What Was The Rust Belt?: On Rebecca J. Kinney’s “Beautiful Wasteland” and Brett Story’s “Prison Land”

What Was The Rust Belt?: On Rebecca J. Kinney’s “Beautiful Wasteland” and Brett Story’s “Prison Land”

Rebecca J. Kinney | Beautiful Wasteland: The Rise of America’s Postindustrial Frontier | University of Minnesota Press | 2016 | 240 Pages

Brett Story | Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power across Neoliberal America | University of Minnesota Press | 2019 | 240 Pages


It’s better to burn out, ‘cause rust never sleeps.

- Neil Young

In one of the most memorable scenes in Brett Story’s documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, a Black woman in a St. Louis suburb describes being jailed for refusing to pay a $175 municipal fine. Her offense? Allegedly failing to secure her trash can. Incensed by what she felt was an illegitimate and burdensome cost for such a dubious infraction, the woman recounts the three days spent in lockup before she conceded to pay. “I work way too hard for my money to give it to you over a frickin’ trash can lid,” she remembers saying. Later, the camera tracks a long line of residents waiting to pay a fine. The line literally embodies what a Department of Justice investigation revealed in the nearby suburb of Ferguson in 2015. There, fines and fees—extracted by police from the most vulnerable residents—make up a quarter of its budget. A place where, one man tells us, “The line isn’t even this long when it’s time to register your kids for school.”

The counterpart to these scenes of racialized resource extraction is what we might call rust-gazing: a morbid fascination with postindustrial America that lays the foundation for its capitalization. Consider Rep. Tim Ryan’s 2018 “Comeback Cities Tour,” when the Ohio Democrat invited Silicon Valley investors to ride a luxury bus stocked with vegan donuts and “coal-infused kombucha” through some of the Midwest’s most under-resourced cities. (One wonders how that kombucha tasted in Flint, Michigan, where residents have gone nearly 2,000 days without clean water.) While not long ago Rust Belt cities were synonymous with misery, Rep. Ryan successfully presented them as untapped frontiers. The New York Times called the trip a “Rust Belt safari,” and quoted participants marveling at the cheapness of real estate and describing the human fauna as refreshingly “hungry.” These venture-capitalists-turned-urban-saviors, the Times remarked, “have already begun scouring the Midwest.” The spectacle of extraction meets frontier speculation. Call it the White Realtor’s Burden.

Two recent books reveal this intertwined relationship of rust-gazing and racialized resource extraction in our age of mass conviction. Though the present crisis is more often labeled “mass incarceration,” the fact is that while over 2 million Americans are held in cages, many more endure the fines, fees, bond debt, barriers to employment and housing, and other “collateral consequences” that have created a racialized underclass. In different ways, Brett Story’s Prison Land and Rebecca Kinney’s Beautiful Wasteland demonstrate that failing to recognize the processes of capital accumulation means failing to understand the postindustrial United States under racial capitalism. At the same time, in their use of Detroit as a case study, these authors provide the raw materials for a reconsideration of the Rust Belt, one which recognizes it as a postindustrial frontier but also a crucible of the new working class.

A filmmaker, geographer, and professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Story’s work challenges dominant ways of seeing. “Nonfiction filmmaking and geographic inquiry have much in common,” she writes in the preface. Fundamentally, “they are both endeavors invested in questions of seeing.” Story came to the topic of the prison indirectly. Her politicization began early, with her and her single mother’s eviction in Toronto—a city whose industrial past is so thoroughly forgotten that The Economist awkwardly attempted to label it “Maple Valley”—and carried into her student days in Montreal’s anti-gentrification struggle of the 1990s. This latter work gave her firsthand experience with the police’s role enforcing evictions and curbing dissent. What on the surface appeared unrelated to incarceration was anything but, and this is part of Story’s broader argument. Anti-prison activists and geographers have long urged us to see the prison, as Story puts it, “not as simply an edifice, as a place made up of walls and cells and mess halls, but to conceive it as a set of relationships.” For scholars and activists alike, “a visual focus on the human in a cage” hides the “social relations, historical processes, and material logics” that produce a world that needs prisons in the first place. “The place of the prison in our imaginaries,” is therefore a formidable obstacle to “unthinking its necessity in our lives.” Prison Land and The Prison in Twelve Landscapes each interrogate a series of nonpenal spaces which demonstrate the prison’s reach. An ex-coal town in eastern Kentucky where a penitentiary is now the primary employer. A New Yorker who teaches chess in the park for money, unable to find on-the-books work given his criminal record. Only by decentering the prison, can we begin to question not only the “common sense” relationship between crime and punishment, but how racial capitalism works: “where and why people live where they do, what resources are made available or taken away from them, and who is rendered vulnerable to state injury.”

