Waffle Shop, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from rwoan’s photostream

con·flict
1. to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash: The account of one eyewitness conflicted with that of the other. My class conflicts with my going to the concert.
2. to fight or contend; do battle.

What role does conflict have in creativity? In the article The Conflicted Class: The Rust Belt as a Source of Creativity, Richey Piiparinen, policy researcher at Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, argues that conflict is an incubator for creativity. He quotes American educator and philosopher, John Dewey:

“Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.”

Piiparinen posits that there’s inherent conflict to be found in both the struggle to make do in a Rust Belt city and in the industrial landscape itself — seeing conflict in the contrast between what was once thriving and now has decayed. Creativity lies in what you make of that. Additionally, a hallmark of cities in this region is the kind of cheap, available space that attracts artists and entrepreneurs alike further fomenting a breeding ground for creativity and innovation.

East Liberty, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from rwoan’s photostream

There’s certainly been a wave of creativity coming from cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Youngstown. Details magazine calls it a “heartland renaissance” in their article on The Rustbelt Revival. Of the ten cities they look at, three are in Southwestern PA: Pittsburgh, Braddock and Glenshaw. In Pittsburgh, they take note of Jon Rubin’s creations — one of which has conflict in its very name:

When artist Jon Rubin moved to Pittsburgh in 2006 to teach at Carnegie Mellon University, he decided to experiment with some of the local materials: cheap real estate and good people. “Midwestern culture values openness and community engagement,” he observes. Three years ago, he rented a storefront in the city’s emerging East Liberty district for $500 a month and opened Waffle Shop, a place where hip locals can enjoy breakfast fare at all hours while participating in Web-streamed talk shows covering topics from “Michael Jackson and Teabaggers” to “Dolphin Breeding in Appalachia.” The following year Rubin and artist Dawn Weleski turned the space next door into Conflict Kitchen, whose rotating menu draws from countries that the U.S. government has a political beef with—like Iran or Venezuela—helping expand the community’s culinary and cultural consciousness. As Rubin says: “We’re creating the place where we want to live now.”

Bolani at Conflict Kitchen, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from claramichelle’s photostream

The Los Angeles Times has also recently come out with an in depth piece on Conflict Kitchen. The restaurant not only serves food from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict, it is designed to be a jumping-off point for conversation:

For now, Conflict Kitchen offers only takeout service and serves only lunch, drawing 30 to 50 customers on a good day, sometimes more.

That will change this summer when it moves downtown and opens as a full restaurant. But whether customers are sitting at a table in midtown Pittsburgh or standing on a sidewalk in the East Liberty neighborhood, the key to Conflict Kitchen is not just the food but the conversation. Both are served by employees hired in part for their ability to discuss world affairs.

“Our desire is to not to simplify, but to complicate the way … people think about another country,” said Rubin, an artist who hit upon the idea for Conflict Kitchen as he and Weleski were trying to decide how to use the tiny storefront adjacent to Rubin’s Waffle Shop diner, which opened in 2008.

If conflict does indeed stir creativity, then perhaps it is the ashes from which the Rust Belt cities will make their phoenix-like rise.