Alastair Boone is the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
“I think it’s important for these writers to say, ‘Look, your creativity, your writing, your research, your journalism, matters just as much in Pittsburgh as it does in New York and D.C.”
In 2012, Anne Trubek decided to compile a book of essays about Cleveland, the city where she has lived for the past 20 years. “It was planned to be a one-off endeavor for me,” Trubek said, but the book really touched a nerve.
The Cleveland book was so successful that by the following year it had given rise to Belt Magazine, an online publication dedicated to highlighting voices from the Rust Belt and Midwest, as well as Belt Publishing, whose project is the same.
“I think it’s important for these writers to say, ‘Look, your creativity, your writing, your research, your journalism, matters just as much in Pittsburgh as it does in New York and D.C.,’” said Trubek, who is now the owner of Belt Publishing and the chairman of the board at the magazine. “We want to support those people, we want to help them actually have careers.”
Belt anthologies offer readers an opportunity to find stories and perspectives from their place, in which they may recognize themselves. According to Martha Bayne, a senior editor at Belt Publishing, Belt is as important for Midwestern readers as it for Midwestern writers.
“The media infrastructure in a lot of these places is just decimated, so there’s a real loss of institutional memory, on top of a loss of organic ethnographic memory as people die and as people leave,” she said.
Over the years, The Cleveland Anthology has grown into the City Anthology Series, which is one of Belt’s four core imprints, and comprises 11 titles to date. Each installment is a collection of essays, written and edited by locals of the designated city. Here, CityLab highlights a few of our favorite stories from the series.
A Detroit Anthology
“Have you ever loved?” Aaron Foley asks the readers of his story, “We Love Detroit, Even if You Don’t.” Foley continues, “You mean to tell me that everything you’ve loved was just cut and clear? There was never any condition or obstacle?”
In his story, Foley pushes back against the notion that his city is one to be pitied or saved. In the wake of its bankruptcy, Detroit has struggled, but Foley’s story implores readers to move beyond the images that pervade the national limelight. Bankruptcy, he writes, “does not mean we’re selling our art, or turning off all the lights, or selling our land to Canada or China … it simply means we fucked up … and we have no money to pay our bills.”
So often, Detroit’s most intimate moments have been broadcast for all the world to see. “It’s hard to shake the feeling sometimes that the spectacle of this city is defined more by the distant ‘audience’,” the anthology’s editor, Anna Leigh Clark, writes in the introduction. As a result, the Detroit Anthology has been loosely organized like a stage play—written by Detroiters for Detroiters to see. It has an overture and two acts, separated by an intermission, which are filled with stories of people who, in Foley’s perception, are “regular-ass people doing regular-ass shit because Detroit is a regular-ass city with regular-ass problems, just like everyone else.”
“In the end,” Clark writes, “it is thrilling to realize that we are all players here, each with the power to impact our shared story.”
The Akron Anthology
“There’d better be a blimp in here,” writes David Giffels, in the very first line of the first essay in The Akron Anthology. There are at least a dozen: Stamps shaped like the Goodyear Blimp (which calls Akron home) serve as section breaks throughout the book. Most every story is so insistent about its own identity, from an essay expounding the city’s proud legacy as a site for refugee resettlement to one exploring the history of the game of “Butts Up” (which I learned growing up several states away as “Wall Ball”).
What makes “Simple Needs” special is its lack of grounding in any particular place. It’s set in Akron, as author Greg Milo explains, a first-person autobiographical account of volunteering with the homeless. Milo and a company of students make the rounds, passing out food and water and checking in with the regulars.
“Jason’s waiting with the van running. He and his crew of students have bagged some food in preparation for a trip into the woods,” Milo writes. “People really live in here?” a student asks as we follow a private trail through a wooded area not too far from the live of downtown Akron.
Nothing much happens in “Simple Needs.” It’s a story about dialog and empathy and hearing people out as they talk about their dreams and their failures. It could be set any place, but the dialog—the people—are what make it a story about Akron. —Kriston Capps
Car Bombs to Cookie Tables: The Youngstown Anthology
Otis rides down the sidewalk on a lawnmower, collecting things other people consider trash. Scrap metal, old stickers, and soda cans rattle in his makeshift vehicle, alerting Sarah Stankob and the other kids in her neighborhood to his arrival. In Stankob’s story, “One Man’s Trash,” Otis—a handicapped black man in a poor, white neighborhood—makes an empire of found objects, captivating Stankob and her cohort with a Santa Clause-like charm. Between her languid childhood days of selling Kool-Aid, collecting cans, and eagerly awaiting Otis’ next arrival, life in Youngstown, Ohio, beholds a certain calm. This calm is quickly dispelled, however, as Stankob’s parents lose work and she has to move to “a decaying street on the far side of town, without promise of more—stickers, candy, traveling treasure—coming around the bend.”
