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?…

— 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.


Ruin: A River Runs Through It

A version of this originally appeared in Rust Wire.

I went on a boat ride a few days ago down Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River. I have not done this in decades. The images from the water struck me in ways I haven’t been struck for some time. People say there is nothing in ruin but ruin. Nothing in disinvestment but the possibility of exploitation. Let them see what they have to see.

There is a top and a bottom to every city, or a place on the proverbial up and up where the good life is said to be and places of abandonment where more subterranean shit happens. It is well known that the Rust Belt has the latter in spades. But what is less recognized is the fact that the next generation of everything always occurs out of eyeshot, or in those forgotten spaces where people are forced to stare at what was and no longer is. Said Aldous Huxley:

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

There is a lot of singing now about a Rust Belt renaissance. Folks all around the country are becoming aware of a certain energy blossoming that can’t be defined or manipulated or created or stopped. It is like the energy a seed has. But lest not think there wasn’t much legwork being done by the people who lived here and survived with everyone holding on as yet another bottom was falling out. This seemed like it went on for forty years. Because it has.

This brings to mind a passage in Rebecca Solnit’s in A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She states:

A city is built to resemble a conscious mind, a network that can calculate, administrate, and manufacture. Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life.

In that sense that work we did as a region was lost in the lights of every American urban success story. Now we live in times where even those are dubious. Experts on urbanism across the country are looking for geographies where the next generation of insights will occur. They are flocking like moths to our region’s awareness that: if it’s not fixed, fix it.

After all, ruins have always been just one part of us. And the rest is not just history.

Rust Belt Chic Goes Global


Reposted from Burgh Diaspora. By Jim Russell

Thanks to Will Doig’s post in Salon, “Rust Belt Chic” has gone viral over the past week. The term is new, appropriated from thexenophobic Marxist critiques of gentrification. Have a problem? Blame an outsider. The trend is much older. Introducing kojo moe:

These tours are part of an emerging niche tourist trade fuelled by kojo moe – “factory infatuation” – an enthusiasm that has taken root among young urbanites whose lives are increasingly remote from Japan’s manufacturing base. Apparently influenced by the popularity of glossy factory photography books published in the past decade, tourists and day-trippers now flock to appreciate the aesthetic charms of industrial installations – especially at night, when lights and flares add to their appeal.

In an illustration of what these enthusiasts are looking for, advertising for the Yokohama night trip includes among its top attractions a “large-scale iron mill”, a “captivating group of smokestacks” and a “intricate cluster of pipes”. …

… In Europe, safely decommissioned mines and other industrial sites have already been rebranded as tourist attractions. Britain bristles with renovated mills and factories converted into art galleries, while Germany is energetically promoting its industrial heritage. One sprawling zone in the gritty Ruhr city of Duisburg has been transformed into a landscape park where visitors can scale concrete climbing walls or scuba dive in old gas tanks.

Remarking on a tourist fad will fan the flames of postcolonial anxiety. Whatever. I’ve lived in Vermont and suffered through the romanticization of family farms. What about all those damn hippies from New York City living out their commune fantasies in the poorest parts of the Northeast Kingdom? Go back home, flatlander and take your posters of Che Guevara with you. I hope Farm Aid helped you feel better about your conspicuous consumption.

Enough about hipster intellectuals and their exploitative escapades. I’m interested in why people migrate and how they choose where to move. Rust Belt Chic appeals to young urbanites around the world.Pittsburgh is cooler than Portland. I have a vision of Japanese tourists invading the Carrie Furnace Works. I see vacant neighborhoods being repopulated.

Both shrinking and growing cities pose challenges. I don’t understand the hand wringing over artists from Providence moving to Pittsburgh and gentrifying some North Side neighborhood. We are rediscovering the splendor of our legacy cities. So what if anarchists are squatting in a robber baron’s mansion?

Hipsters are place whores. Slackers quickly moved on from Austin. By the time you heard about the scene and made the migration, they were gone. Meanwhile, Austin boomed. The same thing is going on in the Rust Belt. Which city will blossom? My money is on Pittsburgh. I could be wrong. Regardless, take advantage of the Rust Belt Chic trend. Don’t bitch about it.

