Some Rust Belt Chic History

Rust Belt Chic is a dated cultural artifact. As the term implies, the appreciation of this blue collar ethos is snooty. Harvey Pekar’s wife Joyce Brabner explains:

I’ll tell you the relationship between New York and Cleveland. We are the people that all those anorexic vampires with their little black miniskirts and their black leather jackets come to with their video cameras to document Rust Belt chic. MTV people knocking on our door, asking to get pictures of Harvey emptying the garbage, asking if they can shoot footage of us going bowling. But we don’t go bowling, we go to the library, but they don’t want to shoot that. So, that’s it. We’re just basically these little pulsating jugular veins waiting for you guys to leech off some of our nice, homey, backwards Cleveland stuff.

I love that quote (from the mid-1990s). It puts Anthony Bourdain’s celebration of Pekar in a different light, an exploitative one. Brabner also highlights the important linkages between Cleveland and New York City. Regardless, authentic Rust Belt is a cosmopolitan preoccupation.

So what, if anything, has changed over the last 15-years? There’s big difference between documenting Rust Belt Chic and going native. Furthermore, economic refugees from the region are among those who romanticize the culture. For this demographic, Rust Belt Chic is nostalgia. It’s a taste of home. It’s the distinction between ruin porn and art. It’s a form of nationalistic pride.

The current iteration of Rust Belt Chic speaks to people intimate with the landscape. The following example seems, at first, to be more ruin porn:

Part of the success of vacationing in a dying industrial hot-spot is to have like-minded travel mates who also want to spend a goodly amount of time riding bicycles up hills as well as be surrounded by abandon buildings, lots of brickwork, the oxidized colors of industrial decay, and loud, sometimes sudden clanging noises. Luckily my buds Meg and Jean are exactly those type of people. And we were doubly lucky to be housed by our New England ex-pat friends Miriam and Jeffery.

“Dying industrial hot-spot” is quite the oxymoron. But so is New England ex-pats living in Pittsburgh. Miriam clues us in about the relocation decision:

So long Providence – hello western PA. Yes, we packed up and moved to Pittsburgh. We really did it. Here we are. Pittsburgh! There is a great post-industrial decay vibe here that is really exciting. Kind of like Providence ten years ago, before it sucked.

Providence has substantial Rust Belt city credentials. There is considerable interest in the “post-industrial decay vibe” among artists. I should note that Miriam and Jefferey opened a cafe in Morningside. I think they qualify as members of Pittsburgh’s burgeoning hipster scene, a Rust Belt Chic community. They are indicators of an important talent migration to Pittsburgh that has been going on longer than many people think.

Bottom line, Rust Belt Chic influences relocation decisions. Pittsburgh is on the map for connoisseurs of urban frontiers. It’s a cool destination.

Back to Bourdain and Pekar:

What a two minute overview might depict as a dying, post-industrial town, Harvey celebrated as a living, breathing, richly textured society.

A place so incongruously and uniquely…seductive that I often fantasize about making my home there. Though I’ve made television all over the world, often in faraway and “exotic” places, it’s the Cleveland episode that is my favorite–and one about which I am most proud.

A New Yorker from New Jersey is fantasizing about moving to Cleveland. That’s the upside to Rust Belt Chic and a movement I see taking root. Each shrinking city would seem to have its own unique brand to pitch to those looking for alternatives to their first-tier city digs. Now is a good time to come home.
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Rust Belt Chic Duluth

Rust Belt Chic is easy to define. Concerning your struggling hometown, your attitude shifts from shame to pride. Far down the road in the future, the migration to Rust Belt cities will include people who wish they were from there. Then I might seriously consider the angst about the trend. Mayor Don Ness about Duluth’s transformation:

“For a long time, when I was growing up, if someone was talented they would feel a need to distance themselves from [Duluth],” Ness said without mentioning Exhibit A: Bob Dylan. The iconic troubadour was born on the city’s steep hillside just a few blocks from where Ness grew up a generation later, but Dylan only recently admitted it.

