Interview: The Rustbelt Almanac—A New Quarterly About Industrious People

by Maxwell Tielman

For what seems like a good decade now, cultural critics have been sounding the alarm about the demise of print media. With the increasingly fast proliferation of handheld electronic devices and new digital ways of distributing information (hi!), this is looking more and more like the case. As big-name publications make the switch to digital, though, there are some brave new upstarts that are refusing to give up on the tactility and intimacy of print. And while many of their big-name counterparts struggle to stay afloat, these new publications are riding a wave of a what appears to be a Renaissance of sorts for a previously antiquated art form: the small-press quarterly. In addition to frontrunners like Kinfolk and Sweet Paul, there are dozens more of these charming, homegrown publications throwing their hats into the ring each day. One such publication is a brand new Pittsburgh-based upstart that focuses on a subject very near-and-dear to my own heart. It’s called The Rustbelt Almanac and I am so, so excited about it.

Cofounded by photographer Noah Purdy and graphic designer Michael Artman, The Rustbelt Almanac is a quarterly magazine devoted to makers based in America’s Rustbelt— a wide swath of land that extends from the northeast to the midwest. Known primarily for once bustling industrial centers like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo, the Rustbelt has been dealt its fair share of hardship over the last half century. Despite shaky economies and post-industrial population loss, though, the immense spirit of these places seems to have never diminished. As a fellow Rustbelter (I was born and raised in Buffalo), I can attest to the fact that we go hard for our little underdog cities. Through the hard work of citizens and creative businesses, the Rustbelt is slowly but surely putting itself back on the map. With ever growing arts communities, cheap rent, and exciting public projects afoot, these once untouchable towns are becoming incredibly desirable. Here to witness all of this unfold and to tell the story of the creative people who are making these changes happen is The Rustbelt Almanac. Purdy and Artman’s new magazine hits news stands at the beginning of May and I, for one, can not wait to get my hands on it. To read my interview with the Rustbelt Almanac duo and to get a special discount code for your pre-order of their magazine, continue after the jump!

Above image: A spread from the first issue of The Rustbelt Almanac.

Tell us more about Rustbelt Almanac. What inspired you to create this publication?

Rustbelt Almanac is a magazine about industrious people. Simply put, we are a brand new quarterly publication that aims to highlight artists, craftsmen, laborers, entrepreneurs – makers – throughout the Rust Belt region.

Why did we start Rustbelt Almanac? When the two of us met, we both found a common interest in the hard-working folks starting businesses in our hometown of Pittsburgh. But, as interesting as these new businesses are, it seemed like a shockingly large percentage of close neighbors had no idea what was happening right in their own communities. It seemed like local tech industries were getting a ton of coverage in the media, but the folks who were starting equally (if not more) interesting non-tech ventures were kind of flying below the radar. We quickly realized that we should be the ones to point the community towards these lesser-known developments. These “makers” all have great stories to share.

You exceeded your original goal for the inaugural issue on Kickstarter! Congratulations! When will we be able to purchase a copy and what can we expect to find in your first issue?

Thanks! We have been completely overwhelmed by the positive support we received during the Kickstarter campaign. Even if our fundraising efforts would have failed, Kickstarter is great for getting the word out. People really seem to rally behind the platform. Needless to say, we’ve been reassured that people actually want to read about this stuff. Its not just us being self-indulgent.

We’re hoping to have the magazine printed and ready to ship by early May. We’ll be selling the magazine through our website (www.rustbeltalmanac.com) and should have a pre-order up soon. We’re also in talks with a number of businesses to get copies in accessible locations for our readers. Whether you’re interested in photography, food, music, cycling – there is something in the magazine for anyone to enjoy. People are doing all kinds of interesting things here in the Rust Belt.

Why should people care about Rustbelt cities?

