Culture

‘Salvage City’ and the Rust Belt Frontier Myth

Last weekend, the Discovery Channel premiered three episodes of Salvage City, a raucous romp through the abandoned buildings of St. Louis that has riled up locals and preservationists. The bombastic trailer lays it all out in a voiceover that champions breaking and entering, the removal of building elements and a playful cowboy spirit. The backdrop, however, is a supposed wasteland that barely resembles my St. Louis.

“When industry moved overseas, thriving factories and warehouses became a Rust Belt boneyard,” the trailer says. Yet there’s the problem. While the show’s detractors have focused on the trespassing and supposed stealing, the main flaw is the show’s embrace of the trite and increasingly romantic “Rust Belt hero” myth. Pick the bones, become a hero. Tend the wounds, and, well — who are you again?

Salvage City startled me because I know its world. Sam Coffey, the affable and energetic star, co-owns the bar he opened down the street from my office on St. Louis’ Cherokee Street, a corridor misleadingly presented in the series. He works at a film company that used to rent the space down the hall. When Coffey and crew dreamed up their bar, to call their building underutilized would have been an understatement. Likewise, our office building was a vacant former probation center when our landlord bought it. Now, more than 30 tenants spill out into its hall.

Salvage City could well have told those stories — stories of the larger picture of St. Louis and older American cities. Instead, it finds the goldmine in the guts of grand, vacant buildings, and the gold in the transformation of objects into whimsical furniture sold for large sums. At times Salvage City seems to make Coffey into Indiana Jones, but the show takes place not in an archaeological ruin but in a living city whose future has never looked brighter. The show addresses the reality of St. Louis with bouts of apathy and misinformation, although hometown pride seems welled up inside of the characters. They look like they aren’t allowed to say more.

Riverfront Times writer Chris Haxel addressed the show’s shortcomings in an article last week, but like other critics he pointed the finger at the show and its creators. Haxel raises good points about the veracity of the show’s claims, including the repeatedly hammered point that neighborhoods are dangerous (including the almost-too-sanitized arts district Grand Center) and that all of the buildings are endangered or beyond saving (the 1913 Sun Theater, undergoing an $11 million renovation, being foremost). Coffey and crew preemptively shot down a lot of the backlash in an earlier Riverfront Times article in which Coffey writes, “We have a different mission in mind, and that is to bring awareness to these buildings.”

For its flaws, Salvage City’s focus on the buildings themselves probably is as helpful as its creators think. Years of “ruin porn” photographs have largely helped preservationists because they popularize otherwise-obscure places and build the public case for their significance. Preservationists should not be shy of media that make buildings popular, even if the intentions behind them are ignoble by some measures. We cannot rake Coffey over the coals of profiteering while handing awards to developers who have made far more rehabilitating historic buildings — sometimes while removing historic features, or even adjacent historic buildings, in the name of practicality. We need to work with both.

As for plundering historic spaces, since Salvage City is all obvious facsimile, it is the wrong target for preservationist ire. Reckless removal of artifacts is probably a worse glorification than knocking doors down, and both fit a bravado that belies responsible preservation practices. Yet this is television, not the real world. In the real world, we have terra cotta keystones missing from East St. Louis’ Murphy Building, brick houses across north St. Louis pulled apart by thieves and left vulnerable by taxpayer-funded development companies, ornament from Detroit fenced to Chicago and sold by a well-known salvage dealer, and so forth. Salvage City’s fictional anti-ethic is tame, and the truly bad stuff goes on with or without the show.

Richard Nickel’s photo of the demolition of the First Regiment Infantry Armory in Chicago.

There are the true salvage heroes, like St. Louis’ Larry Giles, whose work as leader of the national Building Arts Center is carefully ethical and connected to a deeper preservation ethos. According to Jeff Byles’ Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition, author Robert Sullivan discovered famously lost granite columns from New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1996 — a search that would have made for epic televised drama. Preservationist-photographer Richard Nickel’s salvage of doomed Louis Sullivan ornament was so wonderfully ingrained in documentation, research, advocacy and personal relationships that one wishes he had been filmed more often before his untimely death — while salvaging ornament — in 1972.

That Salvage City is rendered lame on subjects of social impact and preservation ethics is not its fault. Mass media have long framed the stories of older cities in ways that leaves out the hopeful elements. At the start of the golden age of suburbanization after World War II, the motion picture industry glamorized the idyllic suburban world, presented in spotless cleanliness, and warned of the decadent urban world, presented as the world of decay and unrest.

“Hollywood marketed spectacles of urban decline as mass entertainment,” Eric Avila writes in Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles. Although older cities are now regaining popularity, the focus on decline to serve simplified narratives continues.

The term “Rust Belt” itself exaggerates the physical decay and isolates the identity of many cities in static matter. Advocates, journalists and scholars have popularized the term, often endearingly, while perpetuating the emphasis on what makes these places frontiers of decline. Narratives of the Rust Belt are still focused on loss, rife with a cynical nostalgia and a nagging refusal to cast in with wealthier and less damaged cities. The singularity of the conditions of places like St. Louis and Detroit remains mythic fodder for would-be heroes of public policy, architectural design and public art. There are many Daniel Boones of the legacy cities.

Salvage City is emblematic of the tensions within the early 21st century identity of older cities. There is impetus to embrace transformation, but it is shown as isolated from rather than integrated into existing social life. Cities are still “laboratories” to some, despite the fact that after a half-century of experimentation policymakers seem to call only for more experiments. Collective action is always off the table in our Rust Belt narrative. The dominant narrative champions individualism to a fault, elevating urban life into a tidy commodity that comes in tailored flavors of grime and dirt. Pride of place seems forced and devoid of intimacy — like we are looking at light fixtures or buildings instead of the broader social contexts in which they have meaning.

Scholar Richard Slotkin writes in Regeneration Through Violence of the literary hero who must defile the wilderness to settle it: “an American hero is the lover of the spirit in the wilderness, and his acts of love and sacred affirmation are acts of violence against that spirit and her avatars.” Comfortable places are never frontiers, and so the sights are again set on older cities. “Rust Belt” love may well perpetuate the old American frontier myth, through Salvage City as popular entertainment but also through many other ways as actual social practice.

Tags: culture, st. louis, vacant properties, blight, rust belt, historic preservation, michael allen, television