Rust Belt Chic: Beyond Cool

This post originally appeared at Rust Wire.

“The biggest challenge facing a shrinking city is the move of the working class from the urban core to the suburban fringes. Rust Belt Chic is about more than the return home to help. It also concerns a reversal of the flow to greener pastures. The inner city is the new frontier, whereas outlying rural areas used to be the “blank slates” for utopian dreams. The only irony here is that suburbia is now suffering from blight.”

Jim Russell, from Bar Mleczny in the Cleveland Review


Salon’s Will Doig wrote a thoughtful, nuanced piece detailing the concept of Rust Belt Chic as a way to revitalize America’s broken legacy cities. The story is getting play, and so the concept—while bantered around in Rust Belt circles for a minute—is bubbling up in the country’s zeitgeist. At its most basic, Rust Belt Chic is about polishing off the factory coast’s culture, history, and aesthetic as a means to attract those longing for a dose of authenticity and usable space. Miami we are not. Buffalo doesn’t need to be.

Buffalo’s Art Deco. Courtesy of Art Deco Architecture

But Rust Belt Chic is more complex than that. And it’s high time the concept—as an economic development strategy—gets spelled out. This is perhaps the first attempt to do so. Consider it a working manifesto.

But first let me say what Rust Belt Chic is not: a gentrification tool—or a white-breading of the post-industrialized landscape with a homogenized group. In fact it’s loose and lazy to pigeon-hole Rust Belt Chic into the message: “come hither we got coffee shops in our ruin porn”. Because if that’s all it was then it would be nothing, as true economic development is derived from cities that integrate the breadth of life’s experiences by ensuring the presence of those with varied life experience.

Here’s what else Rust Belt Chic isn’t: playing in decay—drinking PBR with a temp tat on your neck— and attracting cool by acting cool.

Instead, Rust Belt Chic is churches and work plants hugging the same block. It is ethnic as hell. It is the Detroit sound of Motown. It is Cleveland punk. It is getting vintage t-shirts and vinyl for a buck that are being sold to Brooklynites for the price of a Manhattan meal. It is babushka and snakeskin boots. It is wear: old wood and steel and vacancy. It is contradiction, conflict, and standing resiliency. But most centrally: Rust Belt Chic is about home, or that perpetual inner fire longing to be comfortable in one’s own skin and one’s community. Yet this longing is less about regressing to the past than it is finding a future through your history.

Courtesy of Cleveland Press. h/t: Cleveland SGS

Now let me take a step back to delineate the lineage of Rust Belt Chic’s arrival—an arrival mind you that was created by no one, but rather evolved like the decline of a waterfall by macro cultural and economic events much bigger than an idea.

First, the discussion of attachment, as Rust Belt Chic leverages a person’s attachment to place to get them reinvested in that place. And no doubt, folks in the Rust Belt are attached: to their place and culture—to plain-spoken talk and mannerisms secured by red blood restraint—to blue-collar values and roots. Granted, it can be a restrictive attachment, which actually led to an unintended effect, one primarily defined by separation.

You see, this attachment—it fostered a complacency that held the region back. We got too secure in our way of life. We held onto old industry, and innovation passed us by, and so went the jobs. We were kind of like the dude who loved the thing so much he held it until its suffocation. So many people left because they had to. The Rust Belt diaspora cannot be regionally matched. But this forced separation has served to strengthen the attachment over the decades, albeit across space. America’s Team became Steeler Nation. And many want to come back. From Changing Gears, some letters from the diaspora on a series called Midwest Migration:

After university I explored several different career options but found none fulfilling. Therein lies the true reason I ultimately left Michigan: the opportunity to explore a far deeper pool of creative and career opportunities. After living in New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, I can definitively say this: the grass is NOT greener…I would move back in a heartbeat. If a good job opportunity presented itself, I’d be out of Los Angeles before I could blink.

But then many prefer to stay away.

My high school is now a vacant lot…and the cold wind blows old papers in the same spot where I had to study algebra.  Yet my mind goes back to the room where Miss Edith Pollock taught me how to write.

