Cut in stenciled lettering from a sheet of quarter-inch steel and mounted to the corner of Rust Belt Welding’s expanding workshop off Fulton Avenue, the sign is simple, rusty and glorious: “Rust Belt.” It took months to go from cold gray to its current mix of reds, browns and oranges tinged with blue-green streaks.
A nearby shipping crate is being turned into a bike rack that will sit behind Nano Brew in Ohio City. Inside, a row of custom bike frames are lined up on a table for some finishing touches, while off in a corner a tall pair of scissors and straight razor await a coat of paint for Allstate Hairstyling and Barber College’s bike rack. Machines for cutting, punching and bending metal are scattered about.
But the Rust Belt sign, it makes the place.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for symbolism. But what I see in that welded metal is a full-on embrace of who we are as a city — strong, hardworking and, yes, blemished. Cut from that is our creativity, our entrepreneurial spirit, our push to be more sustainable. That’s the story that Rust Belt co-owners Lou Erste and Grant Smrekar tell, too.
“When we first got into business, we wanted to be bike-frame builders,” says Erste. But building high-end bike frames didn’t pay the bills. So they began creating metal railings, then furniture and staircases, and eventually bike racks.
“We’ve always been artists in some form or other our whole lives,” says Erste. “And we’ve always ridden bikes.”
It seems natural that they would tap into the city’s growing bike culture (just note how often it comes up in our Best of Cleveland feature). Rust Belt has 15 or so racks installed throughout the city and a log of orders for places such as Bonbon Pastry & Cafe, Voodoo Monkey Tattoo and Lakewood City Hall written on a whiteboard in the workshop. “We want to make cool [pieces] that are one of a kind,” says Smrekar.
They’ve also begun creating artistic steel signs for businesses such as Rising Star Coffee Roasters and The Black Pig. The new orders mean they have added part-time help.
Rust Belt has the makings of an entrepreneurial success story. It’s one reason why I was so excited when Erste and Smrekar agreed to craft the rusty B-E-S-T for our cover — the perfect sign for where we’ve been, where we’re going and what this issue celebrates.