Rust Belt chic: Declining Midwest cities make a comeback

Gritty Rust Belt cities, once left for dead, are on the rise -- thanks to young people priced out of cooler locales

Topics: Dream City, Editor's Picks,

Rust Belt chic: Declining Midwest cities make a comeback (Credit: StonePhotos via Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

More than any other city in America, Cleveland is a joke, a whipping boy of Johnny Carson monologues and Hollywood’s official set for films about comic mediocrity.

But here’s what else is funny: According to a recent analysis, the population of downtown Cleveland is surging, doubling in the past 20 years. What’s more, the majority of the growth occurred in the 22-to-34-year-old demo, those coveted “knowledge economy” workers for whom every city is competing. Pittsburgh, too, has unexpectedly reversed its out-migration of young people. The number of 18-to-24-year-olds was declining there until 2000, but has since climbed by 16 percent. St. Louis attracted more young people than it lost in each of the past three years. And as a mountain of “Viva Detroit!” news stories have made clear, Motor City is now the official cool-kids destination, adding thousands of young artists, entrepreneurs and urban farmers even as its general population evaporates.

It’s a surprising demographic shift that has some in the Rust Belt wondering if these cities should trumpet their gritty, hardscrabble personas, rather than try to pretend that they’re just like Chicago or Brooklyn, N.Y., but cheaper. Detroit has certainly proven that a city’s hard knocks can be marketed, from “ruin porn” coffee table books to award-winning Chrysler ads to “Detroit Hustles Harder” hoodies. Could other Midwestern cities go all-in on their own up-by-your-bootstraps appeal? “I think there’s a backlash in the American psyche that’s longing for that,” says Cleveland native Richey Piiparinen. “Look at Miami. We’ve learned that all that glitters isn’t gold.”



Piiparinen recently referenced this trend as “Rust Belt chic” in a post on the blog Rust Wire, describing its allure as “the warmth of the faded, and the edge in old iron and steel … part old-world, working culture, like the simple pleasures associated with bagged lunchmeat and beaten boots in the corner. And then there is grit, one of the main genes in the DNA of American coolness.”

Demand for decay could spell a new era for post-industrial cities — or run its course as a faddish blip that attracted more media coverage than actual converts. Piiparinen believes the shift could last, as more and more people find themselves not just priced out, but burnt out by increasingly tidy, boutiquey cities like New York and Seattle. “The country in the 2000s, it became about growth, glamour, living beyond your means,” he says. “It was all aspiration. Now we’re comparing the foreclosed glass condo tower to the old brick building that’s stood for a hundred years.”

But Rust Belt chic is at least partly a romantic fantasy, and that makes it a risky way to try to revitalize. Last year, Guernica magazine ran a withering critique of what it called “Detroitism,” the fetish for crumbling urban landscapes mixed with eccentric utopian delusions, “where bohemians from expensive coastal cities can have the $100 house and community garden of their dreams.” What these dreams seldom include, however, are the almost unimaginable systemic problems many of these cities suffer from: failed schools, violent crime, the threat of municipal bankruptcy. Photographers parachuting in to shoot Michigan Central Station and Anthony Bourdain’s gushing endorsement may be clouding the fact that cities in crisis won’t be lifted by chicness alone.

What struggling cities need are jobs, and not just jobs at coffee roasteries in abandoned railroad terminals that make for great style-section articles. “The only way [a turnaround] will really happen is by reintroducing meaningful, equitably compensated work into these cities,” says Catherine Tumber, author of “Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” “This longing can be expressed aesthetically, but it can only be satisfied by restoring the workforce.”

That kind of pragmatic attitude defines Jim Cossler’s approach. The CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator in Youngstown, Ohio, Cossler wants one distinctly non-gritty thing for his city: software companies. “We don’t want to take any other company,” he says, because software firms are cheap to start up, their location is irrelevant, and they either succeed or fail quickly.

Sexy, it ain’t. But the approach is simple and efficient: YBI uses LinkedIn to find young people who grew up in Youngstown but then moved away and now work in the computing field. “Then we make this pitch to them,” says Cossler. “We pitch them the fantastic software industry growing here in Youngstown, and the prospect of moving back to where their parents and grandparents are, and oh, by the way, have you seen our real estate prices?” So far they’re communicating with 1,800 of what he calls the “Youngstown diaspora,” and 187 of those — who now work everywhere from Austin to Tokyo to Tel Aviv — have asked to meet with him. But Cossler doesn’t believe that anyone who didn’t grow up in Youngstown will ever move there. “We’re making the case that they could run a software company for a fraction of the cost of Chicago, and their kids can see their grandparents more than once a year.”

Of course, Youngstown, population 60,000 and falling, is no Cleveland. And certainly, whatever tactics will work should be employed, be they gritty aestheticism or unsexy pragmatism. But it does point to a conflict: A lot of people love glassy condo towers. They may not want their city to be shabby. There could be potential Rust Belt returnees who disagree with Piiparinen’s opinion that Cleveland’s ossifying railroad bridges are the city’s “best pieces of public art.” Marketing a city as rough-hewn and rusty could attract a certain type of resident, but inadvertently repel another.

“I think there’s a certain schizophrenia going on in these cities,” says Tumber. “The local boosters and government leaders are pushing to rebrand themselves as part of the creative class. But then there are people who recognize that Akron will never be New York, who want to use the assets they do have to create a different kind of urban identity.”

There are ways the two can work in tandem. Tumber points to movements like New Environmentalism, part of which is the idea that repurposing old construction makes these cities a greener choice than, say, San Francisco. And there are many High Line-esque acts of readaptation that everyone can agree on — the Economist recently reported on a dying Cleveland mall that turned itself into an indoor garden.

If Rust Belt cities did find themselves in the position of having both decay and upscale development — if industrial loft apartments started selling in the millions and Cleveland became as well branded as Brooklyn — many residents might consider that a good dilemma to have. “This whole process of using the beauty and aesthetics of decay to revitalize, it’s a paradox you can never get out of,” says Piiparinen. “We’re competing with other cities to attract eyes and talent, and so we’re going to use our grit, our authentic landscapes, our coolness. Just don’t cheese it up. Don’t get cute. This Rust Belt chic, it could be a way toward something good.”

Will Doig

Will Doig writes the Dream City column for Salon

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>