Rust Belt Boy – and Pittsburgh – Rise From The Ashes

Yinz ever hear of the great Rust Belt exodus? It’s a ‘Burgh thing, but writer Paul Hertneky shares the strange story with the rest of us – a tale of six million Baby Boomers leaving the steel towns for work in less rusty places, and how Pittsburgh managed to rise from its own ashes to become one of the most livable cities in the country.

Paul was born and raised in Ambridge (a company town named after its company, American Bridge, which forged steel for the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building and other American icons). The Beaver County town was only fifteen miles from Pittsburgh, sitting un-pretty on the Ohio River, with massive, fiery steelworks and its many Eastern and Southern European immigrant employees punching clocks and assimilating into the great melting pot. By the early ‘80s, the mills – and their culture – were shutting down, and so were the people left behind. The Rust Belt Boys (and Girls) departed for greener pastures. Paul was one of them.

In the outside world, did being a Rust Belt Boy make Paul stronger? In some ways, yes, Paul says, as he worked to overcome a foreboding feeling of insignificance. He rallied against a culture that chided anyone for “trying too hard to be something you are not,” which taught a certain kind of “who do you think you are?” shame. This was not meant to be verbal abuse; it served as a quality check: be grateful for what you have. The intentions were good – damaging too.

Paul admits to a sense of futility growing up there, because of powerful forces dictating what you were going to do with your life. That was especially true of the working class kids – and even more so for those who stayed. In fact, six million Baby Boomers left the Rust Belt, but an equal six million remained. Their story is told here too.

Of course, Paul – and many like him – wanted more, and he found that wanting more does not make him ungrateful. Over twenty-five years, he has written stories, essays, and scripts for the Boston Globe, Athens News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, New Hampshire Union Leader, NBC News, The Comedy Channel, Gourmet, Eating Well, Traveler’s Tales, The Exquisite Corpse, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, Adbusters and many more. His work centers on culture, food, industry, the environment, and travel, winning him a Solas Award, and two James Beard Award nominations. A graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, he serves on the faculty of Chatham University. Local Rust Belt Boy makes good!

When the Rust Belt rug has been pulled from under you, you’re going to crawl a little bit before you get up and walk again. The fortunate thing for Paul, he says, is that he was surrounded by love, and he hangs this onto his narrative. He realizes that even when he was not exactly in love with himself, he knew a lot of people loved him and supported him.

A memoir-writing challenge: the balls it takes to admit your faults and foibles. It doesn’t exactly tickle to share vulnerability with the immediate world. What makes it worthwhile for Paul: when he sees that his raw honesty is accepted with love and compassion, and people identify with him.

Pittsburgh, one of the great cities of the Rust Belt, also turned out okay. Paul says that when it started to fall apart in the 1980s, the nation turned its eyes away, simply because nobody knew exactly what to do about it. Pittsburgh knew what to do about it, though. It has become one of the most thriving and well-liked urban centers in the country, with people and businesses returning in droves. He claims that, because Pittsburgh fell so fast, it “bounced.” Compare this to Detroit, with its slowly dying auto industry helping it to linger longer with a slower, more agonizing decline.

Pittsburgh people also show resiliency, Paul says; people like Mark Cuban come from there, and his story and strength are inspiring, reflecting the city’s survival instinct and strong resolve.

About that whole gratitude thing: Paul says he checks his gratitude every day, but that doesn’t mean that there are not passions and goals he wants to develop and pursue as well. Gratitude keeps us humble, but it’s essential to combine gratitude with ambition. It’s important to have both going on if you’ve got it going on.

Find out more about Paul Hertneky.

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