I’ve been sitting here trying to put some thoughts together. There are plenty of people out there who could do a better job of this than me. But they say to write about what you know, so I’m writing this for the kids growing up in the Small Town, because that’s what I know. When most people think about the Rust Belt, obviously the default image is the Big City. The decaying grandeur of the once-mighty industrial metropolis. The place that hammered out the steel that beat the Nazi war machine; that rolled out the cars which turned a nation of farmers into thrill seekers; that produced the sounds that rocked the world. It’s all there: slowly, majestically sinking back into the earth, one bankruptcy, foreclosure, and plant closing at a time.
I suppose there is something beautiful about it all, something that you don’t quite get anywhere else in the country. A sense of faded glory, perhaps? Like how the Romans must have felt as the Empire started to crumble. It takes a certain kind of person to find it all beautiful, because much of it is not: I don’t really see the tourist appeal to a broken down factory. There is nothing romantic to me about chronic unemployment; listening at night as the house next door to you gets stripped of its aluminum siding and copper piping; driving down a street where 60% of the houses have boards on their windows or are vacant lots going back to seed.
Plenty has been written about all that, and I’m not going to add to it. People with more life experience, articulation, and presence of mind have more than said enough about what’s happening in our cities. I’m writing about the in between places, the places whose economic woes or hints of new life don’t quite make the national news. When you look at a map, as most kids who grow up in the Rust Belt often do, the big circles around Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, or Pittsburgh are easy enough to see. But look beyond them, and hunt around for the scattered dots strewn over the earth, like loose marbles from an ever-decreasing jar. Each of those dots is a town, and the closest highway is an escape route to the nearest “Big City.” That’s what it felt like for me like growing up in a Small Town.
I grew up in Warren, Ohio but I wasn’t born there. For the first ten years of my life, I bounced around the East Coast with my parents, one of whom was a lifer in the U.S. Army, the other was and still is a fairly well-known figure in forensic medicine. I had, and still have, all the advantages, the privileges, of having grown up in a home with two parents; of not knowing hunger as a child, of being pretty well-informed and well traveled at a young age. But as my parents were getting older, they were getting ready to retire and take it easy. So out of nowhere they decided to move to Warren, Ohio when I was around ten years old. Fuck.
Nobody moves to Warren, Ohio. In fact, if you’re not in some way tied to the political operation of the area and have some money or an education or both, you’re probably trying to get out. I’m sure you can toss out a hundred small towns between New Castle, Pennsylvania and Gary, Indiana and hear the same story. Or maybe not, because nobody, aside from the people who live there or who have family there, gives two shits about that one town between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, or Cleveland and Buffalo, or Detroit and Chicago. So, a couple weeks before my 11th birthday, I stepped out of the backseat of my parents’ Jeep Cherokee and into an apartment on East Market Street, Small Town, Rust Belt U.S.A.
Based on what I’ve seen, when you grow up in a Big City and you have a creative bone in your body you can usually find a place where there are people like you. There most likely is a fairly active group or groups of people who have been doing what you’re interested in doing for years before you were ever around. While things may ebb and flow as different bands form and break up, or one particularly influential art gallery or DIY space closes and another opens, there’s a constant baseline pulse. Must be nice. Small towns do not have the same luxury. If even one component of an organic creative underground community breaks down, God help you because you will be living in a cultural vacuum for the next 3-5 years until you can get your shit together and start all over again.
I hated Warren until I was fifteen years old. I didn’t have many friends. I was the outsider kid, probably because by the time I was eleven I had lived all over the place and had gotten used to being intellectually engaged in shit. School was easy. In the Big Cities I had lived up to that point, there was at least a baseline of diversity that helps the weirdos and freaks to blend in and carve their own niche. In the small town I found myself in, I was up against against the full force of teenage social anxiety combined with a total lack of escape routes. There was really few places to run, except home, which I did quite frequently to sit for hours playing air guitar in my room to the limited number of CDs I had. I missed turning on the weirdo college radio stations I had found when I was living in Syracuse, New York or in Maryland. I missed meeting kids who had similar backgrounds and experiences; who were well traveled and were open to trying new things. You learn fairly quickly that ‘trying new things’ is not encouraged in Small Town Rust Belt U.S.A.; in fact it is barely tolerated, if at all.