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New books put the Rust Belt, Buffalo in the national spotlight

New books put the Rust Belt, Buffalo in the national spotlight

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Derek Gee Buffalo skyline city hall

It was Walter Mondale  in 1984 who gave us the tragically useful phrase "Rust Belt." Here's the way Anne Trubek tells the tale in the introduction to her collection "Voices From the Rust Belt" (Picador Paperback, 253 pages, $16). "At a campaign stop during the presidential election, Mondale made a speech to steelworkers at the LTV plant in Cleveland in which he decried Reagan's position on trade, particularly the lifting of quotas on steel imports, which had sent the industry into crisis. As he put it, 'Reagan's policies are turning our industrial Midwest into a Rust Bowl.' "

Mondale's speechifying flourish (i.e. the flourish of one of his speechwriters) didn't get him elected. What happened instead, says Trubek, is that "the press tweaked Mondale's dust bowl reference into 'Rust Belt' to play off 'Sun Belt,' another new term for an American region, this one coined by Kevin Philips in his book 'The Emerging Republican Majority.' "

"Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are central to the region, as well as parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and New York," he explained. "As far west as Milwaukee and as far east as Buffalo usually works." That's the Rust Belt.

New York State and Buffalo notwithstanding, it was the part of the country that shocked America in 2016 and decisively gave the presidency to Donald Trump. And, as well, bequeathed to us the subsequent the nostras culpas of American media who, in shock, suddenly realized they needed to pay in depth attention to all those American places that weren't Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco.

Or, in the classic showbiz sneer of indifference Sarah Kendzior uses for her book title "Flyover Country." Her book "The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America" (Flatiron Paperbacks, 239 pages, $12.99) is an astonishment and a challenge to convention for all sorts of reasons.

Just as the writers Trubek has collected in "Voices from the Rust Belt" are giving Americans the news from places ignored by what people comfortably believe "the mainstream," Kendzior's view from what Renata Adler once called "the radical middle" was originally conceived in 2015 and sold on the Internet. It became a bestseller. "I had tracked the death of the American dream in real time and because I focused on those who suffered, many people turned to my book for an explanation."

The shock didn't end there. She is now an Op. Ed columnist for the Globe and Mail and is published all over that media "mainstream," but the original dispatches that comprise her "flyover" collection were published by Al-Jazeera during the period when it almost seemed as if one of the most independent and alternative of alternative presses would continue to have a place in America's increasingly pluralized and digitized media.

Nor is that all. Kendzior roared to the fore because, as she says, "I had predicted all the developments of the 2016 election and Trump's win. My foresight was an unfortunate by-product of a lifetime studying foreign demagogues, along with an intimate understanding of deteriorating conditions in the United States."

Don't tell Kendzior about red and blue states. "There are dozens of red Americas, with extreme varieties in demographics and values, and dozens of blue Americas as well....At this most contentious point in our history, these divergent Americas are unified most, unfortunately, by a collective sense of pain. America is purple--purple like a bruise."

The 24 writers in Trubek's "Voices from the Rust Belt" prove Kendzior's perception. There are surprises all through the book that make a genial hash of those who prefer to think of the last 70 years of life in the "post-industrial" states in a simplistic way.

Buffalo is represented by three exceptional pieces originally from Jody Kleinberg Biehle's "Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology," one of the best books about Buffalo to be found anywhere on the Buffalo bookshelf. From that book we have Henry Louis Taylor's "Will Blacks Be Forgotten in the New Buffalo" and Jeff Z. Klein's arresting "North Park, With and Without Hate," a bruised and hopelessly grown-up account of being raised amid anti-semitism in 1950s North Buffalo (the Hertel-Parkside area specifically). After those essays it is an anodyne indeed to encounter Margaret Sullivan's insistence on passionate expatriate authenticity from our former Buffalo News editor even though her occupational travels have taken her into the higher realms of journalism in New York and Washington, D.C.

But this is a full Rust Belt anthology which means there are also pieces from Detroit, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Akron, Cleveland and Flint, Mich. among many other places. The subjects include Heroin Chic, "Little Iraq" in Cleveland, the coal mines of West Virginia and, yes, the difficulties of an artist in Cleveland. Eric Anderson dreads there "the Typhoid Mary of gentrification. Developers show up displaying all the sensitive charm of a multinational corporation ... Rent goes up. The air is thick with the smell of money. Money smells like being neighbors with a bread factory. Sure you want to believe that's what heaven smells like. But really breathing has become a long struggle against yeasty suffocation. Meanwhile the artists can no longer afford to stay in the neighborhood and nobody knows what happened to the people who lived there before--shadows remain, or a few splotches of paint in the background of somebody's landscape."

These are books devoted to where we really were not very long ago, where we are now and where we might well be going.

They don't mess around. They play rough. But then the truth almost always does.

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