This post originally appeared in Belt Magazine.
here is the idea of “Morning in America,” and that of the “Rust Belt.” The first brings to mind an emerging light that will show us forward. The second deals in all that is against us: obsoleteness, the weight of time, and, more generally, the end of days.
The term “Rust Belt” was literally born out of this dark-vs.-light line of inquiry. More exactly, Walter Mondale was up against Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. Reagan’s brilliant campaign ad entitled “Prouder, Stronger, Better”—which began with the line “It’s morning again in America”—had captured American minds.
Loss is not only what we see but the lens through which we see it. Before long, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The ad shows various images of beginnings, from the commute to work, to weddings, to the daybreak ritual of raising the America flag. It was a message of hope. Believers and non-believers alike want a reason to have faith, and this was reflected in Reagan’s pulling ahead in the polls.
Attempting to capture the imagination of Americans in his own way, Mondale wanted to expose a certain dire set of economic conditions taking hold in the industrial Midwest, if only to darken Reagan’s sunny-day sentiments. Speaking to a few hundred steelworkers in Cleveland, Mondale said “Mr. Reagan’s policy toward the industrial belt of America is ‘Let it rust.’”
Continuing with the theme, Mondale, invoking those gray days of the Depression and the iconic imagery of the “Dust Bowl,” said Reagan was “turning our great industrial Midwest and the industrial base of this country into a rust bowl.”
Soon thereafter, the term “Rust Bowl” evolved through journalistic messaging into “Rust Belt” so it conformed to other regional monikers, such as the “Bible Belt” and “Sun Belt.” “[A]s the postindustrial replacement for ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ and the ‘Ruhr of America,’” notes author Edward McClelland, “the ‘Rust Belt’ stuck”.
Of course Mondale went on to get trounced. As everybody knows, you don’t win with a narrative of loss.
Narratives matter. Specifically, the stories told and images induced play a significant role in a regional identity. “Narrative is one of the most powerful tools for perceiving the human condition,”writes Michael Mason of This Land Press. “Loss of narrative is loss of life’s meaning.”
In the Rust Belt, our narrative hasn’t been “lost” per se, but rather defined by loss—of population, homes, jobs, etc. Loss is not only what we see but the lens through which we see it. Before long, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Particularly, when your reality is continually colored with threat, responses become primitive. It is fight or flight. That is, folks leave, or else they tend to destroy.
In the recent radio documentary “In the Shadow of Steel,” architecture critic Christopher Hume marvels at the Rust Belt city’s need “to tear itself down, literally and figuratively”.
This kind of “primal” urban planning can get counterintuitive—for example, we demolish houses to get more residents. Freud called this affirmation through self-destruction, the “death drive.” It is a kind of faith in the security of knowing you will lose. Such is life in a region whose compass has been set against the direction of daybreak.
The narrative thread is starting to change, however; this is largely due to a generational shift.
The younger generation simply carries less baggage when it comes to being from Cleveland, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, etc. This generation was “born into ruin,” and so they know no different. The nostalgia isn’t there, and as such young people aren’t burdened with those heaving loss narratives that are detrimental to carving a new way.
These sons and daughters are not optimists, but realists. Yet they see opportunity in the legacy city because cities with legacies have opportunities. You can see evidence of this narrative reshaping in how the generation as taken ownership of the term “Rust Belt.” Just Google “rust belt” and note the hundreds of ways the label has been co-opted from its shame roots into a narrative of prideful resilience.
After all, the ultimate power of the narrative is derived from what something is, not what it is called. “O, be some other name!” wrote Shakespeare. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.”
This truth cuts both ways. Specifically, Americans are getting wise to how Reagan’s “morning in America” has played itself out. Jobless recoveries are the new norm. Economic inequities are at historic highs. A generation has been grossly disillusioned.
“Millennials are entering adulthood in an America where government provides much less economic security,” writes Peter Beinart in the Daily Beast. “And their economic experience in this newly deregulated America has been horrendous.”
This, then, speaks to the spuriousness of narrative-building. In other words, just as a narrative of loss can be detrimental, so too can a narrative of “winning.” Notes existential psychologist Irving Yalom: “I believe that, though illusion often cheers and comforts, it ultimately and invariably weakens and constricts the spirit.”
Ultimately, as the stories of yesterday keep unwinding into the reality of today, reorienting outlooks of who wins and who loses will reshape the way America is playing out. Cities are like stocks, and whether or not to invest is largely dependent on perceived risk. For young people in the Rust Belt there is nothing to lose, and through the shedding of historical loss narratives, Rust Belt cities like Cleveland have much to gain.
After all, a new day doesn’t begin when the sun comes up. It begins at midnight. It begins in the dark. And despite what’s been said, darkness is not the absence of light, but a basic precondition.