The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: Battle of the Rust Belt Narratives

When you see this image, do you see dread?  Or hope?

(Note: My recent posts about the emerging demographic recomposition of cities is not something that I just recently came up with.  It’s something I personally witnessed and felt for the last 5-7 years or so, but lacked the data to stake any real claim.  I also happen to believe the recomposition is particularly acute in Rust Belt cities, but happening nationwide.  It’s also something that I think the actors on both sides of this feel, but fail to articulate well.  At any rate, this post from January 2014 sought to personify the motivations of people making moves.  In the next week or so I’ll start to pivot to the implications of the shift, should it continue, and extrapolate possible future scenarios. -Pete)

Two searing and deeply intimate stories published last week left quite an impression on me.  Taken together, they seem to epitomize the prevailing narratives driving the future of Rust Belt cities.

The first story, by Drew Philp, explains why a young and naive former resident of rural Michigan made the choice to move to, and later to stay, in Detroit.  While in college he decided to chart a different course than that of his father and grandfather.  He brought up his decision to buy a house on the city’s East Side to an acquaintance who’d already done the same thing, with an interesting perspective:

“It’s like the pilgrims,” he told me, looking out over the city. “They came to America for religious freedom and got along with the Native Americans pretty well. It wasn’t perfect, but they ate Thanksgiving together, you know. It was the people who came after. They said, ‘I can make money from this.’ They were the ones with the smallpox blankets, not the pilgrims.”

“That sounds like a total bastardization of history.”

“It may be. But it rings true.”

Philp bought his home at the age of 23 in 2009.  He was welcomed by his neighbors and has been accepted by the community in ways he never thought possible.  But he recognizes he’s part of a trend:

“In the last year or two, though, Detroit has also become fashionable. The New York Timescalled it a “Midwestern TriBeCa,” The Atlantic a “Magnet… for young, creative people.” Thousands of young, mostly white educated people are moving in. The first chain grocery store in the city since 2007 just opened, a Whole Foods, subsidized by the city, state, and federal governments. The Write a House organization recently made headlines for giving away renovated homes to writers. The boomtown is back.

A nice young couple from Brooklyn just moved in down the street. Bars that were once gritty and dark now look like after-hours Starbucks. Tour buses full of people show up in my neighborhood to gawk at the devastation and the people that live amidst it. People from all over come to take photos, even wedding parties.”

His decision is confirmed in his mind, but he wonders what comes next.

The second piece by Tenicka Boyd, a Milwaukee expat living in Brooklyn, details the deep-seated feelings she has of a life lived in segregation and poverty on Milwaukee’s North Side.  She originally posted this on her own blog, sincerelybrooklyn.com.:

“It is in Milwaukee, though, where even my fondest memories were not all that great. Teutonia and Locust is where I remember playing on the playground before bullets rang out. When I think of Milwaukee, I think of it as the place where my brothers failed to escape a destructive trajectory. It is in Milwaukee where I experienced some of my scariest moments.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night to a burning house. It was in Milwaukee where several men beat me with bats when I was a young woman. It was there that I slogged on public transportation to get minimum wage just to buy basic necessities.

When I think of Milwaukee, I think of food stamps, the hours of waiting for health care, roaches on the wall, desperate competition for school clothes, the long lines at Aldi, the boys who got shot, the men who went to prison, the girls who became mothers, the babies who were left alone. It is there, in Milwaukee, where I learned the instant gratification of sex, drugs and money. It is there where I learned to be disillusioned by basketball dreams and rapping careers.

It didn’t build my character, as people say poverty does; it built angst, dejection and post-traumatic stress. It harbored in me, for years after going down South for college, a deep sense of inadequacy and survivor’s guilt. I began to feel guilty that all of my greatest memories — falling in love, meeting lifelong friends, traveling the world, finding amazing mentors, becoming engulfed in life-altering projects, getting married, graduating, starting a family — were not in Milwaukee.”

One person sees hope and promise in a Rust Belt city.  Another sees a Rust Belt city whose best days are well behind it, and whose people are a reminder of what she would’ve become had she stayed.  She ends her essay in a powerful way that, as a Detroit expat, I can relate to:

I will reminiscence about Milwaukee as my grandparents once did of Mississippi — as a place with much history but with no future.

Recent population change figures for Detroit seem to illustrate the competing narratives.  According to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, between 2010 and 2012 the overall population of Detroit declined by 1.7%.  But the devil is in the details.  Over the same period Detroit’s white population increased by 3%, while its black population decreased by the same amount.  


The narratives seem to be propelling the exodus on one end, and the resettlement on the other.  

2 Responses to “Repost: Battle of the Rust Belt Narratives”

  1. D Holmes

    I have to admit I was irritated when I first read Tenicka Boyd's post on Milwaukee last year. Reading her post in full on her website, as well as some of more than 300 comments, it appears that many others were similarly irritated – or else shared some of her experiences and perceptions. A post script that she added made it clear that she did not intend to denigrate the city as a whole. What is curious is that she had to move to Brooklyn to find a supportive environment, when some of the most compelling and revitalized neighborhoods in Milwaukee remind some visitors of Brooklyn (e.g., the Historic Third Ward). i wonder if she wasn't just escaping her dysfunctional and dangerous neighborhood in Milwaukee, but escaping friends and family as well as memories. Perhaps moving to a better neighborhood in the same city isn't enough to escape the negative influences of the old neighborhood.

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  2. Pete Saunders

    As a child of the Rust Belt I feel you on that. That same piece could have been written by thousands of former Clevelanders, Buffalonians, Toledoans, Chicagoans or Detroiters. People have a tendency to taint an entire city because of their upbringing in a dysfunctional family or a bad neighborhood. I really used to envy California as a teen and yound adult. California was known as a place for reinvention and redemption, and that became its trademark. You could escape your troubled past and start a new life in California. Cities in the Sun Belt have now obtained that same type of glow. Only later in life did I realize that Rust Belt cities once had that same kind of optimism as people fled the South or eastern Europe in search of new beginnings. But without natural advantages — i.e., weather and scenery — it was hard to maintain the optimism when things soured for people.But I think the optimism can return. In fact, as I write above, the optimism is returning now. People are looking at the Rust Belt now as a place for true reinvention and redemption. But if there's a demographic that will be the last to get that memo, it will be African Americans. We were the last group to buy into the promise of an industrial America, and we felt its contraction most acutely. We're just now moving into the \”move to the suburbs or Sun Belt\” phase that other groups have done for 40 years. There will come a point when Tenicka Boyd's children will look at Milwaukee as a place for reinvention, and she will look at them incredulously.It's a cycle.

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