1) What are two conditions necessary for steel and iron to rust?
2) What are two conditions necessary for human beings to live?
One answer: water and oxygen
At its most basic level, rust is an oxidation ritual. It’s what happens when metal is exposed to the
natural wear of weather, the way our shoulders grow tense when we lift heavy things for too long without rest, or the way the sun burns us with its affection on a long trip to the beach. Rust, just like age, is an earthly inevitability. And still, what a humbling sight to see strong substances wither, crust over and fall. And to think that Goliath-ending could have anything to do with May showers, that its David is something so benign you might be inclined to go dance in it.
But “there is no joy in Meadville,” or so reads a 2003 headline out of the National Journal; a grim
portrait of bitter middle America, suffering from the willingness of manufacturers to move their
operations overseas. In October of that year, even as the U.S. added 126,000 jobs, 24,000
manufacturing jobs were lost.
The long-pending blows of industrial decline that have come to define the “Rust Belt” region of the United States were sweeping Tool City at the knees. The article makes no mention of dancing.
And so, more questions come:
What does it mean to define a region by its decay?
Where in the despotic tale of economic decline does the dancing come in?
Or, to put that another way:
When does the source of our decline become the instigator of our liberation?
If we were to watch rust spread her fingers across the region of the United States that’s come to be her namesake, her outstretched palm would fall on Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, a region once known as the “Metal Belt.” That grip has tightened since first taking hold in the 70s. Through upheaval, decline, the housing market crash, the opioid epidemic; through reinvention and regional heartache, “rust” has clung to the national image of the region like a toxic lover. The result is a sub economy whose borders are referenced by our politicians each election cycle.
Unlike heavy metals themselves, the term “Rust Belt” does not originate organically from the region or its inhabitants. During a campaign rally at a Cleveland steel factory, Walter Mondale made use of the term to rail against Reagan-era trade policies.
Note that that was 1984. Note that there was a promise of saviorism — a gesture toward rust, which was to say to those experiencing economic decline:
Look here at this thing, how its fingers bend to block out the light, how it snarls at you as
manufacturers move overseas. Can you feel the hands of its enablers, of those who don’t care
about you the way I do? The way the structural integrity of your lives is tied to your liberation
and I, your liberator?
But liberation from what, really? And on whose terms?
The picture painted is often singular — putting our miners and steelworkers “back to work”, restoring the reality of the region to a memory of how it has been. A thin layer of baking soda or a vinegar scrub, goes the logic, and watch our beloved metal belt shine like new again. If you’ve ever tried either of these methods to rid yourself of rust, you know that they can be very effective; oxidation, though often inevitable, is not a death sentence.
But does that leave room for nuance? For agency? For imagination? What if relegating an entire region to a state of disrepair has as much to do with our definition of the region as it does prescribing the proper cure for its ills?
The story of the Rust Belt on the national stage is often prescriptive — it is convenient to create a body politic that links the fate of real people to that of the manufacturing industry, particularly when those people are able to deliver electoral victories. But that speaks nothing of its collective dreams, of the elements of its future which have nothing to do with the alloys drawn from the good wet earth.
When galvanization is absent, water wreaks havoc on steel and iron. But exposure to moisture is not always a destructive force. A quick trip to an abandoned factory in Meadville, vines clinging to a crumbling frame, proves just this. If decay is a natural product of exposure, so too is growth.
And in determining which part to see first — the decaying facade or the new leaves springing up beneath it–perhaps the answer is both. That’s where the dancing comes in — even among decline, among addiction and dispossession and the task of rebuilding — growth is inevitable.
The task is choosing to see it.
1) What are the necessary conditions for learning to grow beyond rust?
1) Water and oxygen and knowing where to look
This article originally was published in the Meadiaville Listening Project. Check out www.meadiaville.com to learn more about this project.