There’s steam rising from the sewers. A closed down factory looms over the neighborhood where weeds are squeezing out in between the cracks on the sidewalk. The roads are wide with the old red brick pavement sticking out near the crosswalk, neglected by a shrinking tax base and empty city coffers.
There is the occasional main street with fresh pavement, a newly painted bike lane, and renovated buildings housing craft breweries, coffee shops and restaurants. They’re not far from the public housing, the 70-year-old pedestrian trying to cross the street to catch the bus, and the decrepit buildings ignored for decades with an invisible timer about to set off and turn it into another vacant surface parking crater.
The winters are brutal with the wind howling down empty corridors. The people have a chip on their shoulder, whether they’re the long-time resident who never fled to the suburbs, the so-called “urban pioneer” making a new home in a place their parents once feared, or the neighborhood activist decrying the gentrification and opening of, well, another craft brewery.
This is my Rust Belt. I offer this scene because what defines the Rust Belt will vary drastically depending on who you’re talking to. Ask someone from a suburb 20 minutes outside of the city and they’ll decry crime, broken down schools, and ultimately paint a picture that would have you believe anyone living in the city of their own free will is insane. They couldn’t possibly live in the city because, well, they have kids.
(Okay, obviously kids live in these cities, but there’s an unspoken or coded “those people” when referring to people who live in the city. Few will come out and explicitly say who, but you learn about the ugliness that exists in the Rust Belt as you grow older.)
Now ask someone in the city and they might agree on some of the problems, but they stay to make a difference. They stay despite the corrupt governments, the inaction, the stress, and the frustration of trying to do the right thing only to see things getting worse. Some recent newcomers see their adopted city through rainbow-colored lenses and others struggle to get through the day without sinking into another depressing thought.
Of course, this doesn’t cover everyone, but point is, the Rust Belt is diverse, ever-changing, and plenty full of opinions. Most importantly, it’s worth taking a trip.
Where To Go in the Rust Belt
The Rust Belt is generally defined as the industrial, manufacturing heart of the United States. More recently people have characterized it as the manufacturing cities that have lost the most jobs, and in turn, people. Case in point, boroughs of New York City and south side Chicago have manufacturing history but aren’t typically thought of as part of the Rust Belt.
In reality, we’re talking about Baltimore through the Midwest and over to St. Louis. For the purposes of this off the beaten path travel guide, we’re going to look at the heart of the Rust Belt and the most continuously connected part of the region. Meaning, you can get to your next stop within a few hours if you follow it in order.
Buffalo and Cleveland usually have it out over who has the worst winter. Looking at snowfall, Buffalo usually wins and it seems to be a masochistic point of pride in the city.
Standing at Niagara Square, you can look up and get a sense of the aurora that used to surround Buffalo and other cities like it in the Rust Belt. On the western end of the square stands Buffalo City Hall in an art deco masterpiece that usually tops itineraries to the city. Europe has its cathedrals and the Rust Belt has buildings like these.
But I feel most at home in the city’s Black Rock neighborhood full of narrow single-family homes that were the pride of the booming early 20th Century when things were looking good for the region. The character has weathered a bit, but few neighborhoods tell me I’m in the Rust Belt quite like Black Rock.
When you’re here, go to Nick’s Place on Amherst for a big, greasy diner-style breakfast built into one of those single-family units. You feel like you’re walking into someone’s living room when you sit down at the booth with the green and white checkered tablecloths. Go for one of the omelet options. I swear one omelet is made using the eggs from a small army of hens.
You can get a feel for grand old Buffalo with a jaunt up and down Elmwood and Delaware avenues. Then again, you can also see much of what has plagued American cities across the board, but especially cities in the Rust Belt. Parking craters. Beautiful buildings bulldozed to the ground to make way for grass or, best case scenario, a Walgreens with a football field’s worth of parking off the sidewalk.
