New York’s Talking Point is not Cleveland’s Story

The Rust Belt revival meme has finally moved the needle beyond “oh shit” and into a certain buoyancy territorywhere helplessness has given way to actual conversations about the pros and cons of a given success. This is good. It shows we are advancing the discourse beyond shrinking. I just wonder about the direction the debate is heading.

Case in point: Rust Belt cities are increasingly 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 on this. From the Salon article that went viral:

Motor City is now the official cool-kids destination, adding thousands of young artists, entrepreneurs and urban farmers even as its general population evaporates.

Part of the allure is “demand for decay”—a term penned by Salon’s Will Doig that references the seeking of post-industrial landscapes as a backlash to the increasing boutique-ification of American cities. In fact the term–for better or worse–is gaining a life of its own. From Tom Watson of Guardian fame:

The “demand for decay” as “rust belt chic” knowledge workers move to Cleveland. Birmingham, are you listening? salon.com/2012/05/12/rus…

— tom_watson (@tom_watson) May 26, 2012

But the term if not the national attention is making some in the Rust Belt squeamish. Wrote Sarah Cox of Curbed Detroit recently:

OMFG declining cities are so hot right now! Who wants to put up with the prices of New York or L.A when a place like Cleveland exists? [i]

But Detroiters are not likely interested in “Demand for Decay” as a marketing strategy. The decay part is the result of some shitty circumstances a lot of people would rather not have lived through.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s hand-wringing about the consequences of a potential Rust Belt success. You know the drill: people seeking affordable urban centers, demand increasing, folks being priced out. From a recent Good article, the NY-based author argues in favor of Detroit’s gentrifying movement, but not before reflecting on the potential downside of city’s burgeoning tech scene :

It’s certainly dangerous to assume that moving tech companies to a city will somehow benefit the thousands of residents who aren’t qualified to work in those places—in fact, it may push them out of their neighborhoods.

Alright, so there’s a lot going on here. But nothing outlandish. In fact each article referenced has valid takes. That said, the Rust Belt has a very complex history of decline and urban trying of its own, and so there’s issues with framing the post-industrial comeback into an over-simplified narrative that’s emerging; that is, the marketing of ruin porn to newcomers, and a consequent displacement/exploitation of the natives. There’s more differentiating factors to the Rust Belt situation than that. So the narrative needs to be teased out a bit.

First, I do feel we are reaching the point of decay saturation. Rust Belters have been living with massive amounts of abandonment for some time, and the genre of ruin porn has served its purpose: as it got people talking about decay to the point there’s far less needed to be said. So the moment of reflection has passed. It’s action time now. That said, “demand for decay” can just as easily be read as a “supply of growth”. As that’s the increasing attraction to the Rust Belt anymore: not a death wish, but a life affirmation. And there is a growing consensus on this. Referencing Richard Florida’s Detroit Rising series, Cox in Detroit Curbed writes:

[W]e are past the point of Detroit’s ruin being the interesting part (’nuff been said ’bout that!) and that it is on to becoming a laboratory of rebuilding.

Second, using blanket gentrification labels to debate the negative effects of newcomers and millennials coming into Rust Belt cities without providing context to existing conditions will not advance the discourse. So, some context: Detroit is turning the lights out in swaths of the city because they have so much uninhabited housing and land (see map below). Due to continued oversupply in Cleveland, you can buy a pretty nice house in the hip Tremont neighborhood for 32k. Not exactly Brooklyn, then.

Also, there is a displacement that’s been going on in Rust Belt cities for some time now. It goes like this:  minorities are leaving the inner city in droves, with folks seeing a depressed housing market in suburbia as their best chance to get their own American Dream piece. For instance, in Cleveland, one-fifth (43,342) of the city’s black residents left the historically black East Side over the last decade. During that same time, the number of black residents in Cuyahoga County suburbs increased by 30,206, whereas the historically white West Side added 11,029. (Note: The increase in blacks in the West Side ‘hoods mixed with the increase in young whites is actually making for organically-derived integrated neighborhoods that no amount of government subsidy could create.)

From the PD article “Census data reveals new migration pattern as black families flee Cleveland”, here’s Russell Johnson on why he left Cleveland for the suburb of Richmond Hts:

“I knew this was an up and coming community. And, well, it was a time in our lives when we wanted a little more space between us and the neighbors. It was purely for the quality of life.”

Of course this pattern has only set off another round of white flight from the suburbs to the exurbs, where country folks are decrying the subsequent light and noise pollution that is breaking up their own romance with rural.

Ah yes, the good times of out-migration…

So really, enough with the hand-wringing about the twenty- and thirty-somethings steeped in so-called irony for doing the most rational thing possible with this context as backdrop: helping to populate the dying centers of our society. The cost of decrying such a movement?

Talk about a demand for decay.

–Richey Piiparinen


[i][It is a funny joke. Until you read this New York Curbed piece and the comment section that follows it. Then it turns into a legitimate question.

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