How Rust Belt Chic Will Save Shrinking Cities

No, Rust Belt Chic can’t cure all what ails urban America.  In fact, in and of itself, Rust Belt Chic won’t fix anything. Rust Belt Chic is a term that captures a trend that favors Rust Belt cities. Part of the trend is return migration. Talent is moving back home.  A glimpse of hope in Gary, Indiana:

Like Corey Booker, a fellow Ivy League graduate who is now mayor of his depressed home town of Newark, New Jersey, Ms Freeman-Wilson has lured other high-achieving Gary natives back home to help her with her mission.

Return migration is difficult to track. We see hints and anecdotes (such as the Gary tale). This USDA report (published in November of 2010) was the first time I’ve seen return migration quantified.  For all metro counties in the United States, 37.6% of inmigrants were coming back home during the period of 1995-2000. The percentage is much higher (almost double) for nonmetro counties. Among those nonmetro counties with “high outmigration”, over 85% of inmigrants were return migrants: The larger the exodus, the stronger the return flow.

The data match theoretical expectations:

From the earliest work on basic laws of migration, research shows that every major migration stream generates a counterstream. Large flows from point A to point B all but guarantee partially offsetting flows from point B to point A. Though not exclusively composed of returnees, counterstreams tend to be dominated by returnees together with newcomers who are moving as part of return migration households, most typically spouses and children of returnees.

So, much of the inmigration that isn’t technically return migration is likely trailing spouses and children. This analysis should change the way we look at migration. Instead of net flows, we should measure total (gross) migration. That way we can identify the most important paths of return migrants. That’s a good summary of the work I did for Global Cleveland. I also surveyed return migrants and conducted focus groups. The archetypal migrant was raised in the suburbs, moved to Big City and then returned looking for a similar urban landscape:

The idea of moving to LA or Chicago crosses the mind of every young professional at some point in their lives. Aaron Marks, 28-year old account director at Payscape Advisors, was no different.

Originally from the suburbs of Northeast Ohio, Marks made a “temporary” move back to Cleveland from New York City in order to save money with his girlfriend, Rebecca Pelfrey, 26, before making the leap to a much larger, presumably more sophisticated city. While here, Marks wanted to “show off” his city to his girlfriend.

But there was just one problem. He didn’t know where to start. “Growing up in the Cleveland suburbs, you take what this city offers for granted.”

Marks’ return forced him to explore the heart of his home region for the very first time. “What happened in the process was not expected,” he recalls. “I fell in love with a Cleveland I never knew existed.” Before long, Marks and Pelfrey found themselves inundated with the architecture, food and culture they were searching for without the exorbitant cost of living of NYC, LA or Chicago. Needless to say, it didn’t take any arm-twisting to convince his girlfriend to settle on a home in Ohio City.

The qualitative evidence of return migration is compelling. Richey Piiparinen was a able to quantify this trend and map its impact on Cleveland for the Urban Institute. Using simplified cohort analysis, Richey inferred young adult inmigration to the urban core from the population data. These are return migrants (and trailing spouses) revitalizing neighborhoods such as Ohio City and Tremont. Via New York and Chicago, Cleveland suburbanites are moving back to the city that their parents or grandparents had left behind in search of greenfields.

Rust Belt refugees return home for a variety of reasons. One often cited is part of the Rust Belt Chic trend. Potential migrants are looking to be a big fish in a small pond. They want to make a difference in a community. The look and feel of legacy cities are comforting. The expats appreciate the urban frontier opportunity. The snide remarks about hipsters exploiting struggling neighborhoods are ignorant. There is a transformation from being embarrassed about where you are from to feeling a sense of pride. We want to rebuild our hometowns from the inside out.


One comment on “How Rust Belt Chic Will Save Shrinking Cities

  1. […] becoming known as destinations for millennials, and for good reason: as young generations are seeking urban territories their parents and grandparents bolted during white flight decades. The national media has picked up […]

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