Stumbling out of the Beachland Ballroom a few weeks ago, after a failed attempt at brunch, arriving too early for the record sale and rubbing elbows with a t-shirt saleswoman in the bathroom frantically scrubbing her sweater sleeve, distraught at having spilled her Kahlua and coffee on herself at 9:30 a.m., I grabbed a postcard from the postcard table by the front door.
It was all white but for the black-lettered “BELT.” blocked across the 5×7 glossy. It wasn’t the only card I grabbed. I also came home with a flyer for the Keller Williams show (never made it) and a few business cards for local artists (haven’t seen them yet). But Belt (BELT), I have managed to spend some time with.
“We can’t run a shoestring operation in print,” said BELT Managing Editor Laura Putre.
It is a fully-online magazine, dedicated to telling the tales of the Rust Belt sensibility through long-form journalism, essays and commentary contributed from a variety of professional writers, unprofessional writers and photographers.
BELT magazine began very recently (September ’13), stemming from the success of a book called “Rust Belt Chic – The Cleveland Anthology.” The book, which is a collection of essays, commentaries and photographs much like the magazine that followed, was the pet project of Anne Trubek (@atrubek), editor-in-chief of BELT magazine and Richey Piiparinen (@Richeypipes), BELT staff writer. She and Piiparinen began collecting stories about the region by people who live here, or used to, or love it or hate it or feel anything about it at all. Trubek and Piiparinen self-published the book, and it’s success led to a quick second printing.
“[Then] Anne [Trubek] wanted to take the project to a different level, so I came on board,” said Putre. “I was always really interested in local journalism. I felt like there wasn’t a good outlet for more literary journalism. So the three of us, Anne [Trubek], Richey [Piiparinen] and I got together and started figuring out ways we could get this thing off the ground.”
What they came up with was Kickstarter, the popular crowdfunding platform that has garnered almost $1 billion to fund almost 55,000 projects. The Rustbelt Chic team sent out to raise $5,000 to get their idea off the ground and ended up with $8,600 in funding – more than 50 above what they’d hoped for. With that $8,600, plus the money raised from Anthology book sales, a few smaller partners and an investor, so began BELT magazine.
Though its original, hometown focus is in Cleveland, BELT currently seeks tales from around the Rust Belt.
“We originally started off really Cleveland-centric because we have to start somewhere. But part of the plan was to bring in more stories and develop relationships with writers around the Rust Belt,” said Putre. “We’ve done a piece on Youngstown, we’ve done Detroit. We’re really looking for writers in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, even parts of Wisconson and parts of Chicago [that] are considered the Rust Belt.”
The first time I ever heard someone use the term “Rust Belt” was when my mother was cheering for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Superbowl. I was confused because I thought everyone in Cleveland hated everything about the Steelers (even my 4-year-old daughter detests them because her father taught her to believe they are named “Steelers” because they steal toys), yet here she was, a Clevelander via Detroit rooting for Pittsburgh.
“I always root for Rust Belt teams,” she said.
From then I imagined the Rust Belt was Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Now I know that the Rust Belt is more than those two cities. It’s fucking huge. The Rust Belt is most of Michigan, all of Ohio, most of Pennsylvania, parts of New York, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconson, Kentucky, W. Virginia and even a bitty bit of Canada (Windsor’s in it).
When it comes to the industrial heartland of North America, “it’s an ongoing discussion what constitutes the Rust Belt, but we’ve been kind of defining it as we go along. In fact, editors have been hired in both Cincinnati and Detroit, and presale orders have been placed for Rust Belt Chic’s Cincinnati and Detroit Anthologies.
While it is easy for a collection of stories by the people describe what the Rust Belt is (Piiparinen did a fantastic job of it here, along with a slew of locally and nationally significant readers), it is difficult to define the sensibility.
“The region defines it a lot,” Putre said. “It’s these older, industrial cities that are trying to find a new identity on their own terms. I don’t know if there’s one word or one sentence to sum up the ‘Rust Belt sensibility.’ It’s just acknowledging that this place is a different animal.”
Cleveland, in days of late, has seemingly done a tremendous job with lots of effort to redefine its identity with a blossoming artisan economy, affordable housing, artisan communities, young professionals and a place where local businesses can thrive.
“You’re not going to see a Gap here, so there’s room for a smaller boutique,” Putre said of growing neighborhoods such as Ohio City. “It’s got this thriving local economy. The urban agriculture stuff is great, too. It’s a great place to be writing about.”
But literary, poetic waxing is not what BELT magazine is looking to publish. There is a strict No Fiction, No Poetry rule. They do, however, post a continuous stream of fresh content along with breaking stories throughout the week. In the very beginning, posting occured on Mondays. Now, with more content flowing, the editors are able to post throughout the week, and hope to up the frequency even more as word gets out and stories come in.
BELT, though, is not for everyone. Readers need not be from or of the Rust Belt, but they must like to read. They must appreciate good writing, and yearn to learn from informative storytelling. They are diverse in their interests, from urban agriculture to economic development, from local poets to established visual artists. BELT has a point of view and an angle that one won’t find in a local newspaper, and its readers seek that difference. Some of the more popular, highly-viewed pieces in the magazine are the longer, more stylistically interesting ones, and that is a source of pride for the magazine.
But what, exactly, does BELT do for the Rust Belt, other than talk and reminisce about it.
“[BELT] helps define it,” Putre said. “It gives [the Rust Belt] some reflection on ourselves. It helps us articulate what we’re about.”
She continued, “Most national coverage of our region is either about the Browns or boarded-up houses, so we need to write about ourselves. It’s fine to hear about us from outsiders, but we don’t want to be defined by someone from the coasts who came in for a day.”
The current front page article (as of 1/7/14) is “White Out, the Secret Life of Heroin,” written by Michael Clune, an associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University and recovering heroin addict. It’s not a story anyone but an insider could have written about what it’s like chasing “white” in Cleveland, and nothing anyone but an English teacher could have written in such a profound, striking manner.
There is a piece by Cleveland-based writer Christine McBurney, who investigates whether the Rust Belt does, in fact have its own regional cuisine and if it is, in fact, more than just po-boys and pierogis in “Is there a Rust Belt cuisine?”
There is a piece by Edward McClelland called “The Roots of Rust Belt Chic.” “The writing was so masterly, and it didn’t really draw attention to itself,” Putre said, of the most striking article she’s experienced to date. “As an editor I had to read it over a few times, and I got more and more out of it every time. It really gave me a sense of Youngstown that I didn’t have before.
Staff Photographer Bob Perkoski provides most of the photographs that appear with the articles, but sometimes writers submit as well. A photo essay ran a few weeks ago titled, “Burlap Pics,” by James Douglas. It was the first photo essay/slideshow run in BELT.
It’s a fascinating collection. In the few short minutes I spent with it after grabbing its business (post)card from Beachland and after the hour I spent discussing it with Ms. Putre, I can say I do have a better sense of the Rust Belt. I can’t define it, but I’m sure I have a story to tell that could help. From what I gather, that’s ultimately what BELT wants.
BELT magazine is free to read for anyone. Memberships and subscriptions can be purchased for $20 on the website, beltmag.com, to help keep the project alive. Members receive benefits including promotions, merchandise discounts and gift card drawing entries. BELT is always looking for new writers and stories, inquiries and submissions can be made on the website, as well.