I’ve long wanted to spend a weekend in downtown Buffalo, staying at Hotel at the Lafayette and walking over to Pearl Street Grill & Brewery for dinner. Both times I’ve been by and I’ve felt drawn in by the preserved architecture that gives me a sense of what Buffalo in its prime looked like. If you go, let me know how it is.
When you talk about cities in the Rust Belt, it’s usually the bigger cities — Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh — that get the brunt of negative stereotypes (though Pittsburgh has lately gotten a reputation of something of a Portland of the region). Locals and transplants alike will ridicule their city like a younger sibling. Smaller cities in the area, however, like Erie, get gained up on by all of the above.
I admit I held similar prejudice before I went to Erie for a wedding. Then I walked up State Street and to charming Perry Square Park. Further north, I found bars and restaurants that we’ve come to expect in revitalizing cities. Turns out, Erie had something to be proud of all along.
On a cold, snowy December afternoon, I had a beer over at Sullivan’s Pub & Eatery on French Street — the kind of place you go to with a group of friends for loud conversation and laughs. On my second visit to Erie, I stopped by the Brewerie at Union Station for dinner and drinks after a long hike in Allegheny National Forest. The rail enthusiast in me hates the reminder of just how decimated train travel has been in the Rust Belt, but at least Erie has retained its lovely Amtrak station and found a way to bring people to it beyond those willing to grab the train in the middle of the night.
As a Clevelander, Pittsburgh is the city you’re taught to hate growing up for no more valid reason than rival football teams. Then when you’re adult, you go to Pittsburgh and realize it’s been a pretty kickass city all along.
Much of what’s hurt Rust Belt cities is suburban sprawl. Not that Pittsburgh has escaped its wrath, but its Manhattan Island-esque geography has clearly helped the city keep its dense, urban feel. (You can get one of the best city skyline views in the United States at the Grandview Overlook in Mt. Washington.) Anecdotally, it would appear that the city’s comparatively intact density has played a role in the fact that Pittsburgh is inarguably fairing the best these days compared to its Rust Belt siblings.
Still, Pittsburgh varies drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood, whether you’re riding downtown along the Penn Ave. bike lane to the Strip District for market shopping or taking the incline up to Mt. Washington and having a drink in South Side. You get the point that there’s a lot to see in Pittsburgh, so a good way to do it is with Golden Triangle Bike. In one ride over a few hours, our host took us around to some photographic sights of the city before working our way back up to the Strip District for a visit to Pittsburgh Public Market.
After grabbing a beer from the East End Brewing Company shop, we headed further into residential territory — Lawrenceville. I could tell instantly that this was a harder hit part of town. The grass was tall and disheveled, sneaking through the cracks of an old brick sidewalk. I’m happy to be here, though, not least of all because it’s where Maggies Farm Rum is, housed inside a block building doused in blue paint.
When it came to sleeping, I’ve done both the Renaissance Pittsburgh and Fairmont Pittsburgh — both right by each other downtown. Fairmont has a more modern look whereas the Renaissance is classic big city hotel. You can’t go wrong at either one.
Few places are as berated as Youngstown. Cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh at least have seen a resurgence in (sometimes excessive) city pride. Such a thing is a rarity in Youngstown. One transplant told me it’s “a dangerous shithole” before my first visit to the city. “I wish I could say something nicer.”
You can find residents of any city in the Rust Belt echoing similar sentiments about their city, but it seems to be a more prevalent opinion in Youngstown. Indeed, Youngstown has gone through hell — arguably more so than most cities in the Rust Belt. Nonetheless, it has been experiencing its own take on the tired “Rust Belt Renaissance” narrative and the resurgence of people living downtown. There are new apartment buildings, new restaurants, new business, and the city’s first downtown hotel in decades is scheduled to open up early next year.
When I say I enjoyed my time in Youngstown, I know I did so from a very privileged perspective. This holds true throughout the Rust Belt, but especially so in Youngstown. Still, better that I spent my money there and not at the suburban mall, right?
