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The Rust Remains but the Blues Change - Thoughts from a short travel to the American Rust Belt

Updated: Apr 26

This February, I traveled back to my small hometown just outside of Youngstown, Ohio for the first time since I moved to Amsterdam almost a year and a half ago in September 2021. Living in the heart of the American Rust Belt for most of my life, the aesthetic of post-industrial landscapes has been a consistent feature of the environment I admired, appreciated, and often loathed. After reflecting on my own upbringing, it's clear why author Carlo Rotella thought of the Rust Belt as an ideal breeding ground for bluesmen and boxers in his text Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt.

The work that most Northeast Ohioans performed were based around industrial manufacturing where their hands were the most valuable tool. When the industrial jobs left following Youngstown’s steel collapse in 1977, the area suffered an identity crisis about what its role in the world truly was.

Photo of reconverted abandoned gas station in Youngstown, Ohio. Orion Magazine, “Place Where you Live: Youngstown, Ohio.” Sean Posey, June 20, 2014. Orion Magazine - Youngstown, Ohio

During my cold February trip to Northeast Ohio this year, I found it necessary for my own mental well-being to find a more positive interpretation of my former home in Ohio to bring back to my new home in Amsterdam. I didn’t want to disprove Rotella’s ideas about the Rust Belt being a place of “boxers and bluesmen,” but rather find new confidence that the hands of my former homeland were progressing economically and culturally.

I started with my own home to form this positive perspective. My father recently got a job at Ultium Cells – an electric car battery plant partnered with General Motors in Lordstown, Ohio. In a large way, this new factory replaced the General Motors production facility that was closed in 2019 in Lordstown. My Dad was happy to tell me about the new technology at the factory and that he was working on newly imported machinery from South Korea. To train workers in Lordstown on the new factory technology, groups of experienced South Korean workers are now working alongside Ohioans at Ultium Cells. My dad was also happy to announce that the workers voted to join the United Auto Workers union with 94% of Ultium workers in support of unionization in early December 2022.

Photo from: Ultium Cells Begins EV Battery Production In Ohio (, “Ultium Cells Begins EV Battery Production In Ohio,” Mark Kane, September 1st, 2022.

The news from my father was refreshing to hear. My friends and family in the Rust Belt will only benefit by a larger exchange of technology, information, and culture. The lack of economic growth and decline of populations for over forty-five years has harmed the development of all three formerly mentioned. Globalization is often a word met with dismay among Northeast Ohioans due to the falling role of American industrialism. I hope that with the rise of this global information exchange, the role of the Rust Belt will be progressing technologically and developing a new sense of awareness in the global economy.

21 WFMJ News. Ultium Cells workers overwhelmingly approve UAW representation - “Ultium Cells workers overwhelmingly approve UAW representation: Votes were counted late Thursday and employees approved UAW representation 710 to 16,” Mike Gautner, December 9th, 2022.

While my dad’s story was good news, I wanted to confirm that this new emergence of jobs had the same positive attitude with the younger generation. The one conversation that gave me an optimistic outlook on the future of Rust Belt work & culture was with my high school friend Quintin Burney. He was excited to tell me about the union job he had. He said he preferred working with his hands and being on his feet. Compared to five years ago, there are more union job options available for young people in the Youngstown, Ohio area. Another sign of progress.

It was nice to hear he could find a job with a good wage and benefits through his union. Quintin is using income from his job to support his career as a hip hop artist under the name The Don LeMilión. His music is emotional storytelling, introspective, and melodically driven. In his EP released March 31st of this year, LeMillión EP – Quinton displays a futuristic interpretation of the blues with a touch of influence from another Northeast Ohio native Kid Cudi (Scott Mescudi).

Quintin is hard at work day-to-day at both his job and in the studio. The hardhat image of Quintin is juxtaposed with an emotionally reflective artist. In my opinion, the current display of mainstream work & culture in the United States has been simplified because of identity politics in fading Trump America. Quintin’s story is a reminder of another complexity within American working culture-- That the American working class is the heart of America’s cultural innovations.

An increase in economic opportunities in the American Rust Belt is great for younger workers. It gives more possibilities for young people to engage in cultural pursuits. Rotella’s bluesmen are progressing and presenting the world with a new interpretation too. Great news to bring back to the Netherlands for an uplifting outlook on my old home.


About the author

Isaac Carrino (26) graduated from the University of Amsterdam in 2021 with a masters in American Studies. Isaac is originally from Youngstown, Ohio and earned his undergraduate degree in history from Youngstown State University. He currently operates a music production business in Amsterdam and enjoys playing basketball in his free time. He is also a Young Minds Ambassador at the John Adams Institute.

For more information about the Young Adams Institute, check out

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