Skip to content

Rust Belt Studies

Ed Simon at Belt Magazine

Cleveland Photo by DJ Johnson / Unsplash

On the website of the Rust Belt Humanities Lab, housed at Ursuline College in bucolic Pepper Pike, Ohio just outside of Cleveland’s city limits, there’s a poll where respondents can vote on which states they think constitute this hoary and inchoate region we’ve deigned to call the Rust Belt. Predictably, Ohio is the rustiest of choices, with a whopping 93.2% of people viewing the home of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and Sherwin Williams Paint as being the Rust Belt’s buckle. Within the statistical margin of error is my home-state of Pennsylvania at 90.4% of respondents viewing it as the Rust Belt, balanced as we are between U.S. Steel in the west and Bethlehem Steel in the east. Following Ohio and Pennsylvania are Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, with the first state getting under half of the vote being New York at 48.8% of the vote, perhaps because those taking the poll imagined the Upper East Side more than Rochester or Syracuse. Some states that are almost never viewed as being part of Rust Belt, but for which an argument could be made that they deserve at least honorary status, had a surprisingly decent showing. New Jersey, where “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” had a respectable 11% of folks viewing them as in the Rust Belt, while Massachusetts, which for many evokes Boston Common, Harvard Yard, and the Berkshires, but is also of course home to Lowell and Worcester, came in with 5.3% of voters categorizing it as in the broader post-industrial region. The only real shock to me was that anyone considered Washington DC the Rust Belt, with an admittedly paltry 1.4% of respondents believing that the Beltway deserved to be included in the region, though perhaps they were just confused by the relative short distance to Baltimore. All of which is to say that the answer to the question “What is the Rust Belt?” is a complicated one.

Arguably Belt Magazine was founded a decade ago to derive an answer to that inquiry, not necessarily in just the geographic sense, but also in the historical, the political, the cultural, and even the spiritual meanings of the phrase. Looking at the moon-base ruins of the Carrie Blast Furnace in Rankin, Pennsylvania or at the orange-tinged smoke stacks of Gary, Indiana, and it can seem intuitively clear what the “Rust Belt” is, but it was always a contention of this publication (as the boilerplate on our site reads) that ours is a region that’s “complex, vibrant, and vital, full of interesting people, thriving culture, and some of the greatest cities in the world,” a place that could be broadly explained by the history of “U.S. expansion, the Great Migration, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century industry,” while not being reducible to those things either. As a born-and-bred Pittsburgher who lived away for twelve years (in places viewed by respondents as 48.8%, 11%, and finally 1.4% as being in the Rust Belt), I’ve long perseverated on what exactly our region is. What it means to everybody else in the country, but more importantly what it means to us. Unlike New England, or even the South, which have distinct historical definitions of their geographic parameters, the Rust Belt is more ambiguous, yet just as those first two regions connotate a number of different (often complex and contradictory) things, so too does our region signify something far larger than just lines on a map, or states colored a certain shade to signify an ever-shifting membership in a confused region. There are of course a multitude of ways in which people can address what exactly the Rust Belt is, what exactly it means to be from this place. Geographers can tells us about how terrain affected westward expansion, the role (and roll) of the Appalachians towards the flatness of the prairies beyond and the presence of the Great Lakes. Geologists can examine the crucial aspect of deep coal deposits in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky, or limestone in Indiana, while economists can explain the ways in which industrial expansion and collapse forever marked this area. All of these are crucial and integral approaches, but there needs to be something under which all of them can be subsumed, something distinctly humanistic.

Read the rest