When you ask them why they’ve decided to live there, invariably the answer is some variation of, I want the freedom to do what I like — without having to pay the excessively high cost of living in a megacity.
And it makes sense that cities like these — which used to be hubs for major manufacturing industries — would act as magnets for ambitious people. Because industries have largely faded in these cities, they have robust infrastructures that aren’t being used at capacity. They have historic homes with good bones that are ripe for restoration. And because people stay or move here to take advantage of these urban foundational gems, they’re filled with people clamoring to work together.
These cities — and the people, like me, who live in them — aren’t of the “Rust Belt.” We are not “Midwest.” We are not Appalachian or rural or “white working class.”
We are Postindustrial.
We are adventurers and doers. We hunger for knowledge and experience. We thrive on improving ourselves, our homes, and the environments around us. We are America’s explorers, working hard, making our lives and the lives around us better.
You can tell I’m very much into this idea.
And I’m not alone.
That’s why a group of journalists and myself are creating a media outlet that covers the postindustrial region — not with stereotypes, but with depth. Not with vague allusions to steel and coal, but with specific stories of the people who live there, the successes they’ve had, and the challenges they’ve faced.
To find out more, stay tuned to Postindustrial.com — and subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
You’ll be glad you did.
Matt Stroud, Editor-In-Chief