I Finally "Get" the Rustbelt

I’m on to my second post in this series and I’m already breaking my own rules. That’s kind of a big deal for me because I’m typically a fearful rule-follower. Just yesterday there were two police cars, lights flashing, dealing with some infraction at the bar and grill two doors down from my office. After I crossed the street I panicked realizing I’d just jaywalked in front of the police….Yeah, I’m that dork. But I digress (I tend to do that.)

I’m taking a very liberal interpretation of the FAST action steps in Chapter 2. I’m supposed to take someone I don’t “get” for coffee with the intention of trying to understand that person. I’m re-interpreting this task for two reasons.

1- This is something I already do very regularly.

I don’t know if it comes from my own feelings of being misunderstood as I was growing up, my mother’s wisdom in parenting, or some combination thereof, but I really strive to understand people and withhold judgement. It’s just a part of the fabric of who I am.

It may not always take the form of a cup of coffee with a difficult person (although I do love coffee), but I make a point not to dismiss people out of hand without trying to understand them. It’s almost a little warped, but I consider difficult people a challenge. I get some real satisfaction is making angry customers happy, or winning over the coworker who hates me.

I have this personal mantra I use to keep myself in check.

 

“Everything people do is either an act of love or a request for love.” --Tracy Graziani

 

Whenever someone gets under my skin I just say that to myself. I even have it hanging on the wall beside my desk.

There is a dark side to “getting” people. It can turn negative. When empathy combines with pathology you get what the pros call enabling. This is an unfortunate behavior I know all too well. I can’t stand to watch someone suffer and so I’ll help in ways that aren’t helpful at times when people really need to experience the natural consequences of their choices.

When I was a kid my mom always said I was a bully magnet. I later learned that my “magnetism” has another name--enabling.

So taking the good with the bad, “getting” people is kinda my jam.

2- I live in a small town

At nearly fifty thousand people, my city planning colleagues inform me, that Mansfield is technically a small city, but my inability to go anywhere without bumping into someone I know makes it feel like a small town to me.

I do live in one of the two suburbs of this booming metropolis. (Yeah, there are two, apparently white flight knows no bounds.) Every house on my street is identical, but of course in three different shades of beige.  I even have neighbors with names that rhyme. They drive identical Buicks and dress alike every day. There is only one other house on our street that is inhabited by people who are still in the workforce, everyone else is retired. This is my first experience living in a suburb, but people tell me that which I find surreal is actually quite normal.

No matter how you look at it though, word travels fast in a small town. It would be next to impossible to write about someone I didn’t “get” with any degree of anonymity.

Okay, so what does that have to do with the FAST action steps?

I’m pretty sure the intent of these tasks is to learn something, so I should be setting out to level up my “getting people” game. In an effort to do this I asked friends to suggest if there is someone I should take to coffee, someone they felt I really didn’t “get.” I’m fortunate to have friends who’ll be truthful and challenge me, so I knew they wouldn’t let me down.

They came up with some options that would have made for an entertaining post, but honestly I do “get” those people, and there isn’t a good way to write about them and protect their identity respectfully.

You know what I didn’t “get”?

This town.

When I first moved here one of the first things that I noticed is that most people didn’t seem to like living here, which is pretty unsettling to a new resident. Whenever I’d tell someone I’d just moved here they always seemed shocked and dismayed. The reply was a deeply questioning, “Why?!”

Thus my focus for the first two years I lived here was looking for jobs elsewhere for my new husband and myself, preferably in a “real” city. I was working seventy hour weeks at a job I hated so I didn’t really have time to make friends or learn what the city had to offer.

You’d think I would be right at home in Mansfield. I actually grew up in Ohio, and in a town even smaller than this, but I went to college and never planned to return. I also never lived in a small town as an adult, so it turns out I didn’t really know how to navigate the intricacies of small town life.

When I graduated from college and finally lived in a “real” city I loved it. I honestly felt more at home in Detroit than I had anywhere else. I had a dream job, a beautiful home, great friends. I became who I am today in that perfectly imperfect city.

Show me your assets

At first all I could see was what Mansfield was missing. Honestly how do people endure pregnancy in a land without Thai food?! And what about arts and culture? Sidewalk cafes? Entertainment? Diversity?

When my friends first came to visit there was an intervention on my patio that began with, “Do you have any idea how much CORN we drove through to get here?” Believe me, I knew….