In Youngstown, we learn, there is plenty that could be considered trash: the crumbs from a piece of spice cake, the body of a broken umbrella, corrosive metal dust from the city’s industrial past. For many, there is a notable lack of calm, too. For the little girl who refuses to breathe at the sight of a steel mill, for example; or the man who pays out of pocket to keep his boxing club open; or the woman who totally owns a sexist bully on the factory floor. But as pages turn, it becomes obvious that Youngstown residents rarely let anything go to waste. And as a few common landmarks appear and reappear—the Mahoning River, and Southern Boulevard, and the Market Street Bridge—the city takes shape, and treasure comes to exist in many forms.
“There is no definitive Youngstown experience expressed here because there is no definitive Youngstown experience,” the introduction reads. “There are only experiences: love, hardship, hang-ups, defeat, joy, kindness, devotion.” —Alastair Boone
The Pittsburgh Anthology
“Is Pittsburgh America’s Most Livable City?” reads the title of an essay by Sean Posey that could be a headline for CityLab. Indeed, he draws from stories in Forbes and The Economist to suss out the case. “Compared to its Rust Belt compatriots, the city does look good. Pittsburgh’s downtown weathered deindustrialization far better than almost any other similar city, and it retains a large daytime workforce,” Posey writes, explaining the lure of the “eds and meds sector” to workers, residents, and investment.
Posey details the many problems that Pittsburgh faces, from extreme poverty to a truly dismal African American infant mortality rate—problems concentrated within the city’s “invisible communities.” Those problems are no doubt still with Pittsburgh two years after the release of The Pittsburgh Anthology. But in some ways, the case for Pittsburgh’s livability is understated, as the arrival of Google (and maybe Amazon next) have only added to the city’s unsustainable hype.
Melanie Cox McCluskey’s “The Mt. Washington Monument” is a snapshot of the stresses tearing Pittsburgh in two directions. The short piece is a series of vignettes about people looking at homes. One couple, Roseanne and Jerry, longtime Mt. Washington residents, know that they can’t afford to fix up the neighborhood home of their dreams (or hers, anyway). Stefanie and Ray are empty nesters thinking of moving back into the neighborhood they once knew only for its steel mills. A real-estate agent won’t take an offer from Tracetia seriously, even though she says she will pay cash.
Along with a series of photographs by the inestimable LaToya Ruby Frazier, McCluskey’s story and others appear to offer an answer to Posey’s question: Livable, for who? —Kriston Capps
Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology
A fire pit glows orange, and the smell of pork mingles with the air on Illinois Avenue, luring neighbors to come celebrate Peace Mob Gardens’ harvest. The pig came from Craigslist, but the rest of their feast Nic Curster and his cohort grew themselves. In Curster’s story, “Garden Party,” their bounty faces the street: Dill, onions, heads of lettuce, and berries are still in the ground. Pounds of vegetables rest on an old picnic table, purple tomatoes hang ripe on their vines, and six-foot-tall sunflowers stand proudly on their stocks. After two growing seasons, a group of 20-and-30-year-old Flint residents had acquired three empty lots, and turned them into gardens to feed their neighborhood.
Around them on Illinois Avenue, many houses lay empty and in disrepair. Peace Mob Gardens is intended to make a change in the neighborhood, and for a time, it does: Flint residents join as volunteers, students visit to study cooperative development, children come to chase each other through pathways made from brick, collected after neighboring houses are burned to the ground.
Eventually, though, Flint closes in on the Peace Mob project. Two harsh winters and a lack of funding leaves Curster’s group broke and demoralized, and the organization, which had grown to be large, splits into different directions. “The furnace had stopped sparking and I too was finally out of steam,” Curster writes.
Today, Curster writes, the lots “sit invitingly open, ready for the next group of dreamers trying to plant their freak flag and grow enough hope for the entire neighborhood.” —Alastair Boone
Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology
Apama, The CLE’s own superhero, is trying to get drunk. The first panel features him crouched on a rooftop, Batman style, slugging back a “Dort,”Cleveland style. It’s no use—Ilyia’s newfound animal powers make it hard for him to get a buzz. He’ll just have to get his kicks by kicking some ass.
Apama: The Undiscovered Animal, written by Ted Sikora and Milo Miller with art by Benito Gallego, offers an irresistible proposition: a friendly neighborhood superhero. The excerpt that appears in the second edition of The Cleveland Anthology comes from issue #2; in total, Apama’s appeared in five issues already (available together as a volume-one trade), with another six promised as volume two. A Kickstarter campaign to put out a second edition earned $11,000 in support from nearly 200 fans.
Cleveland’s got no shortage of writers, artists, and essayists documenting life in the city—but its own superhero comic? That’s the dream. —Kriston Capps
If you like the city anthologies, watch out for Voices of the Rust Belt, a collection of essays from Belt Magazine and the anthology series, which is coming out in April.