I love Sioux City so much it hurts.  I wish to hurt it back.

Would I move back to the Midwest? Not if they made me the governor of Iowa.  Not for a million dollars in cash.  Not at gunpoint.  Not if I got to relive it all, and be a teenager again.  But the memories of that place and time are precious.

Both of these stories illustrate the split nature that is Rust Belt attachment: it can be played out in an all-hands-on-deck desire to come back, or it can exist in nostalgia which—as defined in a recent Paris Review piece—“asks you to long only for something that no longer exists”.

And both are useful in attraction believe it or not. Because if Rust Belt Chic is informed by anything it is this: that Rust Belt city built on restrictive legacy is not the future of the Rust Belt cities. Cities are built on flow: the ins and the out, of a variety of people. So attract those wanting back. But also: encourage those who stay away to tell the story to those who are up for the challenge to rebuild America back.

Which brings us to the second main tenant of Rust Belt Chic: the attraction that is the mythical geography—or that land of opportunity and usable space.

America is broken. Not just the Rust Belt, but everywhere. Income disparity. Unemployment. In the past those who were shut out—in particular the immigrants and the yet-minted young—would do what Americans did best: Go West, and build something of your own. But now we have saturated the coasts. Many are looking around for a geographic workshop where a new American way can be built. Some are beginning to turn inward to find that “out there” is really in here: the Rust Belt.

There are a few reasons for this. First is the opportunity that comes with usable space. Artists are being priced out of established cities like New York and L.A. Cheap space to live and work is becoming attractive. First- and second-generation immigrants are getting the itch too, and they are finding that Rust Belt cities can be the “America” within America. Take the case of Allentown, Pennsylvania. It is the fastest growing city in PA. After years of shrinking this is shocking. And the city has Hispanics to thank for it.

Where are they coming from? Major East Coast cities. Why? From The Prospector:

“A lot of the growth has to do with the Puerto Rican community. They tend to be moving from New York and Philadelphia, areas with high rent,” said Emilio A. Parrado, sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania…

“This historically is the way people move up socially. You move up by moving out of the [big] city, by following better opportunities and better housing.”

But while cheap space is a big plus, it isn’t the whole story of the Rust Belt Chic’s attraction. Part of it is psycho-geographic. And here is where ruins and the idea of the urban frontier comes in.

Courtesy of Sean Posey via Details Magazine

Urban ruin is a dirty word in America. So dirty it has been referred to as “Ruin Porn”. The thinking goes that decay invites gawkers in the same way celebrity funerals attract scumbag journalists. But this says more about those censoring American evidence of failures than it does about those willing to frame failure via ruin. In fact, one man’s decay is another man’s seed. It is the latter that’s embodied by Rust Belt Chic. Says Cleveland painter Amy Casey in a San Francisco Chronicle piece:

“It’s not too uncommon to find people [in the Rust Belt] who sort of love the broken-down industrial history of the area. It’s very bittersweet, which may be a Midwestern thing. There are people here transforming leftover remnants – old manufacturing commercial buildings into…interesting projects. It’s a pretty slow process, though I find a great deal of inspiration from the landscape.”

Be it artists, urban agriculturalists, immigrants, infill developers, architects, the sweat equitable worker, vacancy is often less about emptiness than it is about space. Part of this projecting into the fallow is a romantic fantasy. But saying that’s the end of it is selling the aestheticism of decay short. Decay shouts into the eyes that things don’t last forever. So don’t hold on. Be open as a culture—a city. Lest be fooled again.

In fact the best revitalization efforts occur by bringing the past into the present—or by seeing what was there, understanding how it failed, and then integrating those mistakes into a plan for the future. This is how individuals revitalize broken lives. So why is it not apropos for a collection of individuals in their attempts to revitalize a broken city?

The Rust Belt is a region steeped in a great rising and great decline. It is ahead of the curve in this regard. There is a trending sense in American consciousness that here is where the country’s creative destruction is centered. After all, we have been like a splattered seed that has been sitting to stew. Now it is time for the creative part of our destruction.

And there is space for everyone. Even the hip.

Richey Piiparinen