Urban researcher helps Clevelanders explain their home in ”Rust Belt Chic”

“Be yourself” is something diehard Clevelanders know in their hearts. That message is clear from Rust Belt Chic, a collection of Cleveland essays edited by Case Western Reserve University’s Richey Piiparinen and Anne Trubek of Oberlin College.

Rust Belt Chic, Piiparinen said, is about spaetzle and pierogies and a slathered-with-the-works frankfurter from the Happy Dog Saloon on Detroit Road to the accompaniment of some good music.

It’s about the authenticity of the people who grew up here and understand its culture, like Piiparinen, an urban researcher from the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

The idea for Rust Belt Chic sprung from Piiparinen’s research about young people moving back to the central city, which bucked the assumption that they found the grass greener elsewhere. It’s about rust belt natives telling their own stories, Piiparinen said, instead of an outsider imposing theirs on the city.

The outsider’s take, he said, “was more about hipsters moving back to populate old warehouses…and fetishizing industrial decay rather than this is what we live with.”

As he and Trubek discussed Piiparinen’s research, they created a book concept that would be self-published in three months. They used Facebook to solicit submissions.  Known and unknown writers responded with essays.

“Rust Belt Chic” is a homegrown name coined by Joyce Brabner, the wife of American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar, who found inspiration for his graphic works in Cleveland.

The familiar voices include Roldo Bartimole, Jimi Izrael, Jim Rokakis, Michael Ruhlman, Kristin Ohlson, Connie Schultz, Douglas Trattner and Douglas Max Utter.  Among the new voices are Joe Baur, Pete Beatty, Denise Grollmus and Laura Maylene Walter. Others, such as Bob Perkoski, Randall Tiedman and Garie Waltzer, offer their stories in photographs.

Told of the book by a friend who saw the call for essays on social media, poet Susan Grimm, of Case Western Reserve’s Department of English, was hesitant at first to write her thoughts about Cleveland.

“Once I started writing,” she said, “the whole history of what has been sort of flowed over my head like water—all the things that were good but now gone. I think that’s what my essay is about: a celebration of things past, or maybe just a naming of the things that have disappeared, like Halle’s or Schroeder’s bookstore.”

To Grimm, “Rust Belt Chic” now means “the recognition of the authenticity of experience here in a place that’s having to find its reason for being again. I’d also have to say that has always been there.”

So what emerges from the pages is a sense of nostalgia for home and place.

Piiparinen, a deep-rooted Clevelander whose father was a city policeman and whose mother worked at an auto parts warehouse on West 25th Street and, later, as an executive assistant at Key Bank, identifies with this theme.

The family lived in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood on the city’s near west side, not far from the Cudell neighborhood that Piiparinen, the father of a 2-year-old daughter, now calls home.

When Piiparinen started hearing people outside the region describe “rust belt chic” as a way for young people returning home to live in trendy, converted warehouses, “it didn’t capture the texture” of living here, he said.

Piiparinen writes in Rust Belt Chic of a high-pressure reality bearing down on people, a culture that tends to mold itself around what’s real. It’s a reality that’s authentic, he adds, and what people search for in Cleveland.