After a while though I got acquainted with the town, I even got involved in some things. Mansfield has a gorgeous downtown and I was dead wrong about the arts and culture. Turns out that the town has all the arts well represented. Theaters (yes plural)--check; symphony--check; opera company--check; ballet company--check; art center--check; galleries--check; indie music scene--check; independent bookstore--check; avant garde coffeehouse--check. I could go on, but you get the point.

Once I “Columbused” all this great stuff I was pretty confused. (FYI--Columbusing is when you discover something that already existed and is in fact a discovery only for the person in question.)

What was everyone complaining about? I didn’t “get” it. Around every corner I found fascinating people, creativity, art, and entrepreneurship--all things that I loved and missed about urban life.

I never did find much in the way of international cuisine, although I really loved the Vietnamese restaurant that only lasted six months. And when we finally got an Indian restaurant I made it my job to be their evangelist. I take anyone and everyone there any chance I get, and I’m proud to report that they’ve been in business now for four years.

Our biggest export is people

Rust Belt cities like Mansfield have been hit pretty hard over the years. Plants have closed, blue collar jobs shipped overseas, and “brain drain” pulls the educated young people away to hipper, greener pastures. The public schools are crumbling, and the city struggles to fund basic infrastructure. Although the story is somewhat similar, Mansfield hadn’t suffered anything like Detroit had though.

I learned a great deal during my years as a Detroiter. People are often shocked when I tell them that Detroit is the friendliest place I’ve ever lived. The movers hadn’t even pulled away before neighbors started stopping by with homemade pie, wine, copies of “The Tattler” (our neighborhood newsletter), and offers of assistance, tools and more.

Detroiters are proud people--they LOVE their city, you’d never catch them putting it down. When I moved there everyone told me their Detroit stories. Some were about the good ole’ days, but others were about great things that happened the week before, or plans for the future. People showed me around, told me where to shop, what to eat, how to navigate the hidden rules of a corrupt city government, and most importantly, that I couldn’t miss flower day at Eastern Market.

Don’t you dare talk trash about Detroit, because real Detroiters won’t stand for it. You see the people who stuck it out there are a hearty bunch. They hung in there after riots, corruption, greed, and poverty tore their city to shreds.

And this is what I didn’t “get” about Mansfield. Where was that passion, that love, that willingness to stand up and defend their hometown to the naysayers?

There are Mansfield stories. This city was once a hive of technology and innovation. Nuke a burrito lately? You have Mansfield’s Westinghouse plant to thank for that. Fifty years ago they introduced microwave ovens to American consumers. Like robots? The first humanoid robot, Elektro, came from Mansfield too. We also have all kinds of cool connections to Hollywood.

My American Dream

I’ve always wanted to own my own business, but for a variety of reasons it wasn’t possible until recently. Two years ago I opened my business in downtown Mansfield and this choice has made all the difference. I didn’t realize it until recently, but now I finally feel at home here, I finally “get” Mansfield.

I’m invested, I’m “all in,” and I’ve taken a chance on this city and her people. I’m finally hearing people’s Mansfield stories. Jim Smith can tell you how many pies were sold each day at his Coney Island Restaurant in 1922. Everyone thought John Fernyak was crazy when he built a hand-carved carrousel amid vacant buildings and seedy bars. He met plenty of opposition. There even were bumper stickers at the time that quipped, “Last one out of town, turn off the carrousel.”

My downstairs neighbor opened her olive oil shop a few weeks before I put out my shingle, and I distinctly remember the people who asked, “How long do you give her? Nobody in Mansfield is gonna buy fancy olive oil.” Her business keeps growing and is going strong. 

Every day another person takes a chance on their dream and opens up a business in our now thriving downtown.

Rust Belt roots run deep

So now I “get” Mansfield. There was a time when we were a bustling city with streetcars and great jobs. Now we’re trying to figure out what’s next in a post-industrial era that values polish over grit. The factories aren’t coming back, and no one has had to turn off the carrousel.

The people who are crazy enough to look at what we have instead of what we don’t are the ones who will re-imagine this place. It’s pretty cool to be a part of it. Not unlike the land grab in the Old West, the Rust Belt is wide open to infinite possibility (and some shenanigans.) 

At one time it was Seattle, then Portland, but my prediction is that the Rust Belt is the next cool place where the hipsters will flock. (Although a friend who has recently been priced out of Portland says I should keep this information to myself.) Seriously though, my amazingly affordable office rent could bring a New Yorker to tears.

I didn’t think it was possible, but I “get” Mansfield, and I’m thrilled with the life I’ve created here.