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Growing up in New Castle, Indiana, identical twins Kelly and Kyle Phelps shared everything – a bed, hand-me-downs from their six older siblings, their school classrooms, and all the rhythms and routines of life in a Rust Belt manufacturing town during the 1970s and ’80s, the waning heyday of the American auto industry….
“Kyle and I would go and pick the metal shavings out of the bottoms of his soles. It was big fun to do that,” Kelly recalls. Their dad’s clothes would smell of machine oil, a powerful sense memory for the twins to this day. The next morning, without fail and without complaint, he’d get up and do it all over again….
Now 40, the Phelps twins share a very personal artistic vision. Together they make art that puts a human face on a growing statistic – workers displaced by downsizing, outsourcing, automation, and hard times.”
– “American Made. ” American Craft Magazine http://craftcouncil.org/magazine/article/american-made
Before I write anything else, let me encourage you to go read this article and examine the Phelps brothers’ work. Haunting isn’t a good enough word for it.
I read this article on a flight, and had to keep my sunglasses on because of my red eyes. I read art magazines a lot — I have a taste for contemporary ceramics and jewelry — but I tend to prefer abstract designs and shy away from representational work. So my reaction to this article caught me way off guard.
The thing that bewildered me is how deeply the Phelps brothers’ work resonates to me. And for many reasons, it shouldn’t. I grew up in a town a lot, a lot like New Castle, but I live a comfortable middle class life now. On top of that, a lot of the Phelps brothers’ work reflects the role of unions in Rust Belt workers’ lives. I have a personal, emotional-level ambivalence toward unions, which were often blamed for making the collapse of the industrial economy worse when I was a kid. But I”m only saying that to get my own emotional baggage out onto the open.
It’s there something about rust belt children of our generation that is different? What do we know/claim/resonate? I’m talking here particularly about the children of the blue collar workers. So that doesn’t include my husband, who grew up in the heart of the Rust Belt, but whose dad had gotten out of Appalachia and into upper management. And maybe not even my brother in law, who spends every working day now managing the GM factory in Flint, Michigan, arguably Rust Belt Ground Zero. He didn’t grow up being formed by that experience, although he lives in its backwash now. And certainly there’s many people younger than I who have gotten caught up in the subsequent waves and have certainly been shaped by their experience too.
But there’s a small cadre of us who had that experience in the beginning, in the 1970s and 80s in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Akron and Gary and Milwaukee and more, and who are now working in communities in the Midwest and across the world. And as I have gotten to know many of them and listened to them, is striking me that we may share a unique perspective.
But I’m not yet sure what it is.
Is it an ambivalent relationship with American Dream idea?
A background expectation of uncertainty?
A tendency to assume uncertainty, impermanence, in economic fortunes and community life?
Awareness of how much pain your can have, and how helpless you can be, in face of major economic shifts?
A realization that you have to keep going regardless? A certain kinds of stoicness–maybe learned from watching parents get dislocated?
A distrust of organizations and institutions. Maybe not distrust–but lack of faith. expectation of fallibility?
Awareness of risk of romanticizing?
The Rust Belt’s children know probably better than any that something is gone that will never come back. We watched the industrial age end, not on TV or in an academic report. We stood in the wings while the scenery crashed down. We are the ones who watched as children while the old world died.
And many, many of us got out, while others chose to stay and fight.
Perhaps the big difference is this: we came of age in time of loss–not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.
We are specifically the first post-American Dream generation, or generational cohort, to be specific. We were probably first in at least a few generations who couldn’t make that assumption about doing better than our parents, at least, not make it automatically. And that’s not because we haven’t done better than our parents, by and large, although that’s probably generally true. But we saw our parents not do better than their parents.
Maybe that’s why talk about an American Dream sounds so hollow to me, why I can’t even write that phrase without discomfort. Even though my own story, the fact that I have had the education I have had and live comfortably and all that makes me in some respects the poster child for that idea….
I’m seldom not aware that my story has been something of an outlier.
There’s a place in the back of my mind where I never really believe it’s permanent. Even after all these years, I can never lose the sense that the other shoe can quickly drop.
I have a hard time believing that the idea of an American Dream of some kind isn’t rhetoric. And my gut sense is that I’m not alone.
So what do we, the oldest Children of the Rust Belt, specifically bring to the work of revitalizing our communities?
Maybe it looks a little like this:
Long game focus.
Understanding of the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it.
Ability to salvage.
Expectation that there are no easy answers.
Dis-inclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big thing.
Years ago, I gave a keynote speech in Michigan. It was one of the first time I’d been back in Michigan since starting to work out the early versions of my core message.
And I felt actually embarrassed taking to this audience about small business ecosystem and resilience and all this stuff. More than most places in US, these guys were already doing it. They’d had to–they lost the other options long before.
Are we the ones to whom new economic realities, and the apparent best but not easiest answers, make the most sense?
An elegy is an exercise in emotion–it’s a Romantic-era conceit that expressing strong feelings is all that is needed. An elegy does not help us figure out what to do with it.
But as I’ve said elsewhere, we aren’t just creatures of the head… We have to remember, to reconnect with the reasons why the hard work we do matters.
Maybe the oldest children of the Rust Belt can help us all learn some of the lessons that our communities need.