“I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at a certain point it became a point of real pride to say, ‘We’re from Duluth,'” Ness said. “That’s the most important change of the past decade for our city: People are proud of where they’re from and the cool things happening up here.”

Rust Belt Chic, it’s personal. The history and culture you once tried to escape, you now seek. That’s the extent of the revitalization. It takes someone from a place like Pittsburgh to appreciate the bones of Greenville, SC. What’s so troubling about this urban aesthetic? That it helps to sell jeans and automobiles?

Seeing Rust Belt cities in a positive light is a good thing. Doing so doesn’t gloss over the blight and social injustice. Rust Belt Chic is about action, not waving civic pom-poms. People care about what happens to urban Duluth and Detroit. Not too long ago, that wasn’t the case.

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.

Anywhere but the Suburbs

Rust Belt Chic, what’s the attraction? Curbed Detroit phrased it as “Demand for Decay”.  I’ve written a lot about Rust Belt Chic over the last few years. Concerning demand for decay, I’ve never encountered it or had the thought cross my mind. A more worthwhile debate is the idea of urban frontier (see Aaron Renn’s excellent essay about Detroit). “My neighborhood is not your blank canvass” is a concise way to sum up the backlash.

I model Rust Belt Chic geography in terms of brownfields and greenfields. Greenfields attract people and business. Brownfields are saddled with huge legacy costs (e.g. political corruption). They push people away. Rust Belt Chic turns that dichotomy on its head. Brownfields are the new greenfields. The suburban Sun Belt is the new brownfield. Rust Belt Chic is a demand for a landscape as different as possible from one’s suburban greenfield upbringing, a longing for a geography of somewhere. You might move to a rural town or a shrinking city. It’s not decay lust.

Rust Belt Chic, for better or for worse, is the search for a real place where you can explore a frontier opportunity. Any global city with lots of people moving in and out is a greenfield. You are anonymous. No one remembers that dumb thing you did in middle school. You get a clean start, a blank canvass.

Getting acquainted with your nihilistic self requires an inspired environment. No flimsy doors or fake shutters need apply. I want a dumbwaiter and a Pittsburgh Potty. Like a cookie table, a Pittsburgh Potty didn’t fall far from the apple tree. If you meet a hipster on the road and he doesn’t know what a cookie table is, kill him.

So there is a code. Do you know what a Rust Belt Babushka is? Poser.

Rust Belt Chic Demography

Rust Belt cities such as Cincinnati are filling up with college educated young adults. Rust Belt Chic is the main attraction. Part of the draw is the strange juxtaposition of the eldest residents with the recent newcomers.  As I explained to Bloomberg journalist Frank Bass, Pittsburgh has that in spades:

“The Rust Belt exodus of the 1980s robbed Pittsburgh of a generation of family households,” Jim Russell, a geographer who studies the relationship between migration and economic development, said in an e-mail. “Parents and would-be parents left in large numbers. Those who stayed aged in place.”

Pennsylvania ranked 38th among states and the District of Columbia in job growth in the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States from the first quarter of 1995 through the fourth quarter of last year, the most recent data available. Only Michigan fared worse than Ohio.

Now, about one in eight Pittsburgh households is occupied by a single elderly person, the fifth-highest among U.S. cities. Russell said a significant share of the single households consist of elderly women, or what he calls “Rust-Belt babushkas.”

Hipsters are moving in next door to grandma. You will find both generations at the Pittsburgh Banjo Club. Now add to the mix those long gone returning home to help take care of the Rust Belt Babushkas. That’s Rust Belt Chic demography.

Pittsburgh can thank brain drain for its current cultural vitality. People had to leave in order for the region to attract outsiders. This migration is just heating up. I think Pittsburgh is on the cusp of a boom. The good news keeps popping in unexpected places, driving talent to Southwestern Pennsylvania.