Why the Rust Belt Cities Shine

As anyone who has read my novels knows, I’m a huge fan of Pittsburgh.  When my wife and I moved to this area from Washington, D.C. several years ago, we didn’t arrive with extremely high expectations. Okay… the truth is we set the bar of expectations so low that we would have had trouble tripping over it. At some point in the past, we had accepted images of an industrial age Steel City as being relevant to this century. It didn’t take much time for us to realize Pittsburgh is a vibrant and exciting city moving in a positive direction. But more importantly, the city had something I had sorely missed during my time in D.C. – which is a place where few people seem to actually be from. Pittsburgh, like many Rust Belt towns, had a personality.

city 1Pittsburgh

The Forging of a Populace

I think this is the case with most of the so-called Rust Belt cities. Cites like Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Detroit were forged with hammers and sweat. Gears turned, sparks flew, and engines roared due to people with calloused hands and severe dispositions. They were – and are – people of will, character, and pride. They built their cities from the ground up and now some members of the subsequent generations have resuscitated, and put their own stamps on, towns that declined due to changing economic conditions. A culture of perseverance thrives when a city’s citizens are molded by the fire of experience. This is something one could take for granted if he has never lived elsewhere.

DetroitGM Headquarters in Detroit

History Doesn’t Always Equal Identity

Obviously Washington, D.C. has a rich history unlike anywhere else in the nation. However, the transient nature of the population and the cookie-cutter developments of the suburbs can leave one feeling the area lacks an identity. The same can be said for other cities that have either not had to take punches that echoed for decades or have lost their own identity because of economics or population decline.

Reversal of Brain Drain through Adoption

Regarding that decline, one of the issues the Rust Belt has faced has been that many of those who have fled have been young people with college degrees. I think this trend is not only slowing, but is being affected by people like me who have moved into the area, fallen in love with it, had kids, and have developed a positive attitude about the region that will likely rub off on future generations.   And interestingly, transplants into the Rust Belt don’t necessary dilute the blue-collar, pride-filled personality that exists.

Rock and RollRock and Roll Hall of Fame – Cleveland

Instead, the personality of the area becomes part of the transplanted individual. I think we (transplants) feel the need to step up our game and live up to the expectations of cities that don’t take excuses. You can’t cry over spilled milk, because the guy next to you is wondering why you aren’t drinking a good beer. You don’t blush if you fall down, because the people all around you have been there – done that. And you don’t make fun of Rust Belt sport teams because… well… you just don’t.

Who Made Who?

Perhaps the magic of the Rust Belt is that transplants don’t adopt the cities, but the cities adopt, and transform, the people who move there. The buildings may scar; the streets may crack; and the bridges may tarnish. However, they can be – and are being – rebuilt. Some of the hammers are being replaced by scalpels and the vats of molten steel have been largely supplanted by keyboards housed in Fortune 500 companies.  But the hands wielding these tools belong to people who either were raised in a city where fortitude is a must, or adopted by a city in which the bar is continuously being raised.

Regardless, there are some new sparks flying around in Rust Belt cities.  And when sparks start showing up in those towns, you know something serious is going on.

What are your impressions of the Rust Belt?  Feel free to share your story in the comments!

J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

image1Cyprus Keller wants a future.
Jackson Channing has a past.
Robert Chalk has a rifle and a mission.  Kill Cyprus Keller and anyone who gets in his way.


An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.



In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered.  When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.

resolve-cover art CL (1)

Finalist – 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards – Best First Novel
Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!
Top Ten Books of the Year – Authors on the Air

 And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology


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