Sunday, March 25th, 2012
It hurts. When a bigtime Harvard economist writes off your city as a loss, and says America should turn its back on you, it hurts. But Ed Glaeser’s dart tossing is but the smallest taste of what it’s like to live in place like Buffalo. To choose to live in the Rust Belt is to commit to enduring a continuous stream of bad press and mockery.
I write mostly about the Midwest, but whether we think Midwest or Rust Belt or something else altogether, the story is the same. From Detroit to Cleveland, Buffalo to Birmingham, there are cities across this country that are struggling for a host of historic and contemporary reasons. We’ve moved from the industrial to the global age, and many cities truly have lost their original economic raison d’etre. Reviving them requires the hard work of rebuilding and repositioning them for a new era, a daunting task to be sure.
But beyond their legitimate challenges, these cities also face the double burden that they are unloved by much of America, and all too often by their own residents. They are forlorn and largely forgotten, except as cautionary tales or as the butt of jokes.
These cities aren’t sexy. They aren’t hip. They don’t have the cachet of a Portland or Seattle. The creative class isn’t flocking. They are behind in the new economy, in the green economy. Look at any survey of the “best” cities and find the usual suspects of New York, Austin, San Francisco. Look at yet another Forbes “ten worst” list and see Cleveland and Toledo kicked again when they are down. They are portrayed as hopeless basket cases with no hope and no future.
But I reject that notion. I do not believe in the idea that these cities are beyond repair and unworthy of attention—or affection.
Someone asked me once why I bother. Why does it matter that these cities come back? Why not just let nature take its course? Why not let Buffalo die, and its people scatter to the winds?
It’s because it doesn’t just matter to a few proud people in Buffalo, it matters to America. The idea of disposable cities is one that is incompatible with a prosperous and sustainable future for our country. Fleeing Rust Belt cities for neo-Southern boomtowns is nothing more than sprawl writ large. Rather than just abandoning our cores, we’ll now abandon entire regions in the quest for new greenfields to despoil. We can’t have a truly prosperous and sustainable America with only a dozen or so superstar cities that renew themselves from age to age while others bloom like a flower for a season, then wither away. An America littered with an ever increasing number of carcasses of once great cities is not one most of us want to contemplate.
But beyond that, it’s because I believe we can make it happen. Look closely and the change is already in the air. Globalization taketh away—but it also giveth. Cities like Buffalo or St. Louis now have access to things that even people in Chicago didn’t not that long ago. Amazon, iTunes, and a host of specialty online retailers put the best of the world within reach. Where once you couldn’t get a good cup of coffee, there are now micro-roasters aplenty. Where once your choices were Bud, Miller, or Coors, an array of specialty brews are on tap, often brewed locally. Restaurants are better, with food grown locally and responsibly. Slowly but surely the ship is turning on sustainability, with nascent bike cultures in almost every city, LEED certified buildings, recycling programs, and more. House by house, rehab by rehab, neighborhoods in these cities are starting to come to life.
Where once moving to one of these cities would have been likened to getting exiled to Siberia, it’s now shocking how little you actually give up. And for every high-end boutique or black tie gala you miss, you get something back in low-cost and easy living. The talent pool may be shallower, but it’s a lot more connected.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still a long and hard journey ahead. And not every place is going to make it, particularly among cities without the minimum scale. We have to face that reality. But more of them will revive than people think.
That’s because a new generation of urbanists believes in these cities again. These people aren’t bitter, burdened by the memories of yesteryear and all the goodness that was lost. The city to them isn’t the place with the downtown department store their mother used to take them to in white gloves for tea. It isn’t the place full of good manufacturing jobs with lifetime middle class employment for those without college degrees. The city isn’t a faded nostalgia or a longing for an imagined past. Most of them are young and never knew that world.
No, this new generation of urbanists sees these cities with fresh eyes. They see the decay, yes, but also the opportunity—and the possibilities for the present and future. To them this is Rust Belt Chic. It’s the place artists can dream of owning a house. Where they can live in a place with a bit of an authentic edge and real character. Where people can indulge their passion for renovating old architecture without a seven-figure budget. Where they have a chance to make a difference—to be a producer, not just a consumer of urban life, and a new urban future. Above all, these people, natives or newcomers, have a deep and abiding passion and love for the place they’ve chosen—yes, chosen—to live.
Still, it can get lonely, and often depressing. It so often seems like one step forward, two steps back. Making change happen can seem like pushing a rock uphill, like you are up there on some far frontier of the country alone, fighting a quixotic battle. Every historic building demolished, every quality infill project sabotaged by NIMBY’s, every massively subsidized business-as-usual boondoggle, every DOT-scarred transport project is a discouragement.
But Buffalo, you are not alone. It’s not just you, it’s cities and people across across this country, from St. Louis to Pittsburgh to Milwaukee to Cincinnati to New Orleans to Birmingham, fighting to build a better future. There’s a new movement in all these cities, made up of passionate urbanists committed to a different and better path. Sometimes they are few in number, but they are mighty in spirit— and they are making a difference. Together, they and you can win the battle and make the change happen.
It won’t be easy. The road will be long. Some, like the great cathedral builders of Europe, may never see completely the fruit of their labors. But the long-ago pioneers who founded these great cities never got to see them in their first glory either. We’ve come full circle. We are present again at the re-founding of our cities. This is the task, the duty, the calling that a new generation has chosen as its own, to write the history of their city anew.
Go make history again, Buffalo.
This article originally appeared in Buffalo Rising on June 14, 2010.