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Rust Belt Chic

A profile of Anne Trubek, the founder of Belt Publishing, who is telling the real story of a misunderstood region.

The Woman Who Is Telling the Story of the Rust Belt
Illustration by Hannah Perry

Anne Trubek started a publishing company on a lark. In 2012, Trubek, a writer, professor, and single mother, had been given a $20,000 artist fellowship by Cleveland’s Cuyahoga Country — paid for by cigarette taxes — and she wanted to show her appreciation to the community by creating something for it. She thought it would be interesting to publish a collection of essays about Cleveland, and when she put out a call for submissions, she received 80 pitches in the span of three weeks. “It was the right thing at the right time,” she says.

She started Belt Publishing the very next year. It has gone from that first collection of essays — Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology — to a nationally recognized independent press and the parent company of a nonprofit online magazine, with a booklist of twenty titles and a staff of six. Trubek is giving people from the Rust Belt, a region that stretches roughly from Buffalo to Chicago and is named for its once-powerful industrial base, a platform on which to tell their stories — instead of having others, often from the coasts, control the narrative.

Trubek tells me all this at Belt’s office, where we’re sitting at the table she uses as her desk. It’s shoved into a corner, near some windows, of a large warehouse room filled with piles and piles and piles of boxes of the Belt back catalog. Curly-haired and prone to busting out in a grin, Trubek seems very much at home in what is basically a storeroom. (That said, shortly after our interview, Trubek moved Belt to a new, more office-y space in Tremont, a neighborhood on Cleveland’s West Side that has gentrified while still managing to retain its working-class roots.) After Rust Belt Chic sold well, “People were like, ‘So, what are you guys going to do next?’ I was like, ‘Nothing,’” she says. “But there was this energy, so I said, ‘Why don’t we do a web version of this book, have it be essays about the Rust Belt?’”

And thus Belt magazine was born. Although Trubek no longer oversees its day-to-day operation — that’s a job for the new editor-in-chief, hired last year after Trubek relaunched the magazine as a nonprofit enterprise — she still serves as its chair of the board. What she really focuses on, what she really loves, is publishing books.

This all might seem exhausting — and Trubek admits that it is — but she has a long history of hustling. She’s originally from Madison, Wisconsin, and she came to Ohio permanently in 1998 with her then-husband. The couple had landed jobs as professors at Oberlin College, where they had both been undergrads. Their son was born in 1999. In 2001, her husband had an affair, and Trubek suddenly found herself a single mother whose joint custody arrangement meant she could never move anywhere else if she wanted to see her son. (Trubek left her job teaching writing at Oberlin in 2015; her ex-husband continues to work there.)

Trubek picked up freelance writing to make extra money, and by 2012, she had noticed a trend in the way national publications covered Rust Belt cities, in particular Cleveland, which was undergoing something of a revival. “I would keep reading these things and think, Why didn’t they call me? Or why didn’t they ask someone from Cleveland to write this?” she says. Not that she would have presented the rosy view that so much of the writing of the time was calling for. “Cleveland boosters won’t ever admit there are any problems in this city. That drives me nuts. ‘We’re doing so great!’ I’m like, ‘Hey, have you looked at the actual Census figures lately? Have you noticed your houses aren’t worth any more [money]? Have you noticed that there are still no jobs?’”

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Trubek’s very real approach to the complexity of the Rust Belt is why Belt Publishing’s books are just as likely to find flaws in the region as they are to champion its successes. (It’s also why I could never have Trubek’s job: Unlike her, I’m originally from the Cleveland area, and I’m one of its annoying boosters. Remember the scene in Trainwreck where LeBron James lists everything that’s good about the city? One hundred percent me.) Trubek’s understanding that the region is one of nuance is reflected in the first Belt title, Rust Belt Chic, a term pulled from a 1992 interview with Joyce Brabner, a writer and the widow of Cleveland cartoonist/genius Harvey Pekar:

“I’ll tell you the relationship between New York and Cleveland. We are the people that all those anorexic vampires with their little black miniskirts and their black leather jackets come to with their video cameras to document Rust Belt chic. MTV people knocking on our door, asking to get pictures of Harvey emptying the garbage, asking if they can shoot footage of us going bowling. But we don’t go bowling, we go to the library, but they don’t want to shoot that. So, that’s it. We’re just basically these little pulsating jugular veins waiting for you guys to leech off some of our nice, homey, backwards Cleveland stuff.”

And so Belt’s titles include How to Speak Midwestern, How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, and the new What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. The author of that last book, the historian Elizabeth Catte, is from the region and found J.D. Vance’s much-praised memoir Hillbilly Elegy so faulty that she wrote a rebuttal; it’s currently getting great press, much to Trubek’s delight. Belt Publishing has also released a city anthology series that includes books of essays about Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Akron, Youngstown, Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago, and Flint; additionally, there’s a new series called Belt Revivals, which features reissues of “influential works from the past that illuminate the present and inform our future,” according to Belt’s site.

And a Belt book of a different kind is coming out in April: Voices From the Rust Belt, a collection of essays culled from Belt’s catalog and published by Picador USA in New York. A publisher at Picador read a review in the New York Times of How to Speak Midwestern and reached out to Trubek with the idea of putting something together that represented everything Belt had been doing. There’s a stunning essay about heroin addiction in Pittsburgh, and another about giving a child a bath in Flint. Full disclosure: I have an essay in the book, one about my decision to leave Cleveland. Steeped as it is in early-twenties heartbreak, it’s a comparatively breezy read.

The light has shifted in the office — it’s January in Cleveland, and the shadows are long by mid-afternoon. As I get ready to leave, I ask Trubek if she sees herself doing this for the foreseeable future.

“I’m in this,” she says. “I love book publishing. To be able to reach out to someone whose writing I really admire and say, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing a book for us?’ and having them say yes — that is so cool. We’ve signed up people who could have gotten Big Five [publisher] book contracts. And they’re like, ‘No. I want to write for you.’”

Sally Errico is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Independent, the Observer, and the Rumpus.