The first chapter of Prison Land considers multibillionaire Dan Gilbert’s revitalization project of “midtown” Detroit. This 2.2 square miles of downtown have become a kind of vanity testing grounds for the owner of Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Gilbert has gobbled up as many as ninety-five buildings in Detroit’s core since 2007, in what one profile praised as “both a rescue mission and a business venture.” Gilbert’s personal brand is as “the benevolent patron of a dying city.” With Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy so often blamed on municipal waste and corruption, Gilbert positioned his corporate patronage as an alternative to democratic governance. But as Story shows, the “frictionless” flow of capital into midtown is possible only through large expenditures in private surveillance to supplant the Detroit Police Department, which embraced a broken-windows approach to policing in 2013. The DPD’s tactic of picking up houseless people only to drop them off somewhere far removed from the speculative frontier privileges property-holders over the racialized poor. The relationship goes beyond the police, though. According to Story, three-quarters of the $188 million of federal funding Michigan receives is dedicated to bulldozing “blight.” Put simply, look past the market’s Invisible Hand and you’ll see the long arm of the law.

The results are an increasingly exclusionary city driven by public-private predation. Dan Gilbert made his first fortune as the owner of Quicken Loans, whose predatory practices helped it become the largest online mortgage lender. According to Story, downtown rents have nearly doubled since 2010, the year Quicken Loans moved downtown and into a colossal Art Deco building owned by Gilbert’s real-estate holdings company. (Some 10,000 employees of Gilbert’s companies now work in this district.) Twenty percent of property across the city now belongs to speculators like Gilbert, who are on the receiving end of a “pipeline” of foreclosures enforced by the police. (The “verticalization” of Gilbert’s empire would have impressed Henry Ford, whose company owned every stage of car production from the rubber plantations on up.) Where rust-gazing sees only emptiness, Story’s book reveals how urban decline is manufactured.  “Americans have perhaps become so inundated with the stock images of Detroit’s unceremonious urban decline,” Story observes, “that the actual flow of capital through such spaces has been obscured.”

Rebecca J. Kinney’s Beautiful Wasteland suggests that claims of Detroit’s emptiness not only obscure capital accumulation—they make it possible. The author shows how the fetishization of “empty” Detroit (and the Rust Belt) is the foundation for the speculative opportunities Story analyzes. A native metro Detroiter and cultural studies professor at Bowling Green State University, Kinney deconstructs two narratives that have defined outsiders’ view of Detroit in recent years: one about Detroit’s “death” and the other its rebirth. Kinney remembers how, around 2009, the sympathetic look acquaintances once expressed when she revealed her metro Detroit upbringing turned to wide eyes. “I hear amazing things are happening in Detroit,” was the new consensus. This led Kinney to wonder, “what Detroit is everyone talking about exactly?”

The first two chapters detail how Detroit became “a living symbol” of crisis. In this narrative, the once-gleaming Motor City is now not only broke but broken. Crime, racial animus, and municipal corruption are said to have driven whites to the suburbs, leaving hollowed-out factories that now litter the landscape. Chapters 3 and 4 chart the emergence of a different moral tale: what Kinney calls “Detroit as possibility.” In this story, the once-glorious city is being made whole again, by the ingenuity of a cohort of well-resourced Detroiters. The city’s fall becomes its primary asset. In a conversation with Dan Gilbert at the 2014 “Detroit Homecoming” conference, Warren Buffett remarked that, “Every city has issues…that’s the time to buy.” These seemingly contradictory interpretations in fact have a dialectical relationship. “It is through the simultaneous portrayals of Detroit as a beautiful wasteland, both desirable and desolate,” Kinney argues, “that the narrative of ruin and rebirth stand not in opposition but as interdependent.” In the shadow of Fordism—if not quite Ford—lies the oft-Instagrammed “ruins porn” of Michigan Central Station.