Unfortunately one of my favorite stops is no longer there — the Rust Belt Brewing company. Luckily, Suzie’s Dogs and Drafts is still there as a reliable spot for, as the name suggests, beer and hotdogs. If that’s not setting your diet back enough, you can finish the night with dessert at One Hot Cookie. I recall going with cookies and cream, but a more honest purchase might be the death by chocolate.
If you have some spare time, do check out the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor. I’m not typically the museum type, but it’s time well spent when it comes to better understanding the history of largely forgotten cities like Youngstown and the Rust Belt as a whole.
Tip: Youngstown’s first downtown hotel in decades is opening up early 2018.
Cleveland is where I’m from and so it’s the city I know best. Since it’s the city I know best, I’m all the more likely to placate or alienate my fellow Clevelanders, depending on who’s reading. This is a city that is not only racially divided, much like other cities in the Rust Belt, but perceptually divided. What I mean by that is, Cleveland can be the greatest city in the country, a dangerous shithole, or a backward pitstop on the way to another city that has its shit together. There’s very little nuance in Cleveland between the so-called boosters who will cheerlead the city despite evidence to the contrary and their counterparts who cringe at the idea of another brewery opening up in their neighborhood.
I’m certainly not going to solve that debate. Nobody will. The best I can do is share what I like in Cleveland and what makes me feel like I’m experiencing the city — warts, charm, and all.
Downtown Cleveland was my home for several years, but Ohio City is where my heart always was. It was here, taking the train or bus over to W. 25th, that I first started experiencing “Neighborhood Cleveland.”
Now here’s where I anger, disappoint, make eyes roll for certain folks by recommending some craft breweries. Yes, there’s bound to be an oversaturation and I get that it’s not everyone’s bag. Some people do take the simple pleasure of enjoying a beer to a pretentious level.
But I think craft brewers represent a lot of the ethos that dominates the Rust Belt. Running a brewery is no easy feat. I know this having followed the Brewmaster at Market Garden Brewery, Andy Tveekrem. You’re up early in the morning and checking in on the weekends. Plus most modern craft breweries are housed in formerly abandoned buildings, having made the plunge to invest in a neighborhood before most other establishments would. That’s what the likes of Great Lakes Brewing Company and Sam McNulty of Market Garden did.
If the term “Rust Belt” brings to mind nothing more than people willing to work hard in a tough industry surrounded by less than favorable conditions, then you’re pretty much describing the early craft beer scene in Ohio City. They started something that continues to this day, even stretching down Lorain Avenue several blocks to Platform Beer Co. — which anecdotally appears to be more popular with a younger, city crowd. (My best guess is because it’s that much further from a certain Trump-supporting, suburbanite-favorite.)
Another favorite neighborhood is Ohio City-adjacent Tremont. Here you can find a number of drink-’til-you-puke bars and fine-dining establishments. But for a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall, it doesn’t get better than Hotz Cafe on W. 10th and Starkweather. Grab a beer and play some shuffleboard.
Something that often gets overlooked in overviews of Cleveland is the African-American majority parts of town, namely the east side of Cleveland. I’m not going to pretend that I’m ingrained in the community or that I’m sharing something new, but the go-to, reliable recommendation in these parts is Hot Sauce Williams on Carnegie Avenue just outside of the Cleveland Clinic campus. (Which, considering the fried food and hot sauce, seems appropriate.)
I’ve of course barely scratched the surface here. The last thing I’ll leave you with is not a place to go, but a thing to do.
Ride a bike down Euclid Avenue from Public Square to University Circle. It’s a straight shot, so you can’t screw it up. Euclid Avenue was a gorgeous boulevard known as Millionaires’ Row from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. I won’t spoil it, but a trip down Euclid Avenue between Public Square, the heart of the city, to University Circle, the academic hub of the city, will tell you a little something about the story of Cleveland.
For an extra chapter, take a brief detour north of Euclid Avenue to the Hough neighborhood where you can find a refurbished take on League Park, Cleveland’s first baseball stadium and the last place they won a World Series.
