Have you ever contributed to a church or neighborhood cookbook? Have you ever bought one? Are matriarchal communities still pooling their creativity into volumes of recipes as a testament to shared life in a place?
Last week Cleveland-based Belt Publishing released something like a church cookbook for literary Chicago. Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology is the 10th title in Belt’s series, making Chicago the 10th city paid tribute to through narrative essays and poems, after Akron, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Columbus, Detroit, Flint, Pittsburgh, and Youngstown. It isn’t often that cities like Akron, Flint and Youngstown receive attention. One might wonder why Chicago was the 10th city covered in the series, but it seems equally fitting to ask if Chicago ought to be covered at all. Everybody knows Chicago is the hog butcher for the world. We’ve heard the stories about reversing the flow of a terribly polluted river, and the stockyards working conditions that were so inspirational for Upton Sinclair. But Chicago’s decline in industrialization didn’t dip as low as Detroit’s or Cleveland’s or Buffalo’s, and our diverse economy still draws a wealth of immigrants and defectors from those other more depressed rust belt cities.
Editor Martha Bayne says in her introduction that this volume seeks to answer that question about whether Chicago is a rust belt city and what relationship it has to the region. She organizes the book into sections around that question, focusing on what she calls the landscape of deindustrialization Chicago shares with the rest of the rust belt, the landscape around the great lakes, and the constant movement and migration of this city.
The collection is full of talented Chicago voices: Kevin Coval, Britt Julious, Rob Miller, Zoe Zolbrod, Kathleen Rooney, Bill Savage, Aleksander Hemon, Toni Nealie, Paul Durica and David Isaacson. But my favorite stories were from some of the new voices like Rayshauna Gray and Ava Tomasula y Garcia. One of the credits to this anthology is the diversity and the range of voices, and the fact that not all these people make a living writing. Musicians, bartenders, and students talk about a Chicago we haven’t necessarily read about in print before.
Writers like Stuart Dybek, Studs Terkel, Sandra Cisneros, Nelson Algren and Gwendolyn Brooks start to make up the city’s canon. They are required reading for every Chicagoan. But Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, the neighborhood cookbook taking the pulse of post-industrial Chicago right now seems like required reading as well. It doesn’t come with a resolution, and it doesn’t neatly close despite the reprinting of Aleksander Hemon’s “20 Reasons Why I do not Wish to Leave Chicago” at the end of the anthology. It felt like the first volume in a collection (maybe there will be more Chicago anthologies?). The great pieces in the anthology ask the right questions, rather than answer them. The spirit of this collection, and I might even say the spirit of the Chicago I’ve come to know in the past couple years, is “Hell, I don’t know, but I’m gonna keep on going.”
Telling the story of a whole city in one book is an impossible thing to do. Chicago’s diversity and size makes it impossible, but I think it’s important to try to articulate the city’s impact on its citizens, and to hear those varied perspectives on the same place. Tony Fitzpatrick’s bird on the front cover reminds us that we each have a story to tell, and we should consider our experience of the city right now and value experience of our neighbors alongside the city’s historically renowned literary voices.
Buy Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology directly from the publisher for $20, or pick it up at your favorite local bookseller.