The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Is Rust Belt Chic For Real?

Pillar found on the east side of Flint, Michigan.  Source:
I had not heard of the term “Rust Belt Chic” until maybe a year ago.  I was introduced to it by two bloggers whose writings I’ve come to enjoy, Jim Russell and Richey Piiparinen.  Both have written extensively about shrinking Rust Belt cities, with Jim focusing primarily on Pittsburgh and Richey writing largely about Cleveland.  The more I read what they had to say, the more I was intrigued about Rust Belt Chic as a development model and sustainable economic development strategy for shrinking cities.
Rust Belt Chic, as I understand it, is utilizing the authenticity of your community to its advantage.  Jim and Richey argue that there is a growing movement back into cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, driven by people who seek a more authentic and less scrubbed life than the typical suburban environment.  There are people who have grown up believing that the stultifying homogeneity of suburbia can be countered by taking in the crusty and hardscrabble environment of the cities their grandparents sought to escape.  There, they can bring back to the city the skill set and networks that they’ve lacked for decades, and an actual turnaround can begin.  Stop being ashamed of yourself, stop trying to be something you aren’t, and people will celebrate and embrace what you actually are.
Prior to my exposure to Rust Belt Chic, I assumed there were only two working models for the revitalization of shrinking Rust Belt cities.  The first and probably most well-known is the gentrification model, which has now (in my opinion) morphed into the Creative Class model of revitalization.  We all know this when we see it – a new group is drawn to a neighborhood due to its low rents and easy access to other areas, and the neighborhood is remade in the image of the creative types who move in.  This process continues until there is a broad swath of a city that has been revitalized.
The second and far less well-known model is the community development model.  This model recognizes that some neighborhoods are the remains of a failed economy.  Investment in these neighborhoods has been nonexistent for decades, but there are people who live there, shop there, play there, grow there and die there who still want the services and amenities that others take for granted.  Here, in a DIY fashion, residents work together to develop ideas on improving the quality of life and seek investment from the philanthropic community to carry the ideas through to fruition.  Philanthropic money is seen as the catalyst to improve neighborhoods until the private market recognizes the trend and jumps in.
Both models can and do work, but both also have problems.  Most urbanists are quite familiar with the pro and con sides of gentrification; where it works best an argument can be made that it must be tempered to soften its impacts on existing residents and the physical environment of the gentrified community.  As for the community development model, it requires the constant influx of philanthropic money – and eventually, government investment – to garner even meager results.  If the private market never catches on, as happens in some neighborhoods, the investment can be all for naught. 
On the surface, Rust Belt Chic seemed to be a rebranding of the community development strategy.  However, I see now that the two are related, but distinct.  The community development model seeks to inwardly improve the neighborhood to attract outside investment, while Rust Belt Chic seeks to attract like-minded residents who will contribute to the revitalization effort.
At its heart, being a “real place” with “real people” is the essence of Rust Belt Chic.  But can being “real” lead to real growth?
In part, yes.  In addition to suburbanites seeking to find more authenticity in their lives by moving back into the city, there are people who fled the Rust Belt to points east, south and west and are looking for something else.  Improvements in technology make it just as easy for some to do their work in Detroit as in Dallas, or in South Bend as in the Silicon Valley.  But two questions remain.  First, will there be enough “boomerangers” for the change to be widespread within a Rust Belt region?  If so, will they be content enough with the authenticity of the community to keep it that way, without simply shifting to default gentrification?
But my biggest fear is that we still misunderstand the nature of shrinking Rust Belt cities and, as a result, haven’t yet formulated the comprehensive model we need.  See, if viewed at a regional scale, the shrinking regions of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Dayton, Flint and others are not “shrinking”, per se.  Even when they are losing population, they are still growing economically in terms of regional GDP and other measures, even if very slowly.  My point is, these are not entire regions of underperformance.  They are regions where two-thirds of the populace is living quite well and comparable to any successful region in the nation.  And then there is a one-third slice of the region that is barely functioning at all.  The dysfunction of the one-third is what’s bringing the region down, and addressing its concerns is paramount.

Despite its promise, I don’t see Rust Belt Chic completely healing that rift. 

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