Key to Kinney’s analysis is how the rhetoric of Detroit’s collapse was deracialized. Beautiful Wasteland critically analyzes documentary films, street photography, news articles, corporate press releases, TV commercials, culinary tourism, and even a Detroit thread in the online forum City-Data.com. Popular culture is, for Kinney, a key site where race and space are given meaning. Kinney compares a 1990 New York Times Magazine cover to that of a 2009 issue of Time, each with the title “The Tragedy of Detroit.” The 1990 cover evokes the memory of the 1967 Detroit rebellion: the image is of an anonymous young Black man in the foreground, looking over his shoulder at a demolished home. The 2009 cover, by contrast, is a high-angle shot of a crumbling industrial park with only small, unidentifiable people below. Without the “looming black body,” this cover links “The Tragedy of Detroit” to deindustrialization—abstract, impersonal, colorblind. If the demographic fact of Detroit’s Blackness was sufficient explanation for its decline, by 2009 the possibility of its rebirth could only be imagined through the erasure of these very residents.

Nicknames alone tell the story. In the middle of the twentieth-century, Detroit brought to mind production, verve, creativity. This was Detroit as Motor City, Motown, the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Even “Hitsville, USA” presented a perfect meeting of swagger and reliability: an assembly line of one solid-gold record after another. By the eighties Detroit was “murder city” or even, “Detroit: where the weak are killed and eaten.” Kinney demonstrates how the 1967 rebellion is the historical hinge between these imagined periods. Though the processes of suburbanization and deindustrialization were underway before 1950, it is ‘67 that serves as the “catalytic moment” for white flight and Black ruin. Who could blame white families for fleeing a city hell-bent on self-destruction?

This is the narrative Kinney grew up on. She describes childhood memories of watching the gruesome nightly news, and of being admonished not to drive the six miles into Detroit alone. “I grew up with the shadow of Detroit in my backyard and in the stories of its epic heights and massive collapse as family history,” she remembers. In this register, to call Detroit “dangerous, crime-ridden, [or] increasingly black” were ways of saying the same thing. My own mother used to tell me about watching Detroit’s Channel 7 as a kid, up the St. Clair River in Sarnia, scared and confused and never understanding why her parents chose this as their “local” news. Whether viewed from an inner-ring suburb or across an intangible border, reports of Detroiters eating their city alive became etched in so many minds.

Today, deracialized stories about Motor City’s rebirth compete with “the race-saturated rhetoric of the frontier.” In the fifth and final chapter, Kinney counts at least sixty short or feature-length documentaries made in or about Detroit between 2008 and 2014, arguing they have had an outsized impact on the city’s image. Once imagined as bombed-out ruins, now Detroit is an untapped frontier. In reality its history is emblematic of the means—redlining, racial covenants, block-busting—that redistributed wealth into white families and suburbs at the expense of inner-cities. Today the results—low density, high eviction rates, low rents—make investors salivate. A “Comeback Cities” caravan is less a safari than an expedition.

While Beautiful Wasteland is about Detroit, rust-gazing has become a way the country makes sense of American capitalism more broadly. In 2012 Clint Eastwood, when he growled at Super Bowl audiences that it was “Halftime in America,” underscored this. The people of Detroit “almost lost everything,” Eastwood’s pep-talk goes, “but now Motor City is fighting again.” “What’s true about them is true about all of us,” Coach Eastwood barks. Just as the Reagan Recession gave way to “Morning in America,” the 2008 collapse had renewed Detroit and the nation.

Yet if Detroit is the paradigm of post-Fordism, it’s also an exception. While she spends little time on “Halftime in America” itself, Kinney makes much of the tagline for the multiyear Chrysler campaign in which it appeared, “Imported from Detroit.” She suggests the line positions Detroit as “a place where cars (and dreams) can be reborn.” I’m convinced there’s more to it than that. Whatever we make of it, Detroit’s “rebirth” is decidedly not due to the US auto industry, which continues to decline. Rather, branding Detroit as a foreign country positions it as a quasi-Third World space—home to “hungry” primitives and ripe for primitive accumulation. Consider Kinney’s reading of one of the more anthropological of Detroit documentaries: “The inner-city,” the narrator informs us, “faces severe quality of life issues that are quite different from how most of the country lives” (my emphasis). Of course, wherever we locate Detroit, it was Americans that bore Chrysler’s $13 billion bailout. In hard times at least, the deterritorialization of capital has its limits.