When we started working on this magazine, we admittedly had a much smaller project in mind. But we quickly realized that these people’s stories needed to be shared with as many people as possible. More so, I think we quickly realized the massive amount of potential this region has for growth. Obviously, the Rust Belt is better off now than it was 10 years ago, but there is plenty of room to improve. Since there is so much abandoned real estate here, we’ve got cheap land prices. We’ve got cheap buildings. And we have people that miss being part of a community. Entrepreneurs have the best opportunity to renovate, innovate and take risks. In the bigger picture, these Rust Belt cities can be a microcosm of a greater movement. If we can make small business succeed here, it might reassure people to take risks and take a leap of faith in other places too.

What do you think sets Rustbelt makers apart from creatives in other regions? Do you think there is a defining ethos when it comes to Rustbelt-based creatives and aesthetics?

I think these smaller, once-dilapidated cities offer a sense of community. It’s not always about competition, as it might be in larger cities. There is more room for success here. People living in the region are used to nothing cool happening, as sad as it is to say. So when people do something new, the community can really get behind it. You know everyone, and that personal connection is something that might get lost in a larger landscape. Beyond that, we have a region that is used to rolling up their sleeves and getting things done. Historically speaking, these are manufacturing cities. When we see something that needs to be done, we make it happen. Due to generations of a manufacturing economy, aesthetics tend to be strongly rooted in tradition.

It seems that rustbelt cities have been on the rise, both economically and in public awareness in recent years. What do you think has contributed to this tide change for previously depressed cities? Why do you think Rustbelt culture is gaining such cultural cachet?

A big factor is probably that these larger cities have begun to outgrow themselves. Prices can only go so high before people decide it’s just not worth the cost. Creatives and small business owners aren’t necessarily making any more money, so as prices rise, they get forced out. Now we are actually seeing people stay in the Rust Belt to start their careers. In a world where everything progresses so fast, these cities that were once steel towns, or automotive towns kind of offer this romantic notion of “Look how far we’ve come”. Folks like to feel like they are chasing the American Dream rather than feeling like just another fish in the pond.

As a Buffalo expat, I’ve seen a massive surge in the number of artists and creative people living in Buffalo in recent years. I’ve also, however, seen many of my friends and acquaintances move out to Brooklyn and other more “established” creative capitals. What do rustbelt cities offer creatives that larger cities do not? Do you think that rustbelt cities have the potential to become creative centers? How do you think this can be accomplished?

One thing that has really hurt these small cities in the past is that people assume that there is no opportunity to grow. Places like New York or Los Angeles get so much attention because that is where things are happening. So if you want to be an artist, you move to Brooklyn. The problem is that that’s what everyone does. The market is so flooded there. Since everyone thinks that you have to be in those cities to find success, smaller cities never get the chance to prove their worth.

For that reason, it is much easier to gain traction in the Rust Belt (and much cheaper). These cities might be a bit behind creatively, is because everyone moves away but as more folks realize they can stay here and create, the more traction we’ll get in the creative landscape. We have the potential to be a “creative center” – the question is, do we really want to become the next Brooklyn? The people that stay here probably do so because they don’t want all the hustle and bustle of the big city. It all depends on what you’re looking for.

Above image: Noah and Michael at work in Cleveland!

Rust Belt cities, I’ve found, often have fascinating local traditions, quirks, and cuisine. Buffalo, for instance, has Chicken Finger subs, loganberry juice, and Dyngus Day (among many other things). What are some favorites that you’ve discovered throughout your research and Rustbelt explorations?

One of my favorite Buffalo traditions is losing at sports. Kidding, but being from Pittsburgh, we’re a bit blessed in that realm (aside from baseball).

Since our budget was a bit tight on the first issue, we haven’t gotten to travel as much as we would have liked. Staying in these cities for only a weekend at a time, we probably didn’t get to fully experience any real traditions yet.

Anyone from Pittsburgh knows that french fries are not a side dish, but a topping. We’ve never been a city to shy away from calories. And for some reason its totally acceptable to place a “parking chair” in the middle of the public street so your neighbors can’t steal your parking spot. Moving someone’s chair is bad karma.

Who are some of your favorite Rustbelt artists and designers?