If you want more Cleveland recommendations, you can head over to our Cleveland Off The Beaten Path Travel Guide.
Where To Go In Toledo
Like Youngstown, we’re back in a particularly, unfairly badgered part of the Rust Belt. Though I don’t agree with the logic, having professional sports franchises in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Detroit somehow seem to give them more relevance in the national consciousness. Someone might dog on Cleveland, but they might say, “At least they have LeBron and the Cavs.” Smaller cities in the Rust Belt, like Toledo, appear to be without purpose to outsiders simply because they don’t pop up on ESPN every now and again.
You may have noticed that what I love about the Rust Belt has nothing to do with sports franchises. Maybe since my expectations have little to do with catching a local game, I can more easily find a place in my heart for a city like Toledo.
So what should you do in Toledo? Well, here’s where I pull a 180 and suggest going to a Toledo Mud Hens minor league baseball game (if it’s the season). Unlike even some top-level professional sports teams, the young stadium is right in downtown Toledo in a modest-sized brick stadium that at least conjures up what I imagine the country’s first baseball stadiums looked like. Go for a game, enjoy the communal atmosphere, and discuss with your friends what “Mud Hen” could possibly be.
Now I’m not saying this to score points in Toledo, but one of the best bar experiences in my life was at Home Slice Pizza just around the corner from the stadium on St. Clair. Admittedly, this was about seven years ago and alcohol was involved, but my memory remembers delicious, greasy pizza matched in excellence only by the blues-rock band playing the stage. I can only assume they’re not the greatest band ever, otherwise, we would’ve heard from them since, but in that moment, I was floored. I even fanboyed a bit afterward and introduced myself. They were a mix of guys from Toledo and Cleveland, doing shows just for the fun of it.
Another strong memory that’s stuck with me all these years is taking a slice out to the back stairway. There was a patio of sorts that overlooked the alleyway. On the brick wall, someone had written in white spray paint, “Cities have souls, too.” That place, that experience in and of itself secured a place for Toledo in my heart.
Where To Go In Detroit
Rust Belt cities are historically racially divided thanks to a number of political policies and neighborhood-demolishing highways that fed the growth of white-majority suburbs. This is true from Buffalo to Detroit — but no city has felt this pain of the suburban-urban divide quite like the Motor City.
I went to Detroit several times as a kid, back when the Tigers were atrocious and Cleveland was when division titles left and right. We’d do family day-trips to the old ballpark in Corktown, knowing tickets would be dirt cheap. I remember sitting in the stands with Cleveland fans yelling to Tiger outfielders, “Hey! How many Tiger fans do you think are here?” The outfielder played along, turned, and held up seven fingers.
After the games, we always left and went home. Years later I returned to run the half-marathon but ended up staying in Windsor since all the hotels downtown were booked up. My first real trip to Detroit didn’t happen until I went there to write a story for BBC Travel and CraftBeer.com. I stayed at the Westin Book Cadillac in downtown Detroit, which felt like the luxurious way to see the Rust Belt. I don’t say that disparagingly. If you can, I think you should stay at the Westin Book Cadillac. It’s in a gorgeous building, a slice not only of Detroit history but of American history, and it’s in an incredibly walkable, downtown location.
The heart of my trip was spent cycling with Motor City Brew Tours — hands down the best way to see the city for a first-timer. We met at Motor City Brewing Works (where they only hire Detroit city residents) on a warm, sunny October morning and were led around parts of the city even suburban locals said they had never seen.
You might not inherently think that Detroit is a place where you’d feel comfortable on a bike. This is the Motor City, after all, with highways dissecting the city like an 8th-grade science student took a hit of cocaine and went Freddy Kreuger on a frog. But because of the city’s vehicular history, roads are wide (and unfortunately) quite empty on a Saturday morning. The emptiness would feel intimidating on foot, but being on a bike kept us moving fast enough to escape the silence while allowing us to stop whenever wanted to.