While a generation ago the Rust Belt’s Blackness was the implicit source of its decline, today it is being racially reimagined.  As tourism and development cash in on Detroit’s Motor City image in a quest for “authenticity,” local boosters celebrate the return of affluent whites to the city as proof of a turnaround. Investment and entrepreneurship in any form is valorized as urban stewardship (“doing good for the community”). I’m reminded of a joke that circulating on Twitter: that gentrification is when Black people are replaced by “Black Lives Matter” signs. In cities like Detroit, the idea of Blackness is made valuable at the same time that Black residents are made expendable.

This phenomenon competes with another Rust Belt “discovery” that erases Rust Belters of color. Immediately following the 2016 Presidential election, countless pundits credited Trump’s victory to the nation’s “white working class,” which was said to have delivered key Midwestern states to the Republican candidate. But this mental map of “Trump Country” ignores the fact that the region was as divided along urban vs. suburban-and-rural lines as anywhere else. Clinton Country’s “Midwest Isles” included Democratic strongholds Detroit, Minneapolis and Chicago, as well as Des Moines, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Cleveland. (Clinton won the latter by a staggering sixty-eight points.) It is only by ignoring this racial and political diversity that journalists can hail South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg as the region’s chosen son, or Delaware’s Joe Biden as someone who “speaks its language.” When a New York Times editor tweeted in July that Detroit Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was not “from the Midwest,” the racial implication was clear. 

Political pundits’ sudden sympathy for white male “hard hats” is ironic given the labor identity of the Rust Belt (and of the country) is increasingly nonwhite, female, and left-leaning. As historian Gabriel Winant shows, the industries which have filled the space left by male-dominated factories are in the “feminized” care economy, like hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. Cleveland’s two largest employers are hospital systems; in Akron, hospitals make up the top three. The same is true north of the border, where in Hamilton—Canada’s steeltown—the education and healthcare sectors together employ twice as many people as all of manufacturing. Even in Dan Gilbert’s midtown, the largest employer is the Detroit Medical Center, which is in turn the research home for Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, one of the largest in the country. These occupations are now labor’s sparkplug, as last year’s wave of teacher strikes showed us. Yet they are absent from both the elegies and the comeback stories of the Rust Belt.

Still, is there something worth celebrating in pundits’ abrupt discovery of the working class? Class and economic inequality figured more prominently in 2016 than any other presidential election in recent memory. Contrast that with the first “Imported from Detroit” ad—aired only months before Occupy Wall Street began—which Kinney points out does not show a single autoworker. This otherwise “absent referent” appears only through a shot of Diego Rivera’s Depression-era fresco Detroit Industry. Chrysler therefore relegates the city’s multiracial working class to the dustbin of history, even as it announces that Detroit and its auto industry are “back.”

Simply adding updated versions of Rivera’s subjects would do nothing to the dominant image of the Rust Belt. In a section critiquing recent Detroit documentaries, Kinney uses 2012’s award-winning Detropia to make this point. Through poignant scenes of a strained United Auto Workers meeting and subsequent plant closure, Kinney argues, the film conflates Motor City with its most famous industry. Pundits’ and filmmakers’ narrow, nostalgic view of Detroit’s working class depicts Detroit as empty and idle. Kinney wonders what a tribute to Detroit that showed living autoworkers might look like. That image materialized last week, when tens of thousands of GM workers across the Rust Belt—including 1500 in Detroit—voted to strike. They have been joined on the picket line by other unions, and now by a presidential candidate boasting the most support from nurses, teachers, and servers. We should therefore also ask: what would a tribute to the working people of Detroit look like today, that captures not only Rivera’s assembly-line grunts but also nurses and teachers, lab techs and bus drivers?

It is not enough to say that rumors of the Rust Belt’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Seeing that the region is neither empty nor idle requires knowing how and where to look. “Let us look everywhere,” Story urges, “so that we can act anywhere.” Like a perennial Phoenix, “comebacks” like Detroit’s must be frequently announced, dismissed, and announced again for cycles of speculation and accumulation to take place. At the same time, in the wake of deindustrialization, economies of care have engendered a new working class. Along the frontier of predatory policing and real-estate speculation, another Rust Belt is coming into focus.

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