If there is one guy who is a “Rustbelt Superhero”, it’s designer Aaron Draplin. Although he now lives in Portland, he is originally from the midwest, and is essentially the embodiment of the Rust Belt work ethic we all talk about. It’s a bummer didn’t stay in the region, but now he is sharing these values with a larger audience; commendable. He partnered with Coudal Partners out of Chicago to create Field Notes brand memo books, and for that reason alone, the man deserves some praise. Buy those suckers up! Great little books.

Anyways, the folks we’ve been meeting have been equally great, even if not as vocal in the art and design community. Brandon Rike, for instance, is a designer from Columbus that we interviewed for the first issue. I doubt we’ve ever met someone else that works as hard, or is as passionate about the process of work as he is. Another guy we recently met is photographer Jason Snyder from here in Pittsburgh. He is one of those folks that really highlights the importance of just going out and doing something you love, no matter how hard it is. Just keep working at it until you finally get it right – and it will pay off.

What are your future plans for Rustbelt Almanac? Where do you see it going and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

We went into this with very little business acuity. As with most artists, we forget how important money is a lot of the time. We really enjoy content creation, and then realize that rent is due in a few days, or that printing presses don’t produce a finished magazine in exchange for beer. Luckily, we’ve gotten so much great community support during this whole process, and we’ve met some folks that are a lot smarter than we are. Their advice has really made us realize the potential for growth that we have in front of us. We are planning wider distribution on future issues to get our pages into more hands because the more folks that know about the great things happening in these cities, the better. We’re also in the processes of growing beyond just a magazine: We’re working with developing regular video series as well as a podcast. Collaborating with fellow creatives to share stories across multiple platforms is our ultimate goal. We want to involve as many folks as possible.

There seems to be, especially in Rustbelt cities, a renewed interest celebrating one’s hometown. You’re based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania— what do you love most about your own Rustbelt city?

Pittsburgh is a big small city. The population within city limits is supposedly near 400,000, but it doesn’t really feel like it. You can walk from one side of town to the other in a handful of minutes, you know about all the neat little hole-in-the-wall type of businesses, and people don’t bump into you when you walk down the sidewalk. Aside from liking the place just because it is our home, it’s hard to not be excited by all the growth. The community feels 100% different than it was even just 3 years ago. And it’s hard to imagine what it’ll be like in another 3 years with the pace things are moving – but hopefully Rustbelt Almanac has a place in this city’s future.

Interested in buying the first issue of The Rustbelt Almanac? Design*Sponge readers can use the promotion code “DSGN*SPNG” at checkout for a 23% discount! Click here to purchase your copy!

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  • I’m so glad you featured them, I can’t wait to read my first issue. I think it’s a great platform to highlight innovative things that are going on in the middle of the U.S.

  • Great idea – the rustbelt has long been unappreciated! As a native of Pittsburgh, I know firsthand that there are many, many qualities that that area has which are superior to those found in other, more popular areas of the country. People in the rustbelt lack pretentiousess and take pride in working hard and doing a good job. Way to go, guys!

  • There is nothing I love more than positive attention focused on Rust Belt cities! I was born and raised in Rochester, NY and there is definitely a hard-working, independent, DIY, creative spirit that people don’t often think of when they picture Western NY and other Rust Belt cities and regions. Thank you so much for this article, I will definitely be purchasing the first issue of The Rustbelt Almanac!

  • I am a foreigner who moved to Pittsburgh six years ago. It is amazing how much this place has changed in this short amount of time! There is so much going on in the creative community. Great to hear someone will keep note.

  • Right on the money, right on time!!!! LOVE IT!!! I moved from the So Cal beaches to upstate NY for that very reason! There’s the haps going on in some of the most surprising places!! Best of luck to these guys and can’t wait to read!!!

  • I wish people would stop with the “print is dying” mantra. It’s not dying. It’s changing. There will be books and magazines and newspapers around a lot longer than anyone reading this will be around.

  • Something about this just hit me at the heart. It looks so aesthetically pleasing, and I love when people can do what they love for a living (or beer money).

    Just placed my first order, and I can’t wait to have this baby in my hands!

  • I live in a High Plains Kansas small town of 5000 people. So many of the comments that you made about Rustbelt cities apply to small towns – I wish you the greatest of success!