Inarguably the most enjoyable stop on the tour was at the Eastern Market. Parts of the city may feel eerily quiet on a weekend morning, but not at the Eastern Market where everyone from city to suburban residents is out shopping for fresh meat and veggies. This will most likely be my first stop whenever I return.
The tour ended across the street from Motor City Brewing Co. at Traffic Jam & Snug. As luck had it, a neighborhood festival was underway — Dally in the Alley. If you have any flexibility, go during this festival of general merriment, intoxication, and live music.
Rust Belt Wish List
The Rust Belt is more than cities I’ve listed. For now, I’ve left out places like Mansfield, Dayton, and Cincinnati, fearing that this might as well be an Ohio guide. Perhaps I’ll update this guide with them later on if there’s a demand. For now, I’ve stuck with what seems to me to be a logical route without too much of a diversion.
There are cities in the Rust Belt I haven’t been to that I’d very much like to see, such as St. Louis and Milwaukee. More than anything, I want to visit the small towns of the Rust Belt, like Braddock, Pennsylvania, whose successes and failures are largely ignored in equal measure — unless you’re Flint, Michigan and your water has been poisoned. I want to travel with people who know and are from these communities because Rust Belt travel can be a sensitive subject. It can come off, as it often does in Detroit with its megalithic, empty factories, like ruin porn. In fact, my dream would be to travel the Rust Belt by Greyhound and write a novel on it, like Paul Theroux in the Deep South.
If you have the opportunity to do this, do it, and share their story with anyone who will listen.
Transportation in the Rust Belt
Amtrak services are regrettably limited in the region, especially for getting from city to city. It can be done, but expect to arrive in the middle of the night and note that certain connections between cities on this list are impossible. A car would be the most popular option. After all, this is the region that built the American car (and the American Dream), but it’s easy to see what damage unfettered acceptance of the personal vehicle has done to these cities.
That’s why whenever I can, I travel the Rust Belt using Greyhound. People have strong opinions about Greyhound, generally without having ever ridden it. These strong opinions generally come from wealthier suburbs, who in many respects live on a different planet compared to the longtime residents of the cities they tangentially call home.
In my (admittedly limited) experience, Greyhound is perfectly fine. It’s comfortable and new buses are updated with outlets and WiFi. It doesn’t come close to touching rail services in Europe (especially Germany) and Japan, but it’s still a great option for getting around the Rust Belt. Plus if you’re traveling, what better way than this symbol of 20th Century American travel?
Before You Travel to the Rust Belt
You might be surprised to learn that there’s actually a substantial amount of reading material out there on the Rust Belt. Granted, this is all relatively recent, and largely thanks to Anne Trubek at Belt Publishing. Full disclosure, I wrote a chapter in Belt’s first publication, Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. Since then, it’s been all Anne and her relentless staff at Belt Publishing who have produced Belt Magazine, offering local insight on the Rust Belt, and their slew of additional anthologies that cover almost all of the cities mentioned in this guide.
If you’re looking for some films, The Sax Man follows a Cleveland street musician who gets the opportunity to play the big stage for the first time in almost 40 years. (Yes, I was at that show.) Another documentary, Red, White and Blueprints, checks in on cities within the Rust Belt and the people committed to those cities. Detropia focuses its lens on Detroit and its struggles through population loss and racial tension.
On television, Anthony Bourdain has visited Cleveland, Detroit, and most recently, Pittsburgh on his travel programs, No Reservations and Parts Unknown, respectively.
Now if you’re actually going to follow this route, you’ll need some tunes along the way. Music of the Rust Belt could be a guide in and of itself, but here’s a quick compilation of personal favorites: The Black Keys, Stevie Wonder, Nine Inch Nails, The White Stripes, Devo.
Inevitably, I’ve missed something. Okay, more than just “something.” I’ve missed a lot. So tell me, what’d I miss? What do you what to know about the Rust Belt? Leave a comment and we’ll update this guide continuously over time.